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. (less)
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. (less)
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. (less)
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.(less)
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.
Remember the first time you crawled a dungeon, slayed the dragon and stuffed as much treasure as you could into your “bag of holding”? Felt good, right? But the true prize wasn’t the booty. Sure, I enjoyed counting the gold and platinum coins, drooling over the prospects of upgraded armor, a magic-enhanced broad sword and whatever mischief I could scare up with a few copper pieces at the local tavern.
But what intrigued me most were the tattered spell scrolls, mysterious tomes and the secrets of the ancients.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. A rabid imagination is the primary tool that all fans of role-playing games bring to the table, and a trove of yellowed parchment and faded maps makes us froth at the mouth. Just how powerful is that fireball incantation? What wisdom could be discovered in that old paladin’s codex?
That’s what it feels like digging into Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. For any experienced gamer, this is a hoard worthy of any dungeon campaign.
It’s no longer groundbreaking to think of gaming as a topic for academic or cultural studies, but while many books have been written about gaming and gamers, they tend to be focused on a particular aspect of the genre, rather than presenting a comprehensive history. Peterson spent more than five years of archival research and writing creating Playing at the World, the definitive history of gaming and, by far, the most ambitious.
Though originally published in 2012, Peterson’s book has been reissued in honor of D&D’s 40th birthday. Four decades can offer a lot of history, but Peterson goes even further, tracing its lineage back to chess and existing war games.
By Peterson’s own admission, this book isn’t necessarily intended for a mainstream audience. It is a dense, detailed work of history and, if I dare say, sociology. It belongs on the book shelf (or e-reader) of any serious gamer, and though it may not be a front-to-back page-turner, it is an important resource for anyone who geeks out on geeking out.
The book’s most important contribution, though, has yet to be realized. In the decades to come, as gaming and gaming studies grow even bigger, Playing at the World will serve as both source material and historical lockbox upon which the future of gaming is framed and its past is preserved. (less)
Valerie Martin’s new novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, is a bit like a star-studded variety show. It’s got a little bit of everything: maritime mystery, historical figures, supernatural subterfuge and… Sherlock Holmes?
The oddest part about the above description is that this book is more fact than fantasy.
Martin is a prize-winning master of historical fiction (Mary Reilly, Property), and this time around, she takes on the legendary ghost ship Mary Celeste, which was discovered abandoned, though still seaworthy, in 1872, her crew never to be seen again. This true-life mystery caught the attention of Martin, as well as another author (a young Arthur Conan Doyle published a fictionalized account of the ghost ship).
The terror is subtle in this novel. Martin makes use of found documents—journals, diaries, articles—to blend the factual with the fantastic. She meanders through time, takes on the social norms and issues of the day, and makes use of historical record real and imagined. She thrills us, certainly, but unfortunately leaves us with a tangled knot of loose ends.
There is no doubting the quality of the writing. Martin is a master storyteller, and her opening chapter is as harrowing as anything I’ve read this year. She places us in the heart of the Mary Celeste as it sails toward its destiny. Her words, like the storm, encroach, terrorize and ultimately consume, and after finishing the first chapter, I had to set the book aside for a while.
With equal skill, Martin details the lives of those left behind following the tragedy. There is heartbreak, romance and more tragedy on land. Every scene, every line of dialogue, every description is near perfect.
This is, however, a challenging book, not in content but in structure. I’m usually a fan of difficult reads—I take it as a sign of respect when an author, such as Martin, asks more of her readership than passive engagement. The narrative shifts through time, location and point of view. Indeed, there is a clever chronology, as the shipwreck segues to the survivor story segues to Doyle’s voyage segues to spiritualism. However, though they’re all linked by the Mary Celeste, the narratives feel more like vignettes. I found myself invested in each storyline, only to have it pulled out from under me with every new section. Nothing felt complete. As much as the writing drew me in, the shifting narrative pushed me away in equal measure.
This is just one reader’s opinion. Martin’s body of work speaks for itself. She is a gifted writer and storyteller, an astute chronicler of history with a great imagination. To any reader looking for a challenge, I say go for it. Get yourself a copy and enjoy the ride. For me, though, the novel is a bit like the Mary Celeste—seaworthy, but somehow I got lost along the way. (less)
It’s been a quarter-century since the first edition of this book was published. Some things have changed drastically: The first edition came out at the height of the Reagan-Bush era, whereas the new edition comes on the heels of major Democratic victories in 2012.
But some things haven’t changed: The cultural obsession of equating financial poverty with moral bankruptcy.
Katz does a wonderful job of exploring the evolution of blame-the-poor politics and the invention (and ongoing reinvention) of the underclass. It’s a slippery and interesting social history, and it brings to mind Foucault’s histories of mental illness and prisons.
One of the interesting takeaways for me is the human need to compartmentalize. There is a line drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Women and children tend to occupy the first category, while men almost universally fall into the latter. Politically and culturally speaking, the line drawn between the two groups is solid and severe, with those on one side garnerng support and sympathy and the others disdain and even punishment.
The trouble is that the line, in reality rather than construct, is blurry.
America’s schizophrenic attitude toward poverty shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a country that went from agriculture to industry to technology, where the Roaring ’20s gave way to the Great Depression, which segued into an unprecedented era of prosperity. Where LBJ waged a failed War on Poverty, and his successors waged a failed War on Drugs, which has ultimately amounted to a war on the impoverished.
This is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in economics, politics or social history. It may not resolve any legislative debates, but it will lend the reader more thoughtful consideration of the topic. (less)
I have a longstanding love affair with the small horror press. They’re like neighborhood bookstores: Some last, the majority fail (ultimately), but most of them are amazing while they last. And like that corner bookstore, they each have their own personality, though ostensibly they are all dealing in similar content.
Enter the first installment of Dark Visions from Grey Matter Press.
They certainly know how to plunge into the darkness: the anthology series begins with an original story from Jonathan Maberry—yes, that Jonathan Maberry. Best of all, his contribution, “Mister Pockets,” takes us back to a place I know and love so well: Pine Deep.
For those unfamiliar, Pine Deep is the small town in rural Pennsylvania that was the setting for Maberry’s first three novels, including Bad Moon Rising, the bad-ass conclusion to the trilogy that any horror fan should begin reading immediately. This is a place that knows how to celebrate Halloween—and there is plenty to be afraid of here. I loved this world that Maberry created, and I was ecstatic to return.
Like all anthologies, there is a little something for everybody, and not every story will be your cup of tea. The important thing is that the quality level is high and consistent throughout, and Dark Visions is certainly a cut above your average anthology.
There is one story in particular that I would like to single out, “The Weight of Paradise” by Jeff Hemenway. This is easily the best new horror story I read this year, and perhaps of even the past few years. It is thoroughly original, dark and morally complicated, the hallmark of great horror fiction. Unless the voting is rigged, this story should win many awards and be anthologized for years to come.
There are plenty of other dark delights as well, and I’m excited for the second installment, scheduled for a summer release. (less)
Many have described football as an encapsulation of America itself (see Sal Paolantonio’s How Football Explains America), and I’m inclined to agree. Of course there’s a time lag, since Europeans arrived on this continent four centuries before the birth of American football.
For historical synchronicity, let’s say the 19th-century invention of the sport parallels the arrival at Plymouth Rock; the 1920 formation of the National Football League (then known as the American Professional Football Association) was the Continental Congress; and the years leading up to and including the early Super Bowls was the Wild West. Since then, football has enjoyed the popularity and profit of post-WWII America.
The bridge between the NFL’s lawless pre-history and current glory days is the 1970s, when the organized mayhem of the sport electrified color televisions across the nation. It was the decade dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 1973, author Roy Blount Jr., whom many will know as a regular panelist on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, spent the season with the Steelers at a crucial moment—months after the Immaculate Reception and a year before their first Super Bowl victory.
The result was the gonzo-style About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, which has been re-released in honor of the book’s fortieth anniversary.
I have a personal interest in this book: I was born in western Pennsylvania in 1972, and you bet your ass I bleed black and gold. Possessing that strain of superstition unique to sports, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Steelers won a grand total of 0 postseason games prior to my birth and since then have been the winningest team in football.
As a youth, I idolized the ’70s Steelers, but didn’t yet have the sophistication (or skepticism) to consider the lives of the men behind the facemasks. It was with great interest, then, that I read About Three Bricks Shy of a Load to learn more about the incubation of a dynasty. What sets this apart from similar books (such as Their Life’s Work and Steel Dynasty) is that it captures the highs and lows of the 1973 season without the sentimentality of age or the foreknowledge of future championships.
However, this isn’t a yearbook. This is an in-the-trenches account of the players and personalities that epitomized professional football of that era—a time before the NFL became PG rated. Blount’s embedded reporting is remarkable, from the openness of alcohol, drugs and sex to the lingering racial and culture divides of the 1960s. I’ve learned more about the team I idolized in this one book than I did growing up an hour from Three Rivers Stadium.
However, this is still a book of general interest. Although its emphasis is on one team, it is a pivotal bit of prehistory to the NFL’s dominance. A raw, unfiltered look at a free-wheeling sports league before it became a tight-lipped, humorless corporation.
Of course, there are shadows that loom over this narrative. Just as nobody in 1973 could have foreseen the success of the Steelers and the NFL, also unknown was the physical toll of steroids and repeated blows to the head. The significance of this book will likely increase with age, especially as the NFL finds itself at a crossroads—its popularity has never been greater, but lawsuits, science and dropping youth enrollment portent a shaky future.
History is always a work in progress, and the definitive narrative of the NFL has yet to be written. But when it is, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load will be a document of a special time in a special place, the story of a team on the cusp of greatness falling just shy of its goal. (less)
Here’s a book combining two of my favorite things: science writing and football. Turns out they go together as naturally (and tastily) as Dorito’s and M&Ms, and like that classic combo, I binged on it until it was all gone. The authors write with passion and knowledge, and in every chapter there was something I didn’t know, either about science or the sport I love.
It begins, fittingly, with an interview with Stephen Wolfram (the theoretical physicist and author of A New Kind of Science), who explains the role chaos theory plays in your team’s game plan. I had always considered the 12th man to be the home crowd, but it turns out to be initial conditions. “Change the initial conditions and the outcomes diverge exponentially,” Wolfram says, leading the authors to extrapolate that “The no-huddle offense was chaos theory at work.”
My new dream is to hear Chris Berman reference initial conditions during a highlight reel.
The ball itself has an interesting history—and a physics all its own. There is no such thing as a tight spiral, for example, since the pigskin (which isn’t really pigskin) requires gyroscopic torque to remain in flight. Knowing that, you might just feel empathy rather than outrage the next time your quarterback lofts a lame duck over the middle.
This book transforms the gridiron into a laboratory. And much like those “Eureka” moments in the lab, serendipity and circumstance had a hand in the game’s innovation, such as the introduction of the West Coast offense and the soccer-style kick. St. John and Ainissa also prove that not all penalties are created equal: The more important stat is not penalty yardage but the breakdown between offensive and defensive infractions.
There is a serious side to Newton’s Football as well. While advances in neuroscience have revealed the extent of football’s brutality, many are wondering if football will exist in another 25 years—and if so, will it be recognizable to today’s fans. The authors explore the current concussion research and uncover some possible solutions.
Along the way, the authors revisit some of the game’s most famous plays and players, and combine physics and football with narrative journalism in one of the easiest and most interesting reads I’ve encountered all year (and that’s no small amount of books). Definitely in my top 10.
Newton’s Football is a must-have for fans of football and/or science. Not everyone is a fan of both, which is all the better because this book offers a chance to expand one’s horizons.
By the final page it will have armchair quarterbacks running statistical analysis and lab rats rubbing elbows at the sports bar. Does it get more interesting than that? (less)
I didn’t think anyone anthropomorphized animals more than me until I read this diary, trans...moreDiary of Edward the Hamster (1990-1990)
Miriam and Ezra Elia
I didn’t think anyone anthropomorphized animals more than me until I read this diary, translated from the notes left behind by Edward the Hamster. Much like the Marquis de Sade, who wrote extensively while in prison and only achieved literary fame posthumously, this artifact of Edward’s incarceration is certain to elicit pathos in readers.
It’s clear that Edward has studied the likes of Heidegger and Sartre. His reflections are wrought with defiance, despair and existential angst. He searches for meaning within his cage. There is food, water, a wheel.
“Is there nothing else!” he cries.
Filled with wit and wisdom, this graphic novel is a black comic tribute to a beloved hamster—the most existential beast within the animal kingdom. The drawings are cute, the entries are funny, but sprinkled throughout the book are philosophical nuggets like, “Why write? Life is a cage of empty words,” and “Is this cage of my own making?”
Along the way, we follow Edward through failed escapes, domestic discord and bliss and a final, bloody insurrection. This is a quick and playful read, with clever artwork, and will bring a smile to the philosopher in your life. (less)
There is a bitter synchronicity to Koethi Zan’s debut novel, The Never List. Concerning the lives of three women held captive...moreThe Never List
There is a bitter synchronicity to Koethi Zan’s debut novel, The Never List. Concerning the lives of three women held captive in a madman’s basement, The Never List hit shelves 10 days before Ariel Castro pled guilty to holding three women hostage in his Cleveland basement.
I’m reminded of the Alice Cooper tale of his first trip to England. According to legend, a woman died during the flight, and it fueled his notoriety when he emerged on UK soil trailing a cadaver. Serendipity may not be the polite word, but by dictionary definition…
So, I read this book in July and loved it. The writing is solid and the narrative compelling, and I intended to review it at that time. Unfortunately, it got lost in the barrage of new releases.
There is a news hook, though, as the book is being adapted for television, and will be written by transgressive author A.M. Homes, which should make for wonderfully disturbing television. (less)
This short work, a reworking of a chapter from Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,...moreThe First Thanksgiving
This short work, a reworking of a chapter from Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, is a great introduction to anyone interested in historical nonfiction who may be daunted by Philbrick’s longer works. There aren’t enough superlatives for Philbrick’s writing, and this appetizer will make any reader want to read the Mayflower, or any of his works, in full.
It’s the history of a holiday that we still celebrate, yet holds little connection to its origin. Here, we get the story we never learned in elementary school—such as the high mortality rates of the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving is now a spectacle of consumption and consumerism. Yet of the roughly 150 passengers and crew aboard the Mayflower, only half survived that first winter. Suffice to say, reading about the hardships of the settlers at the time of the first Thanksgiving will shame anyone who dares complain about Black Friday checkout lines. (less)
Some jokes never get old, as evidenced in this irreverent abridging of The Bible. The hum...moreGod is Disappointed in You
By Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler
Some jokes never get old, as evidenced in this irreverent abridging of The Bible. The humor is sharp, varying from silly to satirical, and the illustrations add to the humor. While it is funny, there is also an earnestness within the narrative, as Russell attempts to condense the entire text to its core concepts.
Ambitious idea, and one not to be taken too seriously, but I dispute the author’s claims of accuracy. For example, which version of The Bible? If biblical scholars have been unable to agree on the official canon, I won’t expect it to be decoded in a humor book.
But taken for what it is, God is Disappointed in You is good, clean fun, filled with soul-lightening humor. If the publisher is smart, they’re already compiling a 365-frame calendar version to market over the holidays.
Chuck, we love you. Please remember that. Lullaby is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, and I even found a way to work...moreDoomed
Chuck, we love you. Please remember that. Lullaby is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, and I even found a way to work it into my master’s thesis. Choke is cutting social satire of the first order, Fight Club one of the greatest films ever made. Survivor is brilliant in plot, character and execution, and don’t get me started on the thrill-ride that is Haunted.
But I do have a few pet peeves that pop up in Doomed, the sequel to Damned.
First, I don’t have much patience for fiction written in the voice of a child. No matter the skill of the writer, an adult giving voice to a child always comes across as inauthentic and, in the worst cases, foolish. Also, exactly what are we to learn from a child narrator? It certainly won’t shock or disturb any hardened reader of horror or transgressive fiction.
Second, humor in horror is an iffy proposition. When it works, it’s organic, or the comedy is more disturbing than the tragedy (for example, many of the stories in Haunted). Better incidental humor than intentional. Doomed reads more like a Christopher Moore novel (albeit an extremely dark and cynical one).
I’m a fan of Moore’s, but his brand of humor is expected. When I read Palahniuk, I look forward to that nausea that lingers and ultimately consumes me, which I’ve found absent in Doomed. (less)
Did you know there is no adjective form of the word “integrity”? Look it up. I was going to open this review with a declaration of how integritous we are here at Ensuing Chapters. Or is the word I’m looking for integrian? Integrilicious?
None of the above.
Nevertheless, that’s my silly way to introduce a serious (and seriously good) book with the requisite disclaimer: I have known Todd Mitchell, the author of the young adult novel, Backwards, for about three years, studied under him and served as his teaching assistant in a nonfiction writing class. It’s important to establish this up front, because this will be a glowing review, and I can say with all integrity that the praise is deserved, not spooned out because I know the author.
And with that out of the way, let’s jump to the end. Or rather the beginning. Sort of.
Backwards begins with a teenaged boy, Dan, dead in the bathtub from an apparent suicide. Standing over the scene is our narrator, a Rider (a kind of immaterial wandering soul) who isn’t sure where he is, who he is or how he got there. It doesn’t take him long to realize that he is experiencing time in reverse. We observe Dan’s suicide and his preparations, his daily habits and behaviors, and once we meet pre-dead Dan, it’s easy to diagnose his terminal condition.
I believe the clinical term for it is: He’s an asshole.
But as time bends backward, we pick up more and more fragments of Dan’s life. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but he’s a teenager. Is that so odd? And maybe there’s something dark and vulnerable driving his bad behavior. Indeed there is, but he is also supported with love and encouraging voices, which he silences through self-deliverance.
This is a difficult book to describe, and I’m sure far more difficult to write. Mitchell, however, pulls it off. He taps a mainline to those cringe-worthy cafeteria moments when every little thing was life or death. High school was uncomfortable the first time, and doesn’t seem much better the second time around.
At least not at first.
The narrator, who is living Dan’s life in reverse, provides the wide-angle view that teenagers tend to lack. Actually, it’s a comforting vantage point, and if Dan could’ve seen his life from this perspective, he probably wouldn’t have ended up in the bathtub.
As I’ve often told youth groups as an addictions counselor: Teenagers aren’t stupid. Teenagers just do stupid things. That’s an important distinction, which becomes clear as we watch Dan try to make the right choices, but stumble along in that ham-handed manner that I recognize from my own high school memories. There are missed opportunities, mixed signals, mistaken intentions, the right words left unspoken and the worst ones screamed out loud.
That’s the beauty of Backwards. Though the time-manipulated narrative can be disorienting, we are grounded in the familiarity of Dan’s world. Sure, the fashion has changed, but the angst is the same as it always was and will be—and even that elicits a weird nostalgia. Even someone like me, who hated high school and all its cliques, will appreciate its stabilizing force within this chaos.
I also appreciate that the novel isn’t preachy. Of course, the message is clearly against suicide, but Mitchell isn’t talking us off the ledge with niceties. The truth can be vicious, and the author doesn’t recoil from the abyss. Through the character of the Rider, he digs into the horrors of high school and tries to come to terms with the trauma.
Is the Rider successful? The better question is, does it even matter? I’m not well-versed in literary theory, but at its core, Backwards, despite a dash of the spiritual realm, is an existentialist anthem.
Longtime readers know my affinity for existentialist anthems.
My point is that perhaps understanding your awkward years is better than changing them. By revisiting our past, we can be struck by how small everything looks in comparison. If only Dan could’ve seen what the Rider sees.
At least that’s the view from my early 40s. I’m not sure how a young adult would read it, but there’s no doubting the importance of Backwards for its intended audience. But I would argue that Backwards is as much, if not more, of a must-read for adults.
While I enjoyed Fangasm from page one, I have to admit I was confused at first. What I thought would be an academic account of fan culture, particularly surrounding the TV show Supernatural, turned out to be something altogether different.
Two professors—Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis—geek out over the hunky stars of their favorite television show, attending conventions, joining an online community and penning racy fan-fic, all the while discussing the book they were going to write.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t that book.
The original output of their research was the 2012 academic study, Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships. Fangasm, on the other hand, is the reporter’s notebook of their exploration.
Once I realized this, I settled in and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Along the way, the authors feed each other’s “squee”; stalk hunky TV stars; and struggle with strained family relationships, their careers and even their friends. It’s a riotous, road-trip affair, and it’s refreshing to see the lighter side of the uptight academic.
But there’s a serious side to the book as well. In exploring fan-fiction, the duo encounters a diverse body politic. A bulk of the viewer-produced literature is sexual in nature—and due to the make-believe subject matter, and the lack of publisher gatekeeping, fan-fic writers often delve into places even pornographers fear to tread. (Hint: the show’s leading men, though not actually related, play brothers on Supernatural—take that ball and run with it.)
Also on the serious tip are the self-esteem issues that arise. Unfortunately, the shaming of fangirls is not limited to the mainstream community. While the conventions can be a refuge for those who otherwise feel displaced from society, there is an internal enforcement of etiquette that can be just as stratified and exclusionary as the mainstream. It’s a dark and curious sociological paradox.
Ultimately, I would have preferred to geek out with the academic text, but hey, there is no wrong way to get your nerd on. While I don’t approach the level of fanboy status held by Larsen and Zubernis, I know my way around a convention, and I’ve spent thousands of dollars on rare books, albums and KISS memorabilia. I can relate to this duo, and I find it refreshing to learn about a pair of obsessed academics letting their geek flag fly. (less)
It’s hard to elicit raw terror in book form, especially in the opening pages. If the book is 300 pages, you know there is still plenty to come. Real life, however, is a gut-wrencher. For instance, there’s no guarantee I’ll finish writing this review—or that you’ll finish reading it. That’s why well-crafted nonfiction, such as Bill DeYoung’s Skyway, can induce frights greater than most horror novels.
I white-knuckled it through the first two chapters of Skyway, a recounting of the Skyway Bridge disaster of 1980, and was impressed with DeYoung’s narrative talents from stem to stern.
Some background: In 1980 a harbor pilot, John Lerro, was guiding a ship to the Port of Tampa. A freak storm unleashed a nightmare scenario, and without radar or visibility, the ship, the Summit Venture, struck the bridge, collapsing a span of road 150-feet high. Thirty-five vehicle-bound victims, including passengers in a Greyhound bus, plummeted to their death.
It’s a tragedy mostly forgotten outside of Florida, but DeYoung’s brilliant account should change that. With a narrative journalism style, he fleshes out the events of that morning with factual data, news reports and first-hand accounts. We share the helpless terror of the Summit Venture crew as cars plunk into Tampa Bay. We white-knuckle it as a car grinds to a halt inches from the drop. We cheer as motorists band together to halt oncoming traffic and shut down the bridge, saving countless lives.
And then the book really gets good.
DeYoung, a longtime journalist, gives us a longitudinal view of the disaster, from the rise of interstate commerce that necessitated the bridge to the haunted lives of the Skyway survivors decades later. Some of the most interesting bits concern the role the interstate system and mid-20th century financial culture played in building the bridge (and cutting corners from construction to upkeep).
Though it was Lerro who took the blame, it was greed that forced the harbor pilots to take chances in foul weather. Also in play was the exclusionary, good-old-boy culture of the harbor pilots, which deeply scarred Lerro (who was exonerated of any wrong-doing, and in fact was commended for preventing more deaths) following the tragedy.
Skyway put me in mind of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which is about as high a compliment as you can pay an author of narrative history. Maybe I’ve just got a thing for maritime disasters (I blame Poe and Arthur Gordon Pym for that), but Skyway is a chilling, informative and deeply engrossing narrative.
This is a book worthy of awards and deserving of the bestseller list. (less)
Although A Brighter Word Than Bright is about Romantic poet John Keats, I couldn’t get my favorite Oscar Wilde quote out of my head while reading it: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
It’s a cruel irony that nonfiction is thought to be the most accurate medium for Truth—reducing reality to the recitation of facts. If that were so, then the minutes of a company meeting should have more cultural sway than Shakespeare, right? Yet when I was in London, there were scores of young and old gathered at the gates of the Globe Theatre.
I didn’t take a poll, but I’m confident that when people think of London in 1599 (when the original Globe was built), they think of Shakespeare rather than that year’s landmark court ruling, Edward Darcy Esquire v. Thomas Allein of London Haberdasher, which established the foundation for modern antitrust law.
I didn’t see anyone perusing court transcripts outside the Globe.
That’s why Dan Beachy-Quick’s biography of Keats is so refreshing. Rather than retelling his life story or critiquing his work through some previously unexploited element of his personality, Beachy-Quick gives us the biography of the poet’s imagination.
Which, of course, requires a lot of imagination.
No shortage there. Beachy-Quick, author of nearly a dozen collections of poetry, essays and criticism, weaves a fever-dream narrative that treats its subject as more putty than marble, so that Keats, the man, vanishes at times.
Or perhaps Beachy-Quick brings us so close we no longer recognize him.
Either way, A Brighter Word Than Bright engages the reader’s imagination, and the author states from the beginning that:
“I have little interest in offering a portrait of Keats more accurate than those already available… I am more concerned with returning Keats, as best I can manage, back into that half-light that obscures accurate rendering so as to make more brilliant those sudden flashes in his poems and letters that, lightning-like, reveal the storm-tossed grasses in the ceaseless field even as darkness closes the vision again—sudden clarities, and the afterimage that lingers long past the lightning’s strike.”
Our subject is deliberately blurred, grated into the environment with an opacity that is oddly revealing. From an early age, Keats is displaced, yet absorbed by the world. Or perhaps consumed is more like it. Beachy-Quick sketches a grief-burdened man-child weeping beneath a desk for his dead mother. Yet, the boy is not separate from the desk, nor the desk from the room. All is connected in this tragic tableau: “Some music sobs up into song. Some song digs down and confronts what it also must comfort.”
Keats is tormented by his talents, a gift on par with Greek tragedy. Much like Darrin McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius, Beachy-Quick views genius as something that possesses, rather than something one may possess:
“To listen to genius is to let oneself be guided by that voice in the self that is not the self’s own. It implies an otherness exactly where we expect to find identity; it speaks within us a rumor to us, that we are least ourselves where we are most ourselves.”
This duality zigzags throughout the book, at times we are uncomfortably close and at others removed, disoriented, flipping between past and present tense to remind that art, and the artist’s struggle, belong to all ages. That like Keats’ poems, all is absorbed into a timeless moment—infinity in a single instant and vice versa. (Beachy-Quick cleverly enforces the point with reference to the work of the paradox-obsessed Greek philosopher Zeno.)
As we progress chronologically, Beachy-Quick peppers in some academic critique, for example going through the Odes and incorporating Keats’ letters for context. I was particularly struck by one passage from Keats to his wife, Fanny Brawne:
“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world; it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.”
Would it be fair to say Keats was the first emo kid?
Actually, that may be as fair as any other portrait. No biography has been able to capture the man in full, which certainly adds to his appeal. Beachy-Quick, with this unconventional and highly original biography, gives us something better than the Truth. He gives us the febrile terror that inhabits the artist’s soul. (less)
The prologue of Mark Onspaugh’s The Faceless One is a primal delight. We begin in the forested snow-scape of rural Alaska, 1948, where young Jimmy Kalmaku embarks on a dark journey with his uncle deep into the tundra. Hidden within a remote cave is an evil of which Jimmy has never imagined.
It is also where he learns that he will succeed his uncle as shaman and inherit the task of keeping the Faceless One locked up in that cave.
The uncle says, “Remember our path today… I hope you need never come this way again, but you must remember.”
Clearly, we are not finished with the cave.
And neither is Jimmy.
With this spine-tingling opener, Onspaugh has swirled together the elements of great storytelling: odyssey, myth, duty, loss of innocence. There is a sad inevitability in this scene. Present are the generations of tribesmen, forward and back, guarding this secret place—a never-ending watch against something that exists outside of timespace. Something hallowed. Something in the blood.
Onspaugh has a tender touch that imparts soul into this icy epic which spans generations and locations, jumping ahead to present day when Jimmy, now an elderly man, learns that an archeologist has displaced the mask keeping the Faceless One captive.
With the ancient evil unleashed, Jimmy is called to action. He must remember his uncle’s words… and the way to that dark place.
Releasing this book on Oct. 28 is brilliant marketing—not simply because October is a good time for horror fiction, but because the setting of The Faceless One is a set-piece for a chilly night. What better time than when the veil between the worlds is thinnest to encounter a shapeless evil? To follow its trail from Alaska to New York to Seattle and beyond.
From generation to generation, blood to blood. (less)
Since 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has bestowed its “genius grant” on 873 (ostensibly) geniuses—“talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” reads the MacArthur Web site.
But is this the truest definition of “genius”? Considering that the title is so commonly conferred upon basketball coaches, celebrities and rock stars (a recent Rolling Stone article referred to Kanye West as a “mad genius”—seriously), is being a “genius” even that impressive anymore?
In Divine Fury, historian Darrin M. McMahon isn’t questioning MENSA credentials so much as tracing the history of this loaded term and how it’s changed over the centuries.
Our etymological quest begins with the ancient Greeks, for whom being a genius was a form of madness. McMahon culls pithy quotes from Plato revealing a lesser-known side of Socrates: He was quite haunted. (This from the Phaedrus dialogues—no wonder the brilliant 20th century philosopher/madman Robert Pirsig chose Phaedrus as his alter ego in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.)
Whereas contemporary culture views genius as something you possess, ancient philosophers believed the inverse: Genius possesses you. More specifically, a demon possesses you, for good and ill, and this was the belief for centuries. McMahon documents many cases of “genius,” from the ancients to modern times, and how the concept evolved and then devolved into our current celebrity-obsessed culture.
It’s a curious evolution, and one I wouldn’t have thought about much before reading Divine Fury. McMahon deftly illuminates this secret and complicated history through literary accounts, keen observation and a strong narrative. His writing can be a bit tangential and academic at times—but hey, the man’s an academic! What do you expect?
I certainly wasn’t expecting to think about genius as a populist concept, but there it is. In some ways, the history of genius is the flow of agency from the elite to the proletariat. While I would rate that as a good thing, an unfortunate consequence is that genius has become just another noun that anyone can claim.
The change is due in part to advanced medical knowledge. In ancient Greece, Socrates believed a demon was whispering in his ear. Today, we’d slip him some Paxil.
Or give him his own TED talk.
Ultimately, it remains a fuzzy line between madness and genius. Is it the possessed or the possessor? Are 98th percentile test-scorers (the threshold for MENSA membership) the elite or merely outliers? Or is each of us capable of becoming an Einstein?
No matter, from now on I’ll be slower to label someone a genius.
Unless that “mad genius” Kanye West splits the atom in his next video. (less)
"Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so."
"I believe that man is necessarily put up against himself and th...moreFavorite Quotes:
"Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so."
"I believe that man is necessarily put up against himself and that he cannot recognise himself and love himself to the end unless he is condemned."
"It is to this purpose that we put the arts: they manage, on the stage, to arouse in us the highest possible degree of anxiety… evoke these derangements, these lacerations, this decline which our entire activity endeavours to avoid."
"Laughter teaches us that when we flee wisely from the elements of death, we merely want to preserve life. When we enter the regions that wisdom tells us to avoid, on the other hand, we really live it."
"But the ritual of witchcraft is the ritual of an oppressed people. The religion of a conquered nation has often become the magic of societies formed as a result of the conquest."
"Humanity pursues two goals--one, the negative, is to preserve life (or to avoid death), and the other, the positive, to increase the intensity of life."
"Even if it wanted to, poetry could not construct: it destroys; it is only true when in revolt."
"That which destroys a being, also releases him: besides, release is always the ruin of a being who has set limitations on his propriety."
"There is a turmoil, a sense of drowning, in sensuality which is similar to the stench of corpses."
"Evil is never surer of being evil than when it is punished."
"To produce a work of literature is to turn one's back on servility as on every conceivable form of diminution."(less)
Not since Rice-a-Roni has the trolley car been so popular.
What started as a philosophical thought experiment (first posed in the 1960s by British philosopher Philippa Foot) has become fodder for barroom chautauquas and classroom debates. It goes a little something like this: You are the conductor of a runaway trolley, and you’re headed toward five men working on the track. You have no way to stop or slow down, and you know that all five men will die.
Then, you notice a side track, and by simply pulling a switch, you’ll reroute the trolley and spare the workers. However, you see another man on this side track. The worker will surely die, but this lone death will save five.
Do you pull the switch?
What makes the trolley problem so interesting is that it can be reframed in many ways, all essentially asking the same question: Is it better that one person dies in order to save five lives?
The utilitarian gut response is usually affirmative, but the problem gets trickier as you introduce different scenarios. The darkest and most humorous of these is the fat guy on the bridge. Rather than the conductor, you and an obese stranger are on an overpass looking down at the track. In this scenario, there is no side track and no way to reroute the train away from the workers. The only way to spare their lives is to stop the trolley… and the only way to do that is by pushing the obese man off the bridge.
That’s quite the game-changer. But yet, the principle question remains the same: Is it better that one dies to save five?
This dilemma has moved from the classroom to cultural conscience thanks to the work of philosopher Michael J. Sandel and his book/mooc/PBS lectures on justice. This fall, two more intellectual titans offer their take on this ethical dilemma.
In The Trolley Problem, or Would You Push the Fat Guy off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum, published Sept. 10, Thomas Cathcart presents the arguments before a judge and jury, albeit fictitious. Cathcart is best known for a series of books coauthored with Daniel Klein that explains complicated philosophical ideas through jokes and anecdotes, and as with these bestsellers, like Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar…, the tone is light and irreverent.
Though the jests overshadow the ethics, there is some substance to the work. Ethical arguments are accompanied by short bios of their progenitors, and the introduction and conclusion put forth serious thought.
That said, the jokes amount to insider baseball. The greatness of Cathcart’s other books is that they serve a general audience. The humor in The Trolley Problem, or Would You Push the Fat Guy off the Bridge? is geared toward a readership already familiar with the thought experiment.
Those familiar with the work of Sandel and Foot will enjoy this short, light-hearted laugher. Those looking to explore the complexities of the dilemma should look elsewhere, get up to speed, and then dig into this trial by philosophy.
At least Cathcart gives us something the others don’t (sort of): a juried decision. The final verdict?
Being a dorky loner, I spent most of my summers watching late-night reruns of The Twilight Zone. That certainly figured into my attraction to Doors, which concerns a psychologist working with a patient who sees doors everywhere he looks. Then, the doctor begins to see them too.
I’ve always loved the idea of another world overlapping with our own, only visible if we squint in just the right light. It has the appeal of a conspiracy theory. It’s the world, just slightly askew. All around us, invisible, with dire consequences. A world within a world. (Don’t get me started on quark theory.)
Having worked in mental health, I’ve conversed with many schizophrenics, delirious alcoholics and addicts in the throes of a psychotic break. Their storytelling has the effect of quicksand—you don’t realize how engrossed you are in their story until you’re up to your neck. They give you a plausible setting and people, then a string of plausible events occur, followed by a string of less-plausible events, then even less and less plausible, and then suddenly, boom, the narrator reveals that the gunshot was stopped by the metal plate inside his head and the rebounding bullet struck the shooter instead.
It’s a dissociative feeling. Everything seemed so normal, so sane, twisting only in slight degrees before you realize it’s all a delusion. Or is only some of it? That’s what makes it so creepy.
It’s our world, slightly askew.
That’s what I was hoping for in Doors, and it begins promising enough. The manic patient begins his tale, and I got that tingle of dissociation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The psychologist, David Druas, buys into the narrative too quickly. I wanted more push-back from David, mainly to prolong that quicksand effect, but also for verisimilitude: No legitimate psychologist would be convinced so quickly.
At this point I realized that the novel rushed through this part to get to the pulse-pounding events that follow. That’s unfortunate. I was hoping for more of a psychological head-trip.
Meeting the book on its own terms, this is a well-conceived novel with thrilling and engaging sequences. And I can certainly except the supernatural in horror fiction. But I wish the story hewed closer to plausibility so I could longer relish that feeling of slowly being drawn in to a nightmare. (less)
Now this is a book I can relate to: hard drinking, manual labor, mines, sinkholes, battles with subterranean evil.
Ah, to be 23 again.
From the start, this fast-paced small-town horror shudders with ominosity. (Is ominosity a word? If not, it should be.) Intense headaches and nosebleeds afflict the townsfolk, and then the earth comes out from under their feet.
A giant sinkhole opens in a back yard (leading to a hilarious septic tank scene) and begins swallowing up the countryside like the San Andreas Fault. At first, the backwoods residents fear a natural disaster.
But then they notice the creatures rising up from the hole.
And so the horror begins…
Enjoy this quick-hit tale of small-town suspicion, working-class gumption and a long-buried secret that won’t stay dead. (less)
It’s interesting reading M.K. Wren’s classic novel nearly a quarter century since its release in 1990. For one thing, a nuclear apocalypse sounds downright quaint and makes me eerily nostalgic for my childhood fears of nuclear annihilation.
Aside from that, A Gift Upon the Shore is timeless—and even prescient. Following a wave of destruction, two women begin building a library in coastal Oregon, dedicated to preserving the great works of literature, history, and, by extension, civilization. Unfortunately, their only neighbors are a group of fundamentalist survivors who promote the destruction of all books other than the Bible.
In 2013, libraries and bookstores are struggling, Texas school boards are editing history and I downloaded the novel, in a matter of seconds, from a Web site onto my e-reader (unthinkable in 1990).
OK, Wren isn’t exactly Nostradamus. Folks were probably declaring the death of books within hours of Guttenberg’s invention, and fundamentalists have far less sway than they did during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Even Salman Rushdie has been able to come out of hiding.
But like Wren’s protagonists, digital publishing has guaranteed that our literary history will live on, from the freedom of publishing in the medium to noble endeavors like Project Guttenberg.
A Gift Upon the Shore remains a wondrously beautiful novel, whatever the era, and one worthy of a revisit or a first look. (less)
D&D is a cultural phenomenon that has lasted decades, survived the sophistication of video games and artificial intelligence, rival RPGs and even...moreD&D is a cultural phenomenon that has lasted decades, survived the sophistication of video games and artificial intelligence, rival RPGs and even the Satanic Panic. It’s gone from nerd pastime to geek chic to sociological interest, and now its history has been documented in the wonderful Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, a nostalgic romp through the author’s (and my) childhood.
Ewalt, a senior editor at Forbes and self-described “writer, gamer, geek,” has done a great service to anyone who, with sweaty palms, has had to make a campaign-defining saving throw (or at least knows what that means). His smooth writing style and flair for narrative pacing makes the story of this greatest of games one of general interest, even if you’ve never tossed the 20-sided die.
There are two key threads running through the book. The first, of course, is the history of D&D, from its precursors through its growing pains, its competitors and controversies, and finally its legacy as second- and third-generation dungeon crawlers have been drawn to the table. The second thread is Ewalt’s personal tale of rekindling his love for D&D in adulthood.
While both storylines are interesting, the content of the historical narrative is a bit more compelling, particularly due to the big personality of its founder, Gary Gygax. But the personal narrative is most affecting because it traces a familiar thread: Imaginative loner boy discovers D&D; becomes hooked; discovers women; hangs up the broad sword and chainmail; rediscovers D&D; realizes you can take the halfling out of the dungeon, but you can’t take the dungeon out of the halfling.
Ewalt and I have a lot in common.
The book has been described as being similar to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, but I disagree with that description. Economics are addressed, but this book is truly about passion, not money. Which is fitting. At the end of every D&D campaign comes the distribution of treasure that the group has acquired, but this is not the reason for playing. The true reward is the quest to find and slay the dragon guarding that treasure.
The only downside to the book is the fantasy sequences in which Ewalt recounts fictional events from his weekly campaigns. Unfortunately, these feel forced and, for me at least, didn’t really add much to the narrative. I feel comfortable in critiquing this element of the book as I have done this myself.
But aside from that, this is an amazing book, a perfect summer read and hopefully the first of many books from Ewalt.
I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review...moreI recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.
Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.
Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.
Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.