Book Review

Barbarian Days- William Finnegan

I’m currently reading this. It’s a surfing memoir written by a 63 year old guy- a lifelong surfer. When I bought it, for my kindle, I was vaguely hoping for ‘What it’s like to be cool: from the horse’s mouth’. The author isn’t the outlaw I expected though. He’s a deeply reflective chap- a journalist for the New Yorker magazine of thirty years standing. I hadn’t bothered to look him up or even read a review of the book before purchasing, so sold was I on the title and premise. So it’s been a pleasant surprise. There’s highlight-worthy lyricism and insight on his full-to-bursting, counter-culture skirting life every other page. It’s great.

 

The Prince- Niccolo Machiavelli

A famous 16th century how-to, in short chapters, concerning holding onto power/influence once you have it. The main thrust: Where certain group dynamics are involved, life is such that you have to think and act like a bit of a bastard if you want to live constructively- it’s not possible to avoid it. When faced with social grappling I tend to just disengage and get by on a feeling of martyrdom instead. Above it. But I’ve had valuable things snatched from my grasp a number of times following that strategy. Perhaps I need to go over to the dark side and become a calculating kicker of asses. ‘Old Nick’, for the Devil, supposedly comes from ‘Niccolo’. I once saw a guy bench-pressing with this book opened face down next to him- man on a mission, clearly. I was meaning to read it since.

 

Submission- Michel Houellebecq

I’ve enjoyed this guy’s previous novels. He does modern-life disillusionment with hair-raising power- he really means it. So I was disappointed to realise this one wasn’t really working for me. It’s set in a 2017 where France is in the process of being remodeled around Islamic values, after the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ has come to power democratically. It’s a higher-flown setting than in all his other novels- academics and politicians at the Sorbonne- where the permanently drunk yet revered narrator, Houellebecq, is a lecturer. I suppose that aspect pissed me off- those are perspectives I don’t share much with and probably resent a bit. And he compounds it by taking long chunks of each chapter to talk about the work of some obscure French writer, Huysmans, that seems unrelated to the other goings-on in the novel. Perhaps the point his was making with that went over my head, but it felt to me like he was playing a joke on the reader. He speaks eloquently through other characters’ voices, as the sozzled narrator listens on, about what will be the shape of the new Islam-centric society: Patriarchal family units as a force of social control and six wives for anyone with heft, like the narrator and his colleagues. You get the impression Houellebecq is pretty down with much of that, but it would be nice if the whole thing wasn’t such a frustrating guessing game.

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Spontaneous Human Combustion

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Bedtime Stories.”

What was your favorite book as a child?

Anything macabre was good with me, I’m remembering. Yes, macabre. I like that word and I’m sticking with it. Macabre covers ‘scary’ but also the likes of Roald Dahl’s collection of otherworldly tales, such as the one about the poker player who goes to India to train with a reclusive yogi to see through cards and ultimately also levitate, which I loved. He fears his wayward use of the clairvoyant power will result in his death, which indeed it may have, you discover at the end. ‘The Book of the Unexplained’ was another- it was a big encyclopedia-sized hardcover thing, hundreds of pages thick, crammed with text and black and white photos. How it got to be in the house was a mystery to me. It was just there, downstairs in the little study room. There was no telling where it had come from as far as I was concerned. That made for a great experience reading it. One image in particular really spooked me- a small, grainy photo of a living room. You had to hold your face close to the book to make out the detail- but there on the carpet, in front of an electric fire, lay a pair of stocking-ed human lower legs- all that remained of an isolated pensioner who had spontaneously combusted.


Bowels of the Earth

I went out shopping for shoes yesterday. It was a bank holiday so town was packed. A while ago I discovered a new parking space bang in the center by all the shops, just up a backstreet off the main street. I was up and out and in the car for 9.30am, like a legend, and got the spot when I arrived. It’s funny, I’ve known this row I parked the car on my whole life. I think most city centers probably have a version of the district it sits within. A dilapidated shoppping ‘arcade’, head shop, military surplus store, the work of accomplished graffiti people on run down facades, tiny art place behind glass shop front with an installation on display, comic book store, sex shops, gambling machine place. There was even a vinyl record store near my car. Manchester has a huge one of these- the Northern Quarter they call it. Belfast’s is just a few streets, which then extends into the still artsy but yuppified ‘Cathedral Quarter’. I’ve always felt like an imposter in these areas. I’m not mean enough for the mean streets. Debenhams is where I belong, trying on polo shirts like the sleepwalking capitalist slave I am.

But with all the positivity being up and out so early brought me I did spent some time around there, sticking another £1.20 in the meter on the street for an hour. The main thing I wanted to check out was the book shop. The inside of it took me by surprise. It extended back and back and back. It had a great ‘bowels of the earth’ feel, like what you want from a second-hand bookstore- the feeling you could discover something rare and precious. Having a wee adventure is always nice. Here’s a photo of the place:

20150525_131741

Big Sur

I love Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur. It’s his best IMHO. I caught the movie of it on Netflix this week. The actor playing Kerouac did a great job. Kerouac wasn’t really a poised cool kid. There’s a zaniness that comes across in all his books. But especially in his later years he appears, sadly, to have become a complete clown, something the vicious drinking which ended his life no doubt contributed to (see his writing, accounts of him and footage of him on youtube). In the recent movie adaptation of ‘On The Road’ Sam Riley played Kerouac as thoughtful and vulnerable, but fairly dour. Admittedly it’s Kerouac twenty years before Big Sur but I do think there was something missing. The actor playing Kerouac in Big Sur, Jean-Marc Barr, puts across the silliness. He’s also the same thick-set physical type as Kerouac (who went to Columbia University on a football scholarship), unlike Sam Riley who’s a lankier guy. The locations and sets in Big Sur were uncannily like I had pictured them to be while reading the book. Barr was fifty-three when it was made a couple of years ago, playing a forty-something Kerouac and the entire cast is at least a decade older than in the other film. That automatically makes the whole thing more likable. Maturity. Kirsten Stewart was the headline name in ‘On the Road’; it was her next move after the Twilight movies. I did groan inwardly when I heard that was happening. It’s that kind of thing that gives Kerouac a bad name. But awk, she’s alright actually, I don’t mind her. She’s been redeeming herself since. Plus she’s really sexy. Being sexy is her thing, it’s kind of great. Just that movie was humourless and played to the ‘cool’ thing that I think sells the author short.

Old:

kerouac old

 

Young:

kerouac young

I Know a Good Man When I See One

Yesterday I felt like writing some poetry. I want that experience I’ve sometimes felt when writing, probably on fewer than ten occasions in total, when a satisfying line pops into existence out of nowhere- it seems to be not of your own volition yet there’s no question that it’s exactly what you were after. It hits the spot. Anytime that’s happened it’s been at least an hour or so into writing. It doesn’t happen walking down the street. My thought was that poetry might be a shortcut to that. Or that that’s maybe the essence of poetry? Which is why I was in the mood to try it yesterday.

Sitting there, my first thought was that I’d write a Haiku because I thought there’d be good bang for my buck that way. But I looked Haiku up on wikipedia and became discouraged. You need a cutting word at the end of one line, separating two distinct moods, and it usually incorporates some ideas about the seasons. I didn’t want to have to do that kind of work. My hope was that I would hit on something I felt deeply about and then the poem would arrange itself naturally into a meaningful or attractive form.

So I started to mull over what I could write about. Immediately my walk the other day came to mind. I was walking up the residential backstreets off the main road on the return leg of my journey and I stopped to change what I had playing on my earphones. As I was stood there on the pavement a diminutive old guy, who looked a bit down on his luck, passed me and said ‘There’s a good man, I know a good man when I see one’.

I’m not sure why I’m inclined to get poetic about this rather than say my dinner of boiled potatoes with tinned meatballs. Probably because it was a novel experience and because there’s an unusual interaction between two strangers in it which gives it some charge. A poet shouldn’t need to rely on drama or novelty though, that’s what drama and …novels are for. But regardless, I dashed out my first poem in yonks in 30 seconds. It’s awful of course, being a completely thoughtless effort. What I did learn was that I like the notion of using plain language in a non-banal way and I also enjoy rhythm, so finding a form where rhythm is key would be good. In retrospect, disappointingly, I saw that I had just surrounded the main incident with second-hand ‘writing a poem now!’ ideas. So trying to think outside the box when I start to get moony-eyed is going to be necessary. Finally I got a little mopey right at the end, with a change of direction in the last two lines, in the mistaken belief that doing that would make the poem ‘big’, rather than wank. That’s another hazard to avoid.

A Trip Away to My Happy Place

Fight or Flight

Write about your strongest memory of heart-pounding, belly-twisting nervousness: what caused the adrenaline? Was it justified? How did you respond?

What has sprung to mind is the time towards the end of my accounting course when I returned home from an exam feeling that I had failed it. It was a situation where failure was not an option. As well as needing to pass in order to get employed and not have wasted a year, things were arranged so that my sense of self-worth was riding on success. I badly needed to prove to myself that I could do what other people do and that me having made very little progress in life was not due to laziness. So when I felt I hadn’t managed, and that I was where I was indeed because I was a dumbass or lazy or a lazy dumbass it drove me into a panic. It was a mild panic attack, after driving home, where I became extremely agitated and a little disoriented. I was desperately grasping for comfort of some sort and it was kind of interesting to me what I had to turn to. In terms of the immediate thing that I needed TV wasn’t any kind of prospect. Neither was eating or even drinking. It was Peter Biskind’s book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ about the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s, which I’d read before obviously and had a copy of sitting there. Tales of De Niro, Scorsese and company discussing the Taxi Driver script in an eaterie off the main boulevard in Cannes 1973, bumping in to a stoned Nicholson and Angelica Houston on their exit! Scorsese had been wearing the same white suit for weeks don’t you know. Friedkin wasn’t well liked, and The Exorcist was a distant memory at this stage etc etc. I just opened the book randomly and this kind of stuff had an opiate like effect, calming me down immediately. It was exactly what I needed. I ‘went to my happy place’ in a big way and emerged about an hour an a half later right as rain.

Life in the Universe

 

Photo from the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan

Photo from the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan

Why do they always go on about whether conditions elsewhere ‘may support life’? Why don’t they think outside the box? Life could be completely mental surely? Time-travelling, wispy spirit creatures with a form we couldn’t even comprehend, specifically.

That was my thought process on the matter until I discovered a great little book called ‘Life in the Universe’ by Lewis Dartnell. I really enjoyed reading it.

Sometimes when I read non-fiction I do it in a dutiful way. My attention will drift now and then from the book to the sensation of the ‘attentive’ face I’m pulling. I also fall in to daydreams where an opportunity has arisen for me to impart my knowledge in the course of conversation, so I do, but apologetically. Madness. With this book though, for the most part, I was totally engrossed.

What I took from it:

The visible universe is composed of chemical elements (for the purposes at hand). What those elements are can be determined by spectroscopic analysis of the light received through telescopes. Unknown elements have been identified this way, but still, the universe doesn’t turn in to Heaven or something round some corner.

Any life out there is a feature of this observable system. That imposes limitations on what it could be like.

As well as involving the ability to replicate, life is by definition an energy disequilibrium. Naturally occurring processes are unnaturally sped up, a disequilibrium is created, and life uses the resulting energy gradient to do work (in the case of complex life- through the processes of respiration or photosynthesis)

The complexity of information storage molecules on earth, RNA and DNA, suggests that metabolism must have preceded them and resulted in them. There is consensus on how metabolism emerges, says the book: Pre-organic pools of chemicals engage in reactions, the product of one catalysing the next. In a large enough pool engaging in a variety of reactions there is a good chance some will catalyse each other. The products produced become more common and as a greater diversity of reactants is generated the pool of potential catalysts gets bigger and the process accelerates, the network of catalytic interactions becomes denser until a single self-sustaining network emerges. As the network becomes increasingly complex it begins producing small organic molecules that had not previously existed.

Having molecules available in a dissolved state is crucial for the rapid chemical reactions of life. It wouldn’t be possible in a solid or gaseous state. Water is the solvent used by life on earth, yet there’s no reason to say the solvent couldn’t have been ammonia or formamide, both of which can handle organic substances in water-like ways. Under other temperature and pressure conditions, methane or liquid nitrogen are also possibilities.

An oxygen-rich atmosphere may be essential for complex life. Respiration releases more energy than any other reduction-oxidation process (bar the reduction of fluorine or chlorine, which are too reactive to accumulate in an atmosphere). Therefore it is possibly the only way complex life could support its huge power demands.

Life on earth is carbon based. It forms the backbone of all the key molecules, like DNA, amino-acids and sugars. What a biochemistry based on some other molecule would be like, scientists ‘cannot even begin to guess’. Silicon has been suggested because it’s close to carbon on the periodic table and can form four bonds at a time in the same useful way carbon can. However, carbon polymers can be oxidised, such as during respiration, to release carbon dioxide. If silicon was switched in the end product would be silicon dioxide- sand. That would be difficult for life to process. Also, carbon is rife in the galaxy.

Designing tests to identify exotic metabolic systems like those is not possible because scientists have no idea what it would be like or how it would work. So all they can do is ‘follow the water’. Their reasonable hope is to find boring bacterial life this way. It is known that bacteria exist on earth in conditions that match those on other spots in the solar system.

There are only a few feasible ways to solve particular survival problems. In terms of sensing light, eyes have independently evolved on earth many times. Sight would therefore be likely on aliens.

Complex alien life would be subject to many of the same physical laws as here. A reasonable guess can made about what it would look like given gravitational, temperature, or other conditions. If it has evolved to swim through liquid for instance, it would need to have a tapered smooth skinned body.

Intelligent complex life would have to be land-based. Building, handling tools and exploiting fire have been necessary in the development of technology/intelligence.