bless me, goodreads, for i have sinned. it has been more than a week since my last free tor short read.
but now i am back.
There was once a quill that...morebless me, goodreads, for i have sinned. it has been more than a week since my last free tor short read.
but now i am back.
There was once a quill that could not be held by any hand
i absolutely loved the writing in this one. the story itself was fairly predictable, but she does such a good job with pacing and tension, it wasn't really a deal-breaker.
she also does a great job setting the scene - full of rich sensory detail that makes her writing really come alive and create atmosphere, and fortifies the narrator's status as a writer himself:
I was digging through an estate sale in a creaky old bastard of a plantation home when I found the box. The cellar was cold and the air tasted of soil and dust; my rolled-up sleeves were smudged grey with a muddled mixture of the two. I was on my knees, flashlight in one hand, picking through a wood crate full of classic but ill-packed stationery items, mouse-nibbled envelopes, and rusty penknives. None of the lot was salvageable. Footsteps treaded over my head. I was the only one mad enough to tromp down into the cellar with only an electric torch to light the way, but it also meant that I would be the first to find anything good.
there's almost a poe-like quality to this story, in which the narrator passes restless nights, tempted by a pen said to have supernatural powers enabling its wielder to write astoundingly, wrenchingly beautiful works, but which naturally comes with a terrible price. the measured cadence of this reminds me of the raven or the tell-tale heart, with its classic-horror story tone and buildup:
The tick of the clock kept me company, whisking its way methodically past the first numeral, then the second, and finally the third. I watched lamplight glitter through the tumbled tower of ice blocks inside my glass, turned burnished gold through the whiskey I’d left unfinished. Sleep, despite my lassitude, remained distant. The lacquered box sat on my desk across the room, half-swathed in shadow. I wriggled my toes against the softness of my reading chair and sat up, unfolding my legs from beneath me. The rush of blood through my calves tingled. My first step was more a stagger, but I straightened and paced across the room. The carpet was chilly under my feet.
things come to pass pretty much as you'd expect them to, but the excellence of the writing rescues it from itself. it's definitely a good haunted-object story, and i'm going to look for more of her contributions in this free tor short project.
by now you should know how i feel about the weird shit nature has put out there for us to enjoy. in case you don't know - i lov...morethis book is hilarity.
by now you should know how i feel about the weird shit nature has put out there for us to enjoy. in case you don't know - i love it. i loooove it. so this book is a glorious gift to my sensibilities. and it's apparently also a tumblr: http://wtfevolution.tumblr.com/, which has tons of creatures not in the book itself, so this discovery is a fantastic hidden-track bonus for me!
i plan on using a lot of examples from the book in this review, because there were just far too many that made me laugh out loud. however - this book is like 250 pages long, so no matter how many i showcase here, there will be so many more for you to encounter in the book, which i am going to have to buy myself when it comes out in october, since this ARC has some missing images i really want to see.
to begin, evolution has produced some crazy-assed creatures:
the red handfish:
the whitemargin stargazer (which sounds like a horrible prog-rock band):
the pacific hatchetfish:
the spotted unicornfish:
the proboscis monkey:
the vervet monkey:
the surinam toad:
don't mind me - just being born over here!!
and this book lets evolution answer for itself about some of its more bizarre decisions:
Okay, look. Here's what I've realized. I make organisms, right? And I make other organisms for those organisms to eat. Then I make bigger organisms that eat the first organisms, and so on and so forth. It's all just life eating other life, back and forth, round and round, for millions of years on end. And for what? I mean, when you get down to it, what I've created it basically an unnecessarily complicated system for moving carbon molecules around.
So yeah, I could make some plain stuff, have it eat some other plain stuff, and then call it an eon and go home. But you know what? It's been billions of years. I get bored just like anyone else. And because everything is just going to keep changing, and it's all a little pointless to begin with - well, why shouldn't I just do whatever I want?
why not, indeed? and we are all glad of it.
the book is structured as a series of pictures of ill-advised creatures with commentary that either takes the form of a conversation between evolution and a puzzled interlocutor, or simply a sentence or two from the same interlocutor questioning some of evolution's decisions. there is a lot to learn here, and a lot to laugh about. so let's begin to laugh and learn.
the sharp-ribbed newt:
the stinking corpse lily:
Three feet wide. Fifteen pounds. Smells like a rotting cow carcass. Gross, Evolution.
the dumbo octopus:
the asian giant softshell turtle:
Look, Evolution, everyone has trouble staying motivated sometimes. Take a walk or have a snack when that happens... Don't force yourself to make turtles when your heart obviously isn't in it.
the irrawaddy dolphin:
These are supposed to be dolphins? Evolution, have you ever actually seen a dolphin?
that one deserves one more picture:
the sea potato:
the regal horned lizard:
The horned lizard fends off predatory coyotes by shooting three-foot streams of its own blood from its eye. Evolution, please seek psychiatric help.
"Hey! Hey! I think I finally made something cute."
"Oh, yeah? Let’s see."
"It’s a ‘shoebill.’ It’s big and blue and adorable. Nice, right?"
"It’s… hm. I don’t know. I like the blue, but something about those eyes is kind of creeping me out right now."
"What? Come on. Those are friendly eyes. It wants to be your friend."
"Okay. Okay, yeah. You’re right, evolution, I’m sorry. Should I feed it, maybe? What does it eat?"
"Oh Jesus Christ."
the smalltooth sawfish:
the king vulture:
the gum leaf skeletoniser:
Molting is a beautiful thing. When your insides start feeling a little too big for their case, you can just crack open your exoskeleton, head capsule and all, and emerge a whole new invertebrate. You get to leave your shed body behind and walk away, freed from all the trappings of your former, smaller life.
… unless, that is, you’re a gum-leaf skeletoniser caterpillar. In that case evolution actually stacks all your old heads on top of your new one and makes you wear them around forever like a macabre stovepipe hat. I don’t know, just go with it, okay?
the leopard sea cucumber:
with some additional info:
In addition to being useful for defense - and, of course, pooping - the sea cucumber's anus connects to a branching internal tube that extracts oxygen from water and pumps out excess carbon dioxide. In other words, sea cucumbers breathe through their butts.
the sand cat:
moron or not, i lost about an hour GIS-ing these little kitties. i want one for my own please, evolution!!
but back to the ewwwwwww
the tongue-eating isopod:
A parasitic louse that crawls into your mouth, vampirizes your tongue, then clamps itself onto the withered stub so it can ride around inside you and drink your mucus for the rest of your mutual lives? Why, yes. It’s called symbiosis and it’s beautiful.
What? Relax. It’s going to be fine. This isn’t going to hurt. You won’t even miss your tongue—once the louse is latched onto the muscle, you can simply use its body as a tongue instead. These are exactly the kind of details that evolution has worked out for you, because evolution loves you and it wants you to be all right.
When a female isopod takes over a fish's tongue, a smaller male usually infests the gills, occasionally popping over into the mouth to mate.
Why so gloomy, babirusas? Is it because evolution gave you some weird extra tusks that are awkward, brittle, mostly useless for fighting, and may eventually grow so long that they curve around and fatally puncture your skull? Could that be it?
the western gray kangaroo:
the pacific hagfish:
the yellow-footed antechinus:
"Oh, what a cute little mouse!"
"It’s not a mouse! It’s a marsupial called an antechinus."
"Sorry, evolution, my mistake. Still cute, though."
"Isn’t he? And he’s excited, because he’s almost eleven months old, and that means he finally gets to start mating."
"Aw, that’s nice."
"He’s going to run around getting it on with as many females as he can for the next two or three weeks."
"And he’ll have sex with each of them for up to 14 hours at a stretch." " That’s… um…"
"And he’ll get so exhausted from all the frantic mating that his fur starts falling off, and he contracts gangrene."
"What? Jesus. Then does he take a break, at least?"
"Nah, not really. He basically keeps doing it until he gets so sick and stressed out that he dies. ‘Suicidal reproduction,’ I’m calling it.”
"Are you serious? He’s going to mate himself to death?”
"Yeah, but he doesn’t know it yet. Happy coming-of-age, antechinus!"
"You’re sick, you know that?"
the wattle cup caterpillar:
"I really don’t want anyone to eat this wattle cup caterpillar.”
"Sure, evolution, that’s understandable."
"I’m going to put some huge spikes on it."
"Now I’m going to put more spikes on the spikes."
"And I’ll make them sting!"
"And I’ll color the whole thing like a bad acid trip."
"That might be overkill, but all right. I guess you really like this one. I bet it’ll be especially beautiful once it metamorphoses into a butterfly, huh?"
"What? Oh, no, this one doesn’t turn into a butterfly. It’s a hairy brown moth.”
Ctenophores: Because sometimes Evolution only feels like making the mouth.
the southern elephant seal:
"You know that elephant seal I made? The one with the awesome floppy nose?"
"Yes, evolution, that was a pretty good nose."
"And you know how it kept getting parasites up inside it?"
"I heard that was an issue."
"I fixed it."
"You fixed it? What did you do, give the elephant seal more protective mucus? A better immune system? Stronger nose hairs?"
"Nope! That all seemed too hard. I just made a nose-picking bird."
"A nose-picking bird."
the saiga antelope:
isn't evolution spectacular??? i love this book more than i can say, and i urge you to check it out when it is published, because it is a hoot and a half.
most of the pictures i used in this review were not from the book itself; they were just from the nooks and crannies of the internet, but the writing itself is from the book.
Decapitation is the ultimate tyranny; but it is also an act of creation, because, for all its cruelty, it produces an extraordinarily potent artefact...more
Decapitation is the ultimate tyranny; but it is also an act of creation, because, for all its cruelty, it produces an extraordinarily potent artefact that compels our attention whether we like it or not.
who knew there were so many things to say about human heads?? not human minds, with all their psychological bells and whistles, nooks and crannies, but just… heads. decapitated heads. this book is an academic overview of all the ways in which severed heads have played a part in human history. chapters include: shrunken heads, trophy heads (war), deposed heads (executions/guillotine/war), framed heads - the severed head in (or AS) art, potent heads (relics), bone heads (phrenology - stolen heads/anthropology), dissected heads - (medical school, discomfort), living heads (cryogenics, galvanization).
so many uses for a severed head, y'all!
it's pretty fascinating stuff, and not a subject i ever expected to see, much less read an entire book devoted to, but once you see it, you know you have to read it. i have read that book of short stories, Severance: Stories, which had a fantastic premise that it just didn't live up to, while this book is just straight-up scholarship that doesn't try to be narrative, and yet its subject matter is compelling enough that you don't mind the dryness of its tone, or its occasionally puzzling distinctions:
Decapitation is a contradiction in terms because it is both brutal and effective."
not really sure how that's a contradiction, but decapitation is definitely both of those other things.
the chapter focusing on the guillotine was one of the most interesting ones, particularly in its discussion of how commonplace public beheadings became in france during its heyday, and how that affected the people as it went from being a horrifying cautionary spectacle to an entertaining diversion to just ho-hum, another beheading, pass the bread.
The guillotine had transformed decapitation into a dispassionate procedure that minimized the brutality as much as possible, but taking the drama out of death is a dangerous ideal. The Terror demonstrated well enough that the only thing more horrifying than a severed head is a society that finds it mundane.
when you start finding yourself bored by public executions, there's a real problem there.
some of her conclusions are a little ghoulish
For all their gruesome nature, severed heads are also inspirational: they move people to study, to pray, to joke, to write and to draw, to turn away or to look a little closer, and to reflect on the limits of their humanity.
and "inspirational" seems to be a bridge too far, but it's hard to argue with some of her assertions
Generally, a dry skull made a more attractive, and more manageable, trophy than a rotting human head.
even when she edges into this near-confessional-feeling celebratory tone
Taking a head is an audacious act of supremacy. It turns a person into mute matter. The headless body is leaderless and nondescript; the bodiless head is vacant and impotent.
In various walks of life, gruesome decapitations have become part of our cultural fabric, and part of our collective heritage.
Such violent acts can inspire a surprising range of emotions. Feelings like grief, disgust and shame are to be expected, but these negative reactions are often mirrored by a sense of intimacy and wonder. Holding a severed head in your hands, even cutting off another person's head, can be a thrill. Owning somebody else's head can be a fascinating and deeply moving experience. It can be an expression of respect or an act of abuse, or both at once.
but even though that makes you want to edge away from her slowly slowly, there's no denying how cool some of these stories are, especially those in which scientists get a little restless and curious with all the "i wonder what happens when i do this??"
In the mid-twentieth century transplanting anything other than bone, blood vessels or corneas still proved to be a hopeless venture, and Demikhov set out to prove that soft tissues, even the delicate tissues of the brain, could survive transplantation. In each case, Demikhov's team attached the head, shoulders. heart, lungs and forelimbs of one dog onto the neck of another dog. Although most of the two-headed dogs died after a few days, some lived for a few weeks and the experiments were deemed to have been a success. The donor dogs not only remained conscious, they drank water and bit people's fingers.
In May 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri, Guthrie successfully transplanted a dog's head onto the underside of another dog's throat. He grafted the arteries together so that the blood from one dog flowed through the head of the other. The transplanted heads displayed basic reflexes: the pupils contracted, the nostrils twitched, the tongue moved. Seven hours after the operation complications set in and Guthrie euthanized the dogs.
and i mean, obviously, poor doggies and all, but this still gives me not-unpleasant ripple-chills all over to discover all the shenanigans scientists get up to behind closed labs.
and i am so glad that medicine made substantial advances before my new onset epilepsy turned up and all i had to deal with was boatloads of dilantin
A German physician, Johann Schroeder, recommended pounding up the brains, skin, arteries, nerves, and whole spinal column of a young man who had met a violent end, and steeping the mixture in water and flowers, such as lavender and peony, before distilling it several times for use against epilepsy. Christian IV of Denmark, who died in 1648, was said to have taken powders partly composed of the skulls of criminals as a cure for epilepsy. These remedies were common for centuries, and executioners had to deal with the eager demands of the sick waiting to collect their prescriptions. Even in the 1860's there were reports of Danish 'epileptics stand[ing] around the scaffold in crowds, cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as it flows from the still quivering body'.
i would not have waited in line for the opportunity to snort skull dust. not even at a rave.
more on medicine:
In the 1560's some of the traitors' heads from London Bridge were reused as medicinal cups for a group of men working at the Royal Mint who were suffering from arsenic poisoning, the symptoms of which include headaches and lightheadedness. The ailing men drank their medicine out of the cleaned skulls, but many of them died anyway.
that last sentence kills me. the way that expecting skulls to have magical medicinal qualities kills people.
the chapter on the severed head in art was also very enlightening, and i did have a nice little "you go, girl" moment in response to her exploration of salome
By the turn of the twentieth century, Salome had become an intensely sexual character, appearing in musical halls, early films and paintings by artists like Gustav Klimt and Franz Stuck as a half-naked, self-satisfied and defiant temptress bearing her grisly prize. On the eve of the First World War, Salome was viewed as a woman who had more cunning than intellect, and who was empowered by her sexual charms. It is no coincidence that Salome had become a sexual monster in the eyes of many artists at a time when real women were deserting their "proper nature" by seeking education, employment and equal rights in greater numbers that ever before. Salome's prize of a severed head on its silver platter now stood for everything that men might lose in the face of women's emancipation - the head she held so close represented men's leadership, their authority, their intellectual and professional hegemony - while she, as its new mistress, danced on in a state of ecstatic vindication.
and one last long quote from this book, which somehow made me sadder than those dog stories, maybe because i still can't believe those dog stories are real. i mean, i can, but i am pretending it was a movie i saw or something. but this:
Morton's successors at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia carefully inked numbers onto the forehead of each of the skulls in his collection, along with the place where it was collected, and sometimes the name of the person who collected it. In museums, the identity of the collector often got a higher billing than the identity of the person they had collected. A list of respectable donors emphasized the prestige of the institution in question. It would be a serious error if generous donors were forgotten, but it was inconsequential - perhaps it was even easier - if no one knew the names of the dead people being studied. In contrast, a person's age, sex and place of origin were often written on skulls, because this information was important in considering their demographic value.
i do not know which book would win in a fight, but i do know that this book is adorable. because of the pictures. without the pictures, it would just be a blank book, and i would like it less.
this one is about a walrus who escapes from the zoo and has adventures while hiding from the zookeeper who is desperately trying to make him come back. i mean, i assume it is about that. without words, it is open to interpretation. maybe the walrus only works at the zoo and this book is a story about what he does on his day off. we will never know for sure. but what we are certain of is that sometimes this walrus is good at blending in and other times not so much.
and "where's walrus" is a game you can even play in nature!
okay, so some of those are seals, but if you squint, it's still awesome.
i will return to reviewing more serious and adult books soon, after this heat and holiday are behind me...