Though cozier than my usual bedtime stories, if you love books, cats and mysteries more cerebral than chilling, Code Grey belongs on your bookshelf. This novel ticked the first two boxes for me (books and cats… I would have liked more chill factor).
Simon is a prolific author specializing in cat-themed mysteries. This is the ninth installment of the Dulcie Schwartz series. Schwartz, a grad student working on her dissertation over spring break, gets caught in the middle of a book theft, a wrongful arrest and receives guidance from a deceased companion animal....more
From Oxford University Press comes the most detailed account of Christian Reconstructionism I’ve come across. In fact, I hadn’t heard of many of the major players in Ingersoll’s insider account. Rousas John Rushdoony? Cornelius Van Til?
The names may be unfamiliar, but their influence lives on in the policies of the Tea Party and the Christian Right.
Ingersoll has a singular view of Reconstructionism. Now a professor of religious studies, she was once a pro-life activist and married into one of Reconstruction’s most influential families. Building God’s Kingdom is neither an outsider’s critique nor an escapee’s expose. From her unique perspective, Ingersoll offers a deep, honest look at the history of the belief, its adherents and rather than editorializing, she lets the movement’s leaders speak for themselves.
This is a fascinating, enlightening read that taught me new things and inspired me to research them on my own. Perusing the teachings of Rushdoony, his continued influence on faith-based politics is apparent.
This thorough study should adorn the nightstand of anyone interested in the intersection of politics and religion....more
Until recently, I’d never given much thought to 120 Days. It was one of those books that remains a cultural point of reference, and as a classic of transgressive fiction, I knew it was something I should peruse someday. But, well, it didn’t really strike me as a must-read. Certainly, nothing penned in the 1700s could still be shocking today. Then two years ago I read Georges Bataille’s essay on de Sade in Literature and Evil. Then I watched the film translation, Salò, which, despite its reputation, is like a PG-13 version of the book. This is not because Salò is tame (it is one of the most troubling films ever made), but because 120 Days is so beyond anything that could be recreated on screen. So where to begin when discussing this notorious tome?
Tell-Tale Transgressions Bataille may have said it best, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome without feeling sick.” This, from the author of The Story of the Eye (which, if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP). The Story of the Eye is an absurd tale of ovular fixation, blasphemy and transgressive eroticism. In it, the narrator and his teenage lover embark on a journey of extreme sexual awakenings. There are blood orgies, spree murders, gratuitous body fluids and a gleeful desecration of the eucharist. But in both content and exhaustiveness, it’s a viral kitten video compared to de Sade. Bataille is right. There are some brutally sickening moments in 120 Days. I recoiled more than a few times, and might have even thrown up in my mouth a little. This is not good reading before dinner, as the book’s “heroes” have an insatiable taste for excrement. However, though it can be thoroughly unsettling at times, for the most part my response was laughter while reading 120 Days. I was enthralled with the prose, appalled by the brutality and intellectually challenged by the philosophy, yet laughing out loud throughout. What other response is there to a purported sexual fantasy of screwing a goat via the nostrils in order that its tongue can work the undercarriage? You have to laugh, because you just can’t take an anecdote like that at face value. It is these moments that temper the more gruesome scenes. The outrageousness of it creates a buffer for the reader. It’s like that groan-moment in a horror film when the monster is finally revealed in all its plastic-prop foolishness. In her essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir offers a more sophisticated analysis: “Not only does he tell tall stories, but most of the time he tells them badly.” Agreed. Does de Sade really expect us to suspend disbelief when a local aristocrat pays a hooker to be dipped in shit so he can lick her clean, head to toe? I was much more disturbed by transgressive classics like Lolita and Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, both of which employ a rational tone that is far more upsetting than the description of their exploits. But let’s return to de Sade. What about 120 Days’ plot and characters? It was surprising to me that, despite the book being a cultural touchstone, despite the author having an entire genre of sex and a commonly used adjective named for him, I had no idea what 120 Days was actually about. Consider it the Winter of Disquiet. In a remote castle, a quartet of wealthy, powerful men indulge their darkest Libertine desires. To assist them are four experienced prostitutes/brothel madames, a handful of servants, hired studs (selected for their endowment) and a harem of kidnapped children, elderly women and the Libertine’s own daughters. It does not end well for most of them. Each day, one of the prostitutes tells five tales of her most interesting clients, in ascending levels of depravity. Afterward, the Libertines act out the stories on their captives, each page more horrifying than the last. Think you’ve got a dirty mind because you read 50 Shades of Grey? Please. 120 Days makes 50 Shades look like a Disney picture book. By the way, what’s with all the numbers? De Sade was methodical in outlining the book, and the numbers are very important here. The 120 days are divided into four 30-day sections, each showcasing one of the prostitute story-tellers. They tell 150 stories apiece, so altogether there are 600 sexual acts performed in the book. However, only the first 30 days were actually drafted (the tales of Madame Duclos). The unfinished manuscript was lost when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. (While the remaining 90 days and 450 sex acts were never fleshed out in narrative, de Sade meticulously outlined the entire book, so each of the sex acts, as well as the full plotline and character arcs, are described.) Supposedly, de Sade’s obsession with numbers played out in his real-world rendezvous as much as in his fiction, and, according to Bataille, “His own stories are also full of measurements.” In a story told by one of the many prostitutes he frequented, he savored the lashings of the whip, but hurried to record how many blows he had received when it was finished. De Beauvoir weighed in on this anecdote: “What was peculiar in his case was the tension of a will bent on fulfilling the flesh without losing itself in it. “He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature,” she adds, “he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.” Despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.
Marquis de Moralist Let’s begin the reckoning with de Beauvoir, whose essay, “Must We Burn Sade?”, is arguably the greatest critical account of 120 Days. She writes of de Sade, “...though not a consummate artist or a coherent philosopher, he deserves to be hailed as a great moralist.” There’s a lot to unpack in that conclusion. De Sade’s enduring legacy is having sexual cruelty named in his honor. His definitive work is an epic of non-stop debasement, dismemberment, torture, rape and murder. De Sade was imprisoned more than once for acting out some of these fantasies on prostitutes. How does he make the leap from monster to moralist? There is something in de Sade’s philosophy that predicts Nietzsche. Human nature has a cruel streak, but rather than dividing us, it creates a de facto relationship between sadist and victim. This relationship exists prior to and outside of moral or utilitarian judgements. Opinions may be imposed a posteriori, but de Sade is more concerned with the relationship itself — the moment the whip kisses flesh, without the labels of good and evil, in what Sartre would call the unreflective consciousness. This is where we must consider the Marquis. He developed his philosophy, de Beauvoir writes, in his youth, when the young aristocrat realized that his sexual appetites deviated from the norm. But he did not wish to be an outsider. “The immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community,” she writes. I won’t pretend to fully grasp all of de Beauvoir’s reasoning (and recommend you read the source material for yourself), but my takeaway from her essay is that the body limits freedom of the mind and prevents connections between people (what Bataille would call discontinuous beings). This distance robs others of their individuality and leaves us indifferent to one another. To accept this indifference would be lazy. And it must be said that though the kill count in 120 Days is high, each death itself is singular. The uniqueness of each murder gives meaning to the flesh of its victim. This sets up a curious tension within de Sade’s narrative. Curval, a judge whose greatest pleasure came from sending innocent men to the gallows (and one of the novel’s four “heroes”), makes the following observation: “What the devil difference can it make to Nature whether there are one, ten, twenty, five hundred more or fewer human beings on earth?” This sets him at odds with the prostitute-storyteller, Duclos, who, though she dutifully relates her 150 tales, says, “...there is an almost unavoidable monotony in the recital of such anecdotes; all compounded, fitted into the same framework, they lose the luster that is theirs as independent happenings.” This is a philosophy that would evolve through de Sade’s later writings. Though he wrote 120 Days prior to the Reign of Terror, seminal works such as Juliette, Philosophy in the Bedroom, The Crimes of Love and the third and final version of Justine were written following the Terror. In these books, de Sade revolted against the depersonalization of mass murder. As de Beauvoir explains, “It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings.” Rationalized or self-righteous murder, particularly in large, indiscriminate quantities, was not to be tolerated. Neither would the neutrality that left one’s conscience clean whilst atrocities took place. “Is it not better to assume the burden of evil than to subscribe to this abstract good which drags in its wake abstract slaughters?” de Beauvoir writes. The key phrase here is “burden of evil.” It’s not enough to act good or to avoid doing “evil.” It would be irresponsible to deny the dark side of our nature, and the consequences of willful ignorance are bloody. She adds, “He was sure, in any case, that a man who was content with whipping a prostitute every now and then was less harmful to society than a farmer-general.” This is the brilliance of de Beauvoir writ large. Whether or not you agree with de Sade’s philosophy, de Beauvoir cuts through the complexity and offers coherence the narrative lacked. In one of philosophy’s more mind-blowing, yet erudite passages, she concludes that de Sade was a moralist for the simple fact that, “He chose cruelty rather than indifference.”
Voice of the Victim Bataille takes a particular interest in de Sade’s use of language. What is the Marquis really saying with his fiction? What is he truly revealing about himself? On the one hand, 120 Days is about logical consequences. In a subversive twist on Kant’s categorical imperative, his characters strictly pursue Libertine philosophy to its logical end. This is the place where all dogmas and ideologies fail. Belief systems (be they moral, religious or political) belie their logic when strictly enforced and universally applied. The Libertine philosophy of living by no moral constraints, in particular, is on shaky ground. “One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based,” Bataille writes in Eroticism. Libertinism is a self-defeating philosophy. De Sade revels in its fictitious excesses, which Bataille views as paradoxical: “...de Sade’s sovereign man has no actual sovereignty; he is a fictitious personage whose power is limited by no obligations.” (Without going too far into the weeds, he means the sovereign man is dependent on the subjects who consent to his rule. Absolute power requires no consent, which negates its sovereignty. I think. It’s complicated.) Let’s bring this philosophy back to the level of language. Bataille observes something curious in de Sade’s narrative, which I missed in my read. Despite appearances, when his “heroes” speak, de Sade’s protagonists use the language of the victim. “In this way they fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists,” he writes. “If such people had really lived, they would probably have lived in silence.” Violence is deed, not words. Words are the realm of the victim, “the ground of the moral man to whom language belongs.” (The song goes “Give peace a chance.” Nobody’s ever had to make a PSA to promote violence. It propagates itself.) As a result, de Sade is not writing about violence, but rather “a reflecting and rationalized will to violence.” Bataille admits that reading de Sade is no easy task, both because of the content and the layers of complexity. His preference, he writes, is not to converse with de Sade’s champions, but rather with “people who are revolted by him.” Enlightenment is not all puppies and rainbows, in other words. To confront reality is to assume de Beauvoir’s “burden of evil.” It is accepting the full spectrum of human capability. “And if today the average man has a profound insight into what transgression means for him, de Sade was the one who made ready the path,” Bataille writes. “Now the average man knows that he must become aware of the things which repel him most violently — those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature.” De Sade shed light on our violent impulses and how they can become tangled up with sexuality and liberation. He posed a moral challenge that continues to trouble anyone confronted with his work. I cede the final word on that to de Beauvoir, who nails the legacy of de Sade and why his work is still relevant today. “The supreme value of his testimony lies in its ability to disturb us,” she writes. “It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man.”...more
From the opening essay in Exposure, you will laugh (a lot) and you will cringe (occasionally). Which is appropriate. After all, this is a book about porn — that laugh- and cringe-inducing industry of id. It’s the shadow market force that accelerates tech innovation and the economy as surely as it does libidos, and both mirrors and molds our culture in more ways than we realize.
Once relegated to shady theaters and sticky arcades, porn is now a billion-dollar business with crossover into the mainstream. Still, a stigma remains, and new hang-ups have emerged along with new media.
Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist specializing in gender, sex and media, is our guide through present-day Porn Valley in this collection of anecdotes, theories and observations from her decade-plus of researching the industry.
Tibbals is a prolific writer and commentator. In Exposure, she only skims the surface of her academic research, but you can find much of it online (and I highly recommend you do). Here, she gives us the broad strokes of the industry. Her essays raise more questions than they answer, and that’s the point. Pornography impacts us on many levels, and our relationship with it gets knotted up with our needs, values and feelings on gender, politics and social mores. Untangling these knots is beyond the scope of a single book.
Instead, Tibbals reveals the human side of adult entertainment that will reframe the way you think about the business — not in a judgemental way, but an intellectual one.
Tibbals traces her foray into porn scholarship to a provocative streak and a rejection of unscientific generalizations about adult entertainment. Sadly, she discovered this short-sightedness had infiltrated academia when her graduate advisor belittled her dissertation topic. However, this rebuke only further entrenched her scientific curiosity.
“Porn was capable of making people lose their common sense, analytic skills, and composure,” she writes. “It could scramble the smartest, most educated of brains. And that was it for me. I was hooked — porn for life.”
But it was more than the thrill of the maverick driving her interest. She was also fascinated with her own fear of pornography, which, once she delved deeper into the topic, she realized was actually a fear of “the socially constructed idea of it.”
Some of Tibbals’ finest work is when she’s exploring the meta-space between real and fantasy — real actors with fake personas having real sex presented as fantasy. What impact does this have on the performers? It’s complicated, of course, but the important thing is that Tibbals poses the question in a way that humanizes the participants.
Talk shows flock to porn-star tragedies and draw broad conclusions. Tibbals considers each performer as an individual being. One such star is Joanna Angel, a Rutgers graduate who runs her own production company and stars in its films. Tibbals found one of Angel’s more hardcore flicks to be both intense and empowering.
“It showed an educated woman business owner in control of exactly the kind of sex she wanted, all in order to make exactly the kind of creative product she wanted to sell.”
In her survey of the genre, Tibbals challenges her own assumptions of empowerment and exploitation. In spending time with performers and their fans at conventions, she confronts a complicated culture that she describes as “the strangest mix of human adoration and disgust.” There are earnest and endearing fans, but also stalkers, self-righteous assholes and seemingly well-intended folks who unconsciously break social norms (asking intimate questions or making lewd comments) simply because of the perceived intimacy they have with the performer.
And of course there are the insecure misogynists who simultaneously desire and degrade the women they adore, often in a flurry of bipolar comments (“I love you”/”You’re a whore”) on social media. As though porn actors didn’t have enough detractors on the outside, they also suffer the abuse of so-called fans who “slut-shame” them online.
And it’s not just anti-porn activists and misogynists who get in on the action. Media exploitation of the industry is as pernicious and predatory as it accuses Porn Valley of being.
Take as an example the recent documentary Hot Girls Wanted, which I enjoyed but which ultimately disappointed when it devolved into a patriarchal rescue narrative. The lead subject, Tressa, willingly and knowingly pursues a career in porn, but is infantilized by the documentarians. She starts dating a guy who is aware of what she does for a living, but then he whines about how her career is hurting him. He implores her to give up her job for him. Were you to replace “porn star” with any other occupation — say “ER surgeon” — the jealous, insecure boyfriend would be, at best, an unsympathetic character, if not an outright villain.
In Hot Girls Wanted, though, he is the white knight.
But don’t take my word for it. Tibbals happened to write a fantastic review for Uproxx, which explains the film’s failings far better than I could.
I have long been fascinated with this bizarro intersection of pornography, feminism and media, and Exposure did not disappoint. This book is proof of the importance of porn scholarship, and Tibbals’ is a welcome and needed voice in the field....more
Where was this book when I was growing up? Surely an elementary teacher mentioned the existence of colonies beyond the famous 13 in history class, but they apparently didn’t make much of a dent in the syllabus. Like most Americans, my founding geography is limited to the northeast.
In fact, there were another 13 or so British colonies in North America that did not partake in the revolution. Some of the most successful were along the Gulf Coast, and their history is as rich and fascinating as that of New England’s.
DuVal, an historian at the University of North Carolina, has revived their stories in this wonderful history of America’s “other” colonies. DuVal emphasizes narrative over trivia. Rather than a static recitation of dates and names, she tells the stories of nine citizens representative of the time, from Indian tribal leaders and English businessmen to soldiers and women trying to survive in the harsh environment.
In this respect, I found its structure similar to that of Dan Baum’s brilliant Nine Lives, which revisited Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of nine locals who experienced it.
The drawback to DuVal’s narrative is that, unlike Baum, she doesn’t have direct access (obviously) to the characters, and in the case of the women, it was particularly difficult to find source material.
What DuVal does with the little she has is marvelous. Through the crisscrossing lives of her characters, we encounter a vibrant South, very different from the one that emerges in the post-Revolutionary era. It is also distinct from the northeast. Rather than the us-against-them narrative of New England versus the British empire, the settlements along the Gulf Coast scrape together a tenuous coexistence with native tribes, the French, the Spanish and are more concerned with survival than revolution.
This is a fascinating look at American history forgotten, cobbled together from the disparate lives of the people surviving in the territories of East Florida and West Florida (which extended all the way to New Orleans).
You think you know your American history? Consider it incomplete if you’re just now learning about the importance of Pensacola.
And fill in the gaps with Independence Lost....more
This wonderful revisitation of the relativity debate was released on June 17. Or was it? Time is relative, of course, as Einstein taught us a century ago. While relativity is the rule these days, it wasn’t a slam-dunk sell in the early 20th century, and philosopher Henri Bergson appeared to have the upper hand in the debate. The notion that time can move differently for two people not in uniform motion (or that events can occur simultaneously — or not — depending on relative motion) had to sound a little like voodoo to a populace born in the 19th century.
Of course, we know that Einstein won out, and our notion of time has never been the same. Canales takes us back to when it all changed, not in the typically triumphant language that we often get from biographies of Einstein, but from the perspective of a skeptical inteligencia not yet acquainted with nuclear energy and quantum mechanics. An interesting and important read....more
As America approaches its 25th decade, it’s only natural to look back and re-evaluate who we are and what we’ve done with our time in power. Perhaps it’s the mid-life crisis of empire, or just the build-up toward a presidential election, but coming out this summer is an arsenal of books regarding our nation’s founding.
I’m reading as many of them as I can, because it’s a fascinating study, and Steven K. Green’s Inventing a Christian America is an important contribution.
His attempt is to demystify the colonial and revolutionary periods to get at the truth of the religious origins of the country. He starts by addressing two of the most common narratives of the founding: the first being that of a country chartered by religious exiles in search of freedom to practice as they pleased, the other of Founding Fathers who established the separation of church and state.
Both of which he describes as myths, in the literal sense. “In providing explanations of events not personally remembered, myths legitimize the past while they provide a unifying narrative for a distinct people.”
The truth is that colonial life was more diverse than either narrative suggests. Sure, there were religious exiles, but there were people of many beliefs, not just protestantism. And there were many folks that were there for business, adventure or a new start in life.
But when it came time to unify the disparate colonies, a common tale was in order.
Green writes: “The idea of America’s religious origins is essentially a myth created and retold for the purpose of anointing the founding, and the nation, with a higher, transcendent meaning.”
Through his historical digging, Green reveals a pluralistic society that’s difficult to pigeonhole in retrospect. What they did record in founding documents, however, was both a respect for religious practice and the separation of church and state.
Green’s work is thorough and authoritative, and is certainly a book I enjoyed and would recommend. But whereas some academic books have crossover appeal, this is not a book that will translate well to a general audience.
Which is unfortunate, because most Americans would benefit from learning more about the founding and the role of religion in early America. Especially now.
Inventing a Christian America is a great place to start....more
In anticipation of visiting Paris, I wanted to bone up on my French philosophy. I’d devoured Camus and Sartre, but was light on the third member of the Le Deux Magots triumvirate, Simone de Beauvoir. So en route to Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, I read volume I of her seminal 1949 book, The Second Sex.
It was intended to be a pleasure read, not a book to review, but then Vanity Fair published a cover photo of Caitlyn Jenner. This opened an interesting and unexpected dialogue about gender identification. If you stick to legitimate outlets, the discussion has been civil, informative and worthwhile. The New York Times, in particular, has provided engaging commentary.
I bring this up because, well, de Beauvoir was writing about gender identity nearly seventy years ago and her words remain relevant. Remarkable, really, when you consider that she wrote the first volume prior to the civil rights movement.
Disclaimer: This column is mostly a review of the book, not a commentary on Jenner, the cisgendered and transgendered communities, or the definition of a “woman.” Of course I have my opinions. I’ve had many transgendered friends, co-workers and clients, and personally, I’ll refer to you by whatever pronoun you’d like and recognize you as whatever gender you identify with.
But I believe the role of cisgendered, heterosexual men in this discussion is to listen and learn from it. The only edict I’ll deliver is that we all could benefit from reading de Beauvoir. Especially now.
In the first part of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argues that mere physiology is not enough to define gender. One of the lines that most stuck out for me was, “It is not nature that defines woman; it is she who defines herself by dealing with nature on her own account in her emotional life.”
Remember, this was more than half a century before cisgendered entered the layman’s lexicon.Cafe de Flore
De Beauvoir emphasizes that environment plays a profound role in gender development. Environment includes everything from external forces (de Beauvoir considers the role of psychology, religion and myth in identifying women as an “Other”) to internal feelings and expression.
“…it is not the body-object described by biologists that actually exists, but the body as lived by the subject. Woman is a female to the extent that she feels herself as such. There are biologically essential features that are not a part of her real, experienced situation…”
The breadth of The Second Sex is astounding. De Beauvoir surveys the fields of biology, psychology, literature and religion with a thoroughness that is impressive as much as it is purposeful. She’s not lecturing as she is constantly working through her thesis in excruciating detail. De Beauvoir isn’t discussing single-cell reproduction for the hell of it. She is constructing a logical stronghold that still stands.
Yes, it can be tedious at times, but her argument was meant to transcend its time, as it has. It’s worth the struggle.
Of course, existentialist thought permeates the book, but it plays different than that of Camus and Sartre. Whereas Le Deux Magotsthose guys, awesome though they were, often deal with abstracts and ideals, de Beauvoir is working at more of a gut level. She is fighting for privileges her two comrades take for granted.
While the continued relevance of The Second Sex speaks to the brilliance and vision of de Beauvoir, it’s also an unfortunate reality. It would be preferable if this book felt more dated, but as most commentaries on Jenner reference The Second Sex, I think we have not come as far as we should have.
But the fact that we’re having this conversation is progress, and we owe a great debt to de Beauvoir’s contributions. It’s best, I think, to let her have the final word on this topic and leave it at that:
“…it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.”...more
Peter Clines is my new favorite author in the horror universe. His previous novel, 14, was a page-burner that flipped the haunted house tale inside-out (quite literally). For his new book, he makes origami of the space-time continuum.
The Fold begins on the last day before summer vacation. Mike Erikson is a high-school English teacher with a special talent: he never forgets anything. This is both a blessing and a curse. He’s intellectually gifted, but suffers the burden of remembering everything that has ever happened to him. At the prodding of an old friend, he audits a secretive research project in San Diego known as the Albuquerque Door.
At first, the Door — which facilitates trans-dimensional travel via a shortcut through the multiverse — is considered a breakthrough. By a simple bend in space-time (and with the help of some Victorian-era equations), the research team is able to transport objects, animals and people from one place to another.
Erikson soon detects something off with the project, though. Despite the personal rewards and social benefit that would accompany the announcement of their world-changing discovery, the scientists (who are suspicious of his investigation) keep the Door in development for years.
Oh, and there is also that seldom-discussed matter of the researcher who went through the Door, suffered a mental breakdown upon return and has been institutionalized since.
As Erikson digs deeper, he uncovers the shady history of the project and its shortcut through the multiverse. It all comes apart when a transport goes badly. The Door opens a pathway through a nightmare dimension that could destroy all others if they can’t get it shut.
That’s when this dice-roll with the universe becomes a Frankensteinian fable.
Clines is a master at developing quirky heroes in slanted realities. He doesn’t rely on gore, violence or trauma to create a sense of unease. He terrorizes with subtlety, pointing out the off-kilter among the mundane and letting it gnaw at the reader’s mind.
There is horror that sucks you down the rabbit hole through a trap door. Not Clines. He takes you there via quicksand. The dude is merciless.
The Fold incorporates many genres, from detective fiction and literary horror, to science fiction and Lovecraftian terror. Clines’ prose sweeps you through the chapters, breathing in and out of the tension without ever losing the narrative pace. I could have easily read this in one sitting, and just may have if my plane hadn’t landed in Reykjavik before I reached the end.
Though easily one of my favorite books of the year so far, The Fold does have some flaws. Erikson, on the whole, is an engaging and likeable protagonist, and for the first 200 pages or so is entirely believable. However, as we approach the climax he becomes too powerful and loses his vulnerability. It’s easy to root for the humble, nerdy English instructor. Not as much when he’s able to score women outside his area code and fend off other-worldly monsters more skillfully than the Marines.
Despite these stretches of the imagination, The Fold, is a smart thriller that uses quantum physics as a launchpad for terror. Like Lovecraft, Clines knows that the greatest threat is not the one that seeks you, but the one you stumble upon, that stares back at you when you gaze too long into the abyss.
In any dimension, the greatest threat to mankind is, well, mankind. The greatest horrors are those of our own making.
Understanding this is what makes Clines one of the best horror writers of the moment — and makes The Fold a must-read summer thriller....more
In one of the most promising debuts since Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Alice Blanchard’s Darkness Peering, The Euthanist strikes like a suckerpunch and never lets up. Seriously, this book is freakin’ relentless.
On most days, Pamela Wonnacott is a kind-hearted firefighter and EMT with a troubled past, but as Kali, she provides a different kind of public service as an end-of-life caregiver. She is attending to Leland, a terminal patient who has requested assisted euthanasia, but in the first of many twists, Leland turns out to be an undercover agent.
The opening chapter of The Euthanist left me breathless, only to be one-upped by chapter two. The pacing is spry and the narration is delightfully disorienting in the manner unique to first-person POV. There is nobody Kali can trust, and even her allies turn on her when she unwittingly brings the FBI to their door.
Dolan manages all of this well, avoiding the usual traps of first-person narration (he keeps Kali disoriented, but not clueless) and managing his twists and reveals organically. Most impressively, he doesn’t manufacture a ridiculous romantic angle or give us a cavity with overwrought sentimentality.
On the whole, this is masterful storytelling that lets the characters, and not convention, dictate their actions. There is only one scene that feels over the top, in which Kali’s costume serves a theatrical purpose rather than a practical one. Beyond that, the characters and their motivations are authentic, and the tension in this novel is intoxicating.
As Kali says, “Fear isn’t pain, but it is the expectation of it.” Except with Kali, Chekhov’s gun is replaced with a syringe.
The Euthanist is particularly relevant as right-to-die issues have gone from hushed whispers to appropriate dinner conversation. Dolan doesn’t beat us over the head with social commentary, but allows the conversation to play out between Kali and Leland.
This is an exciting debut, and I look forward to more of Alex Dolan’s writing....more
Cue the broken record. From now until November of next year, we’re going to hear a lot about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and its authors’ intentions. You can be sure that Thomas Jefferson will be cited a time or two million. But be they coming from the right or the left, the middle or the fringe, all appeals to Revolutionary politics will have two things in common: they will be accurate and they will contradict each other.
The notion of the Founding Fathers as a single intellectual entity is post hoc myth-making, according to historian David Sehat. Though we have attached a unified set of principles onto the architects of our government, Sehat writes, “The founding era was, in reality, one of the most partisan periods of American history.”
In fact, it would be quite recognizable to the cable news generation. The Constitution was not a consensus of guiding principles, but rather a compromise, much like today’s Congress in which legislation that does manage to get passed is mutilated beyond recognition.
Likewise, there was dispute over the intention of the Constitution before the ink had dried on Rufus King’s signature.
“The Founders had agreed on the wording but did not necessarily agree on what it meant or even its purpose,” Sehat writes.
This was evidenced by the feud between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the former believing its intent was to limit federal power, the latter believing it emboldened a national government.
Jefferson won that battle, and with his presidential victory, “he rhetorically turned the founding era into one of political purity that he himself had channeled.” (Ironically, Jefferson eventually incorporated many of Hamilton’s ideas, and his Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country, was viewed by many at the time as unconstitutional.)
Though the myth was complete, the debate was not. The struggle between states’ rights and federal power festered until it went septic in the antebellum era.
The slavery issue was the litmus test for the Constitution. The Dred Scott ruling confirmed that the protections of the Constitution did not extend to slaves, who were considered property. A constructionist reading of the document would render the federal government powerless to intervene on slavery, and in addition to advocating for states’ rights, Jefferson himself had owned slaves, creating a challenge for Lincoln in his debates with Stephen Douglas.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Sehat writes, the litmus test was failed. “Constitutions are supposed to keep citizens from killing one another,” he writes. “But Americans killed Americans on a spectacular scale in the Civil War. And the Founders had left little guidance on what to do about it.”
The framers lost relevance for a time after the war, but like a pop group that invents a revolutionary sound, then falls out of favor, the Founding Fathers made a comeback in the 20th century. They have since become sacred cows — they are referenced on the campaign trail and their words wielded as weapons, but they are never questioned.
That’s an issue worth raising, Sehat writes. “Because the Founders do not offer a stable reference to make sense of the present, their presence in American political debate has long been problematic.”
The Jefferson Rule is a stellar work of historical research and narrative storytelling. Sehat’s prose flows with an uncommon ease, at times reminiscent of Nathaniel Philbrick. But he also digs into the philosophical ramifications of his subject. It’s not simply a revisitation of historical events, but a work that drops us into the Revolutionary era to see that the Founding Fathers were not a like-minded council of sages with all the answers.
The words of the Constitution were not etched on stone tablets from on high, but rather drafted by a group of headstrong men who clashed with one another, varied greatly in their viewpoints and were capable of the same grandstanding, short-sightedness and pettiness as today’s politicians.
This book brought to mind the timeless essay by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which studies the psychological need for origin stories. It’s an issue worth exploring, both in Gould’s classic essay and in Sehat’s book.
If you’re at all interested in political debate or American history, The Jefferson Rule is required reading....more
For most, Jade Helm 15 may sound like the newest MMORPG, but for Chuck Norris, recipient of many kicks to the head, the upcoming military training exercise is something straight out of Gray State (in other words, B-grade survivalist porn).
“It is neither over-reactionary nor conspiratorial to call into question or ask for transparency about Jade Helm 15 or any other government activity,” Norris wrote in an op-ed for WND.
Sadly, it’s not just over-the-hill actors. Some politicians have been swept up in the paranoia as well. It’s disappointing, but not surprising. As Andrew Burt writes in his new book, American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States:
“Every few decades, a striking political phenomenon emerges, based upon the fear that a secret network has infiltrated American society and threatens destruction from the inside. Even more fascinating is the fact that this type of movement is not relegated to the fringes of the political arena — it routinely takes center stage.”
While there are plenty of examples to choose from, Burt focuses on five less-than-dignified instances of American witch hunts: the anti-illuminati and anti-mason movements from the country’s earliest days to 20th century’s Red Scare and its bastard sequel, McCarthyism, and finishing with the anti-Islam sentiment of the modern day (specifically, the anti-Sharia movement).
In this excellent study, Burt seeks the common ground between these manias. What he finds, not surprisingly, is that “hysteria arises at times of profound change in America’s national identity,” predictably when a fading social group is losing its leverage. They perceive an outside threat that has penetrated the establishment.
Jade Helm 15 is a perfect example. Since the Civil Rights movement, a culture war has been festering, particularly among aging white men threatened by new demographics and the embrace of multiculturalism.
This war went nuclear when Americans elected a black president who was acquainted with Islam. The enemy wasn’t at the gates — it was inside the White House!
So, despite the fact that routine military exercises have been occurring in Texas for years, under the direction of a black commander-in-chief, ostensibly sane politicians are buying into Norris’ nonsense.
This, Burt writes, is what separates hysteria from extremism. Extremism is always present, but generally marginalized. Political and cultural battles can be contentious, but they typically occur within an agreed-upon scope of reality.
The time to get nervous is when legitimate mainstream figures get caught up in the crazy (e.g. a viable presidential candidate believing that Obama and the CIA are plotting a takeover of Texas and Utah).
In other words: It’s time to get nervous.
But back to Burt. There is no knocking his narrative and reporting skills. American Hysteria is well-researched and -written, and I hope to see more from him in the future. He has written for such outlets as U.S. News & World Report, the Atlantic, Slate and Politico, but this is his first book-length work. My only knock on this book is the overlap between some of the episodes (e.g. the Illuminati and the Masons, the Red Scare and McCarthyism). I would love to see Burt take on other manias, such as the Satanic Panic, perhaps in later books.
After giving us the history of hysteria, Burt goes one further and offers us tips in handling the manias that haven’t happened yet. “The first rule of hand in approaching movements of hysteria is thus to accept them for what they are, rather than dismissing them outright, as is so often the temptation.”
As much as I am amused by Norris’ rants, it would be wrong to dismiss his views out of hand — not because there is any substance to his op-ed, but because there is something important to be learned from the subtext.
“Hysteria, after all, is about exclusion — it is the story of groups of men and women, like McCarthy and his supporters, confronting profound changes within American society and then excluding other groups as a result.”
To prevent the next Red Scare, we’ve got to recognize it in its infancy, understand the true interests of its followers and confront the unreasonable with reason.
It may work, it may not. The upshot of those times when it doesn’t work is that it makes for colorful history — a history skillfully explored by Burt in this must-read book. I can’t think of anything more patriotic than reading this book in time for July 4, to learn from our missteps to avoid repeating them again and again....more
From an early age, I longed for the big city life. Growing up in a sleepy township that didn’t even have sidewalks will do thatNo One Helped to a kid. To dissuade me from fleeing the Rust Belt for bright lights and tall buildings, my parents served up the tale of Kitty Genovese, the New York woman who, in 1964, was famously murdered on a Long Island street while everyone just stood back and watched her die.
It terrified me. In my mind, I envisioned a crowded street, broad daylight, pedestrians having to sidestep this dying stranger as she pleaded with them for help.
It wasn’t difficult to imagine. Though not the best time for New York City, the 1970s and early ’80s was a fruitful period for dystopian cinema set in the metropolis. My impression of the city was shaped entirely by Escape from New York and Fort Apache, the Bronx.
Though the story of a woman left to die on the sidewalk stayed with me, I never actually learned her name until college, when we studied the case in psychology class. Many psychology classes, actually. At the time, the prevailing narrative was still treated as gospel: 38 neighbors watched and did nothing as Winston Moseley assaulted Genovese, left, assaulted her a second time, left, and came back a third time to finish the job.
It’s hard to fathom how this could happen, and of course, it didn’t. At least, not the way it was reported in 1964, and certainly not the way it had been mythologized by the time it reached my ears as a cautionary tale. A more accurate telling was done by Kevin Cook in 2014’s Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.
The focus of Marcia M. Gallo’s “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy is not so much on the murder as the social incubator in which the narrative of urban apathy was spawned and evolved — and how, by focusing on the witnesses rather than the victim or perpetrator, Genovese “had been flattened out, whitewashed, re-created as an ideal victim in service to the construction of a powerful parable of apathy.”
The biggest omission from Genovese’s story, writes Gallo, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is that she was a lesbian. Being young, pretty and white made her the perfect media martyr, so details of her romantic preference would have been inconvenient to the “ideal victim” narrative in 1964. As the story of her murder took on a life of its own, she became a nameless victim of urban decay — more of a plot device than a character in her own horror show.
“No One Helped” is on the shorter side, but Gallo deftly packs in a lot of information — and unpacks five decades of history. The chapters are like linked short stories, exploring in turn the history of Kew Gardens and the racial tensions of the time, the changing media landscape and the marketability of an erroneous New York Times article that fumbled the facts but resonated with “white flight” suburbanites.
As for Genovese, Gallo writes, the article “rhetorically reduced her to the chalk outline left on the sidewalk at a crime scene after a body has been removed.”
About those 38 witnesses? Only four were actually called to testify at the trial, and even fewer were aware that Genovese had been stabbed. The Times failed to mention the fact that Moseley’s initial assault was interrupted by a neighbor’s intervention, and his second assault took place in a darkened back hallway beyond the vantage point of any neighbors.
Gallo writes, “In all of the accounts that have followed in the story’s wake, what has rarely been noted is that there is only one actual eyewitness to Genovese’s death. That person is her killer, Winston Moseley.”
In reclaiming Genovese’s identity, Gallo reveals her personal connection to the case. She does so in a tasteful, informative manner, steering clear of navel gazing and drawing attention instead to the resonating significance of the story.
For all the horror of the Genovese murder, and its aftermath, it also gave birth to the 911 emergency response system and community policing efforts. It furthered the movement to reexamine our societal acceptance of intimate partner violence (some witnesses had dismissed the assault as a “lover’s quarrel”).
And it exposed racial bias in crime reporting. Just two weeks earlier, Moseley had assaulted another woman, murdered her and set her on fire. “Significantly, no photographs of Moseley’s earlier victim, Anna Mae Johnson, a young black woman, ever appeared. Within weeks she would fade from most popular versions of the story, as would her killer,” the author writes.
Most of all, for Gallo, the legacy of the Genovese murder still matters “because it raises the central question of how we engage with those around us, individually and collectively, when they need our help.”
Digging beyond the murder and the myth, Gallo has penned a remarkable portrait of Genovese and her enduring legacy a half-century later. Her murder inspired an entire branch of psychology, but perhaps her lasting impact on social science will be the study of media myth-making. No matter the fables and fallacies that have emerged, the impact of Genovese has endured.
I’ve been on the Long Island Railroad, and at the Kew Gardens stop, it’s impossible not to look down at the nondescript parking lot and the neighboring houses, all crammed together, and wonder how this could have happened.
After 50 years, we know it happened differently than we’ve believed, but the true story of the assault is still as brutal and horrifying, if different, than we imagined. Gallo succeeds in redirecting our attention from the “witnesses” to the victim, who became a footnote to the fable. “No One Helped” restores the individual who existed before the chalk outline....more
Ordering the TOC of a short story collection is as much an art as creating the perfect mix tape. A well-crafted opener not only immerses the reader ingetintrouble its singular world and characters, but sets the tone for the remainder of the book and (please forgive the MFA speak) instructs the reader how to manage the text.
One of the finest examples I’ve read is “The Summer People,” which opens this new collection from the brilliant Kelly Link.
In this darkly beautiful fable a troubled teenager, Fran, is abandoned by her derelict, single father. Despite having the flu, Fran is tasked with caring for “The Summer People” on her own. Let’s just say that these are not the usual demanding bnb folks, and their manner of expressing their displeasure is far more sinister than writing a negative review on TripAdvisor.
What makes Fran so compelling is the way she calmly navigates between the grim earthly realm and the fantastical one that is equally familiar to her. Like many teenagers, she is suffocated by her small-town bubble and difficult home life, yet also has the mental elasticity to take the magical in stride.
In short, she is overwhelmed by her father’s alcoholism and religious fugues, yet unfazed by houseguests from the spiritual realm.
And so it goes through all the tales in Get in Trouble. All is possible and plausible in Link’s slipstream world, in which awkward teenagers are thrown to the wolves. These stories are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, not necessarily in style, but in tone. It’s a celebration of youth, imagination and nostalgia for an age when anything was possible.
“The Summer People” reminds me why I love short stories in the first place.
Next up is “I Can See Right Through You,” a weird and hilarious romp through fame, celebrity and heartbreak. Two past-their-prime actors, who were formerly on- and off-screen lovers, have descended to the depths of shameless quasi-fame: she a television “ghost hunter” and he the star of a leaked sex tape. They cross paths at a “haunted” nudist camp (which sounds like Heart of Darkness reimagined by Chuck Palahniuk), and despite the bizarre premise, the ending is absolutely beautiful.
As are all the stories in this collection, a world of lonely, precocious youth and unlikely superheroes (and the occasional dentist) that blurs the magical with the mundane.
Link is an author who has long teetered on the brink of superstardom, cultivating a diehard following with her first three story collections. Get in Trouble, her fourth offering, should bring her the widespread literary acclaim she deserves....more
On Feb. 6, I waited in the cold for 7.5 hours to meet author Neil Gaiman at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo. An estimated 2,000 fans bravedWords Onscreen the elements to have the author of The Sandman graphic novels, Coraline and American Gods autograph his new hardcover collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.
Despite the wait (and the fact that I was terribly under-dressed), everyone was jovial, and it felt more like a bibliophile block party than a reception line. Any weariness I may have felt was quickly (and repeatedly) dismissed with an idealistic sentiment voiced by many in attendance, “Isn’t it great to see this many people waiting in line for a book?”
Indeed, it was this very love of books that compelled me to read Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, an impressive work of scholarship and social commentary by this professor of linguistics at American University.
One of Baron’s professed interests is “electronically mediated communication,” and Words Onscreen combines research, anecdote and history to explore the differences between the printed and digitized word. This isn’t a trend piece, but a wide-reaching study on reading, beginning with the inquiry that “if eReading is less well suited for many longer works or even for short ones requiring serious thought, what happens to reading if we shift from print to screens?”
Baron takes us to some expected places (studies on digital vs. print reading habits; the effect technology has on our brains; the digital democratization of information; emerging social norms for electronic devices) and some unexpected ones (the history of anthologies and abridged editions; the slow reading movement; the impact of the scroll bar on reading habits).
Scrolling and reading, if you’re curious, leads to “worse comprehension” of content.
Though Baron’s scope is wide, she never loses sight of her target. She successfully threads each narrative sojourn into the conversation of how we engage with text. One of her deeper philosophical meanderings concerns the definition of reading itself. Is the act of reading simply scanning our eyes across the page? What about those passages whose complexity or sheer beauty cause the reader to set down the book and meditate on those words? What about re-reading? Studies show that pausing while reading and re-reading leads to better comprehension of the material (not surprisingly).
Research is important, as it informs best practices for teaching and learning, but Baron admits the difficulties with measuring reading comprehension. Mere content recall provides only plot summary, and deep understanding takes both time and contemplation. Take, for instance, Gogol’s classic novel, Dead Souls.
“Some of the benefits of literature come from discussions with others or personal reflection at quiet moments. Payoffs may not surface until years later when, having lived and experienced more, we discover the relevance of Gogol’s world to ours. Try measuring that.”
Like many academic books (as opposed to general nonfiction), Baron tends to over-support some of her conclusions, citing studies with overlapping information, but that’s to be expected. The author has many insightful things to say throughout the book, but there’s not much in the conclusion that would be news to an academic audience.
For this, I don’t blame the author, but reality. There’s no closing the barn door on the Kindle or Nook (on which I read my digital galley of Words Onscreen), and it’s hard to predict the direction of accelerated technology. Also, there are many positives to digital reading to weigh against the negative, from minor conveniences (not having to carry five books on an international flight) to those of great importance (the facilitation of increased global literacy).
Baron instead advises instructors and avid readers on how to navigate the digital-print hybrid. Her criticisms of e-reading are fair and supported by research, and her tone is never melancholic or luddite. The ultimate takeaway from Words Onscreen is that the content matters more than the container, although Baron also makes a compelling argument for the container as totem.
For the roughly 2,000 bibliophiles in line with me at the Neil Gaiman signing, the container was still something of value: a beautifully printed and16277386370_74c41c8a45_o bound edition with a personalized signature in permanent ink.
As Baron points out, it’s not just the text on the pages that matter. We fall in love with the smell of books, the crispness of the paper, unique typefaces that digital readers can’t reproduce. We can underline, highlight, write in the margins. Some keep their books in pristine condition, while others dog-ear, fold and break-in a book like they would a new baseball glove. Their utility extends beyond the reading. Bookshelves provide memories for the reader, a conversation spark for guests and ready access to favorite works.
There is something lost in the translation from print to digital.
For me, it calls to mind Harlow’s monkeys. If all they needed was food, then the monkeys wouldn’t object to curling up with a wire mother. Except, they needed the nurturing touch of the cloth mother. For the same reason, meal replacement shakes or futuristic food pills will never take the place of an actual dinner, because eating is not just about the absorption of nutrients.
With technology advancing at a bullet’s pace, who knows what will come of books in the future. It’s clear from Baron’s research that the format of what we read affects how we read, but it’s hard to predict where that will take us.
Wherever we end up, Words Onscreen should serve as an important guidebook. It’s a wonderful and important book, no matter how you read it....more
Longtime fans will not instantly recognize the author in this new work. Rather than the gray-skied schemes of Scotland, the drama unfolds in sun-kissed Miami, and missing is the phonetic text and colorful British slang.
Not absent, however, are the troubled characters, existential peril and sharp-tongued satire expected from the author of Trainspotting.
In his brilliant new book, Welsh entangles the lives of a body-obsessed fitness instructor, an overweight artist and a child-abuse victim bent on his pound of flesh. The three meet on a bridge, when Lucy, seeing a gunman chasing after two homeless men, intercedes to stop the attack. All of this is caught on tape by Lena, who becomes obsessed with the feisty trainer.
Lucy, of course, becomes an instant celebrity, and entertains visions of her own television show and fitness empire. Until it is learned that the men she saved were sexual predators.
Though functioning as satire of social networking, media voyeurism and the fickleness of fame, Sex Lives becomes the story of Lucy and Lena’s budding and devolving codependent relationship. We are taken for more than a few dark turns by an author famous for dark turns.
I’m a longtime fan of Welsh’s work, but I have to admit that I’ve found his recent books hit and miss. Recent novels have entertained, but lacked the gut-punch of Marabou Stork Nightmares, Filth and Glue. The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is different from his other novels, but reveals a skilled author straining the old vinegar and aiming it at fresh targets....more