Tag Archives: reviews

The Masque of the Red Death

November 11, 2016

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe. Just a short review.

Read it.

If you need help interpreting it, let me know.

Don’t Let the News Beat You Up

November 4, 2016

Let your kid do it instead!

Nah, it didn't hurt.

Nah, it didn’t hurt.

The Writing Lab

August 25, 2016

u1866I’m enjoying THE WRITER’S LAB by Sexton Burke. Lots of cool writing prompts.

Here’s one I worked on this morning over tea on my back patio: “Write a scene during which one character reveals a powerful and emotional truth to another — without using any dialogue.”

Here’s what I came up with:

Randa’s [what was I thinking with that name? nevermind] ability to change her body had given us countless nights of pleasure. Any female body type we could imagine was ours to enjoy in the privacy of our bedroom.

But as I stood across from her in the kitchen, watching her make her skin transparent, I realized there was one type of body alteration she couldn’t do.

She wept as her skin peeled back to show me. An octopus-like mass of black tendrils enveloped the major arteries to her heart and lungs. Cancer. It pulsed in time with her heart beats.

Randa, for all her magical body-morphing abilities, could not cure herself of sickness.

The skin continued to retract down her abdomen. What else did she want to show me?

A fetus the size of my thumb floated in her uterus.

Star Wars: The Racial Controversies Awaken

December 29, 2015

finn-tv-spot-sw_791b71f3Some thoughts about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This post contains POTENTIAL SPOILERS, so stay away if you haven’t yet been re-bapitized . . . or re-initiated . . . or re-Forcenized . . . or (nevermind).


The criticism of the film that most irks me concerns the degree to which Finn, as the token main character who is an African American, plays an integral part in the story’s resolution. Andre Seewood in his column, “Hyper-Tokenism: ‘The Force Awakens’ While the Black Man Sleeps,” has a huge problem with how Finn is knocked out during a climatic battle in the last act of the film and remains unconscious for the remainder of the story.  If you’ll recall, Finn is knocked out by Kylo Ren during a lightsaber battle, leaving it to Rey to pick up the lightsaber to defeat Ren (Ren/Rey, couldn’t they have found more dissimilar names?) and then for Poe Dameron, et. al., to blow up the Starkiller Base.  As Seewood writes:

In the context of the “Star Wars” franchise, full dramatic agency (the ability to influence, change, control and survive the dramatic circumstances within the story) is defined ultimately by a “selected” character’s ability to wield “the force” by intuition or training – the decision to not give Finn this final defining characteristic forces (no pun intended) this character into a supporting role for the Whites who are wielding this power. But when we add the fact that Finn is rendered unconscious for the final act of the film (not even able to applaud the efforts of his White cohorts) it can be said that we were not really following the heroic exploits of the Finn character so much as we were being led “by the nose” as it were, to a point where dramatic agency is ultimately still the providence of the White characters in the film.

Where this analysis breaks down is its focus on the use of the Force as being the critierion for dramatic agency.  If it weren’t for Finn’s actions, the Resistance would most certainly have failed.  Here are some of his accomplishments:

  1. Rescued Poe Dameron, who ultimately was responsible for blowing up the Starkiller Base.
  2. Gave critical tactical information to the Resistance on how to disable Starkiller Base’s shields.
  3. Initiated Rey’s rescue.

Finn very much was responsible for the outcome of the story, and therefore he had plenty of its “dramatic agency.”

Let’s also look at his coma in Act III from a story craft standpoint.  By the time he was knocked out, his character arc was complete.  He started as a stormtrooper and completed his change into a Resistance fighter.  His standing up for Rey at the end with the lightsaber was also, in my opinion, the ultimate statement of his love for her.  (And that’s another thing: I do think Finn has a massive thing for Rey.  And no, I don’t believe he’s going to have a homosexual relationship with Poe.  Get a grip, people.)

Once Finn was knocked out, it was then time for Rey’s character arc to be resolved, that of moving from her identity as a scavenger to a potential Jedi, from wasting away on Jakku, where she pined after parents who’d abandoned her, to moving forward with her life.  That couldn’t have happened if she and Finn were gripping Luke’s lightsaber at the same time.

Finn is a great character and great addition to the Star Wars franchise.  I think it’s wonderful that the two main characters are respectively black and female.  How boring it would have been to watch another movie with a big-chinned, 'roided-out white male as the lead.  But let’s not go down a rabbit hole of over-analysis and baseless accusations of things like “hyper-tokenism.”  If Finn in the next movie is relegated to serving Rey her tea before returning to his work in the moisture farm fields, then you might be onto something.  I think, however, this series will be more sophisticated.

Its Bark is Worse Than Its Bizarro

February 8, 2015

hauntedvagLet’s first judge the novella The Haunted Vagina by Carlton Mellick III (Eraserhead Press, 2006) by its cover, as I believe we’re supposed to. There’s a naked, computer-graphic woman with horns on her head and red stains on her body. She stands in front of computer-graphic skeletons arranged with artist Ed Mironiuk’s repeated use of copy and paste.

Then there’s the title. Say it with me: The Haunted Vagina. “From the Author of Apeshit.”

When we open the book, there’s an author’s note, “I miss Andre the Giant.” It has nothing to do with the story.

And the author photo on page 91. Mellick is a strange-looking dude with a shaved head, horn-rimmed glasses, mutton-chop sideburns, and a goofy facial expression. However, you have to give him props for making fun of author photo convention by thoughtfully stroking his chin. There’s so many photos out there where folks affectatiously stroke or support their chin à la The Thinker that I want to vomit. That might make a good bizarro fiction story, by the way: “Stroke Your Chin So I’ll Vomit.”

carltonAnd the use of the word “bizarro” to label the genre. Bizarro is a sixteen-year-old experimental movement in speculative fiction that emphasizes absurdism. Since it mostly revolves around Eraserhead Press in Portland, Oregon, the label might actually be a marketing gimmick rather than a scholarly genre theory. (Then again, aren’t all genre labels, at their core, marketing gimmicks?) It’s not necessarily a new thing, either. Writing that calls itself weird dates back at least as far as the classic Weird Tales magazine.

In any case, none of this packaging gives the impression of a high-brow read. Not that it’s supposed to. Maybe it’s supposed to offend us and make us laugh at the same time.

Still, the reader thinks, It’ll probably be a fun read. And it turns out you’re right. The opening line is, “I’ve been scared to have sex with Stacy ever since I discovered her vagina was haunted.” Our narrator, Steve, goes on to tell us that whenever he puts his ear against Stacy’s crotch, “It was like listening to the ocean in a hairy flesh seashell.”

It gets stranger and funnier from there. One night, while they’re having sex, Stacy suddenly gives birth to a fully grown, animated, human skeleton. Steve brains it with a lamp, thankfully. Then when they discover Stacy’s vagina is actually a gateway to another world, Steve goes spelunking, gynecologically speaking. He completely crawls inside his girlfriend to enter a surreal Oz where he meets the skeletons and aforementioned horned (and, as it turns out, horny) girl.

Silly? Sure. Offensive? Depends who you ask.

But is it good writing?

Here’s What’s Unexpected

Yes. It’s good writing. Mellick practices a clean, spare technique. It’s an easy-to-follow style with an emphasis on action, good dialogue, and good characterization. As a writer, I know that’s no mean feat. To make something easy to read and seem as if it was easy to write is quite hard.

I wasn’t expecting to read a sweet love story. Steve and Stacy are dysfunctional twenty-somethings who meet at a bus stop. They sleep together, literally, for three weeks before so much as kissing. Stacy enjoys stuffed grape leaves, Russian films, and playing music at open mics. Steve loves IPA beers and is so impulsive that he’ll give his $200 coat to a homeless man. Stacy licks her glasses clean before she reads and calls water pouring out of faucets waterfalls.

That Steve would, after battling the skeleton, not only not desert his girlfriend but agree to explore her supernaturally dangerous uterus feels like a natural outgrowth of that love. Despite the patent absurdity of the situation, the characters don’t behave inconsistently with their characterizations.

This makes sense when you read on Mellick’s Amazon author page that “his current style is to take the most ridiculous concepts imaginable and approach them with complete sincerity, as if they are not intended to be ridiculous at all.”

Which brings us back to the book’s sales presentation. Why be self-consciously ridiculous and offensive? I wonder if bizarro authors secretly share similar goals with Marilyn Manson. During Manson’s interview by a confrontational Bill O’Reilly, the musician said his Satanic imagery and costuming is all about shocking his audience. He wants them to re-think ideas they may have taken for granted. For instance, Manson says, has it ever occurred to people to contemplate the image of a crucifix purely as an image, apart from its theological meaning? “People can look at Christ on a cross and think this is an image of murder. This is violent. This has sexual imagery in it. I think it’s my job as an artist to be out there pushing people’s buttons and making them question everything.”

Is that really what writers like Carlton Mellick are doing? He says no. “It’s weird when people assume I’m trying to shock or offend readers,” Mellick stated in an interview with Musique Machine.

Oh, really?

“I’m shooting for being interesting or funny. I’m also trying to write stories that have never been written before. The reason why I might sometimes journey into taboo territory at times is because it’s territory that’s mostly unexplored. The easiest way to write something that nobody else has written before would be to write something that nobody else would dare write.”

Except, This is Really Just Old Hat with a New Hat Band

The thing is, the ideas in The Haunted Vagina aren’t unexplored, as Mellick claims. When you strip away the grotesqueries, it’s a conventional fantasy story.

Lewis Carroll used gateways into a surreal world in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. That Mellick’s gateway is human body rather than a mirror is no more ridiculous than the premise of the film “Being John Malkovich,” in which people crawl through a magic door to physically enter the mind of actor John Malkovich for fifteen minutes before materializing in a ditch near the New Jersey Turnpike. Substitute C.S. Lewis’s enchanted wardrobe for the vagina, and this could be any other fantasy story. Further, the story’s action, what with the animated skeletons who bleed blue ink, is no more out there than the “Evil Dead” movies.

So then, what is “bizarro,” assuming The Haunted Vagina is a good example of it? Is bizarro just Spongebob Squarepants dressed up as Marilyn Manson?  No, not in this case.  The novella isn’t written entirely in a comedic tone, notwithstanding Mellick’s stated goal to be funny.

eraserheadMaybe bizarro isn’t comedy, then. Maybe it’s just trying to be bizarre. But is it really so bizarre?  David Lynch’s seminal 1977 movie “Eraserhead,” eponym of Mellick’s publisher Eraserhead Press, is genuinely bizarre.  It’s a disturbing, trippy portrayal of a man’s disastrous entry into fatherhood. The movie makes no sense until you realize everything in it is symbolic. For example, the chipmunk-faced Lady In the Radiator, who smiles as she squishes giant sperm underfoot, symbolizes Henry Spencer’s mindspace of sexual fantasy. The film tells the story of Spencer trying to care for, and ultimately murdering, his infant child. That the baby is depicted as a repulsive, mewling dog fetus doesn’t diminish the viewer’s outrage at Spencer’s final act. The film’s use of bizarre imagery and sound design are intended to heighten that emotional effect.

If that’s archetypal bizarro, then The Haunted Vagina, as entertaining as it is, has no correlation. Its absurdist imagery doesn’t enhance Steve and Stacy’s sincere love story, except maybe as a half-hearted attempt to evoke a visceral male fear of females. When Steve is trapped inside the microcosmic world inside Stacy’s uterus, he’s as effectively emasculated as Aoyama in the Japanese horror movie “Audition” when his actress girlfriend cuts off his foot with piano wire. But I’m stretching to make such a claim. Whereas that scene is truly horrifying, especially to a male-dominated Japanese audience, Steve’s nearly suffocating inside Stacy’s birth canal is a big what-ev.

If The Haunted Vagina is a good example of contemporary bizarro, then my theory is that the only thing distinguishing bizarro from other fiction is its packaging and choice of subject matter. If my novella No Outlet were retitled to No Anus, the M.C. Escher-esque shopping mall escalators on the cover replaced with intestines, and the story changed from shoppers trapped in a supernaturally maze-like shopping mall to “Fantastic Voyage”-like microscopic whitewater rafters floating down an endless river of shit, would that make it a bizarro title? It just might.

Where I Wish Carlton Mellick Would Go

I think The Haunted Vagina’s absurdism and deliberately offensive presentation detracts from what is otherwise a great story. Mellick has the chops to easily reach a more mainstream audience, if he cared to.

I’m going to go out on a limb here (as if I’m not already) and suggest Mellick would be better served by tamer cover art than slapdash B-horror imagery or potentially revolting images like the first cover of Satan Burger. Take for example the 2005 case of Jared Armstrong of Girdwood, Alaska, who was charged with a sex crime for giving Satan Burger to a minor. As Mellick recounted to Musique Machine, “I guess they thought the guy was a pervert or something, probably due to the fact that the cover of the novel features a woman’s naked butt squatting over a dinner plate.”

He might also try writing full-length novels more often. He claims on his FAQ page that his stories are more suited to novella length, especially since “I want my books to have more of a juvenile/young adult lit feel to them.” But The Haunted Vagina is a good example of why novellas can’t always fully develop a good idea. I’m thinking specifically of Steve’s abrupt character arc at the end from feeling ambivalent toward his horned captor, Fig, to being wildly in love with her. It happens across the course of only two pages. Sure, Steve spans a good bit of narrative time with this jump, and he even speculates his feelings toward Fig are byproducts of Fig’s genetic manipulation of him. But this doesn’t alleviate the reader’s impression of abruptness. The world’s best stories are all about character change, after all. I would say that’s the whole point. And a profound change like this deserves more than a few pages. If Mellick had written a longer story, one in which he more thoroughly explored the mythology he only hinted at, then that character arc might have had time to feel more believable.

I would like mainstream readers to get past Mellick’s presentation to experience what I read: a damn good fantasy story, written in just the right tone to make a point about the nature of love. (The Haunted Vagina would have been a pretentious disaster without at least a seasoning of humor.) I’m looking forward to reading his newest offering, As She Stabbed Me Gently in the Face, about a serial killer in a monogamous homicidal relationship with an immortal, sociopathically possessive masochist. As the dustjacket unnecessarily spells out, the story is a metaphor for a bad relationship, kind of like the bunny stew in “Fatal Attraction.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read more Carlton Mellick.

The Voices of Ghosts

April 16, 2014

Harvard bookOne of my prized books is the Harvard College Class of 1891 Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Report (Plimpton Press, 1916; 418 pgs.), which I bought for a dollar from an antiques store. For a 98-year-old tome, it’s in excellent condition and has served as a valuable writer’s resource. Why? Because of the stories. It’s full of 1-2 page autobiographies by every member of Harvard’s class of 1891, complete with then-and-now photographs.

They’re all men, of course, and most of them seem to have led distinguished careers as judges, doctors, lawyers, and politicians. But what fascinates me (apart from the photos) are the wonderful names, which I plunder for my characters, and occasional flourishes of personality.

• Raymond Weeks (b. 1863) of Andover, Mass., reported to his classmates that he spent some of the 1890s in France and Berlin, “where I disliked and despised the Germans as much as I had liked and respected the French.” Now teaching Romance languages at Columbia University, “I have had the usual empty honors from various learned societies, have affixed my name to perhaps a hundred publications, and — more important — have played in a number of hotly contested golf matches.”

The book is full of then-and-now photos like these.

The book is full of then-and-now photos like these.

• Edgar Jonas Knapp (b. 1867) of Wisconsin reported that he’d had a colorful career in the 25 years since graduation. After beginning his medical practice in 1894, he sailed to Europe for some mountain climbing and eventually returned to Chicago to run a battery manufacturing company. Now a physician again at Rice Lake, he said, “The old saying that ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ has proven true in my case, but I have settled down now and so far as I know shall remain here until I gather moss or grow barnacles — or both.”

• Karleton Spalding Hackett (b. 1867) went on to become a music critic and musician after he left school. “As a critic I have had the good fortune to avoid assassination at the hand of any enraged artist, or suffering violence from the infuriated public.”

• Perley Doe (b. 1868) of Arlington, Mass., asked if there were other members of the class of ’91 interested in corresponding about Industrial Socialism. “If in the few years that remain I am able to demonstrate Socialism to the world as Darwin demonstrated nature’s evolution of organic forms, — well that will be about all that at present I hope to accomplish.”

These are some random excerpts from just 15 minutes of perusal. In the past, I’ve come across rants about the president, the Boxer Rebellion, the Spanish-American War, and even fashion trends. Every time I open this book, it’s a treasure.

I Cry During Dumb Movies

June 8, 2013

Maybe it’s creeping senility, but lately I get misty eyed watching some of the most inane crap.

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, which I’m forced to watch everyday because it’s my toddlers’ flavor of the month. That scene at the climax where Tinker Bell and Terence, in their dirigible of floating cotton balls, lands in the middle of Pixie Hollows’ blue moon festival. Yeah, man.

Star Trek: Into Darkness, during its shameless rehash of that scene in The Wrath of Khan when Kirk and Spock say goodbye from either side of glass door. “You’ll flood the whole compartment!” Yeah, it got me.

And then absolutely anything that shows childbirth going wrong, like that National Geographic documentary, The Science of Babies — just forget it. Even Elizabeth Banks having to get a C-section in last night’s viewing of What to Expect When You’re Expecting made me squirm. Of course, those hit too close to home.

So, what’s my problem? Am I sissy boy? Or maybe this is just a trait of being a writer — having a heightened sense of empathy or something. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Until I figure it out, just pass me a tissue and look the other way, goddammit.

The Origin of Religion

March 18, 2013

I’ve written frequently about my admiration of Julian Jaynes and his seminal 1976 treatise, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a work that, unfortunately, “has been more or less eliminated from the history of ideas,” as a reviewer observes about a posthumous followup, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, by the founder of the Julian Jaynes Society. Although I haven’t read Reflections, I agree with the general conclusions of the book review, which gives a broad summary of Jaynes’s work and life. You should take a few minutes to read it.

It’s sad that Jaynes hasn’t received more mainstream attention just because he was an intellectual who didn’t know how to market his work. “Origin likely would have fared better had it been presented as literary provocation rather than scientific fact,” reviewer Rachel Aviv writes. “But Jaynes saw his book as a work of science, and so it was critiqued, deconstructed, and made nearly irrelevant because the theories were impossible to test.”

I’ve read anecdotally that what she says is true. Jaynes was a psychologist in a field that expects its members to have their work peer reviewed before publication. Perhaps bullheadedly, he chose to bypass this step because he already knew what his peers would say about it.

All this being said, I still wonder how often a trained scientist proposes a comprehensive theory explaining why religion exists.

In this week that has seen the selection of a new pope and has continued to see the destinies of entire political systems shaped by conjectures about what deities want for our lives, I can’t think of a more relevant book for anybody who fancies himself an atheist, agnostic, or plain old skeptical intellectual with an admiration for science.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind remains one of my favorite, 5-star books.

My Favorite, 5-Star Books

July 23, 2012

Anyone watching my ongoing Goodreads.com log of books that I’ve read, which you can view through a widget on my biography page, will notice I rarely, if ever, give any book a 5-star review.

The reason for this is simple.  In my mind, a 5-star book should be perfect or especially profound — something I expect to think about for many years.  So, by definition, a 5-star rating should be almost impossible to achieve.

Books I really like, but which aren’t quite as mind-blowing, receive 4 stars.  These books are really, really good, but they just didn’t affect me as deeply as the 5-star ones.  To get a 4-star rating from me is still a great compliment, however.  I think I’ve given all of Joe Hill’s creations that I’ve read so far a 4-star rating.  His father Stephen King’s most recent book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, I also gave 4.

So, why should you give a shit?  Because I’m going to tell you about the only 5-star books I’ve read since I began the Goodreads record in late 2008.  I think you should read them, too, if you haven’t already.  Immediately.

Replay by Ken Grimwood

This novel taps into a secret fantasy I think we all share.  What if we could change our own, personal histories?  Sure, the mistakes we made in the past have all contributed to the person we are today — yadda, yadda — but that’s just a mantra we recite to make ourselves feel good about ourselves and to let the past go.  As for me, I would give my eye teeth to relive a particular day in the fifth grade so I could beat the absolute, living shit out of a class bully.  I might land in juvie hall as a result, but man, it would be worth it.

So in Replay, that’s what happens to Jeff Winston, a middle-aged prick who dies of a heart attack.  He wakes up 25 years in his past, in his college dorm room — and now the future is wide open to him again.  He can become rich on the stock market, knowing everything that will happen for the next two decades.  He can correct past mistakes or make all new ones.  And so he does — until he reaches the same point in his life when he died before, and he dies again of a heart attack.

And again, he time travels to his own past.  But instead of waking up in his old dorm room, he wakes up in his own body a few years after college.  Still in his past, but not quite as far back.  Everything he did during the second run-through of his life has been erased, so he can do it all again.  What path will he follow this time?

Like any good story, this one has a character with a great character arc, and Jeff Winston eventually becomes less of an asshole.  That’s what this story is about: his evolution as a person, what he learns on the way.  As a bonus, the end of the novel is a complete mind fuck.  I loved it, and I think about this story often.

Fireflies by David Morrell

I read this book soon after meeting David Morrell, “the father of Rambo,” as he likes to call himself.  Finding him to be a very personable, cerebral person and an insightful writer, I was interested to learn more about his life.  So when I came across this memoir about the death of his son Matthew, I was immediately interested.

I wasn’t prepared for what it would do to me emotionally.  I was standing on a train in the DC Metro system, on my way to work.  I cracked open the first chapter, and it was like taking the lid off a jar of nitro glycerin and burning my face off.  Pure, concentrated pain and grief.  They say there is no greater pain than the death of your own child.  Now that I’m a father, I have a better understanding of that statement.  So, there I was, hanging onto the subway car’s ceiling bar as it swayed through underground tunnels in Northern Virginia, in a sardine can of human bodies, and I started crying.  I was going to attract undue attention, so I had to put the book away until my lunch break.  I cried many more times as I continued with it.

What David Morrell did in this book, rather than just tell me what it was like to experience that pain, was to show it to me.  It’s a dramatic, step-by-tortuous-step retelling of how his 15-year-old son died of cancer.  At one point, he even engages in a what-if fantasy — as I imagine all parents of dead children do — in which he writes an alternate history of Matthew’s sickness.  What if his son received the proper treatment?  Would he still have died?

It’s been seven years since I read this book, and there’s one scene in particular that can still choke me up, just thinking about it.  David dramatizes the graveside service, when they interred Matthew’s ashes in a columbarium.  While the doors of the vault were open, a white bird flew inside and became trapped, disrupting the service.  David entered the building and brought the bird back outside, cupped in his hands.  As he released it into the sky, he said something like, “And now I will set Matthew free.”

Talk about opening a vein to write a book.  He actually did more than that.  Immediately after his son died, David ripped his own, beating heart out of his chest, and put it on paper.  All those years later, when I opened Fireflies to the first page, he reached through the book and stuffed that heart down my throat, still warm.  I’ve never read anything so devastating.

It’s been a while since I saw him in person.  I think it was at the Stoker awards banquet in 2011.  Nanci Kalanta, my wife, and I had lunch with him.  The topic of Fireflies came up, and I told him how profoundly the book affected me.  It might have been on his thoughts, too, because his 14-year-old granddaughter had died the previous year of the same rare bone cancer that took his son.  I told him my impression was that when he wrote the book, his very sanity was at stake — he was writing just to keep his head together, so he could go on living.  He nodded and said that I was correct.

Yes, my name is Matthew, too, and we were about the same age.  David is old enough to be my father, and it’s no secret my own father left a mile-wide hole in my psyche.  I might even go so far as to say I wish David were my father.  I realize all that might have a little to do with my personal experience reading Fireflies. 

Even so, I know I’m not alone in recognizing this book is filled with a raw, terrible power.  For that reason, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read — and it’s also one I hope never to read again.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

This is another non-fiction title, but its high-quality mind fucketry earns it a permanent spot on my list of favorite books.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to reprint my September 2006 Horror World column’s description of this outstanding book:

No one is quite sure what causes schizophrenia, but one leading theory is that it’s genetic.

A genetic cause makes sense if you consider that the illness’s most prevalent symptom, auditory hallucinations, might be an evolutionary throwback. This is the challenging hypothesis of one of the most controversial books of recent decades, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I dare say this book may prove as influential as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

The late author, a psychology professor at Yale, derived his theory from a wide range of disciplines: anthropology, archeology, linguistics, psychiatry—even literature. He said that humans of just three millennia ago had two active Wernicke’s areas of the brain instead of just one. The Wernicke’s area is a small portion of the brain’s left temporal lobe associated with written and spoken language comprehension.

Jaynes hypothesized that a second Wernicke’s area, located in ancient man’s right hemisphere, often communicated with the one on the left—an experience perceived as “hearing” voices. This was similar to the hallucinated voices of modern schizophrenics, especially in how these voices were admonitory.

Relying on a substantial body of convincing evidence, Jaynes said that ancient men believed these voices were those of dead ancestors, kings—and finally, of gods. The auditory hallucinations were aided by the construction of elaborate monuments and statues. He suggested that these hallucinations were the original causes of religious belief. When the “bicameral” neurology broke down due to a combination of sociological and Darwinian pressures, new religious models evolved from it.

I subscribe to the newsletter of the Julian Jaynes Society, and I recently devoured The Julian Jaynes Collection, which collects Jaynes’s other articles, lectures, and interviews.  And I still think he was a visionary.  Are there some holes in his theory?  Sure.  But what’s cool is that Jaynes, being a scientist — and, by all accounts, a gentleman — actually welcomed criticism.  He recognized that a good scientific theory is one that can evolve in the face of criticism and further discovery.

Even so, it may be a while before his theory gains wider acceptance.  Jaynes did no less than turn conventional psychology on its ear, and he basically alleged that all human religion is nothing more than an artifact of an earlier biology.  There’s naturally going to be some resistance to that.

But Jaynes just has a way of drawing you in and challenging your basic assumptions about the definition of consciousness and how it began.  He begins with one domino of logic — that human consciousness is dependent on human language — and examines it until you agree that he is probably correct.  And if you accept that one item, then the next domino falls over: if consciousness is language-based, then humans must not have been “conscious” until language was invented.  And if that’s true, then you can date the advent of human consciousness to sometime within the past few thousand years.  And if you agree that’s true . . .

Well, let’s just say this book has one major Holy Shit factor going for it, one strong enough to keep you up at night with existentialist thoughts.  I can’t recommend it enough.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Matrix meets Harry Potter meets Back to the Future.

It’s 2044, and in this dystopian future, the world is a shitty, poverty-striken place.  The OASIS is a Second Life-like, immersive Internet world.  Folks strap on their virtual-realty visors and data gloves, select an identity for themselves, and log in to a collaborative, simulated universe of private planets, interstellar space ships, and magic.  High school student Wade Watts is one of its users.  From the book description:

Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

For someone like me, who grew up in the 1980s, it was cool to read a book full of nostalgia I can appreciate — rather than to read or watch some story about the 1950s or 60s and wonder how much cooler it would be if I had experienced its pop culture references myself.  It helps that author Ernest Cline, his character James Halliday, and I are all about the same age.  I remember playing Tempest, Pac-Man, and all the old arcade games that figure so prominently in the story.   I also grew up on the movies that play crucial roles in the plot, like WarGames and Back to the Future.  And I spent a far amount of time playing games on an Atari 2600 and the early text-based MMORPGs (on my dial-up, 2400-baud modem) that make appearances in this novel.

Moreover, the story is suspenseful, the characters are interesting and distinctive, and the book ultimately has something meaningful to say about the nature of reality and personal identity.  I read it in about three days, and during that time I was agitated and distracted — simply because I couldn’t wait to power my Kindle back on so I could read more.  I can’t be a good writer unless I cultivate my love of stories — but because I am a writer, it’s easier to see the seams in someone else’s work and become jaded.  So it was nice to get really excited about reading something.  This is a book I wish I had written, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay it.

The real test of whether something retains its 5-star rating with me is if I keep thinking about it.  I’m certainly excited from the recent experience of reading this one.  Will I feel that way a few years from now?  The Crimson Labyrinth, by Yusuke Kishi, had a 5-star rating on my Goodreads log until this morning, when I realized I couldn’t remember what it was about.  This means it proved to be more of a chocolate cake than a nourishing, juicy steak.  We’ll see which one Ready Player One turns out to be.  Today, at least, I think Ernest Cline is the shit.

Go forth, read these books, and enjoy!

The News Leader’s Weak Stomach for Restaurant Reviews

April 4, 2012

It all started with a plate of cole slaw that tasted like the refrigerator it was stored in.

That’s the first thing Mollie Cox Bryan, novelist and writer about all things food, ordered at the Bistro restaurant in Staunton, VA. She was researching the latest installment of her restaurant review column for the city newspaper. She also ordered a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich because she’s a big fan of tomatoes and the menu listed it as a “Fried Green Tomato Sandwich.” But because she is a vegetarian, she asked the chef to hold the bacon.

The LT, as it were, still cost $8. And for that price, she received dry toast mounded with lettuce and stale tomatoes. On a five-star scale, she rated the food a 2.

She noticed other things about the restaurant, which she dutifully recorded in her April 1 article, “Bistro failed to live up to reputation.” The hostess leaned across the bar to have a personal conversation with the bartender, which gave the impression of unprofessionalism. Her table was chipped and wobbly. Still, she found something positive to say — her waitress was attentive, professional, and cheerful — and so she rated the service at 4 stars.  Not the tippy-top, but almost.  The atmosphere got an average score of 3.

I would link to the online archive of the review so you can read it for yourself, but the executive editor, David Fritz, has deleted it. His above-the-fold editorial in the April 3 paper, headlined “Bistro restaurant review failed fairness test,” is still online, however. (Here.) His reasons for retracting the story boil down to: (a) the reviewer ordered an out-of-season dish without a key ingredient; and (b) the review was based on only one visit.  I should point out that this was printed over another column in which the Fourth Estate congratulates itself for how great of a job it’s been doing.

As best I can reconstruct, based on the extensive online flamage (some of it my own) attached to Fritz’s editorial, and on my interview of Mollie Bryan, this is what happened:

  1. Mollie visited the Bistro, wrote her review, and turned it in.  The column didn’t mention that she’s a vegetarian, and it said she ordered a “fried green tomato sandwich” rather than a BLT sans the B.
  2. The editor directly responsible for the column, Cindy Corell, did a poor job editing the column. Corell admitted as much online: “Do I wish I’d remembered that she was a vegetarian and disclosed this to viewers and readers? Of course.” And, as Fritz wrote in his editorial, “we did a poor job not to catch those flaws while editing the piece for publication.”

I’m glad the two editors are taking responsibility for what they published, but there is more to this than just the writing and editing of a single article.

Let’s start with the way the News Leader manages its restaurant reviews.  In a word, it’s sloppy.  Mollie, a journalism graduate from Point Park University and author of two cook books, had a prior relationship with this newspaper.  She had authored a long-running column on parenting, “Thoroughly Modern Mollie.” In it, she often discussed her vegetarianism, a fact about her I wasn’t aware of until recently.  Perhaps all parties were used to a certain degree of informality, an unspoken — but erroneous and ultimately amateurish — understanding of how things would be handled in the new venue, a review column titled “Valley Food Files.”

They did discuss a few things, however, but most of these things were not put into a contract, as they should have been.  For example, they discussed Mollie’s per diem, which would be meager $100 per article.  For a work for hire copyright license, it should have been higher.  Oh, and Mollie would have to pay for her own meals.  Figure the math with me on that one: Meager – Meal = Jack.

They also discussed what to do in the event of a negative review.  Would Mollie have to make more than one visit to the restaurant?  The answer: they would look at it on a case-by-case basis.  Well, the case came up with the Bistro, but no one said anything until after the column was in print — and then it was discussed in the most humiliating, public fashion possible.

In the interests of fairness (as that’s the big buzz word here, you know), there are indeed such things as ethical standards food critics are supposed to follow.  There’s an organization called the Association of Food Journalists that seems to be the authority on this.  Their Restaurant Critics’ Guidelines, which you can download as a Word document, make the following recommendations:

  • make two or even three(!) visits to a restaurant when reviewing it;
  • sample the “full range” of the menu;
  • order the same food multiple times to see if it remains wonderful or terrible.

Wow, those folks in AFJ must have some big bucks to afford that.  Mollie didn’t do those things with the Bistro, however.  Should she have?  Her editor and many of the News Leader readers apparently think so.  But again, who was going to pay for all that?

The other issue is Mollie’s vegetarianism and whether that disqualifies her from being a food critic.  Should Mollie’s tag line at the end of the review, instead of reading, “The writer is a national freelance writer and published author,” begin, “The vegetarian writer . . .”?  If I were a vegetarian in this circumstance, I would feel a bit like a wheelchair-bound man fired from his job because he couldn’t climb the stairs.  It makes me wonder what decade we’re living in.

I asked Mollie about this.  She said, “It’s 2012, and I felt like most restaurants have vegetarian options, so I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal.” However, in the interests of being fair (there’s that word again), she often takes along her husband or kids, who sample and report on the meat to her. It seems like a reasonable accommodation to the AFJ ethics to me — despite the fact that the newspaper isn’t paying for all of those meals.

Still, this time out the door, Mollie went alone.  She ordered the Bistro’s “Fried Green Tomato” sandwich and asked the chef to hold the bacon.  Restaurant patrons make requests like this all time.  Being a professional, the chef did as she asked.  What he didn’t do was present the sandwich with a big placard reading, “Just so you know, this sandwich now sucks, so don’t judge me on it.”  Claims that Mollie’s sandwich experience was unfairly damaged by this deletion of a “key ingredient,” as David Fritz called it, are fatuous.  Since when does leaving bacon out of a BLT turn the bread stale?  The chef, Stephen Thacker, accepted responsibility for his work the moment he sent it to Mollie’s table, and in fact he still accepts responsibility, as he wrote online: “It does not matter that she is a vegetarian, or altered a dish, the more important issue is we can always improve.”

The previous restaurant reviewers haven’t been held to the same standards, as far as I can tell.  They haven’t been required to make multiple visits to a restaurant and sample multiple dishes in order to write a review, good or bad.  The one time in recent memory when a reviewer pre-dating Mollie wrote a justifiably negative review (of the execrable Buckhorn Inn), she was unfairly excoriated by readers, just as Mollie has been.  After that point, it was laughably obvious how gun-shy she became, rating all the restaurants on a 5-star scale that ran between 3.1 and 3.9.  To get her true opinion, one had to read the score that came after the decimal point.

Because of this experience — after the way she has been humiliated by her boss and subjected to nonstop ad hominem attacks online — I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Mollie Bryan quit her gig with this newspaper.  I know I would, and I’ve told her so.

Let’s just hope the next time The News Leader ventures into this area of writing that it gives some clearer communication to its writers and readers about what to expect.