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
Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Ominous Realities is the finest indie collection I’ve read in a while. These dystopian tales chill and unsettle, balancing skill, imagination and smarts.
Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Last year, I read Meikle’s novel The Hole, and thought it was enjoyable but flawed. Here, Meikle is in control from the creepy opener in the lab to the grim finale. HPL would love this tale of science gone wrong.
Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.
Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.
An excellent collection from a hot new publisher. Also be sure to check out their Dark Visions II anthology....more
Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.
Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.
In “The Last Train,” a modest theater-goer arrives late to the station, but by good fortune, his train is waiting for him. Once aboard, he realizes his destination is somewhere other than home. Likewise, a young factory apprentice stumbles upon a shop-floor oddity in “The Cleaner”—and realizes that what he first thought to be a hoax or a hazing is in fact a haunting.
Perhaps the stand-out tale of this collection is “The Heinkel,” a WWII yarn about a young boy fascinated with a downed German plane.
A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills (such as my dad’s coworker losing an arm in the blast furnace) and the spooky kind (my grandfather’s otherworldly encounters at the Westinghouse plant).
When it was my turn to work the factories, I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories. (His first book, Tales from the Toolbox, recounts his industrial experiences.)
My one critique is that there’s not a lot of mystery to these stories. Characters who believe they are having ghostly encounters truly are, and the nature and cause of the hauntings are typically self-evident. But that’s OK. These stories work not through terror or misdirection, but by tapping into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end....more
Review: Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon
One of my favorite songs has a line that goes, “Tell the kids to keep on coloring outside the lines/ Until they lose their limitations and their minds are free/… And tell Bob Ross thanks for all the happy little trees.”Happy Cloud, Happy Trees
The song is “To Bob Ross, with Love,” by Gym Class Heroes, and they crush it on more levels than I have blog space to discuss. So I’ll give you the bullet points.
It’s a great song, regardless of the theme It’s a song that encourages creativity, imagination and pursuing your dreams I’m a sucker for songs like that I love Bob Ross and always watched his show growing up (and still do whenever I can) I hope to one day have a pocket squirrel, like Pea Pod, who helps me paint I totally dig those ASMR channels on YouTube (which I trace back to Bob Ross) I’m one of those kids who was encouraged to color outside the lines
I didn’t have coloring books growing up. I had blank sketch pads. My parents didn’t want to impose on me the pressure of conformity and a color-by-numbers world. When I wanted to create, I was given a blank sheet. It’s served me well.
To use another quote from “To Bob Ross, with Love”: “My mama made me this way/ I thank her every day.”
So I admit there was trepidation when I started reading Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon. It’s an academic book, from the University Press of Mississippi, penned by Kristin G. Congdon and Doug Blandy, and illustrated by Danny Coeyman. I feared that an academic treatment would reduce those joyful half-hours of public television bliss to a post-structuralist treatise. Thankfully, that is not the case.
The focus of Happy Clouds, Happy Trees is the phenomenon of the painter and the cult-like nature of his fans, which is incredibly fascinating.
Ross is all the more mysterious for the minimal amount of unauthorized or paratextual materials surrounding him. Mostly, what we know of Bob Ross comes from his program. We don’t have a cache of letters, no scandalous videotapes and, most significantly, no family interests looking to exploit the painter, who died in 1995, for a fast buck.
That’s good and bad. The good is that those of us who grew up watching Ross still know him only by his on-screen persona, not his off-camera flaws. By comparison, the premieres of The Joy of Painting and Michael Jackson’s Thriller came a mere 42 days apart.
It’s still possible to watch The Joy of Painting without feeling dirty.
The mystique of the painter’s life has fueled his cultish (in the best sense of that word) following, and the authors do a wonderful job of exploring the Bob Ross phenomenon and its devotees.
One of the most fascinating narratives in the book is the trinity of Ross, Andy Warhol and Thomas Kinkade. While Ross and Kinkade are sometimes paired in the collective consciousness (due to their being the only two contemporary painters many Americans know by name), they could not be more different. While Ross did his show for free (his income came from art instruction and supplies), Kinkade never met a check he didn’t cash. Ross idealized the wild outdoors, while Kinkade idealized property and domestication. Ross never sold his artwork, while Kinkade established a corporation, chain stores and a subdivision modeled after his paintings.
Perhaps the most significant difference is that Kinkade automated the process, mass producing prints with a few dabs of paint (done by other artists and, occasionally, Kinkade himself). Ross was all about the process. It wasn’t The Profits of Painting, it was The Joy of Painting. We don’t collect Ross, we connect with Ross. The focus is the act of creation, not its end product.
The authors argue, rather convincingly, that we should instead be comparing Ross with Warhol. The two make an odd couple at first, but by book’s end, the connection is apparent. Both defied the norms of fine art and gallery culture (though they were received very differently by that world), and both had a working-class ethic to their craft.
I doubt that MoMA will be racing to organize a Ross retrospective anytime soon, despite the well-composed arguments of Happy Clouds, Happy Trees.
Ultimately, as the authors write, it doesn’t matter. The Bob Ross Phenomenon has nothing to do with fickle gallery predilections or snooty art criticism.
It’s all about the man, our connection to him and that ineffable thrill of creation. Bob had a word for it.
In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Dale Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to killjustice-inc-cover off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”
And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.
These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. Albert Camus wrote: “Man is mortal. That may be; but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems justice!”
He would love this book.
In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.
This is the type of justice that runs through this collection. The settings are typically dystopian and of our own making. It is human nature to barricade the doors or erect walls to repel that which threatens us, only to realize that we have constructed our own prison cell.
Just ask Poe’s Prospero, whose harlequin fortress was child’s play for the Red Death.
Justice, Inc., published by the formidable Monkey Puzzle Press, manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.
The opening story, “Welcome to Omni-Mart,” is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Deer in the Works” updated for the big-box generation. Leonard was adopted by Omni-Mart as a child and now, at forty-two, lives, works and philosophizes within its walls, deathly afraid of The Outside.
It’s a synthetic, corporate dystopia that is, sadly, all too familiar.
“Life After Men” is a sardonic take on dysfunctional relationships and how we, inevitably, are drawn to, and driven by, the things that destroy us. Oh, and did I mention this plays out against the backdrop of some wild, gender-specific apocalypse?
This segues into the darkly comic (and karmic) “The Girlfriend™” in which the protagonist, Derrick, blurs the line between physical and factitious love. For Bridges, the femme fatale has been replaced by the sentient sex robot. (Of all the dystopias in all the dystopian universe, she had to walk into mine.)
Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.
Obligatory disclaimer: Bridges is a friend and former coworker. We worked (and suffered) together at the Boulder Weekly newspaper, where he succeeded me as arts and entertainment editor. We also worked together on Transgress magazine, where three of these stories originally appeared.
I can attest to the quality of the man, his writing and his conviction.
I can also warn you, from first-hand knowledge, that Bridges may very well be the madman Nietzsche wrote about—and the bringer of the end times.
Be warned that there is a fifth steed of the apocalypse, and its name is Justice—and Bridges is lashing the whip, breathing fire and coming for us all....more
I’m not sure where to begin with Blood, except to say that it may well be defining its own genre. It’s challenging, bloodcontroversial, lyrical, overly referential, meandering, meta-everything and modest.
OK, I lied about the last one. This book is quite full of itself.
But don’t take that as a bad thing. It’s a book that demands its own terms, and I respect any author willing to challenge their reader. Anidjar does present a challenge. The fault, though, is that he doesn’t appear to address it to the reader.
Reading this felt like missing the first day of class and coming to the second with no review. There is a conversation happening that I don’t seem to be a part of. Perhaps that’s because I’m a lay reader. Academics and the many readers smarter than me may have better luck, but I struggled with this one.
While that’s partly on me, there is also a lack of clarity in Anidjar’s writing. He has a penchant for winding sentences, extended parentheticals and pivots of thought that left me in the weeds. He strikes me as a brilliant thinker, but struggles with communicating those ideas.
I would love to grab a beer with Patrick Madrid. Beginning by analogizing the Catholic Church with Noah’s Ark—andwhy be catholic not always in a flattering manner—he comes across as funny and self-effacing, and very likeable.
It’s easy to see why Madrid is a popular blogger, lecturer and apologist. It’s this accessibility that will draw readers to Why Be Catholic?: Ten Answers to a Very Important Question, a short work with a lot of personality—but little to offer in terms of intellectual debate.
Going into this book, I had hoped it was intended for a general audience. Unfortunately, it is directed toward the choir. As I’m not part of the choir, I had hoped there would be a substantive argument drawing on scholarship and exegesis, but Madrid’s answers appear to have been composed to reinforce the faithful and educate believers of other denominations on the customs of the Catholic Church.
It is not an argument for Catholicism for nonbelievers, but rather for non-Catholics.
Madrid makes reference to atheists, agnostics and others, but never directly addresses these groups. Case in point: He mistakenly writes of the “miracle” of Lanciano that “Scientists have not been able to explain it, nor have atheists been able to debunk it.” Well, the burden of proof is on the believers, not the scientists. The church is in possession of a bit of human tissue and blood, allegedly consecrated from bread and wine ~700 C.E. No dispute there. They have human tissue and blood. So does Dexter. What proof exists that they started as tapas?
But to be fair, that’s not the point of Why Be Catholic?. This book is for readers for whom issues of existence or nonexistence have already been decided. If you count yourself among them, then I recommend this book as a light, enjoyable read.
For theological debate, try elsewhere.
My preference would be to discuss it with Madrid over a beer. Or maybe tapas....more
As much as I love a good intellectual debate, when it comes down to it, I’m a sucker for a good reconciliation faith and wisdom in sciencethesis—a text that searches for common ground, or at least common interests. It’s why I loved Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and why, despite my passions, I do my best to avoid polemics, with varying degrees of success (I think Christopher Hitchens should be required reading, while I didn’t care for Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, though I agree with his premise).
Reading only what supports your beliefs leads to entrenchment and intellectual idleness. Equally lazy is cherry-picking only the extreme views on the opposite side, as it offers a skewed perspective that is easily caricaturized and dismissed (e.g. thinking the Westboro Baptist Church is representative of all Christians or that Ann Coulter is speaking on behalf of human beings).
So it was with great interest that I cracked open (does that expression apply to e-books?) Faith and Wisdom in Science by Tom McLeish, a physics professor at Durham University.
I liken it in tone and intention to Buddhist Biology, by David Barash, a brilliant book in which the author explicates his self-proclaimed Buddhist atheism. However, while Barash delivers a very personal narrative, McLeish takes a more historical focus.
McLeish is a talented writer, which makes Faith an easy and enjoyable read. He explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. Here, he points out parallels, but I don’t think he presents a strong argument. Yes, people from biblical days share our fascination with reality, and myth-making was our earliest stab at explaining the world.
That doesn’t mean that biblical passages are relevant to modern science.
I do appreciate his discussion of the individual’s experience with the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. “By actually working through some real science ourselves, so that we are reminded what it ‘feels like’, we have found it to run rather deeper and to touch more nerves…”
Which segues to McLeish’s strongest topic: The unfortunate divide between the sciences and the humanities. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.
Somewhat tangential, though I think relevant, is an article in the Summer 2014 issue of Philosophy Now, “Are There ‘Other’ Ways of Knowing?” The author, philosophical science correspondent Massimo Pigliucci, revisits a conversation on science and philosophy he had with heavyweights Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss.
The takeaway is that science, he writes, is too quick to dismiss non-scientific, or non-empirical, knowledge, such as mathematical knowledge, phenomenological experience and intuition (as in subconscious processing, not precognition).
I found it a helpful companion to McLeish’s book, as it shows how easy it is to become dogmatic in the sciences.
But to finish with McLeish, I will draw one final comparison: Cosmos. Both the original and the reboot are classics because they impart knowledge without diminishing the wonder of the natural world. In fact, I would argue that the more we learn of the natural world, the more wondrous it appears.
And like Neil deGrasse Tyson, McLeish is affable, informative and, in my opinion, has written a book not so much about science and religion, but rather on that greatest of virtues that we should never lose, but often do: childlike wonder.
If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science....more
I had high hopes for Asa Akira’s memoir. I imagine being a porn star makes for an Insatiableinteresting life, and I was hoping to learn about the person, not the persona (which is already widely available on the Internet).
Unfortunately, Akira wrote the book in character.
Consider the sex scenes. Of course sex is going to come up in a porn memoir, but I wasn’t expecting it in the form of Penthouse Letters-style prose. My take is that it’s a distraction. By focusing our gaze on the sex, Akira deflects the attention away from herself.
What I wanted from Insatiable was the side of Akira we haven’t seen yet, and she noticeably shies away from the interior reflection required of memoir. Perhaps this is a survival skill inherent among those in the sex industry: It’s easier to open up physically than emotionally.
Fair enough, I suppose.
What I can’t excuse, however, is the tone. In the adult industry, female characters are typically portrayed as hyper-sexualized, submissive and eager to please. (Think Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK or the nature of small talk made around stripper poles.) It’s understood that these are on-screen characters, but when the actor extends this behavior beyond the camera lens, it is inauthentic at best and caricature at worst.
Akira does show her depth at times, such as while discussing the growing intersection of porn and prostitution. This is the kind of dialogue I was looking for, but even here, I don’t believe she truly mines her interior. What could have been an important conversation is ultimately reduced to an anecdote, though an interesting one to be sure.
I’m reminded of the album cover of KISS Unmasked. It is paneled in the form of a comic book in which the musicians remove their “masks” at the end. They reveal that underneath their face paint they look exactly the same. It’s a clever gag, but it’s meant to obfuscate, not uncover.
I feel the same way about Insatiable.
It’s clever and shows a lot of promise. Akira’s narrative is fast-paced, the content readable and at times laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re a fan of Asa Akira, this is an enjoyable, though not essential, read....more
Review: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons Posted on May 14, 2014
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons
The fact that Sam Kean has yet to win a major publishing prize is an oversight that must The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeonsbe righted this year. Kean’s previous books, The Disappearing Spoon (2010) and The Violinist’s Thumb (2012), were critically acclaimed best-sellers, but garnered no love from the folks at the Pulitzer and National Book Award.
Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society as one of the top science books of 2010, and Thumb was a finalist in the PEN literary science writing category, but the former is based in London and the latter prize went to another author.
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery provides the prize judges with a chance to make it right.
As with his other books, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read. Kean’s appeal is his ability (like that of Mary Roach) to equally entertain and educate. He keeps you so absorbed in the narrative that you’re unaware how much you’ve learned until you hear yourself dropping scientific factoids at a dinner party.
With Kean, scientific advancement is never dull. He has a nose for the quirky, the quacky and the querulous.
However, his new book may be his most impressive yet, on a personal level. Part of what made Spoon and Thumb so interesting to me was the thrill of discovery. I knew little of chemistry and DNA before cracking them open.
Therefore, the true test of his writing prowess would be The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, a subject a bit closer to my wheelhouse. I never scored high in chemistry or biology, but I graduated with honors with a degree in psychology.
How interesting could he make this familiar subject?
Kean dug deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science, and he infused newfound wonder into time-worn stories, such as Phineas Gage. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”
If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.
And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy....more
Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
I’ve long struggled with the language people use when discussing animals. The idea of getting your cat or dog “fixed,” for example, is simply moronic. There’s nothing broken with our animals’ reproductive systems. The problem is that they’re working too good!
That’s like removing the battery from a working clock and saying you’ve fixed it.
It’s not that controlling the reproductive habits of our companion animals is a bad idea. Of course I’m a proponent of spaying and neutering—particularly TNR outreach programs that are doing amazing work throughout the world.
But as a writer I’m also a supporter of the rhyme and reason—the simple logic, if you will—of language. I can accept the phrase “put to sleep” as a euphemism for mercy killing, but “fixed”?
A similar misnomer—and one deserving of far more vehemence—concerns the use of animal language to describe acts of human cruelty. Killers and rapists are commonly referred to as “beasts,” “brutes” or, in the parlance of Hollywood noir, “you filthy animal.”
True, the animal kingdom is a violent world, but even the worst behavior is driven by the need to sate appetites, not for the sake of sadism. At an animal shelter where I worked, we once took in more than two dozen Australian shepherds from a puppy mill in Nebraska. Most of the puppies could be rescued. We were able to socialize, rehabilitate and adopt them out to loving homes.
A handful of others were too sick, malnourished or traumatized to recover and didn’t respond to medical treatment or therapy. They were euthanized, and it was an act of kindness.
There were a few others dogs, however, who had been abused to the point of aggression—dogs with such an inbred fear of people that they couldn’t improve under the best behavior mod training we had to offer.
There was one dog in particular who broke my heart. His life was a perpetual state of fight, flight or freeze—he was unable to flee and freezing wasn’t in his nature. He filled with terrified rage anytime someone approached his kennel, even for feedings. He would fling his body from wall to wall and bash his head against the cage—climbing, jumping, snarling.
When it came time to euthanize him, it took four of us, a net and two vials of tranquilizer to get him sedated. The desperate, implacable fear in his eyes was disarming, and it still troubles me to think of the living conditions and daily abuse that had terrified him so. I hope I never again have to see a creature that afraid.
As we carried his unconscious body to the kill room, I wished that we were injecting toxins into the fucker who ran the puppy mill rather than the dog. It pained me to destroy that animal, but I would have had no guilt or second thoughts of putting that guy to sleep.
Like Dexter, I wanted him plastic-wrapped on my table.
I wiped my eyes after the dog died, and it’s not hyperbole when I say I wouldn’t have shed a single tear if I’d delivered the needle to the mill owner who did this to these dogs.
That’s why I find it odd that when someone commits a heinous act, it is referred to as “animalistic” or “inhumane.” I’ve never known a dog that would abuse people the way puppy mill workers mistreat and exploit animals for profit. Unlike the FBI, animal control doesn’t need a profiler to understand the brutality of its species.
And dog fighting? As far as I can tell, we humans are alone in training and forcing other species to fight to the death for our entertainment.
No, I would say the likes of Michael Vick aren’t “animals,” “beasts” or less than human. To borrow from Nietzsche, I would say they are human, all too human.
Which brings me to Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a somewhat academic, somewhat philosophical and all-around interesting book about animals and morality.
Like his previous books, such as Dogs Never Lie About Love and When Elephants Weep, Masson studies the emotional behavior of animals (such as love, grief and contentment) and searches for lessons that can be applied to humans. In Beasts, he is looking at anger and aggression.
The centerpiece of his argument is concise as it is uncomfortable: Humans and orcas have the most complex brains in history, yet of these two, only humans kill members of their own species.
A poignant fact—and an excellent point of entry for a discussion on human behavior. Masson gives us much to think about as he lays out his argument; however, he oversteps from argument to advocacy in places, building off conclusions that seem far from settled.
I’m in agreement with Masson that humans are capable of and culpable for the greatest violence against our own species in the animal kingdom. We even get bonus marks for creativity. Predator drones, IEDs, beheadings, shoe bombs. Who would think to torture and kill other sentient beings in the absurdly original manner that we do?
However, Masson paints a pastoral of nature without humans, and this idyllic view makes it difficult to buy into the author’s argument. I’m reminded of the episode of Family Guy in which Death goes on a date with Amy, the Pollyannaish pet-shop girl whose Disney-fied view of nature causes Death to “terminate” their relationship.
Masson has a complex and sophisticated view of nature, but his conclusions appear to be based more on opinion than evidence. Still, it’s a compelling commentary, and I would recommend it for anyone interested in animals and nature.
I agree that we could learn much about social behavior from animals, but I would take Masson’s conclusions as part of an ongoing discussion and an invitation to further research.
And for further reading, I would also suggest the magnificent and thought-provoking article by James McWilliams, “Loving Animals to Death,” in the current American Scholar. ...more
I first encountered Harold Schechter in the mid-’90s at the (sadly) now-defunct Twice-Loved Books in Youngstown, Ohio. My friend Todd and I would travel there often, lost for hours among their three floors of books and playing with the occasional store cat.
You would most often find me in the basement, where the true crime section was wedged into a nook behind the stairs. And you would most often find a Schechter book tucked beneath my arm.
I am not only a fan of crime writing, but an advocate. There is a stigma with the genre that I have always felt was undeserved. Even in progressive-minded bookstores like Twice-Loved (where I was able to order first-edition Aleister Crowley tomes in the pre-Internet age), crime reporting was given only subterranean shelf space.
That’s a shame. Crime writers like Schechter are historians, sociologists, documentarians and cultural commentators, and to be relegated to back-shelf status by the literary mainstream is a disservice to the many great writers (and well-informed readers) working in the genre.
I asked Schechter about the breadth of his work in a 2012 interview:
“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” he said. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”
In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.
But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.
Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book, The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation.
Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.
That in and of itself would make for a good read, but Schechter is a skilled storyteller and, more importantly, a devoted historian. His research into the man who would become The Mad Sculptor not only unearthed a traumatic upbringing, but also documented the changing post-Depression personality of the Beekman Hill neighborhood where the murders occurred.
Turns out this neighborhood was home to a series of sensational murders a year prior to Irwin’s massacre.
Weaving a wealth of historical documents into a cohesive narrative, Schechter gives us not only the crime and the cultural mindset, but also the role the media played in the tale, from the earliest indictment of an innocent man through fictional jailhouse confessions and a business arrangement with the Chicago Herald-Examiner so shady that it would make Rupert Murdoch cry foul.
In fact, all of the media coverage (including the persistent “blame-the-victim” approach that made a fuss over Gedeon’s modeling career and her father’s fondness for “French art” postcards) makes today’s television news seem downright ethical (well, almost) by comparison.
If I have one critique of The Mad Sculptor, it’s that we don’t learn much about Irwin’s time in prison. We get factual data, such as how long he lived after his conviction, when he died, and such, but not the in-depth reporting showcased in previous chapters.
But in a time when most movies and many books run far too long (only quantum physics can explain why it takes longer to watch The Great Gatsby than it does to read the book), it’s not really a bad thing to say that Schechter could’ve gone on for another hundred pages or so and I would have been with him all the way.
Schechter had a run in the 1990s that would make any writer jealous, penning best-sellers about Albert Fish, Ed Gein and Depraved, Schechter’s account of H.H. Holmes.
The latter is an example of the literary caste system writ large. Depraved, published in 1994, predated Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City by nearly a decade. While both tell the story of the same man—and the same crimes—one is relegated to the dusty shelves of true crime while the other is a modern classic and prominently displayed at the front of the store.
This is not a knock on Larson’s book (he did nothing wrong by writing an excellent book and reaping success), but rather an example of the double-standards that sometimes emerge in publishing. I point this out not to get on a soapbox but rather to appeal to readers who may never otherwise stray to the nether regions of the bookstore or think that crime writing isn’t for them:
Yes, you will find The Mad Sculptor in the true crime section, but it is greater than the sum of its kill count.
Yes, Harold Schechter is America’s finest crime writer, but he is so much more.
Let this book be your introduction to another historical viewpoint, and don’t be afraid to drift to those shadowy corners of the bookstore where you’ve feared to tread before. To quote Nietzsche: “I am a forest, and a night of dark trees; but he who is not afraid of my darkness will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”
Take it from the weird kid who spent hours in those shadowy basement corridors, collecting the flowers of history in the dark. ...more
Dr. Sam Hatch is a soul adrift. Since losing his wife and child a year before, he’s tried to outrace his pain, literally, with a series of taped-together cars and sometimes his thumb. Now a transient, he squats for a night in a “vacant shell of a house” in Maryland.
Here is where the past catches up with Hatch.
Ronald Malfi’s The Mourning House (published Dec. 18 by Delirium Books as an e-book and limited edition hardcover) is a short tale of grief, obsession and the fragility of physical and mental structure. It is also a haunted house story, if there is such a thing (I’ll explain in a moment).
Malfi, whose previous novels include the IPPY-award winners Floating Staircase and Shamrock Alley, adds to this great literary tradition, and The Mourning House is a thoroughly enjoyable tale that is more of a character study than a plot-driven thriller. It hooked me with the opening chapter and kept me burning through the pages to the end.
It also got me thinking about the lure of the haunted house. Why is it such an enduring trope? There are the familiar literary explanations: the house as manifestation of the self (“The Fall of the House of Usher”); the lingering energy (aka back story) of past inhabitants (The House of the Seven Gables); the narrative tale that leaves you wondering whether the characters are occupying the house or the other way around (The Shining).
But The Mourning House is part of a lesser-discussed subgenre: the malleable or ever-shifting house. This also happens to be my favorite kind of haunted house story.
I don’t subscribe to the supernatural. I’m not afraid of ghosts, and I’ve yet to fall victim to a family curse. But “The 5 1/2 Minute Hallway” in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is one of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read. Here, new residents of an old house discover that the interior and exterior dimensions of a hallway are incongruent. There is a geometric dissonance that disturbs the occupants (and the reader).
Malfi taps into that feeling of dissonance. Hatch isn’t visited by apparitions in The Mourning House, and there’s nothing a poltergeist could do that would torment him as severely as his own memories. What is troubling is that items around the house have moved while he was out; his closet seems to be of variable dimensions; and a curious subfloor is revealed beneath his feet.
Each morning, Hatch awakes in, essentially, a new house, and that, my friends, is the crux of great horror fiction. It tickles that spot in our lizard brains that burns for shelter. It’s why the haunted house is a timeless premise—and why I argue that there is, ironically, no such thing.
At the core of every haunted house story is a protagonist troubled long before they ever set foot in the house. The house becomes a metaphor, a hallucination, a projection of mental disturbance. The nature of the haunting reflects the nature of one’s troubles. For Hatch, the ever-shifting house is symbolic of helplessness and fragility. He was a successful doctor with a happy marriage, but in an instant it was taken from him.
Our homes are extensions of ourselves. That’s why home invasions are more traumatic than street muggings. For Hatch, it’s only natural that his haunting plays on his vulnerability. At any moment, the place where he should feel safest could shift forever. And he is helpless to do anything about it.
Malfi handles this masterfully in The Mourning House. The beginning and ending are magnificent, as is the bulk of what comes between. For the most part, the novel is well-paced, the prose solid and the action compelling. Here and there, scenes feel rushed or we get an overload of description without the emotional interiority that anchors us to the story (see chapter two).
But there’s no sense nitpicking over these few moments. Malfi is an excellent storyteller and a demon of description. This is a great piece of writing, and I recommend it for any fan of quality horror fiction or anyone who may fit that description on your holiday shopping list. ...more
This is a book that will break your heart. From the uncomfortable opening scene at the crematorium, across continents and decades, this is a longitudinal gut-punch of a novel dealing with loss, guilt, terror and fragility.
The person being burned to ashes in the beginning is Shaoai, a childhood friend of the three main characters who was poisoned (perhaps deliberately, perhaps not) in her youth. She has finally passed after two decades in a coma, and her death brings together our lead trio—Moran, Ruyu and Boyang.
From here, the journey turns inward.
Li pens exquisite prose, with beautifully crafted sentences as philosophical as they are proficient. If I have one critique it is that the language, however beautiful, can sometimes stand in the way of the storytelling. Li is able to meditate on moments, which can subsume the reader into the novel, but at times can also push them out.
This is literary mystery, so of course there’s more to it than solving the crime. This is as much about Shaoai’s poisoner as Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer is about catching a serial killer. What matters isn’t revealing what happened, but exploring the intersection of the lives touched by Shaoai’s coma and death—inhabiting the grief and guilt harbored by the three survivors.
We all have childhood regrets, and we’ve all known someone who never made it to adulthood (though not necessarily linked the way they are here). There are things we would like to change. There are times we wonder why we’re still here and someone else isn’t.
How do we go on with this knowledge? Li doesn’t necessarily answer that question, but she gives us a disarming portrait of three childhood friends coming to terms with a past they can’t quite shake and a mystery that will both intertwine them and isolate them forever....more
A journalist and a scientist walk into a bar… travel the world, return to the lab and come out with what is likely the best book you’ll read all year
by Vince Darcangelo
In my graduate form and technique class, our instructor, Steven Schwartz, devoted a three-hour class period to humor. I was shocked to learn that there was a dearth of comic literature to study.
Why had so few serious writers ventured down that rabbit hole?
“Comedy is not kind,” Schwartz explained to us. “There is blood in comedy, which is why most people shy away from being comic writers.”
Joel Warner and Peter McGraw would agree.
“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” they write in their new book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.
“Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.
Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.
The theory itself is quite intuitive and elegant in its simplicity: Humor arises from the violation of a norm (be it political, social, personal), but in a way that is recognized as harmless or good-natured (“jk”) by all involved.
The prime illustration is tickling. Taken outside of its traditional context, tickling is a clear violation of personal space, yet it sometimes elicits laughter.
More importantly for the BVT, sometimes it does not.
If a stranger on the bus jabs his fingers in your armpits and begins to wiggle them, the appropriate response is a slap or the tossing of a hot beverage in his face. This is a close encounter of the non-benign kind.
Now, pause for a moment and try to tickle yourself. Go ahead, no judgment. Couldn’t do it, could you? Your fingers go through the motions, but it’s just not the same. That’s because though your intention was benign, it was not a violation of personal space.
Therefore, not funny.
But let your personal tickle monster have at the back of your ear lobes, and you just might cry with laughter. It’s a violation of personal space, but by someone on the guest list—ostensibly with good intentions.
So that’s the theory of BVT, how about the application?
For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.
That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.
Here I’ll pause for a short disclaimer. Let it be noted that Joel Warner is a friend of mine. I have cat-sat for him on occasion, not to mention the numerous times we’ve helped each other stumble home from the Boulder bars at 2 a.m.
For three years, Warner and I were co-workers at an alternative newsweekly in Colorado, and on a daily basis I was witness to his talent, integrity and work ethic. From our earliest days in the newsroom, the editorial team knew he would be writing best-selling books someday.
That day is today.
If I had to make comparisons, I would liken The Humor Code to Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. Like those two books, the reader comes away knowing more about the topic, and about the world at large, than they would’ve thought when they first cracked the spine—and in a way that makes you laugh as much as you learn.
Mixing the experimental with the anecdotal, here are a few of their discoveries: ■“Japan is a high-context society. The country is so homogenous, so unified in its history and culture, that most zingers don’t need set-ups at all.” (“The United States, on the other hand, is as low context as you can get.”) ■“…A sense of humor is seen as a sign of intelligence, social desirability and overall genetic fitness. In other words, good jokes are a guy’s version of colorful peacock plumes…” ■“We found humor designed to ease people’s pain, a laughter shared by Palestinian street kids and Israeli Holocaust survivors alike.”
The latter observation is the exclamation point to a friendly interaction between a Palestinian shopkeeper and an Israeli policeman. It was a beautiful moment that even had this cynical bastard singing “We Are the World.”
But there’s more to humor (and The Humor Code) than just the har-hars and the touchy-feelies. Alongside the camaraderie is the reality of political and cultural blowback. For the tender moments observed in Palestine, there is the reminder that the sketch comedy television show was shut down when it became too controversial. We learn that real life goes on for Patch Adams after his Hollywood ending. There is personal tragedy and, lest we forget, reminders of the embassies and churches that were set on fire, the people who were murdered and those who remain captives in their own homes for fear of their lives because of a newspaper comic.
Yes, because of a newspaper comic.
In a commentary that would do Professor Schwartz proud, Warner and McGraw write:
“We laugh loudest at the most arousing humor attempts, the stuff that’s laced with a bit of danger. So in order to come up with the best comedy, we have to skirt ever closer to the realm of tragedy, hurt and pain. For some people, the result will hit that perfect, hilarious sweet spot. For others, it goes over the line.”
Warner and McGraw aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, whether they’re mining gallows humor in war zones, dissecting the world’s funniest joke or bombing onstage before a crowd of angry drunks, these guys bravely submerse themselves in the blood sport that is comedy.
They write: “It’s almost as if making people laugh during dark and troubling times is so vital, so crucial, that it outweighs common sense, and maybe even self-preservation.”
Their observations are sharp, insightful and they’re not afraid to explore the breadth of emotions comedy elicits. They’re even bold enough to be funny on five continents.
Their conclusions? Well, you’ll have to read the book for those, but of course, as with all great literature, you’ll soon learn that the joy is in pursuing the question, not necessarily finding a definitive answer.
The journey might take you to some dark places, so be sure to pack a clown nose with your Band-Aids.