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
Apologists Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan fail to offer fresh insights on biblical interpretation in Did God Command Genocide?. Copan and Flanagan have clearly put their conclusions ahead of their questions, and the result is a scriptural shell game attempting to exonerate the almighty from the more unseemly bits of his book.
We’re dealing with God’s directive to “completely destroy” those pesky Canaanites. In their attempt to gloss over this troubling fact, Copan and Flanagan turn to WIlliam Lane Craig’s argument of appropriation, which suggests that God does not necessarily endorse everything that’s in the Bible. “That is, God is not always affirming what the human author affirms.”
Sooo, which parts of the Bible are legit and which are “jk”?
The authors come to curious conclusions, but their flawed arguments reveal it to be wish fulfillment rather than critical thinking. It can be summarized as the Bible is the word of God when denouncing homosexuality, but human interpretation when ordering the deaths of women and children.
When God’s words are inconvenient, Copan and Flanagan argue that there is a “textual God,” and that his words “have nothing to do with God’s character, who is nonviolent and loving.” But our basis for understanding that God is “nonviolent and loving” is from God’s words, certainly not from his alleged creations. Why is it that we are to believe God’s claims in some places but not others? And how do Copan and Flanagan know which is which?
Of course, they’ll argue that the answer is in this book, but nothing in its pages would stand up to academic scrutiny.
The authors even admit that biblical texts have been misused for ill purposes. My question to the authors: How could a perfect being provide imperfect or incoherent instructions? And if there were misunderstandings resulting in violence and oppression, wouldn’t a “nonviolent and loving” being want to clarify what they meant?
In defending their position, Copan and Flanagan fling about every argument they can think of, hoping something will stick. They argue that God didn’t command us to “slaughter” the Canaanites, only Joshua. And it’s not as if God was writing a blank check: Israel was forbidden from attacking other nations—only the Canaanites.
I’m sorry to have to break it to the authors, but that’s still genocide.
So which is it? Did God not command genocide? Did he only say it was OK for Joshua? Is he cool with mass murder, but only if the victims are Canaanites? Clearly, Copan and Flanagan have some more work to do. You can’t argue that God didn’t command genocide by admitting that God commanded genocide, but putting qualifications on it.
Another sad argument is that the Canaanites were sinners. Israel wasn’t allowed to attack them until they scoffed at the laws of God without repent. Those sins? Just some good old-fashioned incest, bestiality, child sacrifice and, of course, homosexuality.
Ah, there’s the old chestnut of prejudiced wingnuts: homosexuality is on par with incest, bestiality and child sacrifice. And apparently, according to the authors, God meant what he said about homosexuality, but not genocide.
I’d still like to know who their Deepthroat is. Who is the inside source providing them these brilliant insights?
They fall back on semantic gymnastics: Since the Canaanites were slaughtered for their disobedience, not their ethnicity, it’s not technically genocide.
The authors should be ashamed of themselves for making such a cowardly rationalization. This is the same sort of logic that allows people to gun down cartoonists for perceived blasphemy. Killing people will send you to hell, but killing certain people will get you paradise.
When rationalization fails, the authors turn to qualification. You didn’t take that “totally destroy” command for realsies? Oh, you took that literally? No, what God meant by “totally destroy” was “drive out.” Like, LOL.
Bill Clinton gave more convincing testimony to Kenneth Starr.
And to add insult to inanity, the authors again turn to Craig (for some reason), who argues that if the Canaanites had simply abandoned their city, they wouldn’t have been killed. “There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.”
So, it’s the fault of the vanquished. All they had to do was surrender their land, possessions and become willfully homeless and they would’ve been spared. The nerve of those Canaanites. They were clearly just asking for it.
I could go on, but it’s not worth dignifying Copan and Flanagan’s “argument.” Rather than supporting their thesis, the authors merely provide justification for horrific religious violence....more
Every theological discussion between believers and nonbelievers eventually comes to the same impasse: The point at which all argumQuestioningtheBibleents and evidence have been exhausted and one must render a verdict. Here, the believers appeal to faith, while the nonbelievers draw conclusions based on the empirical evidence.
If there’s a bridge between these banks, I’ve yet to find it.
But I’m hopeful, and I recently read two apologetics in pursuit of fresh insights and new perspectives. This is what I found.
Jonathan Morrow—a Christian author and founder of the nonprofit Think Christianly—functions as something of a biblical ombudsman in his new book, Questioning the Bible. This is an admittedly ambitious task, and at the top, I’d like to commend Morrow on the effort. His narrative is earnest and thoughtful, even if his arguments are flawed, and whatever your preconceived notions, you will find something challenging in this book.
In particular, I appreciate the spirit of open-mindedness in the early-going.
“Real Christians aren’t supposed to doubt, are they? Unfortunately this is a common misunderstanding in many churches, and tragically many young Christians are growing up without a safe place to ask the tough questions and wrestle with their doubts.”
Morrow’s plan is to meet doubt on its own terms, and defend the Bible through logic rather than faith. It’s a bold plan.
Unfortunately, the execution is weak.
The first flaw is that Morrow uses the Bible as source material to confirm the legitimacy of, well, the Bible. This is circular logic, despite the author’s denials.
“In summary, if you can get Moses, Jesus, and Paul saying essentially the same thing, then I think you can consider this question settled: biblical faith is not opposed to reason and evidence.”
Well, it was already understood that Moses, Jesus and Paul were pretty much playing for the same team. The corroboration of their testimony is to be expected.
Morrow undermines his arguments with glaring contradictions. One of the biggest concerns the writing of the Gospels. Scholars date their writing to somewhere between the 60s and the 90s—three decades or more following the crucifixion of Jesus—and Christian scholars generally assign a timeline beginning in the 50s. Either way, why the delay? The significance of this time gap is that, considering the unreliability of memory and eyewitness accounts, it calls into question whether we can treat the Gospels as historical fact.
Morrow handles this fairly well at first: “Remember that this was an oral culture and most people in the ancient world could not read.”
OK, that makes sense. For emphasis, Morrow writes, “We have established what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus. But why think any of this should be written down and collected in a predominantly oral culture and have the title ‘scripture’ attached to it?”
In the very next chapter, only 10 pages later, in fact, this changes. Morrow argues that we can trust the validity of biblical documents because (emphasis in the original text) “the earliest Christians understood that covenants in the ancient world were written documents and believed Jesus the Messiah had inaugurated the New Covenant.”
(Insert sound of needle scratching across record.)
Morrow writes, “…it would be only natural and even expected that the apostles write down the New Covenant teachings from God through Jesus the Messiah. The Hebrew Scriptures reveal many examples of God’s revealed redemptive activity needing to be written down for future generations to learn from or be reminded of.”
One would think a question or two about the savior’s murder and resurrection might be on the test, and per Jewish tradition, it was expected that Christ’s followers would have etched it in papyrus.
So why didn’t the apostles take notes? Why was it left to others to write the New Testament? Morrow fails to acknowledge these obvious questions and doesn’t seem to recognize (or think his target audience will notice) the contradiction.
To summarize: In response to challenges that the Gospels are unreliable because they were written years after the events they describe and were not written by the people who were there, Morrow’s defense is that it was an oral culture: “…why think any of this should be written down… and have the title ‘scripture’ attached to it?”
Then, in arguing for the Gospels’ authority, he writes that Christ’s followers would have “expected” the apostles to write it all down, as was standard operating procedure with covenants.
Yet the apostles didn’t do this.
Morrow’s argument is limping at this point, and he stumbles into the standard pitfalls of the Cosmological Argument and Intelligent Design. Morrow claims there is “significant scientific evidence that undermines the plausibility of Darwinian evolution and points toward Intelligent Design”—yet doesn’t cite any of this “significant scientific evidence.”
Up to this point, Morrow has given us an interesting book—flawed, certainly, but interesting—and in the grand scheme is harmless. I would have given Questioning the Bible a more positive review had he maintained this tone.
Then in a chapter titled “Is the Bible Sexist, Racist, Homophobic, and Genocidal?”, Morrow takes the offensive—emphasis on offensive—in defense of the Bible’s most indefensible passages.
First up: the Bible’s approval of slave-keeping. In a shocking bit of spin-doctoring, Morrow states that “Christianity did not invent slavery,” and, well, everybody else was doing it. Then he attempts to qualify the different varieties of bondage: “The two biggest causes of slavery in the ancient world were war and poverty, not skin color.”
I did a spit-take when I read that. Slavery comes in many forms (race-based slave trading, sex trafficking, exploitation of migrant workers, etc.), but the end result is the same: It’s forcing another person to labor against their will for your benefit. Whatever the motivation of the oppressor (racial or not), Morrow can’t sugar-coat the Bible’s endorsement of the ownership and forced labor of another human being.
Unless Christianity had a good reason to tolerate slavery? “The immediate abolition of slavery would have created serious cultural problems,” Morrow writes. Sure, but then he audaciously quotes John Mark Reynolds—an academic officer at Houston Baptist University—that abolishing slavery “could have been a worse evil” than slavery itself.
Uh, anyone else getting uncomfortable?
So twisted is Morrow’s utilitarian logic that slavery becomes a vehicle of economic and social benefit, in which the most impoverished of God’s creations “typically became slaves to provide sustenance,” much like the poor in modern America: “If we haven’t solved poverty in the most prosperous country the world has ever seen, then how much more challenging would war and poverty be in a severely under-resourced community.”
True, but we’re not talking about the existence of poverty or the relationship of poverty and exploitation. We’re discussing the Bible’s green light on slavery.
“Jesus came to set captives free, restore, heal and transform—that is the good news of the kingdom of God,” Morrow writes.
Yet, slavery continued.
If that’s the good news, I’ve got some better news: The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
That sentence accomplished what apparently Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t do.
For biblical contrast, try Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
Back to the Constitution. Morrow claims that “Atheism did not lay the groundwork for inherent human dignity and equality; it borrows that from a Judeo-Christian worldview. If you remove God from the equation, you also remove inherent human dignity and equality.”
Yet, it was a secular document that actually freed American slaves—and their liberation didn’t result in the “evil” societal collapse Reynolds warned us of. (I do, however, want to be clear in separating Reynolds’ comments from Morrow’s beliefs. I certainly don’t think Morrow prefers slavery to abolition, but rather that he’s made a poor choice in selecting sources to make his point.)
Next, Morrow takes on genocide, particularly Deuteronomy 20:16-18 (in which God advises his followers to “save alive nothing that breathes” and completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites).
Once again, Morrow utilizes semantic chicanery. First, he gives God a pass, since it was an isolated event that was “unique, geographically and temporally limited, and not to be repeated.” He argues that Canaanites, practitioners of idolatry, had it coming, since “God had given them 430 years to change their ways.”
Then, Morrow, as he tried with slavery, attempts to change the definition of genocide: “While Israel carried out this judgment against a specific people… their actions were not motivated by racial superiority or hatred. Therefore the language of ethnic cleansing and genocide is inaccurate. Idolatry, not ethnicity, is the issue here.”
Dude, that’s still genocide, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” How exactly does killing all the Canaanites not qualify? By blaming it on idolatry?
Finally, in an act of desperation, Morrow attempts to rationalize or reinterpret God’s instructions by claiming that “rather than the total destruction of everything that breathes, the main targets were the key military centers.” He theorizes that most of the women and children in the city probably escaped unharmed.
This rose-colored revisionism—suggesting that God’s commandment to “save alive nothing that breathes” didn’t include women and children—undermines Morrow’s claims elsewhere in the book that the Bible is inerrant.
Or is it only inerrant when it’s convenient?
For some reason, biblical literalism does apply when it comes to homosexuality. Morrow takes the view that being gay isn’t the worst sin—it’s just a sin, and hey, we’re all sinners. (How generous of the author to grant that gay people aren’t as bad as suicide bombers.) Better yet, “there are plenty of people who have struggled with and overcome same-sex attraction. And as long as at least one has ‘changed’ then change is at least possible for those who struggle with same-sex attraction.”
Morrow writes, “They have hope” in the form of honoring God through celibacy or heterosexual marriage, if not outright change.
Gee, that is good news! I’ll be sure to pass on to all of my sinful gay friends that Morrow has gifted them with a bright future of celibacy and sham marriages!
Next we come to the sexist parts of the Bible. How does Morrow justify these? I won’t waste any ammo on this one. Morrow has enough bullets to shoot himself in the foot once again.
I’ll grant him this: I respect Morrow’s bravery in attempting to defend the Bible’s most unsavory parts. It’s not easy, and he doesn’t shrink from the challenge. But his semantic maneuvering is inadequate to convince any rational reader.
I love philosophy and religious discussion, and at times, Morrow proves himself capable of both. He begins the book with an open, inquisitive and welcoming voice, but as his arguments unravel, his thinking becomes less logical and his tone more troubled and intolerant.
I don’t believe that Morrow is ill-natured or ill-intended, but that he overreaches in his attempt to defend everything in the Bible with logic. It’s an ambitious effort, but one that, not surprisingly, fails in its mission.
We inevitably come to the impasse of faith versus empirical evidence. To his credit, Morrow raises some interesting questions and makes some good points along the way. Agree or disagree, I recommend giving Questioning the Bible a read. But despite his earnest effort, at the end we’re still standing on opposite banks....more
I believe strongly that doctors are women and men who work in a health-care facility of some kind, including Being Mortalhospitals, clinics, shelters, combat support hospitals, etc. Doctors, ahem, do not host talk shows. Medicine is a challenging, ever-evolving field of study and practice. One cannot be both a practicing doctor and a television personality.
That is, unless you are Atul Gawande.
On Feb. 10, PBS will break this rule when the Frontline documentary crew shadows the surgeon, author and New Yorker writer. The show is a tie-in with Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, which chronicles the history and current state of end-of-life care, an issue that’s come to the fore through the proposing and passing of “death with dignity” initiatives in many states. Gawande takes us inside the nursing home, assisted living communities, to learn what these institutions are getting right and getting wrong, and to offer a view of the alternatives, such as hospice.
I have enjoyed most of Gawande’s writing, but I believe he’s surpassed his previous successes with Being Mortal. While his other books have been intimate and instructive, there is greater depth here that opens the author to his audience as never before. As the book progresses, it becomes a memoir, of sorts, of his father’s final years, a touching, factual documentation that delivers a bold-stroke illustration of his argument without overshadowing the narrative.
The focus of the book, however, is not on Gawande or his family. It is on the thousands of families struggling with end-of-life issues everyday. An indirect consequence of medical progress, Gawande argues, is that extending life has overshadowed sustaining quality of life, and in modern times, we have the luxury of distancing ourselves from our mortality.
“Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the ‘dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end,” Gawande writes.
Being Mortal begins with a scholarly frame: the author calls up one of my favorite books, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, drawing attention to the relationship between the titular character and his butler, Gerasim. Without falling down the rabbit hole of Tolstoy’s existential treatise, the takeaway for Gawande is at what point do we stop pursuing cures (which agonized Ilyich) and provide comfort instead (as offered by Gerasim).
As Gawande puts it: “…it is clear that there are times when the cost of pushing exceeds its value.”
Defining when it’s that time is an uncomfortable topic, and as the author explains, it leads to many difficult conversations, but is important for the benefit of the dying as well as their caretakers.
The Frontline episode should be fantastic, as the show usually is, and will hopefully wean Americans off the junk food of television doctors Oz, Phil, et al. and snake-oil salesmen like Eben Alexander.
Instead of junk food, Gawande gives us science, history and heart in a page-turning treatise on the way we die now, and how we could do it better....more
For a harrowing year, journalist Kevin The TriangleDeutsch shadowed the gang-bangers of Hempstead, Long Island, in a place known as the Linden Triangle—ground zero of a 2012 turf war that turned an already rough neighborhood into a slaughterhouse. Forget the stereotypes of suburban Long Island. Think The Warriors rather than The Great Gatsby.
Dramatically reconstructed from interviews, legal records and first-hand experience, The Triangle is as fast-paced and action-packed as a first-rate thriller—a literary narrative as entertaining as it is troubling. The cast includes leaders, hitters and corner crews from both the Bloods and Crips; the terrorized residents of Hempstead; cops, criminologists and others in the justice system; and a minister who leads midnight prayer groups on the corners.
Deutsch stitches together their stories with a novelist’s skill. He’ll (rightfully) earn high marks in the press for his research and daring, but his ability to manage this Dostoyevskian cast without disrupting the narrative flow is worth noting.
Racial and social problems emerge that are intrinsic to the drug war. Incarceration and surrounding gentrification has turned Hempstead into an island of poverty. The gangs are the biggest employers in the Triangle, and those who would oppose the gangs are financially trapped in their territory.
Deutsch doesn’t give us an easy out. The reader is forced to confront the capriciousness of life in Hempstead, the social and legal conditions that created it and the self-defeating strategies of the gangsters that maintain a vicious status quo.
There is something heroic about the ability to survive in this environment, particularly in defiance of hateful neighbors (one Nassau County government official recommends that they “carpet-bomb Hempstead”: “Let the blacks and Hispanics go back to New York City. They’re better off there. Long Island isn’t that kind of place.”) Yet, Deutsch is wise to avoid romanticizing thug life, and not afraid to reveal the cowardice of its so-called soldiers:
Tyrek, leader of the Crips set, earned his membership by stabbing a pregnant teenager in the stomach. His ace card in the turf war is a suckerpunch, not a fair fight. J-Roc, a rising soldier in the Bloods, talks a big game, but struggles to intimidate a senior citizen. Ice, leader of the Bloods, helps promising kids get an education, yet orders the kidnapping and gang-raping of his rivals’ sisters, girlfriends and mothers.
Sadly, for all the lip service about honor, the Crips and Bloods mostly prey on the vulnerable. The true casualties of this war are the women in the crossfire. “The gangsters see sexual violence as a strategic and tactical weapon, as important to their arsenal as guns and blades,” Deutsch writes in the chapter “Extreme Tactics,” which includes the retaliatory abduction and gang rape of a female Crips employee.
At least the victim, in this case, actually works for the gang. That is not a prerequisite. Flex Butler, a Crips lieutenant, brags about assaulting the 15-year-old sister of a guy who’d stolen $2,000 worth of cocaine.
“‘[He] was hiding from us,’ Flex says. ‘So we got his sister when she was walking home from school. She fought hard, but there was a lot of us.’”
So yeah, these are not sympathetic characters. Deutsch doesn’t condemn, patronize, glorify or victimize, but presents the residents of Hempstead in all their unresolved moral complexity. For the most part, he avoids the cinematic histrionics common to gang narratives. The lone exception is D-Bo, a promising kid whose attempt to escape the corner gets a bit of the Hollywood treatment. Much is made of the timing of a confrontation with his gang (even though he’d been at home for a month), which leads to a chase scene, a misunderstood shooting and a dramatic exchange between the corner boy and the officer who tried to help him escape while awaiting the paramedics.
But I’ll forgive Deutsch this one instance of going for the heart strings. Otherwise, this is an unflinching look at the fear, fame and futility of gang warfare.
Strong writing, compelling characters and front-line reporting make this an entertaining read, but Deutsch’s detached, yet compassionate handling of the material makes The Triangle an important one as well....more
In 1996, Dan Baum published the definitive account of America’s complicated relationship with psychoactive Drugs Unlimitedsubstances. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure is an exhaustive, apolitical narrative history of the war’s origin, evolution and cost, and though public opinion has changed (a recent Pew Research study found that Americans now favor treatment over prosecution and are against mandatory minimum sentencing by a two-to-one ratio), the book remains an important document of the human toll of the drug war.
I bring up Baum’s work because Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, by UK journalist Mike Power, is its 21st century bookend. At the time Smoke and Mirrors was penned, the Internet was in its infancy, data transfer rate was measured in kilobytes and computer literacy was limited.
In the decades since, the Web has expanded the chemical landscape, altering which drugs we do, how we acquire them, and in an effort to stay a step ahead of the law, Power writes, producers, suppliers and consumers have shifted into the wildly erratic world of “research chemicals”—legal alternatives to and analogues of illegal compounds sold widely over the Internet.
The consumption of psychoactive plants is nothing new (the earliest known head trip dates back about 13,000 years), but until the 1970s and ’80s, recreational drug users had only a handful of chemicals to choose from. In 1971, the United Nations identified just 234 legal substances; 243 new compounds have been identified in just the past four years.
Accelerated culture, indeed.
These new chemicals are often untested, of shady origin and composition and can be far more lethal than their outlaw counterparts. They’ve also inspired media-invented “epidemics” of bath salts and synthetic marijuana—fueling a digital age reefer madness that keeps drug policy mired in the past.
But Drugs Unlimited is as much about hypertext transfer protocol as politics. The psychonauts who once explored inner-space have journeyed into cyberspace, and the market has moved from the corner to the CPU.
Power’s narrative is thorough and engaging, but at times can be too thorough, particularly when it comes to the chemical names. For example, Power is compelled to include a complete stock list from a chinese distributor, which includes more than 90 compounds with names like 5-MeO-DALT, Methiopropamine (MPA), Fluoromethamphetamine (and its analogues), Desoxypipradrol (2-DPMP) and so on.
Granted, he does this for effect: “Among that unreadable alphabet soup of drug names there are hallucinogens, stimulants, empathogens and cannabinoids. Working out which of them are legal or which have been outlawed in various countries would require thousands of hours of legal time or case law study.”
This certainly helps shed light on the challenges facing consumers and law enforcement, but at times, the emphasis on product names can be overwhelming.
Aside from that, Power crafts an accessible narrative that is one of the most important books of the millennium. What Baum did for the American drug war, Power does for the U.K., from the digital age to the Deep Web. ...more
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but in one night I met two athletes who would become prominent figures in the modern NFL concussion narrative: Mike Webster and Jack Tatum. At the time, Tatum was recently retired, but Webbie was still playing for my hometown Steelers, and of the seven or so players I met at this banquet, these are the only two I remember.
Because I bleed black and gold, I was happy to meet Webster. I remember him being incredibly friendly, shaking hands with both my father and me and penning a thoughtful autograph. But as cool as that was, I was really excited to meet the notorious Tatum, the icon of NFL villainy for permanently paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley.
This had earned Tatum one of the coolest sports nicknames of all time, and he was at this banquet promoting the first of his three autobiographies, They Call Me Assassin.
Tatum didn’t just look mean–the air around him chilled, the energy darkened. Something repulsive oozed off of him and kept the crowd at a distance. He didn’t crack a smile, had none of Webster’s warmth. When I handed him my autograph sheet he literally just signed his name. No message, no greeting. Just “Jack Tatum.” He was terrifying, and I came away from that encounter star-struck.
Of course, my opinions of both men are much different now.
Nevertheless, both men symbolize the celebrity and consequence of football’s golden age: Tatum the intimidating aggressor whose ferocity and win-at-all-costs mentality are prized attributes and Webster the tough-as-nails scrapper who attained on-field glory at the cost of his mind, body and dignity off of it.
In the past decade, we’ve learned about the long-term health risks of playing professional football. With every early death, suicide and descent into darkness and bankruptcy, it becomes more difficult to enjoy a Sunday slugfest with a clear conscience. In another two decades, we may not recognize professional football, because we’re just now recognizing the toll it takes on its players.
An important new book on the subject, Is There Life After Football?, considers not only the physical and neurological toll of the sport, but also the psychological impact of job-mandated violence, short careers, and the wild financial swings common among players.
Penned by two sociologists and an unexpected scholar (former Green Bay Packers star George Koonce–that is, Dr. George Koonce), Is There Life After Football? provides a sobering and insightful view of this transition through the personal anecdotes of Koonce and the research of Holstein and Jones. Most jarring is Koonce’s admission of a reckless act at the end of his career. It wasn’t exactly a suicide attempt, but he did drive his car off the road just to see what would happen.
This anecdote is all the more poignant when considering the recent driving death of Rob Bironas.
Though not as accessible as the prose styles of Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, the authors do a great job of distilling difficult material into a digestible form. It’s also a treat to read for anyone who enjoyed watching those plucky Packers of the 1990s. Juxtaposing those dynamic teams with Koonce’s experiences gives the book a Behind the Music vibe.
The takeaway is the same. Just as those we see on stage and screen are real people, so too are the men behind the facemasks.
Perhaps in a box, somewhere, at my parents’ house is a slip of paper with Webster and Tatum’s autographs. If I ever find it, I’ll frame it, perhaps donate it to a museum, where it can memorialize a different time, alongside bare-knuckle boxing and Crack the Whip as American pastimes whose time has passed....more
Author Brandon Sanderson is one evil dude. That was my reaction to finLegionishing his novella, Legion, concerning the peculiar (and haunted) Stephen Leeds. To be clear: Sanderson is a master storyteller, and this is one of the greatest works of short fiction I’ve read in years.
What makes Sanderson evil (in that bad-ass writer sort of way) is the fact that the story came to an end.
In December, Audible offered a free copy of Legion, which I greedily downloaded and enjoyed in one sitting. This story is compelling on so many levels that when it ended I needed complete silence to process everything.
Leeds is a peculiar man with a mental condition akin to dissociative identity disorder (a dubious diagnosis; see Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed). However, Leeds doesn’t have multiple personalities. He has what he calls “aspects,” sort of like imaginary friends with benefits — meaning they sleep in their own rooms, require seats on a plane and bail you out of jams.
In truth, the aspects are the manifestations of Leeds’ genius. He is smart to the point of insanity, and, in my opinion, his aspects allow him to maintain his self-view as a “regular guy.” For example, he doesn’t perform critical analysis of arguments. He leaves that to Ivy. He isn’t a skilled marksman, so he leaves the self-defense to his munitions expert, J.C. And when he attempts to learn Hebrew during the course of a transatlantic flight, he manifests a new aspect who is already fluent.
This is a master stroke, in my opinion. A functioning protagonist who had all these skills wouldn’t be credible, unless they were super-human. And a functioning human who had all these skills would be, well, dysfunctional if they had to store all this knowledge and know-how in their brain.
So Leeds, in cerebral self-defense, delegates the multi-tasking to his apparitional A-Team, and they are a source of depth, humor and revelation. This is a great device, but something of a literary high-wire with little room for error.
Sanderson deftly manages the narrative so that it never becomes silly or gimmicky. In fact, the presence of the aspects deepens the protagonist, as his inner conflicts and contradictions play out before us.
This is played to maximum effect when the novella takes a philosophical turn. The premise of the story is that a scientist has invented a camera that can photograph the past — and now he has gone missing. Leeds determines that the scientist has gone to the Middle East in search of photographic evidence to confirm or deny Biblical history.
The nature of this quest, by a scientist in particular, leads to an interesting discussion among his various aspects, each offering a different take on religion. Here, Sanderson captures the internal struggle that comes with asking the big questions: How does one reconcile science and spirituality? Theological desire and empirical evidence?
No matter your conclusion, I’m sure we’ve all had similar conversations in our heads.
In Leeds, the discussion is thoughtful and entertaining, and enriches the story with a pensive undertone. And mention must be made of the terrific narration of Oliver Wyman.
Featuring compelling action, organic dialogue and complex characters and situations, Legion is a must-read (or must-listen).
I’m not surprised. As a longtime fan of the podcast Writing Excuses, which Sanderson co-hosts (along with Dan, Howard and Mary… who are that smart), I’ve joked that I’ve learned more from Sanderson and company than I did during my three-year MFA.
And I’m only sort-of kidding about that.
But I’m serious when I say that we need more Stephen Leeds adventures. And soon. A full-length novel, series of stories, film, TV… all of the above.
Leeds is a character brilliantly devised and fully realized. I didn’t want this story to end, and I hope to read more of Legion in the (near) future....more
Leeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends with benefits (no, not that kind, pervo, though two of his manifestations are going through a difficult breakup in this installment). His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.
Consider it a cross between schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and unconscious cognition.
Put simply, like all of us, Leeds can access a limited portion of the information he receives from external stimuli, but he’s also able to access the subconscious bits via imaginary personalities. The result is a skill set unmatched by any other detective in literature. (Leeds isn’t a detective per se, but like fellow troubled genius, Sherlock Holmes, often finds himself consulting on cases).
In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.
As before, the plotting and character development is astounding. I listened to the audio version, and devoured it in two sittings (it would have only been one were it not for work). Once again, Oliver Wyman’s narration is poetry. He inhabits all of Leeds’ imaginary allies as well as his very real adversaries, shifting seamlessly and convincingly through various genders, races and personalities.
But this is more than a groovy mystery; Sanderson uses Leeds as a launch-pad for theological debate. I believe he handled the religious discussion better in the first Legion story, while in Skin Deep, the tone is didactic. Leeds describes himself as “15 percent atheist,” aggregating the beliefs of his various aspects. This is a clever way of exploring the inner conflict between doubt and faith, illustrating our tenuous grasp of knowledge and belief.
What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. I never subscribed to the academic taboo on having characters with mental illness (because it’s reductive, or some other scholarly jargon). Leeds cannot be reduced to any one of his aspects, just as his consciousness is more than the sum of his personalities. He is capable of change. We see it both within and between the books.
Perhaps Leeds’ greatest fear is that he will someday be free of his aspects, because I think he’d be lost without them. In his more existential moments, Leeds wonders whether he is simply someone else’s aspect, eliciting that dissociative tingle we’ve all felt at various times.
Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.
For two decades, Burke has thrilled a wide audience (including Bill Clinton) with her series of novels set around journalist Irene Kelly. Over the years, fans have enjoyed her blossoming romance with detective Frank Harriman, but in Case Closed—the last of six ebook collections pairing Burke’s new short fiction with stories from her anthology, Eighteen—we meet Harriman as a bumbling rookie. In this tale, he responds to a missing persons call, all the time wondering why the other cops are treating it with such cynicism. And it only gets stranger from there. Burke’s skill for dialogue and wit shine through. The interaction between Harriman and the old lady is delightful. There is a glaring plot hole in the big reveal (I won’t spill it, but it’s safe to say even the laziest, most cynical cop would have thought to check there), but it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the story, nor the others in the collection. It’s a wonderful introduction to Burke’s underworld....more
If you’ve got someone on your shopping list who likes it fast and dirty, gift them this hard-boiled holiday treat. In the follow-up to Lion’s acclaimed debut, The Butcher’s Granddaughter, Bird is back and looking for redemption. Fans of the genre will love Lion’s furious pacing and tightly wound prose.
The setting is interesting as well: 1993 Los Angeles (a wild time in the City of Angels). No cell phones. No Google. Just Bird the snitch playing both sides of the street and trying to find the missing daughter of a man murdered right before his eyes.
The search is both exciting and existential.
The strength of The Forgotten Addiction is Lion’s ability to create tight, gritty prose, but for all the textual skill, his characters are too familiar. Bird gives everyone a bad attitude, whether or not he’s provoked. Readers will recognize the upwardly mobile prostitute who is using her income to fund her education; the tough but noble bouncer who moonlights for Bird; the befuddled psychiatrist who is outwitted by the snitch.
Some of the plot turns are too convenient, but the action (and salty interaction between characters) is worth the ride. I couldn’t stop reading from one chapter to the next, and the narrative never grows stale.
It’s also fun to go back to that time and place when the west was on fire. This is one of the season’s best releases....more
The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:An Infuriating American
“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”
Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.
Crowther’s prose is fearless in tone and content. He is willing to editorialize and present Mencken in all his contradictions—and he doesn’t shy away from the difficult subjects, like racial discrimination. For all his bluster about defying popular opinion and pedagogy, Mencken was a sheep when it came to racism. His comments about Jews and African-Americans, as well as his complicated love affair with Germany post-WWI, are indefensible, and Crowther makes no effort to do so.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mencken drew the ire of many and never held his tongue to avoid criticism. He was an elitist and, one could argue, a misanthrope. “Human progress was one of the myths to which Mencken did not subscribe,” writes Crowther.
I would say the evidence supports this decision.
The breadth of his thought is such that members of all political factions can claim Mencken as one of their own. Crowther establishes his proper place: “Certainly Mencken was a conservative by many measures, and died conspicuously to the right of the intellectual mainstream. But it’s a grievous insult and injustice to imagine him watching Fox News, or celebrating the wisdom of Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand.”
This is a wonderful book about a complicated man, and an important object lesson for anyone pursuing a career in journalism, writing or general rabble-rousing.
And during this political season of partisan blowhards and neutered media, is there anything more fitting (or even patriotic) than revisiting an era of bold journalism, back when it was a blue-collar profession of integrity, and not something best illustrated by the film Nightcrawlers....more
It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, by former CIA case officer and best-selling The Perfect Killauthor Robert Baer. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up.
But before you start stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of The Perfect Kill as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook. This is an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.
The assassin, though, is not Baer, but rather Hajj Radwan (aka Imad Mughniyeh), a notorious Lebanese terrorist affiliated with Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization. He is the man responsible for the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and marine barracks, and Baer links him to a number of kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations in the 1980s and ’90s.
Despite being an international fugitive (he was on the “most wanted” list of dozens of countries) and the focus of numerous arrest and assassination attempts by the U.S. and Israel, Radwan was able to execute successful terrorist attacks for a quarter-century before being killed by a car bomb in 2008.
His ability to elude justice for so long is frustrating to fans of instant karma, but for an experienced CIA operative (Baer himself was in pursuit of Radwan), he authored a playbook for political murder.
While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.
And Baer’s got the bona fides to back it up. He writes for Time and other news outlets; he has produced documentaries for the BBC; and he has authored nonfiction best-sellers like See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil.
Oh, and George Clooney played Baer in Syriana. Not a bad resume.
Each chapter begins with a “rule” for assassins, such as “The Bastard Has to Deserve It” (Law #1), “Every Act a Bullet or a Shield” (Law #4) and “Nothing Wounded Moves Uphill” (Law #20). Also included are “notes” to help one stick to this law and historical lessons (successful and otherwise) enforcing its importance.
But always, the primary narrative is the chess match between Bear and Radwan, and it is one that spans decades and continents. It’s a fascinating tale, and not surprisingly, the TV rights to the book were sold months before its publication.
I’m excited to see its adaptation, but there’s no substitute for the source. This is a stellar book that is a must-read for fans of history, the Middle East, the military and U.S. foreign policy....more
“With no dreams left to search for, I have only nightmares to anticipate.”The Cutting Room
This is one of the most haunting lines from the tremendous opening story, “The Cutter,” by Edward Bryant. It sets the tone for all the delicious horror in Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen.
Those familiar with Datlow’s work know that she is the go-to authority in the horror/fantasy world. The appeal of any anthology is the prospect of finding some good stories and maybe discovering new authors, but buyer beware: Anthologies themselves can be hit and miss, especially when the stories are crudely arranged with no thought to pacing or theme.
When Datlow’s name is on the cover, however, you know the collection will contain the highest quality writing and arranging, kind of like listening to a Rob Gordon mix tape (or Rob Fleming, for those who prefer the novel version of High Fidelity).
The genius of starting this anthology with Bryant’s “The Cutter” is that:
It is set in a movie theater It features a film projector, Mr. Carrigan, who cuts and splices the incoming films so that attendees at his theater have a different version of the film than the director intended It thrusts the reader into a world of altered reality, where nothing is beyond edit and where nothing can be believed or counted on besides death
Of course, I’m a little biased. Not long after I moved to Colorado, Westword profiled Bryant and his fiction, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Datlow refuses to let off the gas with the next tale, “The Hanged Man of Oz” by Steve Nagy, which plays upon the belief that an on-screen suicide is visible in The Wizard of Oz. I happen to share this belief, though it is denied by some. Nagy’s version gets even crazier, with the protagonist haunted by the scene, the film, the characters and his new girlfriend, who’d shown it to him.
There are also stellar contributions from horror legends, such as Dennis Etchison’s “Deadspace” (in which a small-time producer encounters big-time creepiness), and relatively new talents like A.C. Wise’s “Final Girl Theory.” (To enjoy a wonderfully haunting audio version of “Final Girl Theory,” visit Pseudopod.)
I’ve long loved the Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer tale “each thing i show you is a piece of my death,” which I first read in Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Two. While I love the meta-everything tone of the piece, I have mixed emotions about the title. It’s a line from my favorite Marilyn Manson song, “The Reflecting God,” and I appreciate the reference, but it’s such an obscure line (from neither chorus nor verse, but rather spoken beneath a wall of power chords segueing into an instrumental break) I’m not sure enough people will get the reference. Still, it’s a great story (and a great song).
Of a similar tone is Gary McMahon’s “Cinder Images,” which reminds the reader why many of us love horror in the first place: “You try to close your eyes but you cannot. You have to see—you need to see this. There are things that must be endured, sights that cannot be ignored.”
In fact, the idea of disturbing images and the blurring of reality is a common theme in this collection. Stephen Graham Jones’ chilling “Tenderizer,” for example, David Morrell’s “Dead Image” and the wonderfully titled “Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth.
The final story, “Illimitable Dominion,” is a wonderful story I’d read before (in a Datlow collection dedicated to Poe), but was worth a second read. It re-imagines the complicated relationship between Poe and filmmaker Roger Corman (a creative relationship, that is, not an actual one). By one view, Corman did the world a service by keeping Poe’s stories in the cultural conversation via horrid retelling of his tales. By another view, he also bastardized much of the master’s works, in ways inconceivable to Poe fans.
Newman’s story offers an alternate view, one that loosely weaves fiction with history.
Like any anthology, it’s unlikely that every story will resonate with all readers, but as far as quality is concerned, The Cutting Room is a major success. Even if you only read “The Cutter,” this monster matinee is worth the ticket price.
Anticipate many nightmares within these pages....more
Given one word to describe Ian McEwan, I’d have to go with excruciating. The tone (elevated and eerie) and density of his novels (to a degree that will try passive readers) ooze with The Children Actanxiety. His protagonists suffer quietly, haunted by a single instance of poor judgment or an absent-minded transgression.
It’s all about moments and forbidden thresholds, the composed intellectual who discards dignity and custom to follow an animal impulse. Be it a father’s momentary lapse in The Child in Time, the sudden violence of The Innocent or the chilling cowardice in Amsterdam, there comes a dissociative moment in every McEwan novel in which a main character is forced to confront their darkest depths.
And then live with the consequences.
Such is the case for Fiona Maye, protagonist of The Children Act, McEwan’s latest novel. Fiona is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce).
We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.
Cut to the courtroom, where the precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.
The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing.
McEwan applies this level of care and detail throughout the novel, which may lack the sinister urge of books like The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers or First Love, Last Rites, but certainly channels the disquiet of Enduring Love and Saturday, in which the tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment....more
I’ll start with a confession: This review has come along sluggishly. Time I’ve set aside for writing has instead been frittered away on mindless online gaming. It’s an affliction we’ll call Beautiful Youwritus interruptus, and it’s likely to become an epidemic worse than any zombie apocalypse.
(Speaking of, my current addiction is The Last Stand: Dead Zone, and before I completed this sentence I had to stop to check on the construction status of a barricade.)
This isn’t anything new, really. In the 1950s, scientists discovered that if a rat could stimulate its brain’s pleasure center by pressing a bar, it would do so furiously until it passed out from exhaustion and, in many cases, died for lack of food and water. Mind you, the rats had access to food and water, but they couldn’t keep their paws off that pleasure bar.
This should sound familiar to any gamer who has missed a meal in order to level up.
It’s sick and wrong. I know this, but I need someone to hold up a mirror to face this absurdity directly.
This is why I love Chuck Palahniuk, whose new book, Beautiful You, is his best in a few years.
Fittingly, it concerns arousal addiction, and serves an electric shock to our collective conscience (or perhaps unconscious would be the better term).
Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club, and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.
In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.
Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.
Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her newfound fame and sexuality.
Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that farfetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?
Beautiful You put me in mind of Rancid’s “Born Frustrated,” which asked, “Is this human freedom, hedonistic excess? Junky consumerism, mass production, toxic sickness?”
It’s why Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was set inside a shopping mall—can you truly be sure there aren’t a few zombies among you inside the IKEA? Ever been to a restaurant where a group of supposed acquaintances are each focused on their own smartphone or tablet?
We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction.
We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.
And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become....more
So, I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, as I long ago embraced my Upside of Your Dark Sidedark side, but I’m glad that Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, a pair of psychologists and professors at George Mason and Portland State Universities respectively, are promoting widespread awareness.
And no, this isn’t a Darth Vader-style enticement to evil, but rather a commitment to intellectual and emotional honesty. Embracing the dark side is being an anti-Pollyanna, acknowledging negative states of consciousness rather than suppressing them. Realizing that feeling bad is inevitable and natural.
Or, to let the scientists speak for themselves, “…we, the authors, reject the notion that positivity is the only place to search for answers. We reject the belief that being healthy is marked by a life with as little pain as possible.”
Perhaps it’s my love of Eastern philosophy, but I’ve always subscribed to an elastic emotional outlook: the greater the highs, the greater the lows. Inoculating oneself from pain only serves to numb one’s experience of joy.
It’s a conundrum that dates at least as far back as the dueling philosophies of the Cynics and the Stoics, but has become especially germane in the decades of post-WWII prosperity. At some point in the past 50 years, the fantasy that you could enjoy the thrills without enduring the chills became an accepted philosophy.
To seek comfort and happiness is natural, but now, the authors argue, it has become an addiction.
The self-help and pharmaceutical industries, along with positive psychology (to a lesser extent), have cultivated a bubble-wrapped culture where discomfort is treated as an abnormal condition. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s not healthy. There’s nothing wrong with feeling down sometimes, feeling angry sometimes.
“People who are whole, those of us who are willing and able to shift to the upside or the downside to get the best possible outcomes in a given situation, are the healthiest, most successful, best learners, and enjoy the deepest well-being.”
I’m reminded of my own experiences in therapy. I was the difficult patient who used my session time to challenge my therapist with my grim view of humanity. I would rattle off atrocities and injustice and point out that our culture rewards the worst kind of people and punishes the good. No, not just our culture—our species. Then I would grin triumphantly as the counselor struggled to argue against that.
I knew I’d finally found the right therapist when, during our first session, I gave her my misanthropy spiel. Her response: “Yeah, you’re right. So what?” Sometimes things are shitty.
This was the jolt I needed to crack my defiant shell and get to work on getting better.
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener hope to provide the same jolt to readers acclimated to a self-help mantra of “I’m OK, You’re OK,” and hopefully they are successful in this task.
They should be, as this is a very interesting read. What I like about The Upside of Your Dark Side is how the authors incorporate scientific research, positive psychology theory and personal anecdote to construct a cogent warts-and-all perspective of the human experience. Even though it features plenty of scientific research, the narrative is very accessible to lay-readers.
The shortcoming of the book, for me, is that the authors can be overly expository—they do a good job of illustrating a point, but then summarize said point as though they don’t trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion. But I wouldn’t mark down a letter grade for that. That’s the inherent risk with science writing. The authors have to take arcane material and present it to an audience that, for the most part, doesn’t share the authors’ background or familiarity with the topic.
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener by and large hit the sweet spot between academic and accessible. This is a book to be enjoyed by all—and to some a revelation....more
There are two things I like to do anytime I come to a new town:
Visit the local book shops
Take a ghost tour to learn about its haunted legends
So you can guess my excitement to read Mark Leslie’s Tomes of Terror, a collection of hauntings set in libraries and bookstores.
Leslie’s first two nonfiction books explored the haunted legends of Hamilton and Sudbury in Canada. This time he travels the globe recounting stories of specters who re-shelve library books, peruse the remainder pile or just want to sit in a quiet corner and enjoy a good book.
I can relate. My ideal afterlife would be spent on the top floor of the Boulder Book Store (with occasional sojourns along Pearl Street to Illegal Pete’s, of course).
As for Leslie’s collection, it’s a great read for any fan of ghost literature. It’s also a mixed bag, with some anecdotes chilling, some sweet, some silly.
There is one shortcoming in this book, but it is no fault of Leslie’s. It’s the medium. Sadly, the written word can’t compete with a spook story shared in hushed whispers around a campfire, so truly visceral frights are few.
Case in point: As much as I enjoyed both installments of Roz Brown and Ann Alexander Leggett’s Haunted Boulder series, their stories truly come to life when performed by master tour guide Banjo Billy. (I highly recommend both the books and the ghost tour, if you happen to be in Boulder, Colo.)
Despite the limitations of the printed page, I love any well-written and –researched book of hauntings. What I like most about them, I think, is that the tales turn out to be more historical than horrific. I’ve come to view ghost books (and tours) more as historical documents than anything else, but the kind that infuse a town with a lot of personality.
For me, it’s hard to truly love a place until I’ve explored its ghostly geography.
Fittingly, some of the most fascinating parts of Tomes of Terror are not the ghosts, but the histories of the libraries and stores themselves.
A sad postscript is that a fair number of the bookstores mentioned in this collection are now closed, becoming a different kind of ghost. And that’s truly terrifying.
But the stories never die, and in that sense, the shuttered stores live on in their own haunting way. Like ghosts, their spirits persist in the pages of Leslie’s collection.
Come October, you can’t go wrong with a collection of horror stories on the nightstand (or anytime, really, if you ask Mad Talesme). While not straight horror (Mazzenga incorporates elements of the weird, sci-fi and urban fantasy), Mad Tales is a collection of the creepy and creative befitting autumn, the best of all seasons.
“Pepperell,” the lead story, truly stands out. It’s a fast-paced thriller fueled with a Twilight Zone aesthetic that disorients as well as it delights. The character development is a bit thin in this tale of outlaw bikers descending upon a quiet mountain town, but the “said the spider to the fly” motif compensates for the broadly sketched personalities.
There is no short-changing on the characters in “Bloody Depths,” a sprawling seascape of uncertainty that delivers its nightmares at an even pace. Here, we have more time to engage with the main character’s plight and share her dread as Mazzenga takes us to some weird—I mean really weird—places.
While they may incorporate elements of fantasy and sci-fi, each of the Mad Tales features a creepy tone that firmly establishes this enjoyable collection in the horror genre....more
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion
My anticipation for the new Sam Harris book turned to anxiety when I learned it would be about spirituality. Was the firebrandtype philosopher and scientist—co-founder of Project Reason and author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—changing teams?
Perhaps a better title for this book, though, would be The Atheist’s Guide to Meditation.
At its core, Waking Up is about mindfulness, and as a fellow atheist who has attended a fair share of Buddhist retreats (including a recent one on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), I can relate to some of the conflicts Harris encounters. No matter how secular the retreat, I get nervous when I find myself in a room full of people following the direction of a group leader offering spiritual betterment.
Harris takes out the touchy-feely and goes straight for the scientific foundation of a mindfulness-based approach to life. The result is a book heavy on Buddhist philosophy and refreshingly light on bullshit.
What makes Waking Up different is that it’s also what Harris calls a “seeker’s memoir.” We follow his journey from a skeptical teen to an adult struggling with the feelings of “unsatisfactoriness”—which is his interpretation of the concept of dukkha, rather than the traditional definition of suffering.
He had my attention early in the book, when describing the disquiet of his solitary thoughts and the relief he felt when experimenting with MDMA, LSD and DMT: “It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life.”
Through his seeking, Harris reveals that, for him, spirituality is not the existence of a higher being in the ethereal realm, but rather the cognizance one has of an immaterial self. “Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.”
Speaking of continuity, Harris gets a little far afield the deeper we delve into the book. Beyond memoir, he explores the scientific underpinnings of consciousness and meditation, drops some knowledge about psychedelic drugs and, justifiably, rants on the silliness (and scientific dishonesty) of Proof of Heaven and other accounts of near-death experiences.
While I really enjoyed many of these sections, they didn’t have the cohesion of a linear narrative. It read more like a collection of essays on a single topic—which is fine, just not what I was expecting.
Harris’ informed and enlightened discussion of psychedelics resonates the most with me. Not only do I agree with his observations (and share some of his experiences), but Harris also challenges some of my long-held assumptions.
For instance, Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a seminal bit of psychedelic literature, and for years I bought in fully to Huxley’s description of the brain as a “reducing valve.” Harris debunks this by drawing on modern neuroscience, causing me to think about mind-manifesting drugs in a new way.
All told, Waking Up is an interesting and enjoyable read. There’s a bit of science writing, philosophy, memoir and a unique take on spirituality and meditation....more
It’s fitting that Penguin is releasing its annotated Book of Witches in time for Halloween—and not just because of the seasonal correlation of Wicca and the feast of Samhain. The history of the witch is long and complicated. The difficulty of distilling thousands of years of witchery into a single volume is perhaps best illustrated by considering the variety of Halloween Penguin Book of Witchescostumes celebrating the witch.
A cursory search of costume shops gives you such options as sexy witch, crone witch, neon witch or glitter/sparkle/glamor witch. Would you like a traditional black dress with a broom, or something made of lace? You could be a witch from Oz or Salem, Sabrina or American Horror Story.
And would you like a cat with that? Or perhaps a toad or flying monkey?
Oh, you can even dress up your dog as a witch, if you feel like it. Whatever. You go do you.
Point is, the witch is not a singular entity: it’s a character that has assumed many forms in film, folklore and the imagination, be it funny or frightening, sexy or silly, from the East Coast (good) or the West (wicked). In her introduction, author and academic Katherine Howe gives as good a definition as I’ve ever read:
“Witchcraft is less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power, whether that power lies with the church, with the king, or with the dominant cultural group” [xii].
Indeed, the bookshelf of my youth was loaded with books on the topic: fiction anthologies devoted to the witch; sensational Satanic Panic potboilers; historical and sociological treatises; feminist takes; and cumbersome source material such as the Malleus Malificarum and The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.
I wish this book would have been around back then. Howe does a great job of sampling the primary sources to create a palatable, yet thorough history. She begins with references to witchcraft in the Bible and guides us, inevitably, to Massachusetts Bay.
The meat of The Penguin Book of Witches are the trial transcripts and testimonies from that dark period of 1692-93. While the prose doesn’t exactly leap off the page here, the importance of these documents, and the clarity of Howe’s introductions, is worth enduring a bit of the old English.
That the Salem Witch Trials remain a relevant cultural reference more than 300 years later speaks to their importance. It remains one of our country’s greatest shames, and its memory serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come and a warning about how low we may sink.
Sadly, no matter how much humanity progresses, the same dark drive that fueled the colonial witch craze still smolders within us. The 20th century alone gave America two Red Scares, internment camps, the West Memphis Three, the Satanic Panic, the War on Drugs and all manner of smaller scale oppression, discrimination and fear-mongering.
The post-9/11 world has given us Guantanamo Bay, George Zimmerman and a Red State/Blue State schism.
Fittingly, Howe offers a word of caution as she segues into the closing section, “After Salem”: “While no witch trial in North America—or Europe, for that matter—would ever again approach the magnitude and fatality of the Salem episode, witch belief did not disappear. It merely changed form” .
This line, for me, is the ultimate takeaway from this book. Witches, as portrayed by Halloween costumes, are creatures of the imagination, folklore and literature. But by any name, the women who were burned, stoned and hanged were victims—not of demonic possession or supernatural forces, but of the all-too-human folly of superstition, prejudice and mob mentality.
The same goes for all victims of a witch craze. The importance of studying the witchhunts of the past is that they are difficult to recognize while they are happening. They occur under the insidious guise of patriotism, decency and traditional values. The label “witchhunt” is only applied in the aftermath.
By reading the transcripts of the trials and examinations, and the post-Salem mea culpas, we can hopefully prevent or at least minimize oppression in our time and in the ages to come.
Howe’s collection is a great place to start....more
The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League
I recall, from my childhood, soccer on television, cheering for Pelé and watching him slow-motion bicycle kick his way through Nazis alongside Sylvester Stallone. And then it was gone.Rock n Roll Soccer
I don’t remember when it went away, but in the early 1980s, my attention turned to music and girls. So long, Pelé. Farewell slow-motion bicycle kick. We hardly new ye. It didn’t even occur to me, until Major League Soccer started play, that there was no longer an elite professional American league.
Fast forward to 2014, and soccer in America is once again on the rise. It’s now expected that the U.S. men’s team will not only qualify, but advance to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. The bar is even higher for the medal-winning women’s club. MLS is approaching its 20th season, and the future is looking bright.
Couple that with the self-immolation of the NFL and in a few decades Monday Night Football might be a whole different ballgame. Literally.
The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. This is required reading in a World Cup year, and a treat to read anytime.
Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).
One of Plenderleith’s great accomplishments in this book is his ability to zoom in and out of the action while keeping the reader engaged. This is not an easy task. At times, he’ll be recounting the exaggerated drug- and drink-fueled antics of over-the-hill international stars and young Americans performing in a flamboyant, fly-by-night federation that defied, in equal measure, rules, tradition and, ahem, sound business practice.
Then Plenderleith will step back and establish the international and cultural context within which the NASL was operating. At first, the international audience mocked the upstart Americans, and FIFA pushed back against the young league that was tinkering with tradition.
But as the NASL achieved early success, the world took notice. While it didn’t reinvent the sport, the outlaw league reinvigorated it by making it a fan-friendly experience and drove rule changes that increased substitutions and decreased back passes.
The model, though exciting, was as unsustainable as that alcohol-fueled borderline relationship you had in college. The peaks were unforgettable, but the valleys unbearable. Sure enough, the NASL folded following the 1984 season.
It was an experiment and experience that was thoroughly American, and though the league didn’t last, it left a lasting impression on the game and paved the way for MLS success.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf....more
This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feministsand Purple Hibiscus is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. It was adapted from Adichie’s famous TEDxEuston talk, and whether you prefer the visual or the text, make sure you get a hold of one of them.
“Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.
Reading this essay brought me back to my first day of Human Sexuality class at Penn State. “How many of you consider yourselves feminists?” the teacher asked. None of us men raised our hands (I hadn’t yet learned that, by definition, men could be feminists), and maybe only half the women raised theirs.
The teacher asked the hands-downers why they weren’t feminists, and though the reasons they gave were myriad, every response was prefaced with some variation of “I support equality and fair treatment and don’t believe that women are inferior to men, but…”
The teacher’s point, of course, was to show the class how this word had been bastardized and appropriated by so many groups for so many reasons that half the women disowned the label. Adichie shares similar anecdotes of her own struggles with the term.
This was almost 20 years ago, and the word “feminist” is more loaded than ever. With one or more women expected to compete for the presidency in 2016, attack-ad narrators are surely practicing their intonations for the coming voice-over work.
The Nigerian-born Adichie addresses one of the most common criticisms of feminism: Why the gender-specific language? Why not humanist? Or equalist?
“Because that would be dishonest,” Adichie writes. “Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.”
But this isn’t an essay about terminology. It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”
The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important....more
In what is surely one of the most interesting books of the summer,The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers
Joanna BourkeThe Story of Pain
In what is surely one of the most interesting books of the summer, Joanna Bourke, a history professor at Birkbeck, University of London and a Fellow of the British Academy, explores the history of pain—how we describe it, how we think about it, and how we deal with it.
Bourke writes that we’ve spent far more time documenting pain alleviation rather than exploring pain itself, and her detailed survey, focusing on the past three centuries, will surprise and inform all readers.
One would think that pain hasn’t changed much over time—pain is pain, after all—but while migraine accounts have remained similar, our relationship to suffering, and sufferers, has changed in dramatic ways. Once thought of as a supernatural punishment or an opportunity for personal growth, pain is now considered an external evil, an inconvenience, something to be eradicated rather than embraced.
Most striking, for me, is the chapter on estrangement. Pain isolates the afflicted, but remarkably, it’s the person in pain who does the distancing. Be it the stigma of sickness, the desire to insulate loved one’s from their suffering, or simply not to be thought of as a whiner, the sufferer tends to keep their agony to themselves.
And as anyone in the throes of a migraine can attest, communication isn’t a vacation. Bourke writes: “As well as isolating people-in-pain from their families and friends, physical discomfort works against human exchange by blunting the higher senses and intellect” (46).
Paradoxically, pain narratives also create and strengthen communities, such as support groups that arise around particular afflictions.
Bourke is no stranger to uncomfortable topics. Her other works include Fear: A Cultural History; Rape: Sex, Violence, History and Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War.
Utilizing a variety of sources—old medical books, doctor’s notes, poetry, anecdotes, letters and others—Bourke compiles a well-rounded account of suffering, accessible to academics and casual readers alike.
Reading The Story of Pain is a bit like enjoying a sad song on a sunny day. This intellectual read might not alleviate that next migraine any better than “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” can dampen the sting of heartbreak, but it’s interesting to contemplate from an academic distance....more