Monthly Archives: March 2009

A fast ride down a narrow valley

Aladdin's Lamp, by John Freely

A prominent literary editor once told me that a good reviewer did not have to like every book that he read, but that he absolutely had to have the capacity to like every book. In this spirit, I make a habit of opening a new book with the greatest optimism and eagerness, convinced that I’ll enjoy both the process of reading it and the comparative chore of writing the review itself.

It doesn’t always come to pass, of course. Fortunately, most books I’ve reviewed have been fascinating and well-written. A minority have turned out to be well-conceived and reasonably well-executed, but significantly flawed in logic or perspective (of course, in some ways these are more fun to review, since they offer more room for argument). But only one book so far has made me want to give up and put it away, and this before I had read even a third of it. To clarify, it’s not an atrocious book at all, but rather one that again and again refuses to rise to its own potential. And that can be a more painful experience than it sounds.

Hooked (and how could you not be)? Then by all means, read on…

Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World
By John Freely
(Alfred A. Knopf; 303 pages; $27.95)

Review published in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 22, 2009)

After nearly eight years of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is hard to say that the American public is much more knowledgeable about the Islamic world than before the war began.

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Banner image

More fiddling about with themes, and as an unexpected result (since WordPress erases any custom banner images when changing theme), a new banner. This one is a detail from David Burdeny‘s “Five Icebergs, Weddell Sea, Antarctica” (2007). The Canadian photographer’s ability to capture the sublime character of sea and ice is redolent of the great nineteenth-century landscape artists. Browse his site and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m fascinated with the quality of light and the spatial immensity the ocean possesses. I have an enormous reverence for feeling so small in the presence of something so vast, where perspective, scale, time and distance momentarily become intangible. My photographs contemplate that condition, and through their reductive nature, suggest a formalized landscape we rarely see. The glory lies not in the act of this removal or reduction, but in the experience of what is left – sublime experience located in ordinary space: a slowly moving sky, the sun moving across a boulders surface or sea foam swirling around a pylon.

– David Burdeny

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In the keep of the tree

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

Plants, it is well known, have a remarkable ability — born, perhaps, of their immense patience and gradualism — to physically merge themselves with elements in their environment. Ivy will bind fast to brick, beans will curl around poles, and trees… well, consider the iron-eating sycamore of Brig o’ Turk, a village in central Scotland near Loch Lomond. The tree, well over a century old, stands next to a disused smithy and over long years has subsumed numerous metal items that had been discarded against its trunk or hung on its boughs: items including a bridle, a ship’s anchor and chain, and a bicycle, the handlebars of which are the only part still visible.

Not only is this ability a tribute to the adaptability of plants, but it also provides a particularly moving example of nature’s role as a keeper of time. In the same inevitable way that grass pushes through the cracks of unmaintained asphalt, or a lover’s heart carved into an oak will deepen and slowly scar over, the sycamore in Brig o’ Turk reminds us of the transience of our material possessions, and, of course, ourselves.

All of which provides me with a credible excuse to introduce some beautiful verses on that very theme, written by 25-year-old poet-to-watch Robert Selby (who, as you’ll see from some of the poems on his site, particularly “The Leaving of the Institutions”, has a fine sense of man’s relationship to nature — or should I say, of nature’s relationship to man).

The Sycamore

********************
Up the narrow road beside the tea-room
and you pass an iron-eating tree… (Gazetteer for Scotland)

********************

The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head off for war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth.
Proud of his young apprentice, the old mentor
drove the new recruit homeward on his dray,
so the bicycle remained in the keep of the tree.

As the smithy’s boy made corporal and set sail,
the sycamore began a cruelly slow advance.
As bugles called from shires their lonely scale,
the bicycle was raised on a timber lance.
When the smithy’s boy died at Passchendaele
and the village darkened in remembrance,
the sycamore drew about the bicycle,
clutching to its bark the spokes and saddle.

Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth, the ribbed handlebars
waiting for the smithy’s boy to reclasp them,
to pull free the frame and tour off, roadworthy,
the cast-iron memorial in the skyward lee.

– Robert Selby (Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008)

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A new coat of paint

Regular visitors to Archipelagoes may be surprised to find it with a whole new look. I figured that after a year and a half the place needed a bit of a repainting, and this WordPress theme offers some features that I thought you’d appreciate: the body text is darker and thus easier to read in contrast with the white background, long quotations are more vividly presented, and links are easier to spot. However, I’ve got to live with this thing a little while before I’ll be sure I want to keep it, so don’t be surprised if it changes again in the next week or two.

In case you’re wondering, the banner image above is a detail from the German Expressionist Franz Marc’s Tierschicksale (or “Animal Destinies”), painted in 1913. Having received a postcard reproduction of his painting in 1915, the artist wrote to his wife: “It is like a premonition of this war, horrible and gripping; I can hardly believe I painted it!”. Franz Marc was killed on the front in March 1916, struck in the head by a shell splinter.

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Time enough for tweets


One hundred and forty characters is not a lot of text. It’s maybe twenty words if you write like George Orwell, maybe fifteen if like Mervyn Peake, and a good thirty or forty if you know text message shorthand. Even if you do, it’s not exactly War and Peace.

As Jeet amusingly hinted, is Twitter yet another signpost in the ongoing decline of the modern attention span?

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