World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

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There are strengths and weaknesses in structuring a novel as a series of interviews, according to the medium used.  The fast-paced film version of World War Z tries to emulate the book’s episodic nature but focuses on a single person and cannot find a satisfactory resolution to a story about zombies engulfing the entire planet.  In the novel, a slower pace using multiple narrators allows Max Brooks to cover the flow of the war, from first inklings of a crisis to a kind of victory over the living dead.

However, where the film carries the viewer with its dramatic set pieces, the result of the book’s documentary treatment is a rather bitty narrative which follows the course of the war but cannot sustain any kind of build-up because tension is reset at the start of each interview.  Even the longer uninterrupted sections, such as the adventures of a Chinese nuclear submarine after its crew steal it, do not have time to generate the feeling in the reader of being absorbed in a devastating (in all senses) situation.  The individuals through whom the story of how humanity is nearly destroyed unfolds are never given the opportunity to develop, even when we return to them at a later point in the prosecution of the war, being mouthpieces to convey parts of a jigsaw.  Anyway, you know that they win because it is the survivors who are speaking, which reduces the emotional engagement.

The scenario is that a decade or so after the conclusion of the war against the zombies, bar some protracted mopping up, the author was delegated to collect witness statements for a technical report to be published by the United Nations, but much of it was discarded because it focused too much on personal testimony rather than statistical analysis.  Rather than discard the material it was turned into a separate book, which is World War Z.

The arc of the infestation, set in the near future, is well imagined, with rumours of ‘African rabies’ spreading following a mysterious disease outbreak in China (a plausible scenario given the health scares that have originated from there and the woeful state of its public service); ‘The Great Panic’, engendering confusion and leading to even more deaths than from the zombies themselves; denial of the extent of the threat by governments, including the ignoring of expert analyses that say things the top echelons do not want to hear, particularly in countries ruled by sclerotic oligarchies; slow acceptance of the scale of the danger; confusion as order breaks down; inappropriate military tactics by forces geared to conventional warfare; retreat, regrouping, and slow fightback.  One can see that a real zombie outbreak would progress in a similar way, assuming the remnants of humanity were able to organise as effectively as shown here.

A country’s chances of defence depend on various factors such as population density, social cohesion, isolation from major regions of population, government flexibility.  Significantly the one state in the Middle East able to respond effectively is Israel, which builds a wall (business as usual for them, just the name of the aggressor has changed).  They do better than those American citizens who have the bright idea of moving to Canada on the grounds that zombies freeze in winter (the only respite, although they are just as lethal as before when they thaw in the spring) but forget that keeping warm and feeding yourself in sub-zero temperatures  is difficult.  However, there is one source of ready protein (and it’s not zombie flesh)…

The amount of research in World War Z is impressive, and Brooks manages to inject social commentary that lifts it above straight horror.  Through the prism of the threat we see what is best and worst in people, their nobility but also their baseness. For example there is a thriving trade in fake pharmaceuticals because some people will find a business opportunity in any situation, however dire.  Humans can be just as inhuman as the zombies, yet others display nobility and sacrifice.  Old statuses are irrelevant in this world.  People who can make things and do things are valued, sales managers less so.  Laissez-faire capitalism is shown to be useless in fighting total war; a command economy is necessary to get things done.

Zombies turn the world upside down, with Cuba on top economically at the end.  The First World countries by contrast struggle.  A zombie apocalypse would reset international relations, all current socio-economic strengths and weakness discarded in favour of new values based on the effectiveness of survival and remaining community organisation.  Ironically the enormously expensive weapons systems deployed by the US are wholly ineffectual in the new war situation, requiring a complete rethink in terms of equipment and strategy.  It feels uncomfortably like a metaphor for asymmetric warfare in which battlefield weapons are irrelevant in the face of an inexorable enemy who attacks from within and will not participate in diplomacy.

Brooks identifies a curious group that would arise as a result of the zombies – Quislings.  This is a psychological condition that leads non-zombies to identify with the undead and mimic them completely, to the extent of biting the uninfected (though of course without the automatically lethal effect a genuine zombie-inflicted injury would have).  It has its limitations, because the living are going to assume they are zombies, while to the zombies they are still alive and therefore targets.  Attempts to rehabilitate Quislings have patchy success.

Frankly that sounds unlikely, but who knows.  Another phenomenon, once perhaps more likely to happen in such a situation, is Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome, or Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome (you can see which one was coined by boffins and which one by ordinary people), in which the victim goes to sleep and does not wake up.  After prolonged stress with no end in sight, the organism simply gives up the struggle.  The most effective cure for this it turns out is hope, which in this case is supplied by propaganda films.  These morale boosters cut the incidence of ADS hugely.  There is a reminder also that shooting zombies in the head would take its toll, just as shooting live people does, with PTSD a factor in combat veterans.

One section left me wondering if anyone reading about characters who share their nationality will find those characters unconvincing.  There is an English person who talks about the role of castles in the zombie war.  He was holed up at Windsor when England was overrun, and it is clear that the Queen was there as well.  There is a toe-curling description of her determination not to run, like her parents staying in London during the Blitz, a schmaltzy paean to how Her Majesty pulled her people together, protecting the soul of the nation.

More successfully there is an amusing in-joke in one of the interviews.  The interviewee is discussing misinformation and myths that inevitably arise in the fog of war, and the effort required to debunk them.  ‘The civilian survival guide helped, but was still severely limited…. You could see it was clearly written by an American, the references to SUVs and personal firearms.  There was no taking into account the cultural differences…’ (p.197)  That is presumably The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Brooks himself, originally published in 2004, two years before World War Z.

It would be going too far to say that this is a prescient analysis of future geopolitics because the thing about zombies is that they change the rules by which these things are done.  It is difficult to draw parallels between a post-zombie landscape and the one which will evolve naturally, though he is probably correct in seeing a shift in power from the US and western Europe to other areas of the globe with other ideologies, probably those populations with the highest fertility.  Those changes will happen, zombies or not.  One thing for sure after World War Z is concluded is that there will be a lot more space for everybody, although whether we will learn to get along with each other better than before is another matter.

Murder in the Midlands: Notable Trials of the Nineteenth Century, by J. P. Lethbridge

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J. P. Lethbridge’s 1989 compendium describes eight murder trials which took place in the English midlands between 1810 and 1886, though his accounts are not evenly spread through the century (1810s – 3; 1820s – 1; 1860s – 3; 1880s – 1).  He has drawn them from a region with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to the north and Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to the south, encompassing both rural and urban areas.  Each incident’s background, and the resulting trial, is concisely described, mostly from reports in contemporary local newspapers, noting where there are discrepancies, and there is a summary by the author examining the verdict.  The book concludes with a comparison of the places mentioned then and now, plus a bibliography and index.

Murder is demonstrated in a variety of facets, including, in the author’s words, ‘two domestic murders [one a parricide], one infanticide, one murder in the course of a robbery, and one rape murder.’  There is also one resulting from a poaching affray, and another by a servant of her mistress.  They were committed by a number of methods: ‘stabbings, shootings, a strangling, a beating to death, a murder by drowning and, perhaps the cruellest of all, a murder by starvation.’

As well as insights into the murders and why they were committed, the various cases throw light on relationships between spouses and between masters and servants; sexual exploitation; the stigma of illegitimacy; and the lack of sentimentality towards children when work was involved.  As might be expected, financial gain and sex were common motives.  The class system can be seen in action through the composition of juries, for example the double standard which meant that a factory owner responsible for the death by starvation of a 13-year old apprentice was cleared of murder, though sentenced to two years with hard labour for ill-treating her, whereas the servant girl who stabbed her mistress was hanged.

The various ways murder was approached by the judiciary show the evolving nature of the criminal system during a period of enormous social, political and economic change.  Lethbridge’s introduction sketches how murder was dealt with in the Georgian period compared to later in the century, not least as an official police force was introduced and became more adept at dealing with lawbreaking generally.  Transportation ceased and the range of crimes for which the death penalty could be used narrowed (in 1800 there were 223 capital offences on the statue books in England, though in practice execution only happened for the most serious of them).

The increasing numbers of criminal cases, both from improved detection and a growing population, necessitated improvements to the court system in order to deal with the volume of work.  Remarkably it was not until 1836 that defence counsel were allowed to make speeches on behalf of their clients, reducing wrongful convictions.  Insanity pleas became more common, further lowering the incidence of the death penalty.

Where the ultimate sanction was given, one development was the increase in the interval between sentence and death, from a couple of days to several weeks.  A significant transformation was the abolition of public executions in 1868.  Another was the abandonment of the practice of handing over bodies for dissection, instead interring them within the precincts of the prison in which they were last confined.  It is surprising to learn that trial by combat was only abolished in 1819 (though it had long fallen into disuse), as a result of one of the cases described in this book, when such a challenge was issued.

Then as now, murder was most likely to occur between people who knew each other.  Lethbridge notes that of the 13 accused in his collection, four were close relatives of the person they were alleged to have murdered, three others lived or worked in the same house, and the other six were members of the same community.  Killers and victims were all ordinary people: these were not celebrated murderers, but were typical participants of many such sordid acts, and they tell us more about the society that produced them because of it.

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (eds)

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Steampunk is a flexible concept but, while Steampunk! is an entertaining enough anthology, some of the stories surely exceed the general understanding of what can be considered to fall within its boundaries.  Even so, editors Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant have done a reasonable job in coming at steampunk from an angle which looks at other possibilities than a concentration on a parallel Victorian England (though you can’t get away from it completely), and included a high proportion of female writers.  The quality is patchy, suggesting a limited choice when making their selection, though one would have thought that a relaxed view of the genre would have allowed a greater pool from which to choose.  The following are brief notes on each story.

 

‘Some Fortunate Future Day’, by Cassandra Clare

A young girl alone in a rural house during a national conflict of some kind has only robot dolls for company.  Her loneliness is brought to an end when she finds an injured soldier who had fallen from an airship and crawled into the garden.  She nurses him, harbouring romantic feelings which she thinks are reciprocated, expecting him to take her with him when he returns to the capital.  Her father had invented a device to turn back time, and when she discovers he is not in love with her and is about to leave on his own, she uses the time device to try again – with the assumption that, Groundhog Day-like, she can keep at it until she gets the result she wants.  The story generates an eerie and unsettling atmosphere but its shortness is unsatisfying.

 

‘The Last Ride of the Glory Girls’, by Libba Bray

This also hinges on a time manipulation device, though it only goes back a few minutes.  A version of the Wild West on a distant planet is the setting for an all-female gang of outlaws who rob trains by enveloping them in a bubble where time stops.  Unfortunately the device has stopped working and the gang are looking for someone to repair it.  A young girl with mechanical expertise escaping her fundamentalist Christian community is apprehended by the Pinkertons for a misdemeanour and offered the choice of jail or being recruited to go undercover, infiltrating the gang so they can be caught red-handed.  She agrees, is picked up by the gang and repairs the device, but then she goes native and helps with the robberies.  Eventually the Pinkertons catch up with her, but she has a last trick up her sleeve and helps her compadres escape.  She turns down a job with the Pinkertons, and still has possession of the device.  There is much backstory about her upbringing which tends to drain the story of its potential excitement and it has an unrealistically optimistic ending – in real life the heroine would have been banged up in chokey for assisting fugitives.

 

‘Clockwork Fagin’, by Corey Doctorow

The setting is a Canadian institution – Saint Agatha’s Home for the Rehabilitation of Crippled Children.  It houses those who have been mutilated in industrial accidents, of which there are many thanks to lax health and safety, presided over by a wicked overseer, Grinder, who exploits and abuses his charges.  One day a lad made of sterner stuff than the other inhabitants arrives and when he receives the standard greeting, does no more than stick a sharp knife in the horrible man’s chest.  But can the children keep the place going on their own without being caught?  With the aid of some machinery and trickery they can, turning Grinder into a puppet operated by the kids to fool the outside world.  But how long they can keep it up without adults finding out is another matter.  It’s a neatly told fantasy of children learning that they can rely on each other, and they fare better than they had before.  You don’t expect horrible things to happen in Canada, which adds further to the strangeness.

 

‘Seven Days Beset by Demons’, by Shawn Cheng

A comic strip looking at the life of a toymaker who falls in love with a woman who is already in a relationship, told over seven days, with his changing emotions charted in terms of the seven deadly sins.  It’s neatly executed but is notable for the conceit rather than the story and doesn’t linger in the memory.

 

‘Hand in Glove’, by Ysabeau S. Wilce

A noirish riff on the Hand of Orlac, a female cop has up to date ideas based on the work of ‘Bertillo’ (ie Alphonse Bertillon) but is derided by her stick-in-the-mud department.  A series of murders has been committed for which an indigent is to be executed.  She thinks he is innocent and sets out to prove it, which means she has to find the murderer.  The trail leads to a weird laboratory with a talking chimpanzee and a woman creating a Frankensteinian creature.  If that sounds silly, it is rather, and not particularly steampunk by any definition.

 

‘The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor’, by Delia Sherman

A feisty young woman lives in a country village on the Welsh borders. Nearby is a large empty manor house.  A new baronet moves in with his collection of automatons, but he is penniless and the vultures are circling for his remaining assets.  Can the woman, taken on as the housekeeper, save the day?  With help from the ghost of an ancestor who had hidden a large amount of treasure before being murdered in the Civil War she has a fair chance.  This could be the first-ever story in which a ghost is able to interact with the world by inhabiting a robotic figure.  In classic steampunk style Queen Victoria puts in an appearance at the end – and is amused.

 

‘Gethsemane’, by Elizabeth Knox

Clearly inspired by the eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique in 1902 but set for some reason in the South Pacific, the only element that marks this out as steampunk is an airship, which really isn’t enough.  A young outcast woman is regarded as a witch, and is attended by a ‘zombie’ (she actually has cataracts)  There is also a boy sailor kept company by an elderly black man, love potions that are just placebos, and rather dim geologists who are drilling boreholes close to the mountain’s crater prospecting for steam to drive turbines.  Not a lot else happens until the volcano erupts and all hell breaks loose.

 

‘The Summer People’, by Kelly Link

A teenager, Fran, has a debilitating bout of ‘flu, which is a problem because she and her father make a living looking after ‘the summer people’ and he has got one of his periodic bouts of religion which has taken him off to a meeting in Florida.  It’s down to her to take care of them, ill or not.  Fortunately, she is cared for by a new friend, recently arrived in town after a lesbian scandal at her previous school, and Fran introduces her to the summer people.  Not to their faces though as they are reclusive and it quickly becomes apparent that they are strange, perhaps not of this earth.  Like faerie folk they give gifts, but expect something in return, and can be tricksters if in the mood.  They certainly have peculiar powers, not least the ability to communicate with Fran by telepathy, and it seems that the females in Fran’s family have taken care of them for generations.  Furthermore, once one is working for them it seems that the only way to stop is to pass on the responsibility to someone else.  Fran was dumped with it by her mother, who promptly left home, now she aches to see foreign parts herself.  It is easy to see where this is heading, drawing on elements of Let the Right One In and the curse in ‘Casting the Runes’.  It engages the attention but it’s hard to see that it qualifies as Steampunk, rather being an uncanny story, as its possible inspirations suggest.

 

‘Peace in Our Time’, by Gareth Nix

A short entry, qualifying as science fiction rather than Steampunk despite the references to ‘clockwerk’.  It’s the future, or another world, in which an old man living in retirement in a remote area receives an unexpected visitor.  He is accused of having committed genocide by employing a weapon of mass destruction, and is executed by his accuser after some chat about it.

 

‘Nowhere Fast’, by Christopher Rowe

An eco-warrior’s dream.  After some unspecified catastrophe in the future, America has run out of resources and gone back to what they can do with renewables and salvage.  The infrastructure has been destroyed so the population has broken up into small communities having virtually no contact with each other.  National government is represented by the ‘Federals,’ an outside force possessing limited powers at a local level.  Decisions affecting the town are made by a council whose members are drawn by lot.  Cycling is big, whereas anything run on fossil fuels is verboten.  So when a youth turns up in a car from distant parts you can bet a lot of the townsfolk are going to be pretty vexed.  Well the older ones are; some of the younger ones can see that there is more to life than the district in which they are destined to live and die.  The car, being illegal, is destroyed, but there is at least one person who sees that the verdict was unjust and offers to help rebuild the machine.  It’s a relatively positive view of a post-apocalyptic world – at least they aren’t eating each other – but the equation between small community and small mindedness is clearly drawn.  The irony is that the car is run on vegetable-derived oil while the mechanical horses ridden by the Feds are powered by coal, which is less environmentally friendly.  As with some of the other stories here, the Steampunk element is peripheral.

 

‘Finishing School: A Colonial Adventure’, by Kathleen Jennings

This is the second graphic short story in the volume.  Set in colonial Australia, two girls are pupils in a boarding school.  Considered charity cases and outsiders, they are banished to the top of the building.  Dirigibles rule, but the uncle of one, who had run the school, had been convinced that heavier-than-air flight is feasible, sadly dying in the attempt to demonstrate it.  The uncle’s gear is still in the loft and one of the girls is determined to prove that the aeroplane is achievable.  The setting is novel but the material feels thinly written.  Good punning title though.

 

‘Steam Girl’, by Dylan Horrocks

The new kid in a school with a lax dress code is an outsider sporting leather jacket, flying helmet and goggles.  She makes friends with a boy who is equally treated as an outsider, his main leisure occupation being computer games.  They bond, though he finds her difficult to read.  She spins adventures stories about Steam Girl who travels with her father around the solar system in an airship.  Inspired by her example, he produces a story about Rocket Boy.  Together they transcend the limitations of their dull town through the power of story telling, but are her stories yarns, or, despite the obvious borrowings from 1930s science fiction serials, autobiographical, the story of how she came to be trapped in a different dimension from her own through the machinations of her wicked mother?  She does have these gadgets, though they don’t work very well in this reality.  It transpires that her father is nothing like Steam Girl’s, and her fantasy is compensation for her difficult circumstances, but her story has given her, and Rocket Boy, the confidence to face adversity.  A heartening story for nerdy unpopular kids everywhere.

 

‘Everything Amiable and Obliging’, by Holly Black

This is a steampunk version of Victorian London (which makes the introduction’s claim that the stories are set in a variety of placed but definitely not Victorian London somewhat puzzling).  The daughter in an upper-middle class household, Amelia, falls in love with her dancing master; so far so clichéd, but the twist is that this one is a robot.  Father is furious because he needs her to marry well in order to rescue the family fortunes (damaged by his gambling debts of course) and a robot doesn’t cut it.  The philosophical issue is one that has been well rehearsed in Star Trek: The Next Generation with discussions of Data and emotion.  Can a robot’s feelings be sincere if it has been programmed to do what its owner desires?  Can a human really love a machine?  Amelia gets her way, but as the narrator (sometimes Sofia, sometimes Sofie) is fortunately an heiress and her feelings towards Amelia’s brother are reciprocated, it looks like dad won’t face social embarrassment after all.

 

‘The Oracle Machine’, by MT Anderson

The best story in the book, it tells a Steampunk version of Marcus Licinius Crassus and his ill-fated expedition against the Parthians, allegedly translated from Mendacius’s (a nice touch) True Histories of the Roman Inventors.  It shows how he achieved much of his staggering wealth, by extorting money from citizens whose houses are on fire by charging vast sums to put the conflagration out with his flying vessels.  Marcus Furius’s father refuses to accede to Crassus’s demand when his house is ablaze, and at the age of 10 Marcus Furius loses both parents and his sister in the inferno.  He becomes an engineer and two decades later builds a machine, the stochastikon, which is a proto-computer (not a million miles from Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in design but far more sophisticated) which can foretell the future accurately by interpreting information of past events, plus cultural and biographical information, fed into it.  This he offers to Crassus for his forthcoming military campaign in the Middle East.  Crassus is keen to gain an edge as he is in competition with Caesar and Pompey for popular acclaim and the portents from the conventional soothsayers he has consulted have not been promising.  But what is Marcus Furius’s motive and is it a subtle way of seeking his revenge for the loss of his family?  It transpires that Crassus is on to Marcus and makes a pre-emptive strike, but fails to realise that the inventor has included examples of irony from literature in the stochastikon’s programming, so when Crassus gets an affirmative answer to the question whether he should attack the enemy, things turn out precisely as the prediction said they would, but with a totally different outcome to that Crassus has assumed from his reading of the prophecy.

Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov

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Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel has as its central character Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov, a member of the landed gentry living in St Petersburg on the receipts from his provincial estate.  Oblomov is fantastically lazy and the first few dozen pages see him barely getting out of bed as he receives a stream of visitors who entreat him to go to various places with them, all of whom he puts off as he would rather be lethargic indoors than active outside.  We also get the sense from this opening section that he has so-called friends who are willing to exploit his idleness.

We learn that Oblomov is happy to receive an income from his inherited estate which he hasn’t seen since he was 18, less interested in its management; in a letter he has received he is being entreated by his country neighbour to take a direct role but cannot rouse himself to deal with the matter, less to make the thousand-mile journey to see the situation for himself.  Not even a rapidly diminishing income and no idea how much the estate should be producing can motivate him.  He would rather lie on his sofa making plans that are never finalised.  His approach is to put off today what he can leave until tomorrow, which is essentially everything, every day.  Inertia has become a way of life, so that he cannot finish a book or read a newspaper, and has no idea what is going on in the world other than what he hears in garbled form from others.  An attempt at a career in the civil service had predictably not been a success, and he has never tried anything since.  Close contact with women is eschewed lest they disturb the unfluctuating tenor of his life.  He is looked after in ad hoc fashion by his servant Zakhar, himself lazy, disorganised and not above purloining the odd kopek from his master.

After this opening, a long section entitled ‘Oblomov’s Dream’ describes his reverie of childhood, and shows the roots of his indolence in a culture that was ossified, wanting every day to be like the previous one (this portion was published separately in 1849 but the rest of the book took another ten years to emerge).  Here on his ancestral estate Oblomovka, Oblomov had led a cosseted existence, kept from school on the flimsiest pretext, with servants to cater to the family’s every need, including dressing him.  He has carried these habits of passivity into adulthood and this way of life has become an ideal, such a fixed point that he is unable to drag himself from it, recreating it in adulthood though he is now far away from Oblomovka.  It is easier to look back fondly on a golden age of childhood, fantasising over what was, than face present realities.  Rather than stir himself to take care of his finances, Oblomov would live in poverty, as he is forced to do later when he is being swindled out of the remittances from his estate: life may intrude with its unpleasantness, but he will manfully ignore it.  While the reader feels aghast at such monumental apathy, the question arises to what extent Oblomov is responsible for the way he has turned out.  His laziness has been absorbed from an upbringing in a family that would rather make do and mend than follow a task through.

The hero of the novel is not, despite its title, Oblomov, it is his friend Andrey Stolz (not that Oblomov can be truly called a hero).  They had known each other from childhood but had followed completely different paths.  Where Oblomov was indulged, Stolz’s father taught him business and, blessed with a natural vigour, Stolz was keen to make his way in the world.  It is significant that he had a German father whose shrewdness was a contrast to Stolz’s Russian mother, from whom Andrey absorbed culture, not practical skills.  Stolz is a well-rounded person in way that Oblomov isn’t, making him a rather obvious counterpoint; that is a flaw in the novel because Stolz is seen in a didactic light whereas Oblomov is subtly drawn.  Stolz is energetic, pursuing opportunities as a means to achieve a satisfying life rather than for the sake of acquisition.  He could easily lose patience with his friend but he does not give Oblomov up as a bad job, badgering him to take an interest in life and his estate, and when Oblomov finds himself in difficulties, assists him by taking on Oblomovka as a tenant and putting it in order, preventing its owner being further cheated.

Stolz unwittingly creates upheaval in Oblomov’s life by introducing him to Olga, a young woman living with her aunt.  Astonishingly the pair fall in love, and the middle part of the novel is largely concerned with charting their increasingly rocky relationship.  This shows Oblomov to be not completely inert – after all it would be hard to sustain nearly 500 pages of the man solely in bed or on his sofa.  In fact the middle section of the novel sees him remarkably active as he pursues his romance with Olga.  She is intelligent but inexperienced, and falls into that category of women who think they can change their menfolk and who overestimate their powers.  She sees Oblomov as someone who with a little chivvying could be transformed into an active character.  For his part he is ambivalent, running hot and cold as he contemplates what marriage would entail.  Fortunately, he realises she would be better off without him (and vice versa) as he is incapable of change, and she breaks off their secret engagement when she reaches the same conclusion.

It is no surprise when eventually Olga and Stolz become attracted to each other and marry after some philosophical debate.  In spite of Oblomov’s constant ability to disappoint, they remain attached to him.  But what do they see in him?  They value his sincerity, goodness and honesty, so they say.  The reader may find this an unconvincing reason for Stolz to put himself out so much on Oblomov’s behalf.  They are easy virtues when not backed by actions to demonstrate them, and anyway, is it true?  When he gets cold feet during his engagement to Olga he pretends to be ill as an excuse not to have to see her.  She becomes worried and goes to him, at which point she realises he has been untruthful.  Oblomov invariably behaves in a cowardly manner in order to avoid having to deal with unpleasantness, just as he would rather make plans in his head than travel to Oblomovka and act as his own estate manager.  He has friends he doesn’t deserve, and treats them shabbily.  Stoltz knows that for Oblomov, it is out of sight out of mind when a visitor, himself included, departs.

At the same time, Goncharov’s depiction is not completely pessimistic because Oblomov has found a balance that suits him.  On the surface it may seem incomplete against Stolz and Olga’s marriage yet they have their worries, such as Olga suffering a crisis, described at length, which boils down, in typically Russian style, to feeling unhappy because she is too happy.  Stolz feels that he has perpetually to keep to extraordinarily high standards in order not to disappoint her.  The best of us would struggle; for Oblomov it would have been a disaster.  He finally achieves the stasis he desires with Agafia Matveyevna, his landlady, who bears him a son he names after Andrey Stolz (the thought of Oblomov rousing himself to the height of passion necessary for procreation may stretch the reader’s boggle threshold).  In Agafia he sees a sympathetic soul akin to his own (not to mention naked elbows as she works that are quite hypnotic).  She stands in contrast to Olga in not making demands on Oblomov while supplying his bodily comforts, mainly in the shape of food.  In his choice he is a better judge of character than Andrey, who looks down on Agafia and suspects her motives even though she is genuinely devoted to Oblomov, prepared to pawn her valuables when his funds dry up entirely.  With her care, and once Andrey has sorted out the corruption both at Oblomovka and closer to home and the remittances are again flowing freely, Oblomov has finally reached some kind of nirvana.

This nirvana sadly has its downside.  His lack of mobility creates a cycle of weight gain and poor health.  He refuses to heed his doctor’s advice and drinks more than he should.  At last he has a stroke, followed by another one, and dies (on his sofa naturally) of a heart attack.  It is difficult not to see Goncharov drawing a parallel between Oblomov and the sclerotic state of the Russian body politic.  Oblomov’s death really is not greatly different to his life, for all the impact his existence had on the world.  Symbolically, Goncharov is asking if the same is true of Russia.  Threaded through the examination of Oblomovitis (oblomovshchina), the term Stolz coins to describe Oblomov’s malaise, and a critical examination of the decaying aristocracy’s complacency, is a satire on government corruption and bureaucracy (Goncharov was a civil servant so would have seen it at first hand).  When current affairs come up in conversation, it is invariably other nations who are doing things.  Russia, like Oblomov himself, seems mired in somnolence.  Agafia’s brother is a corrupt government employee who loses his job when his bribe-taking is exposed by Stolz, but by the end of the novel he has managed to get his old job back and is extorting larger numbers of kopeks from his victims than before.

Oblomov may have been a failure, but the novel’s ending hints at a positive future.  When he dies there would have been few to grieve.  He has left a legacy in his son, however, and Stolz takes the child under his wing.  One knows that with Andrey’s tutelage the boy will be like him rather than Oblomov.  At their final meeting Andrey does not bother to tell Oblomov that Oblomovka is changing: the railway is coming which will give the area a new energy, new ways of working, education will change attitudes, and the sleepy life which had satisfied generations of the family will be swept away.

It is surprising how much affection the reader generates towards Oblomov when strictly speaking he is a parasite, both on those around him and on society generally.  The reader is always conscious, or should be, that his lifestyle can only be obtained at the expense of others’ labour, mainly the serfs at Oblomovka, of whom he owns (literally) 300.  One stylistic choice in this elegant translation by David Magarshack is to refer consistently to peasants rather than serfs, which mutes that aspect.  He does use the word serf in his brief introduction, in which he describes the novel as ‘a powerful condemnation of serfdom’, but the casual reader might not notice.  One wonders how Oblomov’s life would have changed after the emancipation in 1861.  The suspicion has to be that he could not have coped with this changing world, whereas his son Andrey will thrive with the new challenges as Russia drags itself into the modern world.

I think we have all met the odd Oblomov who does not engage with life and trickles along with as little exertion as possible.  Oblomovitis need not be a total personality characteristic; we can all be partial Oblomovs, procrastinating, or ignoring jobs entirely we would rather not undertake, living with a less than perfect situation instead of doing something about it.  If Oblomov were alive now he would be frittering his time watching light entertainment on television to alleviate his ennui, an activity which requires no effort.  Goncharov’s inspiration was partly the Russian nobility certainly, but Magarshack says that Oblomov cannot be considered Russian alone as there are ‘thousands’ like him all over the world.  That it is a gross underestimate, and there may be an element of him in many who feel that they are asked to pay too high a price for, in Stolz’s words, ‘Prometheus’s fire’.  Oblomov can be seen as an existentialist novel in which Oblomov demonstrates his inauthenticity by not making choices, and Goncharov has created a truly universal character.  The author inserts himself at the very end of the novel in company with Stolz, and he casts himself in a slightly Obomovian light, with his ‘apathetic face’ and ‘sleepy eyes’.  However, he writes Oblomov’s story, immediately showing that he is no Oblomov at all.

A minor footnote to this novel.  When I was in Moscow recently I went to a restaurant called ‘Oblomov’ which was a beautifully decorated establishment, with much more efficient service than its name might suggest.  There I found ‘Beef Oblomov’ on the menu so of course how could I not choose it?  It was a type of goulash and was very nice.  It is an indicator of the profile of this novel in Russia still that it should have a restaurant and a dish named after it, though I’m led to believe that nowadays it is read less than it is admired from afar.  That is a shame because we all need to be aware of, and guard against, any tendency to Oblomovitis; Goncharov shows us where it can lead.

Britain at War: Unseen Archives, by Maureen Hill

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The archives in question are the Daily Mail’s photographic collection covering the home front in Britain during the Second World War, and Maureen Hill has put together a generous selection charting the impact of those dreadful years on the population.  Britain at War’s general introduction states that some were taken to accompany news items, others to go with morale-boosting features, or as propaganda.  In practice any dividing lines between these categories would have been blurred.

The book is divided into nine chapters in roughly chronological order, each preceded by a short introduction.  The chapters have fairly self-explanatory titles: ‘The Opening Moves’; ‘The Blitz’; ‘Protecting The Home Front’; ‘In Uniform’; ‘Women in the Workforce’; ‘Don’t You Know There’s A War On?’; ‘A Wartime Childhood’; ‘Keep Smiling Through’; and ‘Victory!’  There is a degree of overlap in these but together they provide a decent coverage of the people’s war in its various facets.

A number of the images were published at the time (so not really ‘unseen’) while some fell victim to the censor, either in whole or part.  As a result of the regulatory conditions under which they were taken they need to be read carefully because they do not give a complete view of life under the stresses of war, which was not always as optimistic and unified as they suggest, references to the black market and the 1944 bus strike in the text notwithstanding.

Each photograph is accompanied by a brief caption that says something about the image itself and helps to locate it within the wider context of the conflict.  Many of the captions quote from the annotations made on the back of the prints at the time, emphasising their immediacy.  Individuals depicted are often named, which makes the photographs even more evocative: one wonders what became of them, if they survived the war, and what happened to them afterwards.

Many images were posed rather than captured on the fly but that does not diminish their effect.  The most powerful naturally are those taken during the Blitz, with the devastation wrought on London and provincial cities graphically depicted, but there is much here to evoke pride, compassion, awe, distress at the scale of the destruction, even the odd flash of amusement.

The Daily Mail had an unsavourily positive attitude towards Nazism in the 1930s (its proprietor Lord Rothermere, who died in November 1940 – in Bermuda – had been ardently pro-Hitler) but when hostilities broke out it did its bit, and its photographers compiled a remarkable archive documenting the experiences of ordinary men, women and children in those difficult years as they kept calm and carried on.

The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas D Goodman

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In Guy Lyon Playfair’s Enfield poltergeist investigation, This House is Haunted, Playfair reports: ‘I was reluctant to get involved with exorcists, as were both Maurice Grosse and Mrs Harper [i.e. Mrs Hodgson], especially in view of the dreadful Michel case in Germany…’ (1980, pp. 234-5).*  What was this German case that decided the three of them they did not want to entertain exorcists at 284 Green Street?

Anneliese Michel was born on 21 September 1952 in Leiblfing, Bavaria, part of the Federal Republic of Germany.  Her family was devoutly Catholic and Anneliese shared their religious beliefs.  Her health was poor and she had a number of blackouts and seizures in her teenage years.  She spent some time as an in-patient at a tuberculosis sanatorium, and although she had ambitions to become a teacher, her health issues disrupted her studies.  She was prescribed anti-convulsion and anti-psychosis drugs but began to experience hallucinations which had demonic overtones.  Suffering depression and with the doctors she consulted unable to provide relief, she began to see her symptoms as an expression of demonic interference.  These included the development of an episodic intolerance towards religious places and symbols.

Her family and close friends agreed with her and approached the Church for exorcism.  There was initial reluctance because of the difficulty in disentangling psychological issues from demonic possession.  However, Anneliese’s behaviour deteriorated until eventually the local bishop authorised an exorcism.  Her symptoms took a variety of forms that escalated in severity, such as difficulty walking and complaints of horrible visions, ‘fratzen’, and the hearing of voices.  There was often a burning smell in her vicinity.  Demons allegedly spoke through her in guttural voices, captured on tape.  Yet she was able to carry out automatic writing, channelling Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  They as well as saints occasionally visited her for encouragement in her travails.  One of these was Padre Pio, and Anneliese herself on occasion showed stigmata.

Sixty-seven exorcism sessions took place in secrecy over a period of some ten months in 1975 and 1976, during which time Anneliese did not seek medical assistance. A number of demons and entities were identified, Judas Iscariot and Hitler among them, but their expulsion was protracted and took an enormous toll on her physically, exacerbated by a reluctance to eat.  She died on 1 July 1976, aged 23, from malnutrition and dehydration.  By then she weighed only 4st. 12lbs. (about 31kg).

Her parents and the two priests directly involved in the exorcism were charged with negligent homicide and put on trial in March 1978.  Naturally there was intense debate over whether Anneliese’s condition was psychological or caused by demons.  As a rather gruesome sequel to Anneliese’s death, her body was exhumed just before the trial, ostensibly to provide a more expensive coffin than the cheap one she had originally been quickly buried in, but in reality because her parents thought that her body might be incorrupt, which would bolster the theological over the medical interpretation of her affliction, which was that she had been suffering mental illness.  The effort failed, Anneliese’s body having deteriorated as one would have expected.  The defendants were found guilty and each given six months’ imprisonment suspended for three years, plus costs (to its credit the prosecution had not sought punishment for Anneliese’s parents beyond a guilty verdict on the grounds that they had suffered enough).

It is not surprising that the Mrs Hodgson, Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair were reluctant to allow an exorcism at Enfield given that Anneliese Michel died as a result of hers, even though it would hardly have been as rigorous.  All that they would have known about the matter would have been what they gleaned from the trial, covered by British newspapers in lurid detail; thus the Daily Mirror of 31 March 1978 stated: ‘Anneliese had epilepsy … but two Catholic priests decided she was possessed by devils’ [ellipsis in original], and further on Father Alt, one of the two priests on trial, failed to help his case by arguing: ‘You can’t get an injection against the Devil.’

Felicitas D Goodman (1914-2005), a linguist and anthropologist, examined the case in depth in her 1981 book, using the tapes recorded by the priests during the sessions and interviewing them, Annelies’s boyfriend and her youngest sister.  As that access suggests, she is sympathetic towards the family and clergy and gives them an easy ride.  By contrast she is highly critical of the medical profession and their reliance on the prescription of medication for Anneliese, much of which may not have been necessary, and the pre-trial medical assessments that claimed one of the priests to have calcification of the brain, the other a mental illness.  She decries the verdict of the court because it accepted the expert medical opinions it had considered as having the status of fact rather than conjecture full of inferences which condemned the priests’ actions.

The family and the priests in her view were justified in not seeking medical attention, on the grounds that Anneliese would have refused the ‘brutal interference’ of medical intervention to save her life against her will, even though at the end she was in no position to make a rational decision.  Goodman concludes that the priests and parents ‘were sentenced because they allegedly had been responsible for the sick girl and had not provided medical help for her.’  It is difficult to see why that ‘allegedly’ is there.  Goodman sees Anneliese’s situation as one of self-determination which she chose to exercise even though it led to her death.  One wonders if Goodman would have had the same attitude towards anorexics who refused help.

Goodman makes a great deal of a doctor to whom Anneliese and her mother turned for help saying that she should consult a Jesuit, the implication being that even he thought there was substance to the claim that Anneliese was affected by demons.  The doctor denied making this statement, but it is easy to see how it could have occurred, someone medically trained seeing a neurotic girl with psychological problems for whom drugs were ineffective trying to tell the family that the trouble was in her head and the Church could offer more appropriate therapy for a believer.  That Anneliese may have been acting up is suggested by the language the demons are supposed to have used.  Even allowing for some censorship on Goodman’s part this seems to have been fairly mild:  ‘you damned dirty sow’ crops up a lot, suggesting either a lack of imagination on the part of the demons or a limited vocabulary of dirty words on the part of a young woman with relatively little experience of the world.

The Michels were close knit and while Anneliese’s father comes across as someone who wanted to help his daughter, Goodman does not delve into the family dynamics in any detail.  There could have been an abuse element at work, but the price for her insider privileges would have been to soft-peddle any suspicions that there was anything untoward in the home.  What is perhaps clearer is that Anneliese appears to have been a family girl, and the expectation that she would make a career may have been daunting to her.  Much of her ill health could have been a way of avoiding adult responsibilities, putting her fate in the hands of a higher power and ceding control so that she no longer had to make decisions.  If so, eventually her acting a role got out of hand, trapping her in it because a confession would have been even worse than carrying on.  Towards the end of her life she repeatedly said that the matter would resolve itself in July.  It did when she died at the beginning of the month, but it is possible she was setting the scene for the final and complete expulsion of the ‘demons’ and return to health, but her body failed her before that could happen.

Ultimately, on Goodman’s own evidence, it would seem that Anneliese was let down by all around her.  Her doctors gave up on her as intractable; her parents wanted to protect her but put their faith ahead of her welfare by not seeking medical attention when it became obvious that Anneliese herself was not in a position to make a sound judgement about her welfare; the priests’ obsession with the case as one of possession blinded them to the psychological aspect and caused them to ignore her physical deterioration.  Goodman notes that the court Opinion said that by May 1976 she had lost the capacity to make a balanced determination of what was in her best interest, and that if she had been taken to a clinic she would have survived.  If that was the case, and it seems likely it was, then at that point the decision should have been taken out of her hands.  Unfortunately for her, devout Catholicism in those around her tipped into a pathological desire to purge her of demons that completely ignored her increasing frailty.  Also, it is worth bearing in mind that in her diary Anneliese wrote on 20 October 1975 that Jesus had told her ‘You will become a great saint.’  Her family might have looked on her ordeal as having a higher purpose with which it would be sacrilegious to interfere.

Despite its bias, Goodman’s book is a sound account of Anneliese Michel’s short life and death, particularly on the trial and the characters of the priests.  It is less thorough on the family, understandable given the short time since the death and its aftermath when events were still raw, and the terms on which it was written.  She does go astray in a convoluted and unconvincing final section in which she tries to side-step the matter of Church complicity in Anneliese’s death by characterising her condition as a ‘religious altered state of consciousness’.  This is apparently generated by an extremely sensitive nervous system that allows access to a different level of reality, one as equally valid as the everyday world.

Further, a characteristic of this altered state is the generation of a religious trance, centring on performance, and exorcism extends this performative aspect for both focus and witnesses.  Possession is a form of theatre in which the ‘possessed’ individual is the centre of attention.  What Anneliese was experiencing was more in the nature of Shamanism than psychosis, but drugs were inappropriate as a means to cure her.  In fact they were worse than useless because they interfered with the exorcism’s rituals, which would have, if successful, rewired her brain by blocking pathways to her ‘pain centre’, which had become the default in her disease, and reinforcing those to her ‘pleasure centre’.

In that sense the exorcism has to be seen as a placebo that, employed alone, would have alleviated her symptoms and effected a cure.  This was an insight that perhaps the doctor who suggested the Jesuits might be able to help more than drugs could had had (Goodman bemoans the lack of an understanding of Anneliese’s Roman Catholic culture by the psychiatrists who saw her, believing that having one with such insight would possibly have led to a different medical diagnosis, but perhaps that doctor at least had more of an understanding than she realised).

In the final analysis, Goodman indicates the strong possibility that what killed Anneliese was not the negligence of those caring for her, but the extended consumption of Tegretol, a powerful drug with unpleasant side-effects unnecessarily taken in order to control seizures which had stopped before she was prescribed it, and not monitored as it should have been.  In this scenario the priests and parents were unjustly blamed, and those in the dock should have been negligent doctors.  It could be argued to the contrary that Anneliese’s problem was not a sensitive nervous system and an altered state of consciousness, it was religion itself.

 

*It is worth bearing in mind Peggy Hodgson’s reluctance to have anything to do with exorcism when watching the interviews that Janet and Margaret gave to help promote The Conjuring 2In one, Janet says in part:

‘When Ed and Lorraine come to the house, to me it felt like some sort of comfort derived for the first time in the respect that they come to try and help us.  It didn’t feel like that with anyone else visited, they just seemed to visit to see what was going on and to witness something that was happening.  But Ed and Lorraine, you felt warm and comforted that they were there to try find out what it was and how they could help you.’

This is astonishingly dismissive of Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair, who arrived at the house much earlier, spent far longer with the Hodgsons, and gave more substantial support to them than the Warrens did.  It is understandable that Janet and Margaret would want to exaggerate the Warrens’ involvement if they had a financial stake in the film (and it is good to see that they have finally made something from the story when others have profited greatly from it), but as children they would have had little say in what went on, and their mother was adamant that she did not want an exorcism.  That included involving individuals who were sanctioned by Church authorities, so it is hard to see why Mrs Hodgson would agree to do-it-yourself exorcists like the Warrens conducting one.  The Conjuring 2 falsifies history in the most basic way, and it is a shame to see Janet and Margaret complicit in its bogus assertion that the Warrens were more than the casual visitors they actually were.

Four photography books

Photographer eye cvr

Photography: A Crash Course, by Dave Yorath (2000).

Digital Photography: An Introduction, by Tom Ang (2003).

Hands-On Digital Photography: A Step-by-Step Course in Camera Controls, Software Techniques, and Successful Imaging, by George Schaub (2007).

The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos, by Michael Freeman (2007).

 

Not everybody who upgrades to a camera which goes beyond point and click, or who is contemplating ways to improve their technique, buys a brand-new photography guide, if they buy a guide at all.  Many people rely on second-hand texts that may be dated in some regards even if the basics are sound.  Below are brief comments on a selection of books published between 2000 and 2007 which in various ways present the medium to a non-specialist audience.  They presuppose little prior knowledge of photography in general or digital photography in particular, though they vary widely in complexity.

 

Photography: A Crash Course, by Dave Yorath (2000).

Billed as ‘a guided tour of the camera person’s art’, Dave Yorath’s Photography: A Crash Course is a very compact guide to the history, principles and practice of photography.  Written in an engaging style (though the jokiness may occasionally grate), it looks at the development of photography from its origins to the book’s publication in 2000.  Along the way it examines, in bite-size chunks, technological developments, famous photographers, aesthetics, the many functions of photography in both high and low culture, the relationship between art and commerce, and between photography as an expression of the public and the private.  Despite being condensed there is a great deal of information, imparted in a clear well-illustrated form.

The main drawback now, sixteen years after its first publication, is the small amount of space given to digital photography and the way the ability to take, manipulate, and publish snaps easily has increased exponentially in ways Fox Talbot could never have imagined.  Despite being slightly out of date in that respect Photography: A Crash Course still holds up well and is a handy introduction for anyone who wants to know a little more about the history behind the button on camera or phone.

 

Digital Photography: An Introduction, by Tom Ang (2003)

My edition of Digital Photography: An Introduction, by Tom Ang, was published in 2003, so it too is somewhat dated.  Topics address the basics of digital photography; ancillary equipment such as printers, scanners and computers, and how to get the best from them; and a lengthy chapter details image manipulation on the computer.  Sections on photographic techniques are relevant whatever type of camera one owns, and there are helpful hints and tips throughout.

It is generously illustrated with Ang’s own photographs and as with all Dorling Kindersley books looks very handsome.  The text discusses the subject in breadth but not in any depth; a beginner might find the technical aspects dealt with too briefly to be useful, or even fully comprehensible – notably some of the Photoshop applications; the book is a quick overview but anyone actually wanting to employ these functions would need to delve into them in more depth elsewhere.

An indication of how things have moved on since the turn of the century is the observation that ‘With a 3.3-megapixel digital camera you have really crossed over into the realms of professional-quality image-making.’ Despite the significant advances in camera technology, in many respects the digital photography scene of 2003 is much the same as it is today, but even so this edition is now out of print.  A fourth edition appeared in 2013, and earlier ones would only be worth reading if picked up cheaply.

 

Hands-On Digital Photography: A Step-by-Step Course in Camera Controls, Software Techniques, and Successful Imaging, by George Schaub (2007)

George Schaub’s Hands-On Digital Photography emerged from face-to-face courses he had run.  It is a straightforward guide to understanding and improving images, divided into three parts: ‘Understanding the digital image’, ‘in-camera controls’ and ‘software controls’, each part divided into short bite-size sections.  He has tried to make the examples of camera and software as generic as possible so that principles can be transferred to whatever kit and package the reader is using.  Each section includes exercises pitched at the beginner and the slightly more advanced user.

Of the three parts, the middle one on the camera is the longest, even though Schaub repeatedly remarks that many of the in-camera functions can be duplicated with greater control and flexibility in a computer program.  The last by contrast has been skimmed over, presumably in an effort to keep the advice general and not stray into aspects specific to a particular package; Schaub says that he is not offering a manual on how to edit an image in the computer, rather supplying broad advice on how to handle such issues as exposure, contrast and colour, and suggesting avenues for further exploration.

The language is straightforward, his examples showing how various aspects of the camera and software work are lucidly set out, and the novice will be encouraged to get to grips with the intimidating range of controls available to the modern photographer.  The benefits of shooting in raw are discussed, a format surprisingly overlooked by many photographers who fail to appreciate the flexibility it gives in the digital darkroom.   One may not always agree with Schaub’s aesthetic choices, but on a technical level this is still a good introduction for anyone taking their first DSLR from its box.

 

The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos, by Michael Freeman (2007)

In The Photographer’s Eye, Michael Freeman presents a sophisticated but clearly-expressed analysis of composition and design.  The book is divided into six chapters which build on each other.  The first looks at the frame and how it interacts with the content it is framing.  The second explores design basics, how the image’s components are organised and relate to each other.  Chapter 3 looks at the graphic elements that impose order on potential chaos and provide a satisfactory visual experience.  The fourth chapter charts their interaction with light and colour.

The penultimate chapter shifts focus from the photograph to the photographer, looking at intent, what the picture-taker’s aims are, whether conventional or challenging audience expectations, reactive to events or controlling the situation, documentary or expressive, and so on.  The final chapter concentrates on process, the steps a skilled photographer goes through, often automatically, to transfer the scene to a two-dimensional static image, thereby reducing a myriad possibilities to an ordered state in a way that obtains the maximum impact.  He draws on lessons from painting to demonstrate the different aspects of composition and looks at what other major photographers have said about the internal processes involved, adding his own insights.  As a consequence of his thorough analysis, Freeman is able to tease out what makes a strong image, one that is aesthetically pleasing and memorable.

This is a lot of ground to cover, but it is done elegantly; Freeman is critical of the jargon utilised by art experts that obfuscates more than it illuminates.  To aid the discussion some of the points are made by imposing line diagrams over photographs and he occasionally describes the steps he went through in order to arrive at the finished product on display.  The informative text is accompanied by his own excellent photographs, many taken in South-East Asia, and the quality of the production makes this a pleasure to read.

The result is a book for anyone who wishes to cultivate an eye for what makes a memorable photograph.  There is no great secret: it is a combination of experience, reflection, and a desire to improve.  If technique is automatic, more thought can go into analysing the scene to be captured until doing so becomes a reflex.  Such an approach is not a guarantee of great pictures, but it will lay the foundation to allow the photographer to improve.  In providing a comprehensive dissection of the variables to be considered, this is a valuable addition to the manuals which deal with composition.

An amusing footnote, on the need to be wary of copy editors: the caption to a photograph of a Nuba village reads in part: ‘…the real reason for having the man and child in the far top left of the frame…’ (p. 132).  However, the man is in fact holding a baby goat. Freeman would not have made the mistake because it is obvious at a glance what the man has in his arms. What must have happened is that he wrote ‘the man and kid’, and it was changed in the editorial process to child on the assumption that kid was slang and without bothering to check what was in the picture.

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