When I was an undergraduate, I meant to be an English major. I loved to read, surely I would be an English major, right? But when I got to college I was placed with the anthropology department for my freshman adviser, and I fell in love. People! An entire discipline about people! Figuring out why people do the things they do! It didn’t hurt that my adviser specialized in the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea, which led her to an interest in UFO movements. We studied all kinds of interesting stuff, I tell you what.
Margaret Mead was hugely popular once upon a time. She took her experience as an anthropologist and turned it into a career as a writer, columnist, and speaker. Alas, anthropology isn’t all that popular any more, and a lot of Mead’s own research has since been improved upon to the point where I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. And Clifford Geertz, one of the great ethnographic writers, died just a year or so after I graduated. But I love anthropology, and I love recommending it to people, so even though there’s no such genre as “popular anthropology” any more, I have made it my project to amass a collection of books about people I can foist off on people and say, “Here! Isn’t this awesome?”
- Ishi, Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber (who is Ursula K. Guin’s mother, for the fantasy fans out there). This is an anthropological classic, still fascinating today. Ishi was what they called the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California – in his tribe, it was forbidden to speak your own name. Kroeber wrote his biography, and this is pretty much all we have left of an entire way of life.
- Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. More psychology than anthropology, this book is an enthralling exploration of studies on why humans do things that don’t make rational sense. Because we’re human, is Ariely’s conclusion. I love that he argues that we should change our social systems to fit our brains, rather than trying to change our brains to fit our badly-designed systems.
- Stiff by Mary Roach. I love all of Roach’s books (although Bonk was a little disappointing), but this is still my favorite. Stiff follows the life of a corpse – how forensic scientists study them, how funeral directors care for them, how cemeteries and crematoria dispose of them. Fascinating (if slightly grisly) stuff.
- Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. Yes, it’s a study of traffic patterns. Also traffic control measures, drivers’ perceptions and attitudes, and the social history of the American relationship with cars. Vanderbilt has put together a fascinating study of something most of us do so often we don’t think about it any more – and offers some great reasons for why we should.
- The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. Another classic of the field, this one in history, Darnton pieces together the culture of early modern France from the texts we have available. Great stuff, from his attempts to understand just why people would find it necessary to slaughter all the cats in a city to his descriptions of – and quotations from – the Rousseau fangirls.
- The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, my favorite book for which I can never remember the title. Language is complicated stuff, moreso when you’re a mongolot like me, but Deutscher explains things clearly, with a friendly, casual tone that invites you in to learn what you can. (He even managed to make Hebrew structures understandable to me for a while, which I remain incredibly impressed by.) If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in the history of human communication, you’ll want to take a look at this.
I always used to resent the idea that I ought to read nonfiction to learn something – I read it because it’s fun. Got any fun nonfiction reads to share?
Where I got it and why: After I spotted this in the Goodreads new release newsletter, I put a hold on the library’s on order copy immediately. I love true crime and history – this is two in one! Also, I am a huge fan of CBS’s Criminal Minds, and they used the story of the Mad Bomber extensively in the first season. (The specific episode references, if you’re looking for them, would be 1×03, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and 1×13, “Poison.”)
Recommended? Yes, if you like history, the 1940s, or are like me trying to track down books on every one of the serial killers, cult leaders, and other criminals mentioned in Criminal Minds.
Review: From 1940 to 1956 – with time off for World War II – George Metesky waged a one-man war against the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, New York. He’d started with letters, but by the 40’s, he’d escalated to pipe bombs, wrapped in a man’s red woolen sock and stashed at various locations around the city. He eventually confessed to planting more than sixty of the things, although only about thirty-some ever went off. (There is one in the Empire State Building, Greenburg reminds us, that has never been found.)
Greenburg renders the story of the Mad Bomber, as he was known, from a variety of perspectives – from the newspapers who followed his exploits to the police who tracked him to the psychologist who profiled him to, sometimes, Metesky himself. He also does a fine job of including quite a bit of historical context, helpful for those of us who do not have a ready-made mental picture of New York in the 1940s and 50s. (Mine always includes Cary Grant.)
It took me a little while to get into this book, partly because the first few chapters are more than a little confused. They jump backwards and forwards in time – clearly an attempt to start in media res, but since so many of the bomb incidents are so similar, it’s hard to get a grip on exactly when this is happening. Around chapter two or three, though, things settle down and start moving forward at a reasonable pace: Metesky’s personal life, his injury on the job at the Con Ed plant, his escalation from letter-writing to bomb-making, the collaboration of policework and journalism that finally identified the bomber, and Metesky’s long incarceration in the mental hospitals of New York.
The Mad Bomber was a landmark case in a lot of ways, from the way newspaper articles drew out the bomber by inviting him to communicate with them to the impact it had on sentencing and dealing with mentally ill criminals, and Greenburg touches at least a little bit on each of them. He devotes a whole chapter to the profile of Metesky created by Dr. James Brussel and how this widely-publicized tool impacted the later development of criminal profiling as we know it today, which I found fascinating, Criminal Minds fangirl that I am. The passages comparing profiling to Pliny’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of the criminal type seem to indicate a certain disdain for profiling on Greenburg’s part, which I can’t entirely disagree with. In just a few short sections he provides a perspective on the field I haven’t seen before, and for that alone the book was worth it.
Although a little thin at times, and drawing more conclusions about various actors’ internal thoughts than I generally like in my nonfiction, I found this a good overview of an interesting and complex case. Greenburg does an excellent job of situating the Mad Bomber case in its historical and cultural context, and draws attention to all of the wide-ranging influences it had. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I would recommend it as a good summer read, if you’re inclined to find this sort of thing as fun as I do.
The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City, by Michael M. Greenburg, was published by Union Square Press on April 5th, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound
I’m only a little behind the times, I suppose, but I wasn’t this annoyed before today.
So, as you all know, the world did not end on Saturday, and Harold Camping and his followers were not raptured, and everyone’s been having a grand old time laughing at him for it. I just haven’t been able to, and this book is pretty much the reason why.
I was an anthropology major in college; I studied the way people think, particularly in groups, and the way they organize their lives. My focus was on religion, because religion is one of the most important things in many peoples’ lives, and it fascinates me. My adviser did her research in Papua New Guinea, studying the cargo cults there, and it was that research that led her into her research on UFO cults, Christian sects, and other new religious movements in the United States. It was great fun, I have to say; people are always stranger than you think they might be, but they’re always people.
We read this book in one of her classes. It’s a classic in the field for a number of reasons, but the relevant one right now is that it’s the study that coined the term cognitive dissonance. That’s that thing that happens when all of a sudden the world is not what you believe it to be, and there are very few options left to you once it’s happened. You can admit you were wrong, but people don’t like to do that. It’s hard, and the more strongly you believed before you were proven wrong, the harder it is. Or you can carry on believing, and deny the world. That happens a lot. It’s what happened to most of the people in this study.
Festinger and his colleagues were studying a group of apocalypse-believers. The details of their beliefs aren’t important, they’re as common as dirt, they thought the world was coming to an end. They set a date. They prepared themselves, their friends and relations, and waited for the end to come. And has always happened so far, the end did not come. And they were left with two options: forsake the belief system that had been their sole support for years (because you lose a lot of friends when you go around telling them that UFOs are going to destroy the world, until you don’t have any friends left except the ones that agree with you), or carry on. And unsurprisingly, they carried on.
So the world didn’t end on Saturday, and Harold Camping has set a new date, and his followers are, for the most part, still following. I can’t be surprised at this; it’s what happens every time. I can’t laugh at it either, though. Harold Camping may be a delusional idiot and probably is, but his followers are also his victims. They started following him because what he was offering was the only thing they needed, and he led them down a path that could only end in failure. Saturday was the worst day of their lives, and whatever they do now, whether they continue following because they have nowhere else to go, or whether they give up their greatest source of support, they’re stuck with it.
That’s the problem with anthropology. You get into it and next thing you know, everyone’s a human being, and you can’t laugh at their misfortune any more. When Prophecy Fails is the first book I read that really gave me an insight into what people are going through when they’re a member of one of these fringe groups, and it sure doesn’t look like fun. I’m trying not to sound like I’m scolding people who did make fun of them, because it is pretty hilarious, and I know I’m a little over-sensitive to mocking people’s strongly-held beliefs. But if you found you have any more interest than mere amusement in fringe apocalyptic groups after this, I’d recommend this book as a good place to start.
Pat Brown, The Profiler
As you know, Bob, I have both a ridiculous fascination with true crime stories and a distaste for sensationalizing, victim-blaming crap. Profiling books are the best of both worlds: lots of serial killers, little to no sensationalizing crap. Pat Brown is a self-made profiler: she started when she became convinced that a boarder in her house had killed a girl in her hometown. Now she’s a successful private detective and independent profiler. I have to compare her book to John Douglas’s, since I’ve read so many of his, and the biggest contrast I found was that Douglas refuses to talk about cases that haven’t been closed. He only names killers he’s profiled where the case ended in a conviction. None of Brown’s cases (that she talked about in the book) ended in conviction; most of them didn’t even end with the arrest of the person she names as the probable killer. I can see the ethical arguments behind both approaches, and it’s an issue I’m glad I don’t have to deal with personally.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
I think this is where the series really starts to get its feet under itself. This is a book with themes, with a solid and complex mystery, and with a truly impressive cast of characters. (I did miss Miss Climpson, though.) General Fentiman is found dead in his club on Armistice Day (which must have been a much different thing in 1928 than it is now) and a large inheritance turns upon the exact time of his death, which Lord Peter investigates (until he is investigating, of course, the murder). It’s very much a book about the aftereffects of the War; nearly all the members of the club are veterans, but the younger men who served in the Great War have a vastly different perspective than their older colleagues (and ancestors — one of the most interesting characters is George Fentiman, the General’s grandson, who suffers spectacularly from shell-shock).
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
I am absolutely astounded at how close the movie is to the book in almost every way. Of course, Hammett’s dialogue is incredible, why wouldn’t you lift it directly? (I noticed the same thing in the film version of The Thin Man.) The plot gets a little twistier in the book in the last half, but it’s definitely one of the most faithful film adaptations I’ve ever seen. …Sorry, this is a book review, not a film review. Hammett practically invented the hard-boiled detective genre with this book, and while Chandler and many others have done it differently, I’m not sure you could say they’ve done it better. It’s not so much the mystery that’s compelling in this book – by halfway through all the players have been introduced and there’s no real question of who killed Archer and Thursby – but the way Sam Spade plays with the other characters. He’s profoundly in control of himself, in the face of two of the most profound (and classic noir) temptations: sex and money. But then, as he says, when a guy’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.
Paul Meehan, Horror Noir
A poorly written but (as far as I can tell) thorough overview of the confluence of two of my favorite movie genres, horror and film noir. Because what I need is more movies to watch. (A couple of months ago I checked out the wonderful Film Noir Encyclopedia from the library and ended up with a list of over two hundred movies that I needed to see. And those are just the ones rated four-star and above.) Meehan’s real interest is obviously in the early days of the genre, so I’m not sure why the chapters covering 1960 and on are even there, but the first half of the book is fascinating, if poorly copy-edited.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body?
So I decided to go back to the beginning and read the Lord Peter Wimsey stories in order. I got the first three novels in an omnibus edition, which I adore, because then I can go straight from one to the next without stopping. And why stop? The characters are all wonderful, and in a delightful change from the mysteries I usually read, the murders themselves are genuinely mysterious. It is the characters that you really read a mystery series for, though. And I love them all, Lord Peter and Parker and Bunter and The Hon. Freddy, who reads like an escapee from a Wodehouse novel and is played by a young Ronald Reagan in my head.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness
And now, Lord Peter’s family! They’re all as delightful as you’d expect, from his mother (who actually is delightful) to his siblings (who are not, really they’re entertaining in the way that British peers tend to be, all stuffy and ridiculous). …Which is mostly what I remember from this book, Peter’s brother being stuffy and ridiculous, and his sister being infinitely silly, and the fun of reading a book featuring a Communist club that was written in the 1920s. History is always more interesting from the inside out.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death
Yet another weird mystery, in which Lord Peter is determined to prove that a murder actually happened (and feels guilty about indirectly causing a few more along the way). The highlight of this book is Miss Climpson, a spinster hired by Lord Peter because, as he says, it’s a shame to let all that natural inquisitiveness go to waste. And it would be, Miss Climpson is amazing. And she does crack the case independently; it’s hardly her fault that none of her messages made it to Lord Peter in time.
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Working my way through the classics of noir fiction. This is a tight little novel, fairly horrible in a lot of ways, but then again, it’s noir. (When I say horrible, I mean, of course, the subject matter, not the writing. The writing is…well, this book could have been twice as long, but it wouldn’t have been half as good.)
Barbara Sher, Wishcraft
Yes, I read a self-help book. It was recommended to me, and I found it legitimately online. I was rather surprised to discover I’d independently invented most of her motivational tricks, but the part of the book I liked the best was the first three chapters or so, the part where she explains you have every right to have the things you actually want, even if you’ve been so messed up about it for so long you’re not sure what those are any more.
Rex Stout, The Rubber Band
After the James Cain, I required something noirish with a slightly less icky attitude toward women. Rex Stout is always good for that; he very rarely has femmes fatales, most of the women in his books are either flat-out useless or clever and helpful. (The female lead in this one is the latter.)
Erin Bow, Plain Kate
Another YA from my trip to ALA last year (yes, I know, it’s been almost a year and I haven’t finished reading my ARCs!…) This was a wonderful fairy tale of a story – a proper fairy tale, that’s mostly about blood and death and revenge, with one of those scrupulously fair endings that doesn’t quite make anyone happy. That makes it sound rather depressing, which it’s not: it’s a very hopeful story, overall, about discovering your own strength. Also, the most realistic talking cat I have ever seen in fiction.
Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited
I picked this up while wandering randomly through the lovely Rosemary Garfoot Public Library in Cross Plains one day. (I live in Madison, but I’m working part-time in Cross Plains until one of the libraries I’ve applied to finally notices that I’m completely awesome and hires me.) The original edition of the book is from the 60s, and the rewrite from the 90s, but it’s still a startling expose on the funeral industry. It’s easy to see how corruption happens; it’s not like you’re in the mood to comparison-shop for funerals. But wow, talk about price-gouging. (Not to mention the lying: apparently it is not a legal requirement to be embalmed before cremation. I honestly did not know that, but it’s going in my will.) Also, I now understand the reference to Forest Lawn thrown out in a Raymond Chandler novel. I kind of wish I didn’t. Apparently Bogart is buried there, how depressing.
Maggie Stiefvater, Ballad
I hated this book for the first five chapters, which was terribly disappointing, but there’s not much I dislike more than “boy pines over his best friend but can’t tell her he’s in love with her.” Fortunately the teachers at Thornking-Ash (and what a name to give a music school in a faerie-infested universe) were fascinating enough that I kept going. Then the pining stopped. And then it started to get good. I stand by my assessment that these books (including the prequel Lament) are Twilight for people who hate Twilight, but they also have some of the best faeries I’ve read in a long time. They’re properly inhuman, horrifyingly selfish and violent, and charming and compelling nonetheless. Also, there was an in-universe explanation for the name of the school, which I hadn’t expected and made me deliriously happy.
Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter
While the official subtitle of this book is “The True Story of the Manson Murders,” it’s really much more the story of the Manson trial. Fair enough, for a book co-written by the prosecuting attorney. If you believe this book, the entire case was single-handedly saved from the LAPD by one Vincent Bugliosi. Which may be true, I don’t know. The stories of the trial are surprisingly fascinating, all the wrangling over testimony and cutting deals with Family members and Bugliosi’s thwarted determination to get Manson to take the stand. Manson and the girls who were tried with him were sentenced to death, but California suspended the death penalty before they could be executed, which is probably just as well. Ted Bundy was a celebrity until the day he was executed (giving a totally ridiculous deathbed interview to Jerry Falwell), while Manson wastes away in prison becoming more and more a cliche’d parody of evil. The book ends with the customary notice that Manson would be eligible for parole in 1978; as of today, no one has been willing to risk their career to give it to him. (Hey, and here’s a transcript of his 1992 parole hearing.)
Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard
This is one of the most interesting and original true crime books I’ve ever read, and undoubtedly the least exploitative. Mary Bell, along with a co-defendant, was tried for the murder of two toddlers when she was eleven years old. The other girl was acquitted; Mary was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. This book is written by a woman who had covered the original trial with cooperation from Mary herself, now a grown woman with a teenage daughter of her own. Most of the book is in fact about what happened to her after her conviction: the places she was sent, the reform schools and prisons she lived in, the ceaseless media attention that has uprooted her family dozens of times. Sereny argues that children who kill are not the same as adult murderers and we should not treat them as such. They are severely damaged children, and they need help. The stories of Mary’s life, and especially the sense one gets of her as a responsible and moral adult, are extremely compelling evidence in her favor.
China Miéville, Kraken
Oh China Miéville, I forgive you for Iron Council. This book is marvellous, the best kind of thriller — the kind where you start out with no idea what’s just happened, three quarters of the way through the book you realize that everything you’ve learned so far still gives you no idea what’s happened, and in the last quarter you get an explanation that is nothing like what you expected but makes perfect sense. It’s gloriously masterful writing, and that’s even without introducing the wonderful scenery of Kraken’s mystical London. Every bit of it is spectacular, from the Londonmancers to the familiars’ strike to the horror of the Tattoo and his minions. And the characters, everyone with a startling amount of depth and sincerity, even the people who start out seeming to be nothing more than scenery. I loved it, and I wanted to read it again as soon as I was finished. Alas, library New Book loan times…
Marjorie M. Liu, A Wild Light
Third in her Hunter Kiss series, an urban fantasy series by a paranormal romance writer. I’ve never read any of her romance novels, but I’m tempted to, because one of my favorite parts of the series is Maxine’s relationship with Grant, her long-term boyfriend. They’re together when the series starts, and their mutual support and understanding is wonderful. None of this “I have to lie to you to protect you” crap with them. Their relationship is a focus in this book, for the first time, when Maxine loses her memory of the past few years along with her memories of what happened the night her grandfather was killed. (Well, the body that her grandfather was living in was killed, actually. Her grandfather is…complicated.) And then it starts to get epic. I swear, every time I read one of these books I think, It can’t possibly get any more epic than this, and then in the next book, it does. I’m loving it.
Berton Rouché, The Medical Detectives
This is the book the TV show House is based on. You can tell, because almost every single story in this book is an episode from one of the first couple of seasons. (It’s possible some of the other stories were made into episodes later; I stopped watching partway through season three.) These are, of course, real-life stories of epidemiologists — specialists whose job it is to determine how an outbreak of a dangerous disease or medical situation occurred, so as to prevent it happening again. The story about the pesticides on the jeans (also an episode of House) has made me paranoid about new clothing for quite a while. The book is excellently written; at times Rouché constructs a narrative almost devoid of direct quotations that nevertheless allows the perspectives of the individuals involved to shine through, but when he’s got a patient or doctor who’s a good storyteller, he’ll just quote them directly, sometimes for pages at a time. I admire a nonfiction writer who knows when to get out of the way of the people they’re interviewing.
Ellis Peters, St. Peter’s Fair
Still more Cadfael — possibly the last for a while, as I’ve gone on a noir kick and Cadfael is not really compatible with Phillip Marlowe. My favorite part of these books, I think, is the strength of the characters. Like any mystery series, there’s a strong focus on the one-off characters in each story, but they’re always interesting, powerful, and strong in their own way. I particularly like Peters’ ability to write strong female characters who nevertheless fit perfectly into their role in a society that offered them fairly limited options. Strength of character isn’t in opportunities, it’s what you do with them, and the young women in these books are always holding themselves up high.
Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many
This is one of those books that I’m sure is a very different experience reading for the first time unspoiled, because it’s the first appearance of Hugh! Hugh Beringar, sheriff’s deputy, is Cadfael’s best friend for most of the series (and is played delightfully by Sean Pertwee in the first few TV adaptations), and watching Cadfael trying to decide whether or not to trust him is great fun when you know he’s entirely trustworthy. Hugh and Cadfael have a glorious battle of wits – mostly involving sneaking around the countryside – and at the end they become fast friends. I loved every minute of it. Oh yeah, and there was a murder or something too, I dunno.
Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
So the story goes that Jones was in the hospital, and working on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy at the same time, and she said, “I swear, all these books are so similar I could write the travel guide for the world they’re set in.” So she did. I was actually surprised to find that at least half of the clichés in the book were not straight out of Lord of the Rings. But still, after twenty-six years of a fondness for epic fantasy novels, there was not a damn one I was not familiar with. (Why in god’s name would you cook STEW on the road, anyway?)
Stephen Prothero, God is Not One
The sequel to his Religious Literacy which I read and reviewed here not too long ago, in God is Not One Prothero offers a brief introduction to eight of the world’s most influential religions. He calls them “the world’s rival religions,” which I’m not too fond of — I don’t think Daoism, for instance, is particularly the rival of anything — but I liked the book very much overall. He treats, in a self-defined order of importance, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religions, Judaism, and Daoism, with a short section on atheism in the back. The insight that I found particularly helpful, and one I thought supported Prothero’s position that the major religions are really very different from one another, was the way he described what each religion sees as the central human problem and the solution to that problem. Looking at it this way, you can really see a difference between, say, Christianity (which sees the problem as sin and salvation the solution) and Islam (where the problem is pride and the solution submission to God’s will) in a way that you can’t when looking only at history and practice. Also, he talks about Yoruba religions, including the facets of it still based in Africa and the Catholic syncretism in the Americas, and that’s just awesome.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
So in October I started reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my roommate, who’d never read it before. We’d finished Fellowship and started on Two Towers — got just about to where the second movie starts, actually — when a couple of our friends came up to visit and we told them about it, and it came out that the roomie had never read The Hobbit. Friends were suitably appalled, and I protested that I didn’t know, what kind of a crazy person has never read The Hobbit, and the upshot is, we started trading round the paperback, alternating reading chapters aloud all afternoon. We got through about half of the book that day, and just the other day I finally finished it. You know, I always forget how much I like Balin. He’s a decent fellow, for a dwarf. And although I was leery of it when I first heard the casting news, I cannot wait to see Richard Armitage playing Thorin Oakenshield.