Monthly Archives: February 2011

Acqusitions for the Week of 2.27.2011

Unlike Charm, I haven’t found anything worth getting in the the Wall Street Borders, which is closing. Perhaps illustrating the efficient market hypothesis, it is already mostly picked over. I might pick up some trashy paperbacks when they drop the prices a little further.

Just two this week from my local used bookstore.

Frankenstein Unbound, Brian Aldiss, Pan (1973) – Unnamable Books

Living in the Age of Moschiach, Arnie Gotfryd, Merkos Linyonei Chinuch (2000) – Unnamable Books

– Sean

Remaindered: Books that don’t belong

Another installment in an occasional series about books in our libraries that embarrass, confuse or upset us. Today: the particular humor of our friends the police.

Cop Jokes, Lou Savelli and Stuart Moss (Looseleaf Law Publication, Flushing NY, 2007).

Perfect stocking-stuffer for your partner

Absolutely packed with jokes about defense attorneys

Lots of vocational groups have their own oral folklore, and jokes are a big part of that. The more close-knit a group, the more prominent this oral folklore usually is, and if the vocation happens to be a dangerous one, the need for humor to alleviate the daily risks becomes greater. Coal miners, sailors, and soldiers all have their own in-group jokes, and it’s no surprise to learn that police officers boast a similar body of humorous folk speech.

What makes this book fascinating is that it’s insider material produced for insiders: Savelli and Moss are ex-cops, and Savelli has authored numerous other guides designed to be sold to police stations. His guides to gangs and graffiti are both on my shelf; I wouldn’t be able to keep straight which sets use five-pointed stars and which use six-pointed stars without them.

“Cop Jokes” is something of a departure, as it’s a compendium of witty remarks that Savelli and Moss tell us are commonplace in the world of law enforcement. If that’s true, the police humor repertoire includes a disturbing and anomalous number of “blonde jokes,” and a somewhat less anomalous number of drunken Irishman jokes. There are also lots and lots of jokes about the perfidy and moral putrefaction of defense attorneys, and plenty that make light-hearted sport of the rollicking subject of police brutality.

Among the many suggestions for “New Miranda Rights” are these: “1. You have the right to an ass-kicking. 2. You have the right to have a priest and/or an EMT present at the time of the ass-kicking. 3. If you don’t have a priest, one will be appointed free of charge, to read you your last prayer.”

Elsewhere, the authors ask, “How many cops does it take to throw a man down the stairs? None. The guy fell.”

Ha! Oh, my sides. Because, you see, violence. There’s a lot of humor there.

The book is actually a valuable peek inside the mentality of (some) police officers, with rich material for folklorists interested in how law enforcement identifies outgroups (drunks, lawyers, “perpetrators,” and, inexplicably, blonde women), how it reinforces community norms, and even how it views its own internal hierarchy (there are a lot of rookie jokes). In fact, the book is a lot more interesting for this anthropological aspect than for the jokes themselves, which are not all that funny. Like most in-group jokes, they serve primarily as a way to shore up bonds formed by sharing a common identity: if you belong, you get the jokes. If not, you find yourself grimacing at the lame gags in the “Top 10 Signs Your Partner Needs a Vacation.”

(V. Charm)

Acquisitions for the week of 2/27/11

Last week, I said no more new books, at least for a while. What a dismal failure. The continued death spiral of four nearby Borders is simply too tempting to a bargain-loving book jockey like myself. Below is this week’s intake.

Antwerp, Roberto Bolañ0 (translated by Natasha Wimmer). New York: New Directions, 2010. Picked up at a Borders that looked like a cyclone had blown through.

I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: A Samuel Beckett Reader, Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1976. This volume is probably on every third undergraduate shelf, but there are many shameful gaps in my library. Remedy courtesy of the plundered Borders.

Mafia: Inside the Dark Heart: The Rise and Fall of the Sicilian Mafia, A.G.D. Maran. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008. There must be a lot going on in this book, because it has two subtitles. Borders.

Crime: A Pictorial History of Crime, 1840 to the Present, Julian Symons. New York: Bonanza Books, 1966. Indie record/book shop two towns over. I was actually buying records, but they had some inexpensive volumes I didn’t want to pass up.

The Magical Arts: A Short History, C.A. Burland. New York: Horizon Press, 1966. Indie record/book shop two towns over.

Death Commits Bigamy, James M. Fox. New York: Dell Books, no publication date (probably late 1950s). I love the early, pulpy paperbacks with the lurid covers. This one’s by the author of “The Iron Virgin”! Indie record/book shop two towns over.

(V. Charm)


Remaindered: Who Built The Moon?

Who Built The Moon? By Christopher Knight and Alan Butler (Watkins, 2007)

It must be said that V. Charm is not the only one of us with disturbing books on his shelf. After “proving” that the moon had to have been construction by an intelligence, Knight and Butler offer three theories for its existence: the moon was built by God, the moon was built by aliens, and the moon was built by humans in the future who traveled to the distant past in order to secure their own existence. In an amazing conclusion that would make the alien theory look good, they go with what’s behind door #3. In a radio interview with the authors, someone pointed out that the third option is a paradox, to which Knight and Butler smugly replied “Exactly.”*

Like listening to a street preacher, Who Built The Moon? is entertaining up until the point when it starts to give you a headache. I felt self-conscious about owning it, but it now appears that the value of the book has skyrocketed up to a starting price of $70 for a used copy on Amazon. Now that, is hard to believe.

Addendum: This is a work of non-fiction. It is not fiction or sci-fi.

*They also told listeners that since humans from the future traveled back in time to build the moon and secure our (and their) existence, “we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

-The Filled Slip

Review: The Secret Temple: Masons, Mysteries and the Founding of America

The Secret Temple: Masons, Mysteries and the Founding of America by Peter Levenda (Continuum Books, 2009)

A good introductory text to a subject is hard to find and with the subject of Freemasonry it is even more difficult. Freemasons take oaths to never divulge the secrets of the Society and (perhaps as a result of this silence) they are often the target of outsiders who lay everything at the feet of Masons from demonic heresy, global conspiracies and in some cases, control over natural disasters. Those who understand don’t talk, and those who don’t understand seem to talk too much.

Peter Levenda enters into this space with The Secret Temple, a relatively concise book of about 200 pages. The first section of The Secret Temple gives a generally overview and history of Freemasonry and tends to be more a social history or a history of ideas. Rather than a narrative built on personalities and individuals, Levenda delves into ideas such as sacred geometry, sacred architecture and theories of ritual. The second section primarily gives a history of the Lodge’s connection to early America and its founding, and it is also where the book gets the most interesting. Levenda delves into mysticism in early America, the relatively unknown histories of not only Masons, but Rosicrucians, alchemists and mystics in the colonies and early republic. He then explores in detail the connections between Mormonism and Masonry, both in the history of Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints and the practice of the Mormon faith. The book concludes with a look at Yale’s Skull & Bones society and the Propaganda Due lodge in Italy, a covert lodge that in the late 70s and early 80s was soaking in a vast amount of crime and intrigue and was referred to as a shadow government.

What critics of Levenda are quick to attackt is his tendency to wander into his own interests and research; he seems to take us by the hand and leads us to his own filing cabinets/curiosity cabinets of political conspiracies, cults and secret societies. This is why I personally love his books, and in The Secret Temple his tenancies as a researcher and writer serve the work well. We get completely unexpected answers to the questions we came to the book with. Instead of going on a fool’s errand to chase the Masons back to Solomon’s Temple, we examine the idea of a temple itself and how that has steered Masonic buildings, symbolism and thought. Instead of worn fantasies and conspiracies of a group of Masons coming together to write the Declaration of Independence, we peer into another world of that time when respectable ministers and university presidents were also alchemists and Rosicrucians. Instead of hysterical speculations about Masons controlling the world*, we gave the more frightening and real Skull & Bones and P2 Lodge to ponder.

Between the subject matter and Levenda’s writing style, The Secret Temple makes a worthwhile read for someone looking for a good, smart primer on Freemasonry or wants a deeper understanding of America’s hidden religious traditions.

*True story: While doing research last year I had a conversation with the archivist at a small Freemasonic library in eastern Iowa. He told me that the day after the Indonesian tsunami he fielded a phone call from an angry man who asked them “why the hell they did that.”

-The Filled Slip

Review: Maimonides: Reason Above All

Maimonides: Reason Above All by Israel Drazin

This is an odd little volume on the great Jewish thinker, the Rambam. This book is worth a read for someone like me who is a novice Jewish scholar. There is a lot of good introductory material here, but the book is kind of all over the place. Chapters focus on the biography of Maimondies, his influence on his son, philosophers who agree with Maimondes, and those who do not, plus a whole lot more. It feels that much of Judaism gets five pages, but almost none of Judaism get more. The book attempts to address big questions, like the role of mysticism and rationality in Judaism, and small details like why we put salt on our bread on Shabbat.

If anything holds the book together it is Drazin’s conception of Maimonides as the great hero of a rational Judaism. If you have any interest in Judaism or Jewish thought, you know Maimonides, one of the greatest philosopher scholars in the history of Judaism his works, most notably the Guide for the Perplexed are still read today. As a Jew, (yes, my name is Sean and yes I am Jewish. It’s a long story) one of the most compelling aspects of the religion for me is that it welcomes an intellectual approach to a religious practice. Approaching Judiaism as a set of rational guidelines for living owes much to the Rambam, and it is very much the way that I practice Judaism. Drazin spends a lot of time on this rational Judaism that has developed out of Maimonides and the book’s discussions of it are informative. But I wish Drazin delved more into the distinctions between a rational approach and a mystical approach to the religion.  Perhaps that is too much to ask from a single book.

For someone like me who is just starting to dig into Jewish thought and history, it is a helpful, if scattershot, introduction. Perhaps it isn’t the best first book one should read on the Rambam, but I found it accessible and informative.

– Sean

Review: The Quiet War

The Quiet War, Paul McAuley

Fans of science fiction often try to place works in the genre into one or more subcategories. It is “space opera” or it is “cyberpunk”; it is “steam punk” or it is “military SF”. It is “Hard SF” or “New Wave”. These distinctions can be helpful to the reader picking up a book by an unknown author, I for one will take a space opera over a military SF novel almost any day, but the constant categorization is also terribly limiting.

Take the Quiet War. In one sense, it is a classic “space opera”. Shuttling between planets and factions, it follows various characters in the lead up to a war between earth and various breakaway colonies throughout the galaxy. Intricate plotting based around political and romantic entanglements? Sounds like space opera to me.

In another sense, it is very “hard SF”. McAuley is a former research biologist, and the book includes extensive discussions of various genetically engineered people, plants and weapons. (All of which are handled very well. Hard SF can too often descend into some sort of lab report where the authors flights of scientific fancy ramble on with little connection to the plot.)

And finally, the Quiet War is also a work which takes some of its ideas from the New Wave’s insistence on tying the “science” in SF to its political and social ramifications*. The “war” at the center of the novel is at least in part about what it means to be human. How far can we take genetic engineering before we have created a new species? What does it mean to be human?  The sort of questions the book brings up around genetic engineering are the main reason I read science fiction; it gives us a place to toy with outlandish ideas and imagine problems and solutions which, while they may arise from far future conjectures, have analogies to the problems we suffer today.

But enough about how the Quiet War fits into the world of science fiction sub genres, was it a good book? Yes. McAuley can write, which is more than you can say for many genre authors, and the characters and conflicts he imagines here are captivating. I do wish he had spent more time on the social consequences his scientific speculation creates. But finishing a novel wanting more is a fine criticism to have of any work. There is apparently a prequel to the Quiet War, I will probably read it.

*I realize this definition of “New Wave” is very vague, I’ll write a lot more about how I view New Wave in the future.

– Sean

No king but Jesus

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter, Oxford University Press (2010).

One of the major paradoxes of contemporary American politics is that Christians have never been more organized specifically as Christians, and yet the goals of their various agendas – from alleviating poverty to ending abortion – remain out of reach, regardless of the political climate and their contributions to it.

In James Davison Hunter’s insightful, valuable book, this state of affairs is revealed as not paradoxical at all, but rather the logical outcome of a process by which followers of Christ became merely one special interest group among many, identical in tactics and outlook to everyone from labor unions to package store owners. In Hunter’s telling, Christians have not co-opted the political process; rather, they’ve become completely co-opted by politics, turning their supposedly transcendent faith into a set of maxims and mottoes meant to dress up party platforms in divine garb.

Hunter identifies three principal tendencies in Christian politics: the Right, the Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists, who eschew participation in an immoral system, but who in Hunter’s view go too far in their rejection of civic participation and become, more or less, a world-hating theological community.

But he reserves most of his critique for the Right and the Left, which he argues have trivialized Christian belief, compromised their principles, and utterly failed to accomplish what they purportedly set out to do. Hunter is especially convincing when he discusses the way politics in the U.S. have become the measure by which all movements, and all public life, are judged. This nearly-universal politicization of society can be seen in very terms like “Christian conservative” and “Christian liberal”; where would someone like Dorothy Day fit in either category? Or, for that matter, John Calvin, or Gregory of Nyssa? Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, with its call for a living wage and labor unions paired with a rejection of socialism and a defense of private property, seems as inscrutable in contemporary American politics as a defense of absolute monarchy. How did Christians let themselves become so identified with the two-party system and the simplistic, Manichean politics it engenders?

Hunter’s answer is that they became seduced by the notion that politics is the simplest way to fulfill “the creation mandate” – that is, to act as salt and light in the world, changing it for the better. This has been a danger for Christianity since Constantine formally ended persecution of the church in the 4th century, and although Hunter doesn’t go into tremendous detail about caesaro-papism, the history of blending church and state offers plenty of support for his thesis that such unions rarely end well for the church.

Hunter is less surefooted when tackling the Neo-Anabaptists, whose position are very similar to his. Neo-Anabaptist thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas argue for as complete a separation as possible between the church and the world, because the latter is invariably corrupt and corrupting: “The first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just,” as Hauerwas writes. Christians, therefore, should shun active participation in activities like politics, because of the great danger that politics will corrupt and usurp their religious convictions.

Hunter dislikes the consequences of Neo-Anabaptism, which he warns tend toward sectarianism and a quasi-gnostic dislike of the world as it exists, but he’s not as convincing in his critique of this strand as he is in his dismantling of the Christian Right and the Christian Left. Hunter clearly agrees with the Neo-Anabaptists on many points, and has trouble explaining why their logic shouldn’t lead to the conclusions they’ve adopted.

In place of world-shunning, Hunter offers the idea of “faithful presence,” which is somewhat vaguely defined, but which seems to rest on the presumption that if Christians simply act like Christians are supposed to act, they will eventually succeed in changing the world for the better, even without intending to do so.

It may be a naive notion, but it’s an attractive one. Decades of Christian participation in U.S. interest group politics has resulted in a society that is less just than it was when that participation began. It’s arresting to think that Christians could have more success living out their calling by ditching the party-building and emulating the example of Jesus Christ.

(V. Charm)

Remaindered: Books that don’t quite belong

(First in an occasional series, in which the odder fringes of my library are hauled out into the light for the edification of the public.)

This book has never been purchased non-ironically

"A book about hurting and healing"


Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy: A Child’s Book About Satanic Ritual Abuse, Doris Sanford and Graci Evans, Multnomah Press, Portland (1990).

One of the most headline-grabbing social fears in the 1980s was the notion that conspiracies of satanists sadistically preyed on young children by operating daycare centers, churches, schools and other places where they would have easy access to youthful victims. Known as “satanic ritual abuse,” this garnered sensational attention from the media’s carny faction, as represented by talk show hosts like Geraldo Rivera (whose subsequent fame eclipse has been so total I sometimes wonder if I didn’t dream him).

Some people actually went to jail for satanic ritual abuse before a massive backlash began, led by some psychologists, accused parents, lawyers and skeptical journalists. The backlash eventually created its own dubious claim of conspiracy, namely the belief that a psychological disorder called “false memory syndrome” was being caused by therapists.

It’s a deeply thorny area that touches on moral panic, civil liberties, the sometimes-faulty science of mental health, parental fears, and which is probably not best served by being distilled into a 30-page illustrated children’s book. Fortunately, some hearty souls were willing to step into the breach and produce what is easily one of the most bizarre books I’ve ever seen.

Pictured: Lunacy

Imagine giving this to a child

“Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy” isn’t based on any particular incident, but is rather a collection of vignettes showing “many possible ways that ritual abuse occurs.” Five-year-old Allison is a student at a daycare center run by a stern Brooke Shields lookalike, who happens to be a member of a satanic cult. In the completely bonkers two-page splash pictured above, we see that this unnamed daycare center isn’t only about teaching the three R’s: it’s about naked blasphemous rituals outside a snowy barn. Satan-Brooke, incidentally, is wearing a Cosby sweater far more terrifying than the black robes of her fellow cultists.

The illustrations are eerie collections of blankly staring youngsters saying things like “Oh, guess what, Mommy? I got married today” with red-eyed rabbits providing a repetitive symbolic device whose meaning is lost on the non-bonkers reader.

The story proceeds in a series of semi-linear scenes in which unnamed characters act out a fractured narrative. Coupled with the artist’s apparent inability to draw Allison and her parents the same way in successive panels, it actually comes across as something of an avant-garde narrative technique. We see quick flashes: Allison goes to the doctor, then is seen being scared in the bathroom, then is suddenly in a courthouse, and then in a courtroom as Satan-Brooke sits at the defense table with her lawyer, who looks like Ed Asner.

Then, presumably, the satanists have been packed off to jail, because Allison and her father are staring at a horse in a snowy field. Then Allison is shown painting in a room with another woman (possibly her mother?) and throwing away the drawing of the red-eyed devil bunny. More women who may or not be her mother look on happily as she brushes her teeth and engages in a form of apparent therapy that involves burying naked dolls, frogs and spiders in a sandbox.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties of parenting a child who has been a victim of a satanic cult, as Allison remains blank-faced and staring at her dinner (from the looks of it, tape worms and angel food cake) as her mother (?) tries to reassure her that everything will be OK. The last scene is uplifting, as Allison sits in a rocking chair playing with a cat in a room where mom, dad, a woman bearing a bowl of popcorn, and the doppelganger of  NFL great Dick Butkus  look on happily.

The story leaves us with 10 tips for parents, along with the hopeful knowledge that, with the help of the courts, the medical profession, and a set of constantly shape-shifting parents, any adversity can be overcome. Or, as Allison’s transformermom says, “The magic surgery was only pretend, Allison. There’s nothing bad inside you.”

This doctor got his degree on the Planet of the Apes

"Doctor, she dresses like a sailor and is drawn out of perspective! What can we do?"

This book, which was published at the end of the SRA craze, was given to me by a friend about 10 years ago, who found it in a thrift store on one of his cross-country trips. Since then, I’ve moved four times to two different states, but I can never bring myself to get rid of this weird little tome. I always make sure to stash it in an out-of-the-way place in my library, though, on the off chance that someone comes over to my apartment and starts scanning the shelves.

(V. Charm)

Acquisitions: Week of 2-20-11

I feel like this is some kind of Tweet Your Weight-esque exercise in public shaming, because the last two weeks make it look like I do nothing except buy books that I will never be able to read. This week, though, there were special circumstances: an order from a month ago showed up on my doorstep, I had a gift certificate, Borders began a liquidation sale, and the county library had its somewhat melancholy sale. I may want to guard against unnecessary acquisition, but not so much that it will override my inner cheapness. So let’s do this.

No Retreat: The Secret War Between Britain’s Anti-Fascists and the Far Right, Dave Hann and Steve Tilzey, Milo Books (2003) – Amazon UK.

Garlands, Conkers and Mother-Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore, Roy Vickery, Continuum Books (2010) – Amazon UK.

Green Men & White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names, Jacqueline Simpson, Random House (2010) – Amazon UK.

Murder at the Savoy: A Martin Beck Police Mystery, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (2009, first translated 1971) – Local indie book shop.

In the Valley of the Kings: Stories, Terrence Holt, Norton (2009) – Local indie book shop.

Armed Forces (331/3 Series), Franklin Bruno, Continuum Books (2007) – Indie book shop one town over.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, David Grann, Vintage Books (2011) – Indie book shop one town over.

The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, Branko Milanovic, Basic Books (2011) – Indie book shop one town over.

The Scarecrow, Michael Connelly, Hachette Audio (it’s a book on CD, 2010) – Liquidated Borders.

The Classical Compendium: A Miscellany of Scandalous Gossip, Bawdy Jokes, Peculiar Facts and Bad Behavior from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, Philip Matyszak, Thames & Hudson (2009) – Liquidated Borders.

My Year of Flops: One Man’s Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure, Nathan Rabin, Scribner (2010) – Liquidated Borders. The Liquidated Borders is a pretty sad sight: the liquidators have shuttered the cafe and sold off all the furniture, and the workers were (understandably) gloomy and irritable. I felt like a vulture, albeit a vulture who will go back again when prices are further slashed.

1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America, Andreas Killen, Bloomsbury (2006) – Local indie book shop.

Irish-American Nationalism (Critical Periods of History series), Thomas N. Brown, J.B. Lippincott Company (1966) – Library book sale.

Whatever Became Of…?: The Story of What Has Happened to Famous Personalities of Yesteryear, Richard Lamparski, Crown Publishers (1973) – Library book sale. “Famous personalities” featured in the book include such unforgettable names as Pete Smith, Lon McAllister, Tom Drake, and Miss Frances’ Ding Dong School. I can sense I will cherish this book.

So that’s it. No more new books for a while.

(V. Charm)