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