Leonardo Da Vinci

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Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster- £30.00

Leonardo’s fantasies pervaded everything he touched: his theatrical productions, plans to divert rivers, designs for ideal cities, schemes for flying machines, and almost every aspect of his art as well as engineering.

Largely due to his work, dimensionality became the supreme innovation of Renaissance art.

The portrayal of the landscape behind Lisa contains other tricks of the eye. We see it from high above, as if from a bird’s-eye view. The geological formations and misty mountains incorporate a mix, as did much of what Leonardo produced, of science and fantasy. The barren jaggedness evokes prehistoric eons, but it is connected to the present by a faint arched bridge […]. The horizon on the right side seems higher and more distant than the one on the left, a disjuncture that gives the painting a sense of dynamism. The earth seems to twist like Lisa’s torso does, and her head seems to cock slightly when you shift from focusing on the left horizon to the right horizon.

Where most biographies start with an Introduction, Leonardo Da Vinci – The Biography – a most terrific of book if ever there was one – embarks upon a list of principal characters; all of whom fall within the ‘Primary Periods of Leonardo da Vinci’s Life.’ This is then immediately followed by a colourful, four-page Timeline – which almost acts as something of an inadvertent reminder of just how much da Vinci achieved in his lifetime.

Thus by the time one has reached the actual Introduction itself (endearingly entitled ‘I Can Also Paint’), one has already gleaned an undercurrent of periodic knowledge. And if there’s one thing and one thing alone that one ought to equate with Leonardo da Vinci, it is surely knowledge.

That said, to say Walter Isaacson herein deciphers and homes in on someone who was very clearly a most complex human being, is something of the quintessential understatement.

Such a simple, albeit effective line as ”vision without execution is hallucination,” is as surely alluring from a reading perspective, as it is most profound within the parameters of da Vinci’s work itself. Might as much stem from the openness of the author’s approach throughout these thirty-three chapters; most, if not all of which, are underlined by a more than regal, sensible and what’s more, relatively current grounding: ”[…] when Steve Jobs climaxed his product launches with an image of streets signs showing the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. Leonardo was his hero. ”He saw beauty in both art and engineering,” Jobs said, ”and his ability to combine them was what made him a genius.”

Moreover, one does feel the need to openly admit that such grounding is as equally aligned with daring, as the very first of the above three opening quotes – with regards Leonardo’s technical fantasies – ought surely substantiate.

After all, such daring is itself immediately clarified by the following, wherein Isaacson writes: ”His letter to the ruler of Milan is an example, since his military engineering skills then existed mainly in his mind. His initial role at the court was not building weapons but conjuring up festivals and pageants. Even at the height of his career, most of his fighting and flying contraptions were more visionary than practical.”

I do indeed rather like the author’s use of the word ‘contraptions,’ which again, focuses on the subject’s potentiality, as opposed to a seemingly fawning conglomeration of all that da Vinci achieved throughout his lifetime. As such, these 525 pages (excluding Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Sources, extensive Notes, Illustration Credits and Index) are just as much an appreciation of Leonardo da Vinci’s life, as they are a chronological re-telling.

Suffice to say, there’s an entire chapter devoted to The Mona Lisa which is as equally revelatory as it is informed.
If not scientific in description.

Throughout the chapter, Isaacson bequeaths both the reader as well as the art lover, with oodles to ponder upon. Not to mention, continue thinking about: ”Covering Lisa’s hair is a gossamer veil, worn as a mark of virtue (not mourning), which is so transparent that it would be almost unnoticeable were it not for the line it makes across the top of her forehead. Look carefully at how it drapes loosely over her hair near her right ear; it is evident that Leonardo was meticulous enough to paint the background landscape first and then used almost transparent glazes to paint the veil over it […]. Depicting veils came naturally to Leonardo. He had a fingertip feel for the elusive nature of reality and the uncertainties of perception. Understanding that light hits multiple points on the retina, he wrote that humans perceive reality as lacking razor-sharp edges and lines; instead, we see everything with a sfumato-like softness of the edges. This is true not only of the misty landscapes stretching out to infinity; it applies even to the outlines of Lisa’s fingers that seem so close we think we can touch them. We see everything, Leonardo knew, through a veil.”

That Isaacson’s previous books, among others, include Steve Jobs, Einstein: His Life and Universe, A Benjamin Franklin Reader and Kissinger: A Biography; one invariably knows one is in good academic, if not well researched company whilst reading this most audacious and engaging of biographies. Along with a menagerie of colour plates, reproductions and r-produced diagrams throughout, Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography is a veritable treasure-trove of literary finesse, analyses and a whole lot more besides.

David Marx

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I Love You Leo A

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I Love You Leo A
By Rosa Aneiros
Small Stations Press

     And stay close to groups of women unless you want to spend the whole journey being          ogled like a piece of merchandise! Discretion has never been their strong point!

Part travelogue, part resolute reflection on the human condition, I Love You Leo A is a harmless and enjoyable enough read; but once you’ve reached the end, that’s essentially it. You’ve reached the end.

There’s no literary after thought. Nothing that fundamentally lingers in the mind. Nothing that compels one to re-visit the varying travels and thoughts our protagonist Leo has embarked on; which is okay, although I personally rather enjoy being touched or moved by what I’ve just read.

To be sure, the two main things I came away with having read these 263 pages, was: who was responsible for daubing ”I love You Leo A” on the various walls and flyovers amid Leo’s travels, and, perhaps more interestingly, a brave and altogether vivid portrayal of Istanbul towards the latter part of the book:

”This is the real Istanbul. The Istanbul of contradictions. A combination, sometimes tense, sometimes so natural it’s strange, of modern and ancient. Decadence and technology meet and sometimes give way to conflict[…]. They can’t help feeling nostalgic for their sultans and their leadership of the Eastern Mediterranean, and yet they want to be a real bridge between Asia and Europe. Tradition weighs down too heavily for them to advance, and yet they don’t want to do away with their own history and customs so they can be accepted as another group of Europeans.”

Having lived in a predominantly Turkish neighbourhood of Berlin, I can honestly vouch that all of the above is resoundingly true. Turks do not ”want to do away with their own history and customs.” As such – well in Berlin at least – they’re absolutely not ”accepted as another group of Europeans.”

That said, what truly jumped out of this book, was authoress, Rosa Aneiros, coming totally clean with the following (with regards to Istanbul): ”The black market is too lucrative a business for policemen and officials to pass up. Blackmail and corruption are an everyday occurrence.”

So there you have it: only read this book if you (really) want to know what makes Istanbul tick. Other than that, you’ll probably find I Love You Leo A somewhat forgettable.

David Marx

 

Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare –
Place, ”Race,” Politics
By Shaul Bassi
Palgrave Macmillan 

It is certain that, without Machiavelli, Shakespeare’s tragic theatre would not have been the same.

          (‘Neocon and Theoprog: The New Machiavellian Moment’)

We should continue to insist that race is less a property of an individual or group than a cultural and political process with no basis in science (pace the current obsession with genetics). As a consequence, there is no contradiction in dropping”race” as a noun while keeping all its morphological variants that point to it as a process and a relation: racism, racist, racial, racialization, and raciology. Concurrently, to investigate human difference in Shakespeare, we may start making a better use of the less compromised and more nuanced category of ethnicity.

          (‘Iago’s Race, Shakespeare’s Ethnicities’)

William Shakespeare has always been relevant, and this occasionally hard hitting book ensures that perhaps now, today, more than ever. Reason being, I’m hard pressed to think of a particular era in my lifetime, where racism was so devoutly entrenched at the forefront of the everyday. Especially within the wide-open expanse of such varying and inflammatory portals where social media – which, lest it be said, we all partake in on an almost daily basis – plays such a resolute part.

A medium, where let’s face it, there can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that an entire array of Iagos’ await to condemn and criticize; way beyond any reasonable doubt where racism, is jut as ugly and festering a cancer today, as it has ever been. One need only behold the prime influential cancer growth that is Donald Trump – the President of the United States of America no less – who, for whatever vile and vindictive implication, remains as openly and acutely racist, as it is humanely possible to be.

In all, we live in profoundly dangerous, incendiary times, of which Trump (very closely followed by his many mortals in crime) is doing his up-most-best, to further instil and promote an already volatile society. A society, where the afore quoted ”racism, racist, racial, racialization and raciology” appears to be flourishing un-checked to such a worrying degree, that it is nigh out of control. And if it isn’t out of control, it’s dire, deplorable trajectory appears to have most certainly been (fully) embraced by Britain’s purveyors of Brexit; which, given the full title of this book, triggers the thinking as to where William Shakespeare might have stood on the fiasco that is Brexit.

Furthermore, were one to hurl the likes of Italy’s Niccolo Machiavelli into the equation – which this most simmering of an evocative book does more than handsomely – one ought to indelibly know that one is in for one hell of a literary read.

To be sure, as such is already made abundantly clear in the ‘Introduction: Country Dispositions’ where Shaul Bassi writes: ”This experimental set of readings aims to ask what special relations might obtain between the Italy of Shakespeare and the Italy of a certain line of modern thought, as mediated above all by the work of Machiavelli. Capitalizing on these critical orientations, Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare examine aspects that have remained largely unexplored, arguing that the productive dialogue between the early modern and the postmodern […] can be usefully supplemented by a consideration of key moments of the long pre- and post-independence history of Italy, a country that at the time of Shakespeare was a mosaic of disparate political entities and that only in the nineteenth century, when Shakespeare was first imported into Italian culture, became a unified state.”

Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare – Place, ”Race,” Politics, is a totally clear-cut analyses of that which its title purports to; although it does need to be stressed that it is the most timely pertinence with which it has been written, which fundamentally accounts for its rather unfortunate, albeit current relevance: ”[…] in contemporary Europe, a continent that is increasingly multiethnic but also socially deteriorating and fragile, where the foreigner, especially if her religion or skin colour is different from the majority, is liable to become a convenient scapegoat”’ (‘Fixed Figures: The Other Moors Of Venice’) – my italics.

The whole idea of the ‘scapegoat,’ is what surely describes today’s (predominantly) Western society at best, that, if noting else, is just one of the many, many reasons these 201 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Bibliography and Index) warrant both reading and embracing.

David Marx

 

A History of Modern French Literature

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A History of Modern French Literature –
From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century
Edited by Christopher Prendergast
Princeton University Press – £41.95

”In Shakespeare’s time ”century” didn’t mean a hundred years; it meant a hundred of anything […]. As for the French term siecle, this didn’t originally mean a hundred years either.”

               (‘Introduction 1’)

There is a certain irony in the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is celebrated as the inventor of modern autobiography. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau was obsessed with origins, and he offered in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men) one of the most influential accounts of natural man ever written.

               (‘Rousseau’s First Person’)

To describe this book as an exceedingly well analysed and tantalizing tomb of French induced, literary depth, might initially appear as something of a detriment to not only the book, but also the vast complexity of French literature itself. Reason being, it is so much more than that which the title might initially suggest. As it’s also a historical, as well as philosophical analyses on the subject; which, in and of itself, has more of a complex trajectory than one would ever care to fully comprehend.

As Michael Wood, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University has since been noted as saying: ”This is a tremendous achievement, bringing into a single volume much of the best writing and thinking on French literature that is currently available anywhere.”

Can’t really argue with that, as most of its 652 pages (excluding a List of Contributors, Acknowledgements and Index) are a quintessential revelation in themselves; just as the book’s editor, Christopher Prendergast, nigh substantiates in Introduction (I): ”I have already used the word ”glimpse” in connection with one of the contributions. The term could be generalised to encompass the whole book as a collection of glimpses, angled and partial snapshots (which, with variations of scale, is all history can ever be). On the other hand, it is not just an assortment of self-framing windows onto the French literary-historical world. It’s unfolding describes, if in patchwork and fragmentary form, the arc of a story centered on the nexus of language, nation and modernity.”

A History of Modern French Literature – From the Sixteenth Century to the Twentieth Century is a book which one can obviously read from beginning to end; but it’s also a book that can be dipped into at random – as if a most inviting reference work.

For instance, Wes Williams’ third chapter ‘Marguerite de Navarre – Renaissance Woman‘ opens with enough inviting and informative information, one is simply enticed to want to read more: ”Sometimes described as the ”first modern woman,” Marguerite de Navarre occupies an extraordinary place in French Renaissance culture. Commonly referred to simply as ”Marguerite,” in part because of the secondary meaning of the name as ”pearl,” she was, as well as sister to King Francois I, a skilled political operator in her own right, working to effect change within the French court and on the wider European stage.”

Likewise, Christopher Braider’s seventh chapter ‘Moliere, Theater, and Modernity,’ which begins: ”The classical tragedians of seventeenth-century France are routinely said to have invented the modern stage. A key element was the three ”unities” extrapolated from Aristotle’s Poetics, demanding that a play’s action unfold within a single natural day; be confined to a single, readily identifiable place; and exhibit the logical consistency required to convey an air of internal natural necessity and coherence.”

To be sure, almost all of the book’s thirty chapters begin and intrigue with that of a similar persuasion; which, to once again quote Princeton’s Michael Wood, accounts for A History of Modern French Literature being ”highly readable and full of energetically pursued arguments […], it will last for a long time, precisely because its notions of history are so flexible and imaginative.”

Indeed, if nothing else, this book almost underlines the fact that the history of literature, can only benefit from disciplined speculation with regards the possibilities of the past.

Once again, Christopher Prendergast reasserts as much mid-way through ‘Aims, Methods, Stories,’ when he writes: ”[…] the loss of the historical sense as that which demands that we try to understand and appreciate the past (here the literary past) on its terms rather than our own, while remaining aware that we can never fully see the past from the point of view of the past. On the other hand, if the past is another country, it is not another planet, nor are its literary and other idioms, for us, an unintelligible babble.”

The book commences in the sixteenth century with the formation of a modern national literary consciousness, and ends in the late twentieth century with the idea of the national coming increasingly into question; especially with regards both the inadvertent as well as the inherited meaning of what being French actually means, beyond the geographical border(s) of mainland France itself.

As such, A History of Modern French Literature is as compelling, engaging and uncompromising as that of a lot of the actual subject matter itself.

David Marx

 

The Nobel Lecture

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The Nobel Lecture
By Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster – £9.99

It ought to go without much saying or convincing, that Bob Dylan never really ceases to both surprise and confound.

That he has always subscribed to the following of his own star, is one thing. That he has always continued to do so by fundamentally, not to mention inexorably and totally doing his own thing – regardless of what anyone else thinks, wants or believes – is surely just one of the facets which accounts for his undeniable genius and longevity.

Lets face it, the current US President Donald Trump, is essentially doing his own thing; but he’s an utterly vile and soulless, talentless, racist idiot of the first degree. Reason I mention this is because there does have to come a point where doing one’s own thing is, and has to be accounted for – especially within the bigger picture. And so far as the bigger picture is concerned, Dylan has been around long enough to idiosyncratically garner and warrant far more chutzpah induced respect, than say the likes of Trump, who’s a similar age, could ever muster in another hundred thousand lifetimes.

Moreover, it’s no surprise Dylan hardly gave too much of his own game away during his (eventual) acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 (in Stockholm, Sweden): ”When I received the Nobel Prize for literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.”

The Nobel Lecture is a cute and altogether concise little book of a mere 23 pages, which captures Dylan’s speech in its entirety; wherein he regales his admiration for Buddy Holly and Leadbelly, along with three books of clearly profound and major influence: Moby-Dick, The Odyssey and All Quiet On The Western Front.

All three of which he touches on in such a way as only Dylan can, although it is the latter, which to my mind at least, lends a whole lot of gravitas to a great deal of his early work in particular: ”Who knows how long this mess will go on? Warfare has no limits. You’re being annihilated, and that leg of yours is bleeding too much. You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse. You told him after this is over, you’ll spend the rest of your life looking after his family. Who’s profiting here? The leaders and the generals gain fame, and many others profit financially. But you’re doing the dirty work. One of your comrades says, ”Wait a minute, where are you going?” And you say, ”Leave me alone, I’ll be back in a minute.” Then you walk out into the woods of death hunting for a piece of sausage. You can’t see how anybody in civilian life has any kind of purpose at all. All their worries, all their desires – you can’t comprehend it.”

Indeed, it is exceedingly hard to comprehend.
Just as it is almost impossible to come to terms with what’s currently going on in the US and UK today. That said, The Nobel Lecture does a terrific job in shedding a tiny shred of light upon one of the most pertinent, inquisitive and brilliant minds the world has ever known.

It it any wonder Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature?

David Marx

Sticky Fingers

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Sticky Fingers –
The Life and Times of Jann Wenner
By Joe Hagan
Canongate – £25.00

As your company was failing (again) and as a special favour (Two Virgins was first), I gave you an interview, which was to run one time only, with all rights belonging to me. You saw fit to publish a book of my work, without my consent – in fact, against my wishes, having told you many times on the phone, and in writing, that I did not want a book, an album or anything else made from it.

               John Lennon (‘Temptation Eyes’)

It was so clear, and he didn’t care at all what kind of attention he got. He didn’t care if it was negative or positive, as long as he got attention.

                Jane Kenner (‘Atlantis’).

I have to absolutely embark on this review by initially giving full marks to Joe Hagan for his top-notch, soaring honesty.

In Sticky Fingers – The Life and Times of Jann Wenner, he really has done an outstanding job in researching, writing and accounting for an (astoundingly) open thesis on someone, who, for all intents and egotistical purposes, really doesn’t sound like a particularly nice fella.

There again, much, if not most of the music industry is essentially riddled with unpleasant people. And that, to be sure, is putting it mildly.

I could, like John Lennon, describe the music industry as being full of cunts – but one does like to keep ones option(s) somewhat open by not tarnishing every smug and self-serving, totally dishonest and free-loading Judas with the same sacrosanct brush as Simon Cowell – or any array of others, who between them, have triggered irreparable, cancer induced damage into popular music.
Popular music as we once knew (and revered it) that is.
But that’s another story.

Amid these 511 pages (excluding Notes, Selected Biography and Notes), Hagan tells the annoying, semi-saccharine, yet highly exasperating story of how Jann Wenner became the infamous editor of Rolling Stone.

A man for whom the term the good, the bad and the ugly was surely devised.

Reason being, does Hagan ever regale as much- or what?
Already in the Prologue, he writes: ”[…] at its base, Rolling Stone was an expression of Wenner’s pursuit of fame and power. He reinvented celebrity around youth culture, which equated confession and frank sexuality with integrity and authenticity. The post 1960s vision of celebrity meant that every printed word of John Lennon’s unhappiness and everything Bob Dylan said or did now had the news primacy of a State of the Union address. It meant that Hunter Thompson could make every story he ever wrote, in essence, about himself. It also meant that climbing into bed with Mick Jagger was only worth doing if you had a Nikon handy. Self-image was the new aphrodisiac.”

One cannot help but wonder how Wenner himself might actually feel about (a lot of) what’s written herein being published. One can only surmise that he has some kind of rawhide skin, that is surely thicker than that of the likes of Stalin.
Or that which ought to be allowed…
For instance, how might he feel upon reading the following, which was said by Bill Graham – ”the thick-browed Holocaust refugee turned rock promoter who was regularly demonized as a ”profiteer” in Wenner’s newspaper” – to Rolling Stone writer Tim Cahill, ‘: ”Let me tell you something about the dishonest, slimy little paper you work for, mister, and that…evil…slimy little cunt, your editor. There are only a few people I’d like to take out to the street and kick the shit out of […].”

Having met Bill Graham whilst living in New York, I do have to say he struck me as a very reasonable sort of fellow. Opinionated maybe, and never short of a word or two; but quintessentially fair-minded and bullshit free. So I am inclined to wonder what, other than the profiteering quip, Wenner might have done to warrant such wrath.

Suffice to say, one beckons for things to resolutely be told as they’re resolutely meant to be told; and so far as Sticky Fingers is concerned, there really is no beating about any literary bush. None whatsoever.

If the above opening quote – which is an actual letter Lennon wrote to Wenner – isn’t enough to endeavour coming to terms with (let alone live down), then how about the following, which surely substantiates Lennon’s anger: ”Before the Lennon interview was published, Wenner told Alan Rinzler that ”Lennon Remembers” might make a great book and that Rinzler should ”put it up for bids” once the interview was published. But there was one little problem: John Lennon had specifically said he didn’t want the interview published anywhere but Rolling Stone. In fact, Lennon told Wenner that he owned the interview. And Wenner had agreed. Rinzler waved away the promise, unmoved by Wenner’s handshake deal. He told Wenner that the book was a surefire moneymaker for the 1971 holiday season, mentioning a publisher that would offer big money for the book rights.”

As the late great Kurt Vonnegut used to say: ”and so it goes.,” on and on and on and on, throughout all twenty-four chapters (spread across Books I, II and III) of dire discrepancy and rock’n’roll revelation.

A certain facet of revelation, which, if you really think about it, makes for terrific, tittle-tattle type reading on the one hand; although profoundly disturbing reading on the other.

Either way, compliments to the author.

David Marx

Flanders – Northern Belgium

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Flanders – Northern Belgium
By Emma Thomson
Bradt Guides – £15.99

According to Michael Palin ”Bradt Guides are expertly written and longer on local detail than any others,” which, at the end of the day, I cannot help but agree with.

Having recently spent a fair bit of time in the Zeebrugge area of West Flanders, I was looking for a guide book that would indeed shed assorted, if not detailed light on some of surrounding area(s); primarily that which could be reached via the coastal tram which runs from one end of the Belgium coast to the other.

Beginning in Knokke-Heist near the Dutch border, said Kusttram runs the entire 68 km (42 miles), all the way to De Panne – which nigh touches the French border. As the authoress Emma Thomson writes in chapter six (‘West Flanders’): ”De Lijn operates a cheap-as-chips (or should that be frites?) tram service that visits over 70 destinations […]. Trams run every 20 minutes during winter and every ten minutes in summer.”

Whilst in Zeebrugge, I do have to say, De Lijn was my gateway to the coast, which in and of itself, incorporates a menagerie of quaint seaside towns. One I invariably visited was Blankenberg, on which Thomson writes: ”Blankenberg is to Flanders, what Blackpool is to north-west England. During summer, the coast’s second largest town is filled with noisy bars and restaurants and it’s 350m-long seafront crowded with people. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a good place for kids thanks to a clutch of animal-themed attractions and the huge range of sports on offer.”

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the Blackpool comparison – there’s no-where near as many loud-mouthed, Jeremy Kyle types, while the streets aren’t paved with puke. That said, I do rather like the fact that Flanders – Northern Belgium didn’t skirt around the area, if not avoid Blankenberg altogether – like so many other Belgian guides.

To be sure, there was even a ”what to see and do” section on the (small) town – replete with phone numbers, addresses, prices and hours of opening. A mighty handy check-list that is a feature running throughout these 338 pages (excluding colour photographs, Author’s Story, Acknowledgements, List of Maps, Introduction, Appendix one to four and Index) as a whole.

So in all, the aforementioned Palin is right in stating that Bradt Guides are ”longer on local detail than any others.”

Along with a friendly tonality of writing – which essentially endeavoured to pin-point what one (usually) always wants to know – I found this particular guide more than helpful and informative.

David Marx