Spring Clean #21

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This group of books from the last shelf in my great clean-out of books. Of course, it will soon be covered in books from other parts of the house, but that’s a matter for another day. I have a chance to wipe the dust off in momentary triumph and rearrange the whole bookshelf. Yeah.

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The Stuff: The author writes about the die-off of Ice Age megafauna, especially the mammoths. The populations were under stress because of a warming world. Now there’s the introduction of a new predator: human beings. He uses what he calls a “time machine” to imagine traveling back in time to imagine long-gone worlds. What was the world like just before the asteroid hit and wiped out the dinosaurs?

Did any of the creatures take note of the dim celestial light growing brighter each night as the giant comet raced inward toward the sun from its deep-space birthplace? Was its ever-larger tail a distraction to the night-flying fauna of the latest Mesozoic, the insects and newly evolved birds, or the soaring pterosaurs and other saurians of the late Cretaceous? Did the head of the comet eclipse the moon in brightness as it hurled inward those last few nights of the dinosaurs? In those last days, the comet plunged sunward—and coincidentally earthward—at 25 kilometers a second, 90,000 kilometers each hour, passing inward across the moon’s orbit in its final few hours, traversing the distance from the moon to Earth in a bare 4 hours. (p.55)

Ward also tends toward the dramatic, referring to the killing of megafauna as “murder.” The book ends with a cry for the protection of biodiversity, particularly that found in the earth’s rain forests. He takes a final trip in his “time machine” to imagine a time after the burgeoning human population has all but starved itself and is recovering. Humans have survived, indeed thrived, but elephants have not.

While I enjoyed this book, the author’s penchant for the melodramatic annoyed me.

Bio: Peter D. Ward (b. 1949) is an American paleontologist and professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Sprigg Institute of Geobiology at the University of Adelaide. His books include Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History (2004), Life as We Do Not Know It: The NASA Search for (and Synthesis of) Alien Life (2005), and Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Mean for Our Future (2007).

Title: The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared
Author: Peter D. Ward (b. 1949)
First published: 1997

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The Stuff: This is about “living fossils”— “small groups of animals or plants that are the only living representatives of geologically ancient categories of life.” The most famous example is perhaps the coelacanth, a fish caught in off South Africa in 1938 once thought to have been extinct for millennia. More recent DNA analysis, which Ward could not have been aware of, has shown the fish was not quite what it was believed to be.

Ward examines the stories of brachiopods, clams, nautiloids, the horseshoe crab, and various plants. He further discusses the mass extinctions of the past.

I liked this book. Ward writes with an eye for detail and a feeling for the poetic.

Bio: see The Call of Distant Mammoths

Title: On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions
Author: Peter D. Ward (b. 1949)
First published: 1992

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The Stuff: “The past deserves our attention not merely for the sake of antiquarian curiosity, but because our culture and society today descend from ancient Cahokia as much as from medieval London, Renaissance Rome, and ancient Athens,” writes author Weatherford. He describes mostly in broad areas how North American society, rather than simply being European society transplanted on new soil, absorbed and exchanged cultural aspects with the people living here first. Too seldom is this acknowledged or understood.

Overall, it was an interesting read. I remember thinking when I read this that he didn’t go far enough. Since reading the book, I’ve only learned more—for example, the native contribution to American music, specifically rock and roll.

The book was published around the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the “New World.”

Bio: Jack Weatherford is a cultural anthropologist and DeWitt Wallace Professor, Emeritus Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota. He began teaching anthropology in 1983. His most recent interest is in tribal peoples in Mongolia. His books include Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (1988), The History of Money (1997), and Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom (2016).

Title: Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America
Author Jack Weatherford
First published: 1991

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The Stuff: The author profiles the work of two Princeton scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have been studying the finches on Daphne Major in the Galapagos Islands for twenty years. They’ve chartered population rises and falls and changes in the populations. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much, but the implication show evolution in action. The different species don’t normally interbreed but will do so in times of stress. Even minor differences in beak size can determine who can make use of food and who lives or dies. Later in the book, the author applies these findings to drug-resistant bacteria.

This was a fantastic read. It won a 1994 Pulitzer Prize.

Bio: Jonathan Weiner (b. 1953) is a science writer and professor at Columbia University, teaching science writing at the Graduate School of Journalism. His writing focuses on biology and evolution. Among his books are Planet Earth (1986), the companion book to the 1986 PBS series of the same name; Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior (1999); and Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality (2010).

Title: The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Author: Jonathan Weiner (b. 1953)
First published: 1994

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The Stuff: This opens with the old saw from Harlan Ellison, who, when asked where he got his ideas, is supposed to have replied, “From Schenectady.” The author then ticks off several scholarly works he’d read on the creative process then concludes, “there always comes a point at which any attempt to explain the creative process fails.” At the same time, what he wants in this book is to take ideas and transform them into workable fiction. Not all ideas work. He also offers practical advice like keeping notebooks, reading classical mythology and newspapers, making worksheets, etc. The book is arranged in a clear outline so finding what you want is simple. It’s a Writer’s Digest publication.

Bio: Fred D. White holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has taught writing and literature to undergraduates for more than thirty-five years. He is professor of English emeritus at Santa Clara University in Northern California. Among his books are Writing Flash: How to Craft and Publish Flash Fiction for a Booming Market (2018) and Essential Muir (Revised): A Selection of John Muir’s Best (and Worst) Writings (2021).

Title: Where Do you Get Your Ideas? A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions into Narratives
Author: Fred D. White
First published: 2012

Review of “The Loves of Hercules” (1960″

trailer from YouTube

This is our Saturday night pizza and bad movie offering, a beefcake flick filmed initially in Italian. The eye candy was a nice accompaniment (your mileage may vary) to the pizza and wine, and it brought up the apocryphal reaction of Harry Warner (one of the Warner Brothers) to talkies: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

Plot:

The opening shows (…Greek?) soldiers pillaging a town. A wealthy woman is in her home, ready to flee with her maid when two soldiers enter. After confirming that she’s Hercules’ wife, they kill her, stabbing her in the back.

“Hercules will avenge me,” she tells them.

“I hope he will,” says chief bad’un Licos (Massimo Serato). “For his vengeance will fall on the person I wish to destroy.”

To show what a bad’un he really is, Licos goes to his boss, Eurysteus (Cesare Fantoni), and tells him his orders have been carried out. His boss is happy. Hercules is not going to figure out who did all the rapin’ and killin’.

Licos doesn’t want to risk him finding out. Hercules will be appeased if he knows his wife’s murderer has been killed.

Bummer for Eurysteus.

Hercules (Mickey Hargitay) comes back from consulting the Oracle, who might have told him some was afoot rather than he’d lead a troubled life. He finds everything in ruin and knows damn well who’s responsible—except, well, hard to wreak vengeance on a dead guy.

He meets with the dead king’s daughter, Queen Deianira (Jayne Mansfield)—and yeah, he’s mourning his recently deceased wife and all, but she’s kinda cute. She’s mourning her recently deceased dad and all, but he’s kinda cute, especially since he runs around half-naked.

Alas! The course of true love never did run smooth. Queen Deianira is already engaged to Achilles (which they pronounced something like “Ah-kil-AY-o”). Herk knows where he’s not wanted and leaves.

Achilles turns up dead with Hercules’ dagger in his back. (Notice a pattern here?)

So, yeah, Queen Deianira is mourning her dead father and her dead fiancé, but Licos proposes to her anyway. She can’t be interested in Hercules. He killed Achilles, right?

Thoughts:

Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay were married at the time. Hargitay was a former bodybuilder, so he had the strength and apparently was not shy about the skimpy little outfits he had to wear in this flick. I doubt he picked up marble pillars or tree trunks, however.

The story is absurd. No other word comes to mind. The special effects are goofy, but that seldom bothers me. Hercules attacks a three-headed hydra that looks like it doesn’t even realize he’s there. The amazons wear uniforms left over from the latest alien invasion flick.

In one rather disturbing scene, the amazon queen, Hippolyta (Tina Gloriani), stands in a blasted forest, taunting a former lover she is gradually turning into a tree. Could this be Hercules’s fate?

Queen Deianira’s wardrobe is varied and quite striking. Her attendants wore various gowns of various pastel shades. Their hair was piled in nearly impossible beehives. This is all quite un-ancient Greek, but fun to watch.

This is a nitpicky point, but the characters kept calling Hercules the son of Jupiter—the Roman name. Greeks would use the Greek name, Zeus. But realism? I am asking a bit much.

After much sturm and drang, there is a happy ending, and the angels sing.



The movie can be watched here:

The sound is iffy, but the dialogue (dubbed in later) is more comprehensible than the music, which sounds like it was recorded off an AM radio.



Buy or Rent MST3K version here:




Title: The Loves of Hercules (original title: Gli amori di Ercole )(1960)

Directed by
Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia

Writing Credits

Sandro Continenza…(screenplay) (as Alessandro Continenza) &
Luciano Doria…(screenplay)
Alberto Manca…(story)

Cast (in credits order)
Jayne Mansfield…Queen Deianira / Hippolyta
Mickey Hargitay…Hercules
Massimo Serato…Licos
Tina Gloriani…Hippolyta
Rossella Como…Aleia
Giulio Donnini…High Priest
Arturo Bragaglia…Iolaus

Released: 1960
Length: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Five More Books Off to the Library/Spring Clean #20

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This is this week’s group of books going to the library. As always, lots of fond memories. I’m surprised I’ve had the Vonnegut book this long. I believe I read it sometime around 1990. The sad part of donating all these books is as fast as I clear off the shelves, they fill up again with books I have lying around in other places in the house. The only book I’ve had longer is Tuchman’s.

As always, if there is a book anyone would like, let me know and I’ll get it to you. I generally don’t take the books to the library for a week after I post about them.

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The Stuff: The author describes a novel mechanical origin for the onset of the Ice Age. This Ice Age changed the climate in the savannah of Africa where human ancestors lived, helping to bring about the evolutionary changes—large brains and bipedalism—that led to the rise of homo sapiens, that is, us humans. The writing is easy to follow, and the concepts are laid out convincingly without technical jargon.

Bio: Steven M. Stanley (b. 1941) is an American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, currently a research professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. For most of his professional life, he taught geology at Johns Hopkins. He is best known for perhaps his work using the fossil record to make a case for punctuated equilibrium. Most of his publications are professional works and textbooks.

Title: Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve
Author: Steven M. Stanley (b. 1941)
First published: 1996

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The Stuff: The book begins with a description of a visit to cave paintings of Combrelles in France, leading the author to ask about human uniqueness and what sets us apart from even our closest relatives, who seem incapable of the symbolic logic we homo sapiens use almost as a birthright. Not even the Neanderthal were capable of speech. Some disagree on this point, and I am hardly one to weigh in with an opinion. Tattersall also strongly advocates for punctuated equilibrium, that is, the idea that populations generally undergo long periods of stability until there is some evolutionary pressure. At this point, a speciation event may occur. All this happens over extremely long periods of time from a human perspective. I enjoyed this book.

Bio: According to his website, Ian Tattersall (b. 1945) is curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was educated at both Cambridge and Yale and has carried out fieldwork in Madagascar, Vietnam, Surinam, Yemen, and Mauritius. His three main areas of research are the analysis of the human fossil record and its integration with evolutionary theory, the origin of human cognition, and the study of the ecology and systematics of the lemurs of Madagascar. His books include (with Rob DeSalle) Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth (2011), The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution (2015), and (with Peter Névraumont) Hoax: A History of Deception: 5,000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies (2018).

Title: Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness
Author: Ian Tattersall (b. 1945)
First published: 1998

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The Stuff: “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests?” the author asks at the beginning of the book. “Why, to begin at the beginning, did the Trojan rulers drag that suspicious-looking wooden horse inside their walls to suspect a Greek trick?” Tuchman examines three monumental losses in history that might have turned out better had the leaders acted differently: The Protestant Reformation (“The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession”), The American Revolution (“The British Lose North America”), and the Vietnam War (“America Betrays Herself”). These leaders did not act blindly. To meet her definition of folly, the leaders had to receive warnings. The prototype is Laocoön, who tried to warn his fellow Trojans about the horse the Greeks left. Athena sent two sea serpents to shut him up. They took his sons, too.

I read this book when it first came out, and I was a lot younger. I loved it and thought it had an important message. After a more recent reread, I found it preachy.

Bio: Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) was an American historian and writer. Her father was the owner of Maurice Wertheim, the owner of The Nation. Her mother was Alma Morgenthau, the daughter of Henry Morgenthau, Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Her first book of note The Guns of August (1962), about the onset of WWI, won a Pulitzer Prize. She also won a Pulitzer for Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (1971), a biography of Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell.

Title: The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam
Author: Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989)
First published: 1984

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The Stuff: This book deals with prehistoric climate, climatic changes, and human response to those changes, as well as the effects humans have had on the environment. For example, many of the larger land species have disappeared wherever humans have gone.

Contrary to traditional views, he sees the adoption of farming as something done only under pressure. In his chapter “End of Eden,” he writes that what is called “The Agricultural Revolution” was not quick, nor were people enthusiastic about becoming settled agriculturists. It was hard work, with results always uncertain: “Farming, in its early days,” he writes, “seemed to offer very little advantage indeed. In fact, more and more evidence suggests that it was ghastly.”

His words portray the earth’s processes forever in a dance. Nevertheless, the overall outlook is dark. Humankind is a bit player on the great stage of the world. Tudge speaks forcefully for conserving the earth’s bountiful if limited, resources.

This is an interesting, if sad, book.

Bio: Colin Tudge (b. 1943) refers to himself as “a biologist by education and a writer by trade.” He read zoology and worked on the staff of Farmers’ Weekly, New Scientist, and BBC Radio 3. Beginning in the early 2000s, Tudge and his wife, along with Graham Harvey, have advocated for what they call “Enlightened Agriculture” or “Real Farming” with the stated goal of “Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest standard, nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest of the world.” His books include Consider the Birds: Who they are and what they do (2008), Good Food for Everyone Forever: A people’s takeover of the world’s food supply (2011), and Why Genes Are Not Selfish and People Are Nice (2012).

Title: The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact
Author: Colin Tudge (b. 1943)
First published: 1996

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The Stuff: This is a little hard to read. It begins after (Mark) Vonnegut graduates from college and sets up a hippie commune in British Columbia with some friends. He starts showing symptoms of mental illness, but hippies take care of their own. One of the standout quotes is, “Knowing that you’re crazy doesn’t make the crazy things stop happening.” The narrative dances on the edge of what is real and what maybe isn’t. Vonnegut’s father eventually commits him to a mental hospital. Vonnegut writes frankly, giving the reader an inside-looking-out at experiencing a breakdown. This is chilling and frightening but not despairing.

Bio: Mark Vonnegut (b. 1947) is the son of the late Kurt Vonnegut. He is a pediatrician and memoirist. Among his books are Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So (2010) and The Heart of Caring: A Life in Pediatrics (2022).

Title: The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity
Author: Mark Vonnegut (b. 1947)
First published: 1975


Review of “The Beast of Hollow Mountain” (1956)

from YouTube

For our Saturday pizza and bad movie night, we once again turned to Mystery Science Theater 3000. They did not disappoint. This was a color 1956 Claymation monster flick involving a love triangle, vaqueros, bad dudes, a fistfight in the town square smashing a lot of honest vendors’ stalls, and the heroics of (*sigh*) the lone americano. And I don’t mean coffee.

Plot:

In perhaps the early 20th century rural Mexico, three men look for lost cattle. The narration explains: “Deep in the back country of Mexico, there rises a grim and mysterious mountain, which is said to be hollow. Its interior has never been explored because at its base lies an impassible swamp. The superstitious link the hollow mountain and the swamp in their folk legends as places of evil, great evil. They tell of the strange animal from the dawn of creation that inhabits the area, coming forth to prowl and pillage only in times of drought. They tell of men and cattle disappearing without a trace. But perhaps these are only tales. Tales told by simple people.”

After Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) rescues his partner Felipe Sanchez (Carlos Rivas)  from quicksand, they find one poor beastie drowned. Jimmy believes someone or something drove the animal into the swamp. And he knows who! Don Enrique Rios (Eduardo Noriega)! He’s been trying to run him off the land since they established the ranch. Well, Jimmy’s going to talk to the Alcalde Don Pedro (Julio Villarreal) about this!

In the meantime, Panchito (Mario Navarro) sits outside the cantina where his recently widowed father, Pancho (Pascual García Peña), is busy getting plastered. When Pancho the elder emerges, he stumbles to his horse. Father and son mount. Good thing the horse is sober. Street urchins throw firecrackers, spooking the horse, who throws the pair. Panch the elder has one foot in the stirrup and could easily be dragged to his death.

Fortunately for him, Jimmy is on his way to Don Pedro’s house and sees what is happening. He stops Pancho’s horse and saves his life. Don Pedro’s daughter, Sarita (Patricia Medina), happens to be in the square shopping. Because Pancho works for her father, she stops to check in on him. She’s also concerned about the boy, Panchito, whom she regards as a son since his mother has died. They walk together to her home.

To top it all off, she’s engaged to bad guy Don Enrique, who shows up at Don Pedro’s. He tells Jimmy (I’m not making it up) to go back to Texas.

Felipe and Jimmy find out the next morning Don Enrique is not one to be messed with. Their entire crew has quit. Pancho and his son show up uninvited and offer to work in their stead (uh… no child labor laws?). Caught short, Jimmy and Felipe agree to hire them. Pancho goes out to the swamp, looking for lost cattle. He turns, sees a shadow, and fires his gun. That’s the last we see of Pancho—except for his sombrero. Major bummer for Panchito.

Thoughts:

According to IMDB, parts of this were filmed on location in Morelos, Mexico, the same state where both The Magnificent Seven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were filmed. This movie is nothing like either of those.

Jimmy, knowing full well Sarita is engaged, falls for her. She likes him too. That’s only part of why Don Enrique hates him so much. He wants his cattle.

There was so much I liked about this film. The monster first appears as two stomping legs. I laughed with delight and called out, “Earl Sinclair!” No, the dinosaur wasn’t convincing. But it doesn’t have to be believable to be enjoyable; I’ll settle for entertaining. And it was. It carried a cow in its toothy mouth. Its tongue hung out of its mouth (when it wasn’t full of cow) like a cocker spaniel’s on a hot day. It reached for our heroes through a roof and a fissure in the rock it couldn’t fit through, like Tom grasping (usually to his dismay) into a wall after Jerry.

On the other hand, the comic relief, such as it was, was provided by a man neglecting his son and drinking himself to death while mourning his wife’s death. I couldn’t find that amusing. That was just tragic. And Panchito—who spends a lot of time in the movie watching the horses—ends up without either parent.

Another mark against it is the climactic scene where the Claymation dinosaur is dispatched almost singled-handledly by the hero Señor Jimmy. The rest of the cast sits on their horses, arranged in a semi-circle, watching as Señor Jimmy saves the day. They should have applauded.

Oh, by the way, where is Don Enrique?

Uh… he’ll be along…

This could have and should have been a better bad movie.

I could not find this for free download, but it is available with MSTK3000 on Netflix.




Title: The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

Directed by
Edward Nassour
Ismael Rodríguez…(as Ismael Rodriguez)

Writing Credits
Robert Hill…(screenplay)
Jack DeWitt…(additional dialogue)
Willis H. O’Brien…(from an idea by) (as Willis O’Brien)

Cast (in credits order)
Guy Madison…Jimmy Ryan
Patricia Medina…Sarita
Carlos Rivas…Felipe Sanchez – Jimmy’s Partner
Mario Navarro…Panchito
Pascual García Peña…Pancho
Eduardo Noriega…Enrique Rios
Julio Villarreal…Don Pedro

Released: 1956
Length: 1 hour, 19 minutes

Spring Clean #19 The End is in Sight

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With this group of books, the end approaches for the spring cleaning I originally intended. I have less than a shelf to go. That means, I can clean off an end table or two and put books on a freshly dusted off shelf.

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The Stuff: As journalist Seierstad recounts in her foreword, she met Shah Muhammad Rais (whom she calls Sultan Khan in the book) in Kabul after spending time with the Northern Alliance during their fight with the Taliban. He loves books.

“First the Communists burned my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again,” he tells her. He had even spent time in prison.

The author realizes this man is interested in preserving Afghan culture. He invites her to dinner one night. She invites herself to spend time as a houseguest. He assures her she is welcome.

A portrait emerges where the head of house has absolute sway over everyone’s life. One’s wives and children aren’t that important. They serve the pater familias.

Rais eventually brought suit against the author for defamation and/or invasion of privacy. Its resolution is a little hard to suss out as there several contradictory articles.

The book was foremost sad. Several layers weigh down on the people who can do little about their situation. I can only wish them well after the Taliban take over.

Bio: Åsne Seierstad (b. 1970) is a Norwegian freelance journalist and author best known for her portraits of everyday life during times of war in places like Afghanistan, Serbia, and Chechnya. She also wrote an account of the 2011 attack on a summer camp in Norway, titled One of Us.

Title: The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Åsne Seierstad (b. 1970)
First published: 2002 (English translation 2003)

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The Stuff: Shattuck divides the book into two main sections, plus three appendices. The first section deals with forbidden knowledge as a topic in literature. Reading this was fun for me. I got to read tidbits of stuff I’d read before and find things I hadn’t read before. Seldom did I agree with his interpretation of works. No, Mary Shelley wasn’t writing about forbidden knowledge or scientific trespass. She was writing about Victor Frankenstein abandoning his creation. The second part dealt with forbidden knowledge in science in the real world. His great bugaboo, the human genome project, almost seems quaint now. He also writes about the “rehabilitation” of the writing of the Marquis de Sade and his violent pornography. This was genuinely difficult for me to read. Shattuck warns the reader, not without reason, that his excerpts are graphic. The bigger question is whether such sh—er, such writing should be censored. Shattuck doesn’t call for censorship per se, but his outlook is quite conservative. In one appendix, he outlines six types of forbidden knowledge.

I disagree with many things Shattuck wrote, but this is a thoughtful, scholarly book, not a reactionary, pearl-clutching screed.

Bio: Roger Shattuck (1923-2005) was a polyglot scholar and writer who taught French and comparative literature at Harvard, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia, and Boston University, from which he retired in 1997. He interrupted his pre-med studies at Yale to enlist in the Army for World War II and served in the Pacific. His books include The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (1958); a 1975 biography of Marcel Proust, which won the National Book Award Arts & Letters prize; and Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts (1998).

Title: Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography
Author: Roger Shattuck (1923-2005)
First published: 1996

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The Stuff: Beginning in 1934, these are extracts from Shirer’s diary that depict the rise of Naziism in Germany. For most of that time, he was a foreign correspondent for CBS, the first of the “Murrow Boys.” He was in Vienna for the Anschluss and in France for the signing of the armistice between France and Germany. He spent time in Berlin, attending speeches given by Hitler, whom he calls “the great man” and describes as “dripping with venom.” He got wind the Gestapo was building an espionage case against him and got out of Dodge, smuggling the diary.

It’s come to light since his death that the diary paints Hitler in a more favorable light than the published work, so there is a bit of revisionism. Nevertheless, re-reading this book is chilling, especially with the rise of fascism in the world.

Bio:
William Shirer (1904-1993) was an American print and radio journalist and later lecturer and author. Among his books are The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and The Nightmare Years (1984).

Title: Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941
Author: William L. Shirer (1904-1993)
First published: 1941

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The Stuff: In 1920s London, psychic Ellie Winter receives a man who’s come to her under the pretense of asking for her help in finding his sister’s lost brooch. Ellie knows the man is lying—and his name is not Mr. Baker. She, unlike most psychics, does not communicate with the dead. At least not anymore, despite the demand since the Great War. She finds lost things—not people. Mr. Not-Baker has come to find out if Ellie is real because his sister, the flamboyant psychic Gloria Sutter, was murdered during a seance. Just before she died, she sent him a note saying, “Tell Ellie Winter to find me.”
Does Ellie have any idea what she meant? Nope.

Gloria and Ellie were once friends but have become rivals as two of the only “true” psychics around. Why would Gloria leave such a note for her brother?

This was a fun, quick read, but it was also quite commercial. The reader knew what would happen because it relied on tried and true formulae.

Bio:
Simone St. James is a Canadian author of mystery, historical fiction, and romance novels. According to the author’s blurb, St. James worked behind the scenes in the television industry for twenty years before leaving to write full-time. Her books include The Haunting of Maddy Clare (2012), The Sun Down Motel (2020), and The Book of Cold Cases (2022). She lives outside of Toronto with her husband and spoiled cat.

Title:
The Other Side of Midnight
Author: Simone St. James
First published: April 2015

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The Stuff: Once upon a time, I read Plato’s Republic. I read it on my own, not for a class. I was still young enough to be shocked as I watched a totalitarian state arise from the search for “justice.”

In the present book, the author asks that in a society that prized free speech, why was Socrates sentenced to death for dishonoring the gods and corrupting the youth? The records of the trial that have come down to us are from two pupils of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon. They offer only a one-sided view of the trial. Information missing is as important as information presented. Stone searches into Athenian history to arrive at an answer. This does not make for a rip-roaring yarn, but it is a thoughtful, interesting read that has implications for the present.

While Stone may go out on a limb at some points, this remains an engaging and worthwhile read.

Bio: Isidor Feinstein Stone (1907-1989) was an American investigative journalist, writer, and author perhaps best known for leftist politics and his newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which ran from 1953 to 1971. He wrote for such periodicals as the New York Post, The Nation, and PM. After ill health forced him into retirement, he began studying classics, teaching himself classic Greek.

Title: The Trial of Socrates
Author: I. F. Stone (1907-1989)
First published: 1988



Review of “Avalanche” (1978)

trailer from YouTube

For our Saturday night pizza and bad movie, we ventured into Mystery Science Theater territory for this callback to disaster flicks of the 70s. I was rooting for the snow. The pizza and wine were good.

Plot:

Caroline Brace, formerly Shelby (Mia Farrow), checks into a newly opened ski resort and meets her former mother-in-law, Florence Shelby (Jeanette Nolan), for whom she has a lot of affection. Her mother-in-law hopes Caroline will reconcile with her son, David Shelby (Rock Hudson), the owner of the resort. Caroline… has to think about that. Florence introduces her to Henry McDade (Steve Franken), the accountant.

People carrying skis walk between them, letting the viewer know this is a ski resort.

Florence, McDade, and Caroline tour the resort. It’s very nice.

Apparently to promote the opening of his establishment, Shelby is sponsoring a series of competitions that attracts winter sport celebrities. One of them is skier Bruce Scott (Rick Moses). As a silent David Shelby watches from an upstairs window, a reporter asks Bruce if he ever feels afraid on the slopes. The skier responds, “I never thought about it. I ski like I breathe or talk or make love.”

(I’m biting my tongue not to ask if that makes it all downhill from here.)

When Caroline meets David, she finds him full of hope for his new resort. He has big dreams. He also wants to reconcile with her and manhandles her. He objects to her registering with her maiden name. She is noncommittal on this point. (‘Cuz what lady can resist being manhandled and told what name she can use?) He also confesses that one of the planning commissioners he had to deal with is under investigation regarding a separate corporation—except David bought some of his land from one of those corporations. That’s a matter of public record. So is David’s “sizable contribution” to the planning commissioner’s senatorial campaign.

The viewer is treated to some lovely figure skating routines by Cathy Jordan (Pat Egan) and Annette River (Peggy Browne) (both actresses are figure skaters) and Bruce skiing through some delightful landscape. Oh-uh! Avalanche! He tries to outrun it and does what every Olympics-worthy skier should do in a similar situation. He jumps into a tree. Once the worst is over, he hops down and goes on his merry way.

Yeah, there’s more to come.

At a construction site for (maybe?) a new lodge, Nick Thorne (Robert Forster) confronts David, telling him cutting down all those trees will make the slope unstable. And there’s a storm coming. Nick knows these things. He’s a wildlife photographer. Nevertheless, Caroline smiles at him and says she hopes he shows up at the party David is throwing at the resort that evening.

David screams at his put-upon lawyer, Marty Brenner (X Brands), to handle the growing trouble with the investigation (which he is definitely not a part of). Never mind the storm that’s supposed to come.


Thoughts:

One of the standout bad things in this movie is the dialogue. When David talks up the resort to Caroline, he describes his “struggles” with the bank, the environmentalists, and the planning commission—but he had big dreams. “Four years ago,” he tells Caroline, “I came out here, and I saw that mountain, and I knew. I’m climbing it.”

At the party, a slightly inebriated Florence yells, “Aloha!” David tells her, “Mother, this isn’t Hawaii.” To which the indomitable Florence replies, “It is if I say so.”

Oh, is that Nick dancing with Caroline? Grrr….

Random people die under rolling Styrofoam and roaming fuzzy white blurs on the screen—skiers, skaters, people in the stands, people in the booth. I don’t disrespect bad special effects. According to IMDB, it took a spring thaw to uncover the rest of the Styrofoam.

In the kitchen, a gas explosion sends the hapless kitchen staff into the walls, Wile E. Coyote style, but Florence and McDade seem to be okay in the dining room.

Bad dialogue might be forgivable, and cheesy special effects can be delightful, but what drove me up the wall was the stupid, soulless melodrama. I didn’t give a damn about the characters. Why waste perfectly enjoyable figure skating routines on the morass of millimeter-deep feelings and situations even the Flintstones would roll their eyes at?

A final needless tragedy provokes the bad guy ‘fessing up that it’s all his fault. After School Special or what? Blech.

Um, I vote no.

Avalanche can be watched here if you insist.




Title: Avalanche (1978)

Directed by
Corey Allen

Writing Credits (in alphabetical order)
Corey Allen…(writer)
Frances Doel…(story)
Gavin Lambert…(writer) (as Claude Pola)

Cast (in credits order)
Rock Hudson…David Shelby
Mia Farrow…Caroline Brace
Robert Forster…Nick Thorne
Jeanette Nolan…Florence Shelby
Rick Moses…Bruce Scott
Steve Franken…Henry McDade

Released: 1978
Length: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Rated: PG

Review of “A Simple Ad” (2019)

from YouTube

Thoughts:

This is a very short film inspired by a six-word micro-short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway.

The opening credits roll over shots of a bookcase with family pictures—a baby, a little boy, and a wedding, among others. The viewer hears “Suo Gan,” a lovely traditional Welsh lullaby sung by the Choir of King’s College. It ends on a pink memo: “Fuck C.”

Sara (Adria K. Hernandez) sits at a word processor trying to type an ad while John (Juan Carlos Hernández), her husband, makes noise working on a skateboard. When she complains that he’s distracting her, he apologizes and says, “I just want to make sure the next person who rides this doesn’t break a bone or something.”

What makes this film is the final scene. The actors aren’t even facing the camera, which focuses on the ad Sara has just taped to a light pole. The skateboard is a symbol of hope the couple had for their son. They can laugh and joke; it doesn’t hide their grief. They love each other. They are together.

I found this lovely and poignant, as short as this was.

“A Simple Ad” can be watched here.

Edited to add (belatedly…): Full disclosure: the writer of the film is an old friend of mine.






Title: A Simple Ad (2019)

Directed by
Juan Carlos Hernández

Writing Credits
Alex Diaz-Granados

Cast
Adria K. Hernandez…Sara
Juan Carlos Hernández…John

Spring Clean #18

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This is the next group of books to go to the library. The end is in sight. The current shelf is nearly clear. The single remaining shelf is only half full. I will miss these books, but I like the idea of other people enjoying them—and having shelves to put stray books on.

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The Stuff: This is a compendium of spoiler-free plot summaries and trivia about Agatha Christie’s many books, their adaptation for plays and movies, biographical info on Christie, and other bits and pieces of information for the Christie fan. The book summaries are short and arranged chronologically. A few essays offer topical discussions: poison, the “cruder” methods (i.e., knives and such), plus original fiction such as a piece written in the persona of Hercule Poirot about how to survive a getaway at an English country house (“I Wouldn’t Go in There If I Were You”). The reader is offered crossword puzzles only a true Christie aficionado could solve without recourse to the answers. Pictures of book covers, movie posters or stills, or other items decorate nearly every page.

I had a lot of fun reading this. Because the chapters are so short, the reader can put the book down at any time and return to it. This is a great browse book

Bio: Richard Anthony Riley (b. 1946) has worked as a journalist, playwright, and freelance writer. He served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America. In addition to the current book, he had edited with Pam McAllister, The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Sherlock Holmes and The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion Shakespeare.

Pam McAllister is a blogger and activist Christian feminist. In addition to the books mentioned above, on which she collaborated with Dick Riley, she’s written and/or edited The Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Mark Twain and Death Defying: Dismantling the Execution Machinery in 21st Century U.S.A. On her website, she says, “My writing and music grow out of my identity as an ACTIVIST, a feminist and pacifist-with-attitude, a woman of faith bent on finding the sacred in the ordinary.”

Title: The New Bedside, Bathtub, & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie
Editors: Dick Riley (b. 1946) and Pam McAllister
First published: 1989

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The Stuff: This is a primer on the history of Babylon, starting with prehistory and ending with the Neo-Babylonian Empire, roughly 500 BCE. It deals with political history, some aspects of everyday life, language, a brief lesson in pronunciation, and some stories. That’s a lot of info to get into 174 pages. Frequent black-and-white photos and drawings, maps, and a section of color plates or excavated artifacts illustrate the pages.

Because this is an overview, the reading can be dry at times. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting information, especially when Saggs quotes poetry or laws. As part of his personal interest in the Bible, he has a list of biblical references in the back.

The book was published as part of a Peoples of the Past series.

Bio: Henry William Frederick Saggs (1920-2005) was a British classicist and orientalist. Saggs was a professor of Semitic languages at University College, Cardiff, from 1966 until 1983. His work as an epigraphist with the archaeologist Max Mallowan excavating the Assyrian capital Nimrud in present-day Iraq led to the discovery of royal archives, including the original correspondence of the Assyrian kings. In addition to his scholarly publications, he wrote books for a larger audience, including The Greatness that was Babylon (1962) and Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria (1965). He continued publishing after retiring with books such as The Might that was Assyria (1984) and a revised edition of The Greatness that was Babylon (1988).


Title:
Babylonians
Author: H. W. F. Saggs (1920-2005)
First published: 1995

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The Stuff: This focuses on Mediterranean civilizations: ancient Egypt, Mesopotamian civilizations, Israel, Crete, Syria, Anatolia, Persia, and the Indus Valley. While the author offers a chronological chart, the book is arranged by topic: “Writing,” “Education,” “Trade,” “Law,” etc. He often offers brief quotes from texts. The final chapters survey mathematics and astronomy, medicine, and religion. Such a quick overview is just a taste. It is an interesting read. An aside is the author’s interest in the Bible. He has a list of biblical references in the back.

Bio: see The Babylonians

Title: Civilization Before Greece and Rome
Author: H. W. F. Saggs (1920-2005)
First published: 1989

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The stuff: This is a collection of twenty fictional detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Most of the stories were published between 1928 and 1939. Three latecomers were published posthumously in 1972. The collection also includes an essay on Sayers’ religious views and a parody of one of the most famous novels, Gaudy Nights (1935), “Greedy Nights.” As might be expected, some of the stories are better than others. It is long. One nice thing is that Lord Peter ages. He marries and has a child.

Bio: Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was a British detective fiction writer and poet. She is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey books and short stories, but she considered her best work to be a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She studied classical and modern languages. She was a friend of such luminaries as C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and J. R. R. Tolkien. She worked writing copy for an advertising firm

Title: Lord Peter (1972)
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
First published: 1972

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The Stuff: The two authors spend time in East Africa, where their fieldwork included flintknapping and using tools they made for tasks such as butchering an elephant that died of natural causes. They compare cutting the thick elephant skin to cutting a tire with a razor blade. They say that using tools is essential for making humans, but this alone does not distinguish us from other animals. They advance the idea that tool usage played a vital role in human evolution.

Many chapters begin with a scene of prehistory as it might have been. The authors also describe their own fieldwork and excavation sites in Africa. This is interesting. I enjoyed this book.

Bio: Kathy D. Schick (b. 1949) is an American archaeologist and paleoanthropologist. She is a professor emeritus in the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University, Bloomington, and is a founder and co-director of the Stone Age Institute. In addition to extensive professional publications, Schick has written Strong Age Sites in the Making for broader audiences. She and co-author Nicholas Toth are married.

Nicholas Toth (b. 1952) is an American archaeologist and paleoanthropologist. He is a Professor in the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University and founder and co-director of the Stone Age Institute. Toth’s archaeological and experimental research has focused on the stone tool technology of Early Stone Age hominins who produced Oldowan and Acheulean artifacts discovered across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. He and co-author Kathy D. Schick are married.

Title: Making Silent Stone Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology
Author: Kathy D. Schick and Nicholas Toth
First published: 1993



Review of “Trilogy of Terror” (1975)

trailer from YouTube

This is our latest Saturday pizza and bad movie offering, a made-for-TV flick consisting of three independent stories.

Plot(s):

Karen Black plays the main character in each of the three segments and plays a total of four separate roles.

In the first segment (“Julie”), Julie Eldridge (Karen Black) is a dowdy literature teacher at a community college. One of her students, the creepy amateur photographer Chad (Robert Burton), wonders what she looks like “under all those clothes.” He pressures her into going to a drive-in movie with him, during which he drugs her. He then takes her to a motel, photographs her in compromising situations, and rapes her. However, he comes to regret his actions, not understanding the person he’s dealing with.

The second segment (“Millicent and Therese”) deals with two sisters dealing with the aftermath of their father’s death. Millicent wears the expected black with a white lace collar. Her brown hair is gathered into a bun, and she wears thick glasses. She complains about how evil her sister Therese is. When Thomas Amman (John Karlen) stops by to speak to Therese, she explains her sister is unavailable because she’s out partying, even though their father is barely cold. Next, she complains to her therapist, Dr. Ramsey (George Gaynes), that Therese trashed her room. Therese is getting intolerable. Dr. Ramsey agrees to stop by and talk to her. When he does, he’s met with a blond woman showing a lot of leg, who invites him in and comes on to him.

This proved to be a see-it-comin’, sad to say.

The last segment (“Amelia”) is all Karen Black as a young woman who’s just moved away from home, much to the resentment of her mother. She brings in a wooden box, opening it to display a doll with a mouth full of teeth and holding a spear—a Zuni hunting fetish doll standing maybe a foot high. According to a scroll in the box, its name is “He Who Kills.” A little gold chain around its waist keeps the spirit of an actual Zuni hunter from inhabiting the doll.

Amelia calls her mother. The viewer only hears Amelia’s side of the conversation. Still, we learn that she is subleasing her apartment for six months until the tenants return, she’s met a man named Arthur Breslau, and she wants to spend the night—the evening—celebrating his birthday rather than the usual Friday with her mom. The doll is a gift for Arthur, an anthropology teacher.

The mother lays on the guilt trip, and a fight soon follows, ending with her mother hanging up on her. In frustration, Amelia slams the doll down on the coffee table. The little gold chain drops, and the fun begins.

Thoughts:

This was originally intended for TV and struck me as rather intense for that medium. There is no explicit sex or nudity, but there’s quite a bit of violence, particularly in the last segment when the animated doll is chasing Amelia around her apartment with a knife. In the first segment, a creepy student rapes an unconscious Julie. To be fair, her assailant is not shown touching her.

I read a lot of comments from people who saw this on TV back in the day saying how freaked out they were about the supposed Zuni fetish doll chasing bathrobe-clad Karen Black around her apartment. These responses make sense. Amelia appears helpless and trapped. The doll seemed to have been the bolt on the apartment’s door, so she can’t escape. This probably reflects a deleted scene.

But who cares? A doll chases Amelia around with a knife. She’s bleeding. Is it possible to even kill him? The dolls were actually marketed after the movie. Want one in your house?

All three vignettes had nifty Twilight Zone endings. Not a surprise—Richard Matheson, who wrote many Twilight Zone episodes, wrote all three stories and one of the teleplays.

This is definitely not one for the kiddies. But enjoyable? Eh…


The movie can be watched here:


Title: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Directed by
Dan Curtis

Writing Credits
William F. Nolan…(teleplay) (segment “Julie”)
Richard Matheson…(story) (segment “Julie”)
William F. Nolan…(teleplay) (segment “Millicent and Therese”)
Richard Matheson…(story) (segment “Millicent and Therese”)
Richard Matheson…(written by) (segment “Amelia”)
Richard Matheson…(short story) (segment “Amelia”)

Cast (in credits order)
Karen Black…Julie / Millicent / Therese / Amelia
Robert Burton…Chad Foster
John Karlen…Thomas Amman (as John Karlin)
George Gaynes…Dr. Chester Ramsey
Jim Storm…Eddie Nells (as James Storm)

Released: 1975
Length: 1 hour, 12 minutes

Books Spring Clean #17

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This is this week’s group of books for the library. As often happens, re-reading passages brought back a lot of happy memories. I will miss the books, but saying goodbye is an enjoyable experience. I hope to pass the same enjoyment on to other people.

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This Stuff: The narrative opens in the author’s laser lab. When he turns on the infrared laser, he says it “wakes his sense of wonder. That invisible light does not threaten life, but it still carries powerful magic.” Not that there’s any thing particular about infrared light. The book is a study of light and explores historical and scientific understandings. The inspiration is a series of paintings by the French artist, René Magritte (1898-1967), Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières).

The magic of this book lies in Perkowitz’s writing. He easily communicates his sense of wonder for art and science and the connection—light. This was another great read. I hope it finds a happy home.

Bio: Sidney Perkowitz (b. 1939) is a scientist and science writer. He is the Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus of Physics at Emory University, where he began teaching in 1969. At Emory, he researched the properties of matter. He has produced more than 100 scientific papers and books, including textbooks. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His writings for general audiences include Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World (2007), a study of science fiction movies.

Title: Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art
Author: Sidney Perkowitz (b. 1939)
First published: 1996

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The Stuff: In his preface, the author writes that the purpose of this book is to make neuroscience more accessible to a broad audience. He sets outs to answer such questions as What causes a phantom limb? How do we construct a body image? Why do some people see musical notes as colored? Are there artistic universals? And the biggie, of course, what is consciousness?

The author does not promise to answer all these questions, but he does take the reader on extended case studies. These, sadly, are not always successful, but they often show promise. Ramachandran views his patients—and their families, who often have to care for disabled relatives with perplexing conditions—as suffering human beings

I can’t say I enjoyed this book, but it was an engaging and fascinating, if sad, read.

Bio: Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran (b. 1951) is an Indian-American neuroscientist and medical doctor. He is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and an Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. He’s known for his work with phantom limbs. In addition to many technical and scientific papers, he’s written books like Phantoms in the Brain and The Tell-Tale Brain for general audiences.

Title: A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers
Author: V. S. Ramachandran (b. 1951)
First published: 2003

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The Stuff: Raymo views the world as divided between Skeptics and True Believers. Both positions have their shortcomings. The True Believer is a mindset and may not look to traditional religion for explanations of the world but also to things like UFOs and astrology. He notes that one can feel the same awe and wonder at the scientific world as one does regarding religion. “Science,” he writes, “cannot nor should not be a religion, but it can be a basis for a religious experience: astonishment, experiential union, adoration, praise.”

He didn’t sell me on this. Nevertheless, when he writes of a single instance of startling a great blue heron in a marsh, sending it flying, all his poetic skills come to bear in portraying his sense of awe—I am there. He sees the event not only in this one instance but also in understanding that the bird is descended from dinosaurs and related to other living species. The whole passage is lovely, and the book is full of these sorts of passages. This one alone is worth the price of admission.

I really liked this book. I’m going to miss it.

Bio: Chet Raymo: (b. 1936) is an American author, physicist, astronomer, naturalist, columnist, and educator. Professor Emeritus of Physics at Stonehill College, in Easton, Massachusetts. He wrote a science column for the Boston Globe for twenty years. This column is now a blog. He has also contributed to Scientific American and The Notre Dame Magazine.

Title: Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connections between Science and Religion
Author: Chet Raymo (b. 1936)
First published: 1998

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The Stuff: The author has a great time discussing such a grim subject as corpses. Nevertheless, she does not belittle the humanity of people or their misfortunes. Among the topics are (of course) the burial industry, studies in decay to advance forensics knowledge, cadavers used in medical research, and (turning to times past) supposed medical cures involving (ICK) consuming corpses or parts of corpses.

While this may not be one for the faint of heart in some respects, Roach broaches the darker subjects with a light hand and is always informative. This was a great read.

Bio: Mary Roach (b. 1959) is an American author of popular science books. She has a degree in psychology. In addition to her books, her writing has appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She was the editor of the 2011 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her latest book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (2021), deals with human attempts to handle wildlife. She lives in Oakland, California.

Title: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author: Mary Roach (b. 1959)
First published: 2003

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The Stuff: Roach sets out to find evidence of an afterlife through first reincarnation, a “soul” escaping at the moment of death, communication with the dead through mediums, and other approaches. As she notes in her introduction, the closer one looks at these sorts of things, the murkier they get. I may disagree with her conclusions, but I will admit that it was a fun ride with her humor.

Bio: see Stiff

Title: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Author: Mary Roach (b. 1959)
First published: 2005