Thursday, March 29, 2012

How Brains Make Up Their Minds by Walter J. Freeman.

How Brains Make Up Their Minds by Walter J. Freeman.  Hardcover book published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1999.

“The erosion of Descartes’ concept of the soul in the machine by recent developments in neuroscience leaves us with the challenge of understanding how we control our behaviour and make sense of the world around us.”

I can just tell by reading the beginning of the publishers blurb that this book is a fun read.  Actually, after reading the publishers blurb I can’t tell whether this book is of any interest at all. It’s probably my complete lack of any knowledge or understanding of Descartes let alone neuroscience, that has left my mind a blank.  In this particular instance it was the title that grabbed my attention and not the publishers blurb… and it’s got an interesting design on the dust jacket and as we all know, you can ALWAYS judge a book by it’s cover. 

I’m like a lot of people… probably like most people… I have trouble making up my mind.  A good example is my business name, Huc & Gabet.  This took at least 3 years to think up and when the light bulb finally switched on, the name, which came from my personal book collection, had been in front of me for the entire time.  So why did it take so long?  I have no idea.  It just took a lot of deliberating and back and forthing.  My brain couldn’t make up its mind.  Maybe this book has the answers, not necessarily to my specific issue as to why I couldn’t decide on a business name, but in a more general sense.

I like these sort of books… I don’t always understand them… but I like them.  I don’t really need to understand them, I just need to understand that someone else is interested in understanding them or that they already have some sort of understanding re the subject matter and are possibly interested in expanding their knowledge.  If I did understand what all the books I sold were about, I probably wouldn’t be a bookseller.  I could be anything.  I could be a scientist.  I could be a doctor.  I could be a nuclear physicist… But you know what?  I probably wouldn’t be able to make up my mind so I’d have to read this book first and get some sort of understanding as to how my brain doesn’t make up its mind.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams.

Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams.  Hardcover book published by Faber and Faber 2008.

After writing about Mr Wagner’s family, I’ve decided it might be appropriate to write about another opera composer whose work I have also enjoyed.  In this case, contemporary composer John Adams. My first introduction to John’s work was through his opera Nixon in China.  This was about the time of it’s initial CD release on Electra Nonesuch and to this day I love it.  It’s such a great concept.  Richard Nixon (yep, the dodgy US president) goes to China (yep, the communist country) in 1972 and hangs out with some of the Chinese bigwigs… Yeah, I know, this is a very simplified explanation of what happens.  If you want more info click here.  What I love about all of this, is that it’s sort of bordering on the absurd.  Do we need to hear Richard Nixon singing to Communists in an operatic setting?  Yes we do. 

I’ve never seen a performance of Nixon in China.  I mentioned recently that I saw some of the New York Metropolitan Opera HC transmissions locally here in rural Victoria.  Last years season did have a performance of Nixon in China, but I didn’t go.  I’m not sure why, but I now wish I had of gone, particularly after seeing how well they do this things (they’re very professional).  One day it will happen.

This book looks at John Adams’s life and work and has been written by the man himself who is a bit of an authority on the subject.  It covers a lot more than Nixon which is a good thing as he has done more than write the one opera.  I found this book sitting very innocently in a pile of some not very exciting books and nearly missed it as the name John Adams doesn’t really ring the same sort of bells as a Karlheinz Stockhausen or Conlon Nancarrow.  In other words “John Adams” is a very normal sort of name (… no offence meant to this John Adams or any other John Adams).  My concern now is whether it will be missed by the book buying public.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

God and the Gun: The Church and Irish Terrorism by Martin Dillon.

God and the Gun: The Church and Irish Terrorism by Martin Dillon.  Hardcover book published by Orion 1997.

I’m constantly amazed at what people have done and still do in the name of religion.  Whether it’s smashing planes into buildings, blowing up hotels or the blessing of Nazi soldiers by the Pope*, religion often seems to be doing the nastiest of things supposedly in the name of god.  Northern Ireland as we are all aware was/is no exception with both sides of the conflict advocating and doing nasty things.  I’m sure there are lots of representatives from both sides who don’t do nasty things, but enough do that a book could be written about it. 

It was published in 1997, a few years before the current terrorist mayhem that seems to have affected us all to varying degrees.  Even this humble bookseller has been affected by tightened security on international mail after some idiot in Yemen tried to send a bomb filled photocopier toner cartridge to the US (increased security means increased pricing on postage… which means less overseas sales).  In 1997 Irish terrorism was mainly confined to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom and I’m not aware of The Troubles causing us any problems here in Australia.  But times have changed and contemporary terrorism, wherever it is, seems to cause us all lots of problems. 

I don’t want to get too political or get bogged down in religious issues that I know very little about, but it is important to remember that terrorism is often often used in the name of religions.  Not just one religion.  This book whilst a few years old is a good reminder of this… that is, if we need reminding.

*There are many other bad things done in the name of religions and by their representatives… I probably didn’t need to write that, but if this does shock you, you probably shouldn’t read this blog entry.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia by Barry Coldrey.

Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia by Barry Coldrey.  Paperback book (spiral bound) published by National Archives of Australia 1999.

“Between 1901 and 1983, thousands of unaccompanied young people, mainly from Britain, came or were sent to Australia as permanent settlers. For some it was a fresh start and relief from grinding poverty; for others it was a heartbreaking wrench from family. Records in the collection of the National Archives of Australia are a rich source of information about the processes of government decision—making and administrative practice on child migration, as well as the service organisations and churches that sponsored the children and provided for their education, placement, and after—care.”

Australia seems to have a never ending dodgy legacy of taking children away from their parents.  We seem to be quite good at it.  This book doesn’t look at the taking away of children from Australian families, but rather the taking away of British children from their parents in Britain and then shipping them off to Australia.  Some of the children were orphans, but not all of them.  Most of the kids were in “care” and I guess the idea was that there were fabulous opportunities for all these kids in sunny prosperous Australia.  If your living in “grinding poverty” then Australia is a reasonable concept although it’s interesting to consider what that concept may have been to a primary school child of 5.

The Youth part of this scheme weren’t in “care” and were aged between 15 and 19.  These Youths made the decision to emigrate by themselves.  Think about it.  Your 15 years of age and you decide to emigrate to Australia.  I guess it was different times back in 1983!!!

“A topic which has been aired frequently in the media over recent years is that of child abuse in certain Australian orphanages during the child migration era. There is little mention of such incidents in the records described in this guide, not through any attempt to conceal or avoid discussing them, but rather because the records in the collection of the National Archives do not mention such allegations or incidents, and since they are not discussed in the records themselves they are not covered by the guide.”

This book was published by the National Archives of Australia to assist those wishing to research/investigate this aspect of Australian history.  When I read the title the first thing I thought of was child abuse and it was only whilst writing this blog entry and delving deeply into the introduction, that I found out that this is not what the book is about.  The little disclaimer above sums up the lack of such information and from what little I know, there are numerous other books that do look at this disturbing subject.  Personally, I find the idea of being separated from my family and sent across the world as a commodity at the age of 5 disturbing enough.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Wagner Clan by Jonathan Carr.

The Wagner Clan by Jonathan Carr.  Hardcover book published by Faber and Faber 2007.

Recently the New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast the final part of the Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung.  This was part of their series of Opera’s that are broadcast as “high-definition performance transmissions to movie theatres around the world”.  Many of you out there are probably unaware that the New York Met does this.  It’s spectacular.  Punters pay to go see the relayed opera in the comfort of their home town cinemas/theatres, at a fraction of the cost.  They even manage to screen it in Ballarat which is a 25 minute drive from my house.  I managed to catch most of the Ring except for the first part (Das Rheingold) over the last few months and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing… except for the bits where I dozed off.  I am only human and these Opera’s are a test of endurance.  Götterdämmerung is nearly 5 hours long (excluding breaks) and I’m not that fussed that I missed a few minutes particularly of the first hour… which, by the way, the conductor claimed was the hardest part to conduct… he was probably dozing off as well.  Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing and would not hesitate in going to further Opera transmissions in the future.

This book has nothing to do with the New York Metropolitan Opera or its HD transmissions.  What it is  about, is Wagner’s descendants and the goings on of these people.

“Through two world wars, Nazi dictatorship and foreign occupation, the Wagner clan — Germany’s most famous family — has played host to many of the greatest and ghastliest figures in the arts and politics. Its members have clung to the helm of the prestigious Bayreuth festival and have regularly battled one another like warriors in the music dramas they stage. Their story — with its jealousy, greed, passion and intrigue — is as riveting as any opera.”

The dust jacket has a picture of Adolf on it… he was a fan.  Interestingly Richard who also had some dodgy ideas, didn’t make the front of the dust jacket but did make it to the back.  The kids on the front are the children of Wagner’s son, Siegfried.*  It’s nice that they made it to the front even though it appears that Adolph has managed to get top billing.  He was an Opera fan and hung out with the Wagner family and this doesn’t make for good publicity for the Wagner’s.  I get the feeling that this book dwells quite a bit on this.  Not that I think it was excusable, that the Wagner’s supped with the Fuhrer, quite the opposite… if you lie with dogs, you get fleas and in this case the fleas are enormous and will probably never die. 

Wagner’s Opera’s are still performed today regardless of how dodgy he, his family and some of his fans were (are).  I personally enjoyed my recent viewing of ¾ of the Ring in the comfort of a local theatre and would happily do it all again.  But if Adolf was there (I don’t think he ever made it to Ballarat… as much as he tried), I’d give it a miss.

*I can’t even begin to imagine how much bullying they got at school wearing those silly hats. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tweedales & Smalley (1920), Limited.: Makers of Machinery for Opening, Preparing, Spinning & Doubling Cotton, Etc.

Tweedales & Smalley (1920), Limited.: Makers of Machinery for Opening, Preparing, Spinning & Doubling Cotton, Etc.  Hardcover book published by Tweedales & Smalley 1927.

I think it’s been at least a week and a half since I wrote about a technical book.  Which by the way, did sell despite my doubts.  This one is a little different.  It’s basically a catalogue of machinery made by Tweedales & Smalley in Castleton, Manchester (that’s in the UK and no where near Australia) at their lovely factory and has nothing to do with repairing such machinery.

These guys made machinery for the cotton industry.  By the looks of their factories they made a lot of machinery and a lot of money.  Which is probably why they need a catalogue and why the catalogue has gold lettering on the front cover… which is a hardcover, not paper.  The weirdest thing about the catalogue is that there are no photographs of any of the machinery… at least I think that’s weird.   Diagrams it has a plenty.  Photographs it has none.  The book also has blank pages with lines printed on them both vertical and horizontal, sort of like graph paper.  Maybe you were meant to insert your own photographs or draw a nice picture of the machine, but more than likely you were meant to make a note of the current price and any other details that the machinery may have that you need to know about, that isn’t in the book.

From what I can gather Tweedales & Smalley no longer exist… a bit like most of the cotton industry here in Australia (and probably in the UK as well).  This catalogue is like a time capsule of both vintage machinery and industry and is from an era, when these sort of industries were flourishing.  I think that’s what I like about it… it no longer exists on a number of levels, all that remains is this book.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry.

The Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry.  Hardcover book published by Methuen 1968.

I think I wrote awhile ago about how my reading one thing often leads to another thing, which then leads to another thing etc etc.  I love this.  I once read a Henry Miller book and before I knew what day it was I was reading five volumes of Anais Nin diaries… and thoroughly enjoying the whole experience.  In this particular instance I discovered the Ubu Plays after listening to the excellent music of Pere Ubu. (After 31 years they are still one of my favourite bands.  Listen to this.)  As a young 18 year old in 1981, this music was mind blowing… it still is mind blowing.  So there I was a fan of this group and then I find out they got their name from a play by Alfred Jarry.  So I go off and search for the book.  I think I had to order it in the end as I couldn’t find a copy (there was no interwebs available and back in the day one would go into a bookshop and order a book which could take up to a few months to arrive… hard to imagine now).   Here’s the first page of act one of Ubu Rex:

After that it just gets more degenerate and absurd.  It’s brilliant.  So brilliant, that at the first performance in 1896, the audience rioted.  Now that’s my kind of theatre.

Jarry wrote some other stuff as well, some of which I have read, all of which I have enjoyed.  At the time of my discovering and exploring his oeuvre, I was working at a large University library and as I often did at the time, I had a quick look in the catalogue to see what we had on the shelves.  Oh boy, there was an 8 volume set of the complete works.  Unfortunately they were “Oeuvres Completes”.  Yep, they were in Francais.  Which is no good to me, although as I held them in my hands, I very briefly thought I could learn French and then read them… it was a very brief thought… very brief.

So, here we are many years later and I find a copy of the Ubu Plays as a hard cover.  Amazing.  I still have my old paperback copy of the book but I am tempted to keep this hardcover… which as tempting as it may be, I won’t do, as I’m more of a bookseller and less of a book collector than I was 31 years ago.  But you know what i would collect if by chance it were to exist?… the English translation of “Oeuvres completes”.  Adieu.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hard life in country.

Well it has finally happened.  I’ve successfully avoid it for the last 8 years and I thought that there was no way that I would ever go down this path.  I think I’ve even said that to do what I have now done is a backwards step in the evolution of bookselling.  I’ve always thought that this was something Luddites cling to in the belief that bookselling is one thing and one thing only… which I still firmly believe it isn’t.  Even though this all began more than 2 months ago, I haven’t written about it here as I haven’t really known what to write or even how to explain what I have done.  To sum it up, I have been avoiding this blog entry.  So here it is.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, I have opened my own shop.  OK… I can hear you all gasping in disbelief.   Actually I haven’t opened my own shop, but I have started to sell books a little more seriously, just around the corner from my place of abode* in someone elses shop. The deal is that I run the shop and half the stock on the shelves is mine.  In other words, it’s not a partnership.  It’s 2 booksellers (actually 4, but 2 have only minimal stock, so for the sake of this blog, I’ll say 2) selling from the one location.  The whole thing of not being in a partnership is something that is very important to me… it’s long and complicated why this is important, but lets just say it is.  For the last 2 months we’ve been open every Saturday and Sunday, this is about to change and we are going to be open some Saturdays and every Sunday… and also by appointment… and yes, it is me manning the fort.

I have a few years of retail experience behind me**, so retail is not something totally alien to me.  What is new is that it’s just me working for me… and selling someone elses books as well.  So far it’s meandering along but so has the town during this quiet time of the year.  This area of Victoria is a little busier during Autumn and Spring so hopefully book buyers will be flocking here soon.  In Summer everyone’s down the beach (we don’t have beach) and in Winter everyone’s keeping warm (we don’t have warm), which all adds up to no flocking book buyers.

Here’s a picture of the shop:

And here's a close up of the window display:

Notice that there is no signage and that there’s no name associated with the shop.  Signage is on its way (soon) and re a name, well ummmm… it wont be Huc & Gabet... i'm still Huc & Gabet, but the shop wont be.  And yes it is small… but it is packed full of quality books of interest… and yes those are Stephen King titles in the window.

*Commuting time is approx 40 seconds.
**Approx 25 years.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Science of Sherlock Holmes by E.J. Wagner.

The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective's Greatest Cases by E.J. Wagner.  Hardcover book published by John Wiley & Sons 2006.

When this book was written and published, the current spate of Sherlock Holmes movies (and TV series) and the subsequent broader popular appeal, were a few years away.  This is not meant to imply that Sherlock’s appeal is only of interest to those who are into the latest blockbuster to hit the big (or small) screen.  Indeed, Sherlock’s popularity has had a longevity which unlike many (but not all) of his contempories didn’t. 

So why a book about the science of Sherlock Holmes?  In 2006 one of the most popular television shows in the United States was a little thing called CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.  This little thing was enormous… a ratings winner… a true Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster.  There were various Emmy and other entertainment awards, a few franchises and then some of the concepts, such as references to DNA testing and other bits and bobs, started to pop up everywhere (the CSI effect is when real people… not the people on the telly… have an unrealistic expectation of what forensics and law enforcement can achieve).  This book was published at a time when interest in forensic science was/is at a high… which I guess is the best time to do this. 

“E.J. Wagner demonstrates that without the work of Sherlock Holmes and his contemporaries, the CSI teams would be twiddling their collective thumbs.”
Leslie S. Klinger, Editor The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock may be a vintage detective, but he was also a clever guy* and he solved crimes in his own clever way despite there being no DNA tests available at the time.  His scientific capabilities enabled him to catch the baddies and that is what this book is all about.  I like a clever detective. I like the process by which a tricky crime is solved particularly in relation to clever forensic detection… and I even like Sherlock Holmes.  More importantly though, will all those CSI fans like it?

* and clever dick