Today, my long-gestating senryu book is launched into the world. It contains 100 poems, a sort of best-of from the last couple of decades of writing these little gems. It also contains 20 of my own original illustrations.
Today my sixth book is birthed into the world. Free Pizza is the quirky story of two twelve-year-olds, one of whom is reckless and accident-prone. He drags the other into the tornado of his lunatic life by falling through the roof of his neighbor’s greenhouse. Being kids, they have no way to pay for the damage and have to work for the neighbor for the summer. Hilarity and even more mayhem ensues.
1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
I bought this book, hoping to get up on the latest science of what went on here before Europeans showed up. I’d never read a book on the subject before, so my knowledge was restricted to the slim overview I got school Social Studies courses. All of it was boring. All of it completely uninteresting. Later, I learned a little from articles and movies and documentaries – none of it adding up to much. The only anthropology I read on any of the Americas was Ishi: Last of His Tribe, Yanomamo: The Fierce People and a few Marvin Harris books. But even then, I came away with a serious distaste for Central American culture. Harris painted a pretty grim picture of the first American’s cannibalism. And Chagnon, well, let’s just say I wasn’t keen on reading more about them after the violent picture of their culture he painted.
With 1491, I was hoping to have my preconceptions replaced by revelations and my misconceptions wiped out – and I was not disappointed. Trust me, you owe it to yourself to know what was here before. One fifth of the human population of the planet was wiped out when small pox and other diseases spread from the shores where Europeans landed. The pandemics travelled so quickly, most of the deaths occurred without the Americans even setting eyes on a European or knowing they had arrived. Unlike the tales told in incomplete history books and unlike the deliberate genocide pointed to by the survivors, epidemiologists now know that without even partial immunity to these new diseases, it was a disaster waiting to happen. That disaster could have happened when the Vikings landed. It could have happened with more people crossing the Pacific. And it could easily have happened the other way around, American diseases causing an unstoppable pandemic in Europe.
Often what European explorers encountered on their way across the Americas was a few bedraggled people who had managed to survive the collapse of their complex societies – societies whose members had developed specialized skills over thousands of years, and now, with all the tailors dead, the doctors dead, the farming experts dead, the engineers dead, there was no one left to man the machinery of the civilization, as all the supply chains, both of material goods and ideas, were forever broken. It is a tragedy that makes every epidemic, every genocide, every war and every conflict since the last ice age seem small and petty.
I hate those reviews that tell all the good stuff. Just let me say, read this book. I had no idea that the Americas were a far better place than Europe at the time Columbus set foot here. And I don’t mean some Eden of untouched resources. I mean the human world. Better farming practices, far better health, societies that built massive cities, temples and earthen structures because they wanted to, not because they had been enslaved and forced to.
Anyway, read this book. It is beautifully written and packed with eye-popping details of life here before Columbus.
Vicars of Christ, The Dark Side of the Papacy
by Peter De Rosa
If you care at all about history or wonder how in heck the Western world got from the Roman Empire to the modern day, you can’t afford to pass up this book. I can’t deny my curiosity came from the lurid side on buying this book. It is addressed to Catholic believers for the most part. But my hopes for the kind of dark-side-of-human-history peep show on par with Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars or Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors were pretty much fulfilled. I got my money’s worth.
Sadly the book is rambling and scatter-brained. When it is trying to be exhaustive, it turns out to be only tedious. The book came out in 1988 and the author spends way too much of the second half talking about John Paul II and the church’s modern troubles with abortion, contraception and celibacy. Still, if you can ignore the True Believer angle there is much ripe fruit in the first half of the book. Most of the popes in history were money-grubbing power-hungry assholes and the book details their racy exploits quite vividly.
What really shocked me was finding out how ingrained antisemitism is in the Catholic church, how institutionalized their hatred of the Jews. Since I haven’t read this sort of history before, I somehow was under the impression that the enemy during the Crusades was Islam. No, it was Jews and dissenting Christians. If the church could have wiped out all Jews forever, they would have thrown the biggest party in history. Thinking Hitler dreamt up his antisemitism would be a mistake. It never would have occurred to him if it weren’t for the thousands of years of history of the church openly, systematically persecuting Jews. The popes led the way and Hitler followed.
I have been a staunch atheist most of my life. I have always resented the attempted brainwashing I received in my youth by an aggressively Catholic father who knew no different than his white European family taught him. Any mention of the church has left a bitter taste in my mouth. But now… Well, let’s just say they are a very large criminal organization, bona fide members of the 1%. For fuck sakes, the very house that Pope Francis currently lives in at the Vatican had a torture chamber in the basement during the Inquisition – which lasted for eight hundred years. Eight hundred years his predecessors were not just OK with torturing and killing women and children in their fucking basement, they were really ticked off when they couldn’t do it anymore.
Despite its many faults, The Vicars of Christ is a great, even monumental book. I strongly recommend it – especially for those who still have a shred of respect for these misogynistic, antisemitic, self-serving killers in pointy hats.
If you like travel writing, you’ll like this. It’s the memoire of the author’s time on Tarawa, one of the islands of Kiribati, in the middle of the Pacific. The place moves at it’s own suffocating, tiny-town pace. Great beach read. Nothing profound here.
Another beach book, but not anywhere as entertaining as Cannibals. Ostensibly following the island sojourns of R. L. Stevenson in the Pacific, the author recounts his own alcoholism while playing tourist. A pleasant though somewhat uncomfortable read, I will not be returning to this book; the first time was enough.
I don’t usually like social theory books, but this one got such good reviews online, I couldn’t resist. Sadly, it is only social theory and only scratches the surface of what I enjoy reading about: anthropology, where we are shown in the context of all earth’s critters. This book is great, don’t get me wrong. But it spends too much time on the word ‘heterosexual’ and not enough time on the concept, as if the word is entirely responsible for some sudden change in human biology. It’s a thin line, and not really enough to base a book on. But if you haven’t read this thing, I still say, run out and get it. It will flip your world upside-down.
A great collection of essays by academics who mostly have their heads up their asses. Sorry to be so blunt, but in an era with the potential for a major extinction event, it’s pretty lame to be talking about the demise of the slide rule. I did enjoy the book, don’t get me wrong. But it was like visiting a cult where everyone was really great at knitting and hoeing turnips and no one noticed they were living under a freeway.
I went into this book with one big question I wanted answered. Which side of the river, sexuality-speaking, do humans come from, the chimp side or the bonobo side? My understand is, the Congo river has separated chimps and bonobos for a couple of million years. Chimps solve their problems with aggression, bonobos with sex. The two being our closest primate relatives, which side of the river do humans fall on? Going into the book, I figured humans were a blend of the two. But oh, no. I was disillusioned by the book in short order. Humans are very definitely bonobo-side-of-the-river critters. I pretty much loved reading this book. Tons of great info. The authors spend way too much time trying to convince their readers to accept that we’re all horndogs and should abandon monogamy and all take lovers on the side. I get that our societies should be more in sync with our animal side. But without a clear path for sexual reform, the book’s urgings come off as creepy.
Great book on the history of humans destroying the very soil they need for their survival. Trashing it, their civilizations did not last long afterward. The book is dry as all get out. And I found it so strange that a book on soil does not mention the words ‘herbicide’ or ‘mycelium’ in its 15 page index. Someone had their head in the musty corners of a library and never bothered to look up and maybe check out current farming methods or read a little further into how healthy soil actually works. I never really got over the impression that he thinks worm activity is the way rock is transformed into plant food. So weird.
When we were standing in line at the bookstore, my wife’s expression made it plain she thought this book was a bizarre choice. As in, why would I read that? Well, the answer is simple. There’s a ton of stuff out there that I know nothing about. Are writers always supposed to preach to the converted? Am I to read only sequels and the works of writers I’m already familiar with?
If you’ve read any of my recent reviews you might get the impression that I hate everything. It ain’t so. I just hate literate idiots (probably far more than I hate your run-of-the-mill idiots). I like good books, I don’t mind taking chances but like any Scot of any century, I hate wasting money. I hate wasting time even more.
As I plunged into the first chapter of Rust, I was immediately rewarded by the solid writing and unique subject matter. The author spent a serious chunk of time researching each chapter. Sometimes, too much time. But I’d far rather have more information than I need than not enough – or any hint that the author doesn’t know his topic well enough to write about it. And Mr. Waldman is certainly thorough.
The single word endorsements on the cover are pure hyperbole though. “Engrossing, brilliant, masterful.” Ugh. No, it is none of those things. My attention flagged only occasionally. And I learned a crap-load about corrosion. And the Statue of Liberty and stainless steel and the Alaska Pipeline. I’d read it again in my dotage, just for the hell of it. Which is a rare thing for me to say about a book.
So, my wifely wife, I was not wrong. Unlike countless other visits to the bookstore, I picked a good one this time.
I’m not quite sure how to talk about this book. I read it. But I can’t believe I made it to the end. After reading his first effort, Sapiens, I thought, OK, he’s going to write about the future, which is up front and center in the news and weather these days as being not particularly rosy. It took ten or twenty pages to really wrap my head around the fact that he thinks everything is going to be peachy and the dominant feature of our collective future is going to be AI.
All right, AI. Not the end of oil, not climate change, not economic collapse, not the demise of ocean life and not the threat of billions dying from any of these factors – let alone all of them at the same time. AI. Really?
I could not believe this historian was so utterly blind to what is going on in the world today. Worse, he spends a significant portion of the book elaborating on his dumb idea. How AI will replace religion, liberalism, humanism and possibly even humans. You’d think his publisher or his editor might have pointed out that five minutes after the super-geniuses have invented the ultimate smartypants computer, they might be blown to smithereens by a super-tornado.
Oh, and where does he think the super-brain is going to come from? From Google and Facebook, which even now can predict your behavior better than your friends and family. Really? And what about when the power goes out, fucktard?
I am actually embarrassed to admit I’ve read this thing. Apparently, all we need to do to bring about machines smarter than ourselves is allow Google, Facebook and Amazon complete access to all our files, emails, photos and conversations. Because, you know, humans are not anything more than what we reveal online. The new religion is called dataism, where everything in the universe can be reduced to an algorithm. The guy sounds like a first year philosophy student who hasn’t quite grasped the difference between reality and a model of it.
And just for two seconds, let’s assume AI does come to dominate our lives over the next century. Who the fuck thinks it’s not going to be controlled by those with money and power? How is it in any way something to cheer, to encourage and not sound all the alarms? The guy needs to cancel his subscription to Wired. And wherever his mother is, wow, please give him a slap.
I’ve been reading a lot about gut bacteria lately. I’m intrigued by the idea that those little gut bugs are controlling our food cravings and even our moods. So when I saw this book in the bookstore I couldn’t say no to buying it.
Other than brain-manipulation, there are two other diet-related subjects I really want to know more about. The first is, how is our industrialized environment affecting our health, in particular, our microbiome. Our environment is extremely complex and the things going into our bodies (food, air pollutants, herbicides, chemicals we come in contact with every day) all have an effect on us and our little symbiotic travel companions. The second thing that really interests me is the big picture of humanity, how we, our guts and our eating habits evolved over the past million and a half years. If Dr. Mayer could throw a little light on any of these subjects, I was going to be a happy camper.
As it turns out, this is a weird book. It’s obvious from the outset that the author knows a great deal about the current science on the various ways our microbiome talks to our brain. But he glosses over every other important aspect of the subject. For instance, he talks about food, but the main take-away is “don’t eat a fat-rich diet”. In a book about our guts, we are robbed of any cogent discussion of what happens to food after we eat it, the differing effects of good and bad food on our guts or why we like things that are bad for us. The message, “fat is bad” is not only wrong, outdated and possibly dangerous, the author should be embarrassed not to distinguish between good and bad fats. Nowhere in the book will you find the word “polyunsaturated”. Perhaps he thinks that’s too technical for us?
And he lingers on the subject of fat far too long. I kept thinking, what of the traditional Inuit diet which was 50% fat? If all fat causes inflammation, why didn’t the Inuit burst into flames? And why are we genetically programmed to like it so much? But nope, all we get is “fat is bad”. In a more rounded book that spends this much time on the issue of fat, I would expect the author to answer simple questions like, Is all fat bad? Is modern industrial-agriculture fat worse than hunter-gatherer fat? But no. “Fat is bad.”
While I’m bitching, let me mention that the author is in love with wondering. I understand gut science is in its infancy, but the overuse of words like ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘possible’ comes across as speculation that any idiot can do – when what we signed up for was the current state of what is known. Give me a fact. I’m perfectly capable of asking my own dumb questions, thanks.
So I ended up with a few more details on the mechanisms of the gut-brain connection. But I didn’t get either of the items on my wish-list. Nothing about the big picture of our evolution. (Well, except for a bit about how our guts used to be a standalone critter and a section about the Yanomami which went exactly nowhere. His editor needs a Yanomami pool-cue club across the head for that blunder.) And nothing about how our environment affects our guts – unless you count the stress it causes and the one page on pesticides which came off like an essay a ninth grader couldn’t wait to scribble out so he could get back to gaming. Nothing about environmental pollutants, nothing about industrial agriculture. The guy should probably get out of the lab more.
Don’t waste your time on this frustrating book. Surely there are better-written ones on the subject out there.
Orton, The Complete Plays
I read a line or two somewhere from one of Joe Orton’s plays and thought, wow, this guy can write. So I ordered the book and took my sweet time reading it, entirely because it did not start off as well as I had hoped. The first couple of plays (The Ruffian on the Stair, Entertaining Mr., Sloane) were not of the genius calibre I was expecting. The writing was merely clever and designed to shock. And not clever and shocking in a rich Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton or H.H. Munro sort of way. He was just trying too hard. But by the time I got to the plays for which he was famous (Loot, Funeral Games) I was sold. And I truly began to mourn the loss of this great playwright (his lover murdered him when he was only 34). Now, how I wish there were more Orton plays! I love his sense of humor – dark, twisted and finely crafted. The world is a far richer place for his having walked among us for even so short a time.
How Music Works by David Byrne
I received this as a gift and dutifully read it all the way through, though I have no special liking for David Byrne or his music. I saw him in concert this century, saw Stop Making Sense about ten years after it was made and never bought a Talking Heads album. The title of the book intrigued me and I was encouraged by the words, “Wildly Ambitious” on the back cover, which quoted a review from the Observer. Sadly, I was let down within the first chapter and my disappointment only deepened the further I read. The ‘music’ referred to in the title is the principally the music the author has made himself and experienced in his lifetime. The ‘works’ is actually a pun, referring to how he has ended up ‘working’ for a living as a musician. The book has nothing to do with the physics of music or the mysterious emotional impact that music has on humans. In fact, the man knows next to nothing about music that was made before he was born, nothing at all about what music is, in the audio waveform sense, and he certainly has no clue why humans make music to begin with. The book is pretty much a wank by someone who has no formal education and not the first inkling of a idea of the limits of his knowledge. People who know stuff, they have a handle on what they don’t know. David Byrne does not and will surely have no idea how embarrassed he should be by this book.
A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke
Formula: your typical modern guy let loose upon the clichés of Paris: the food, the wine, the women. A breezy read. A good beach book.
Geek-Art, An Anthology by Thomas Olivri
An art book specializing in pop culture icons appearing in the personal art projects of professional illustrators. If you like graphical minimalism, movie poster remixes, and Star Wars characters embedded in classical art, this book is for you.
Perv, The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering
I found this little gem when I only had about ten minutes to buy a book. Knowing next to nothing about the science of sexuality, I was intrigued by the promise of the title and the blurb on the back cover. Little did I know, the book was going to rock my little world – at least as far as my knowledge of sexual perversions went. For it turned out I knew nothing and in the past few decades, science has come a long way in demystifying sexuality, in drawing much bigger boundaries around what is normal primate behaviour and what the heck causes humans to be turned-on by very, very specific things and not others. Buy this book. You will know yourself a heck of a lot better by the end of it.
“It’s hard to believe that American society could possibly collapse because of a lack of soil. And it’s true that we in the States are blessed to live in a country so rich in this life-giving source. But in a small world growing smaller all the time, what happens to the soil in other parts of the world—often much more at risk than our soils—will eventually affect us and our economy, and the stability of the world around us.
“For example, soil scientists fear that we are wasting and damaging our topsoil—the layer in which most of our food grows—at an entirely unsustainable rate.
“How unsustainable? One recent study reported that on average the world has only sixty harvests remaining. “On average” because although in the United Kingdom that number is one hundred harvests and in the United States the number is even higher, for other parts of the world—think Africa, India, China, and parts of South America, where the human population is largest and growing ever larger—the number of remaining harvests is lower, meaning that in fewer than sixty years the topsoil will no longer support the growing and harvesting of food.”
I bought this book with a gift certificate at a small bookstore where there was little other choice. Actually, now that I think of it, it was at a large franchise bookstore where the corporate office knows they can make more money on Chinese home decor knickknacks than they can on books. I expect in a year or two, such stores will be indistinguishable from airport duty free shops and the only literature available to buy will be ebooks from vending machines.
I’ve been a fan of pop anthropology since the ’70s, when Marvin Harris’s “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches” came out. I am generally omnivorous when it comes to well-written words between two covers. But I hold a special regard for books on the origin of humans and the understanding of their behaviours. So I was really looking forward to reading this Diamond book, which is subtitled, “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”.
He begins with sections on war and territoriality, how everything in the lives of hunter-gatherers and early farmers was local and foreigners with their own completely distinct language and culture were often only a few miles away. Much of this I found tedious, as it smacked of an introductory anthropology course. Facts were delivered, information conveyed, but there was very little in the way of digestion. What I mean is, he failed to draw any lines between then and now. It wasn’t so much, How Did We Get Here? as Here’s What They Did.
By the time he arrived at the chapters on child-rearing, language, religion and diet, it was clear he had no deep thoughts on the subjects he was presenting. His only leap into the modern world turned out to be mildly prescriptive. Here’s what you can learn, he told us. I don’t care to be lectured on the benefits of eating less sugar and salt when what I got into this hefty tome for was a better understanding of the human animal.
The book began to feel like one of Isaac Asimov’s science primers, which he wrote it to teach himself the subject matter. Granted, there were wonderful tidbits here and there that I had no idea about. But being provided with fresh examples of principles you already understand is no substitute for meaningful engagement with a subject. His theory was absent. He discovered nothing new. He drew no conclusions that a grade six science student couldn’t draw. And in the end, he did nothing more than lull me with his sonorous tone, never once amusing or enlightening.
If you’re looking for ideas, read Arthur Koestler. If you’re looking for entertaining science, read Mary Roach. If you need a good non-fiction yarn, get yourself some Bill Bryson. Diamond’s books are like long, big budget movies where you expect Lawrence of Arabia and you end up with Heaven’s Gate. Save yourself some time and some cash. There are much better books out there.