Category Archives: Book Lists

Two-Sentence Book Reviews

It’s not you, it’s me.

Combine a lack of wherewithal for routine blogging with a (sometimes) obsessive perfectionism, and you get this blog: A schizophrenic little nugget in which the owner (that is, me) tries to write daily or semi-daily and ends up quitting in frustration…only to reconsider and begin blogging again. Now repeat the cycle about 203920910p21jap-p09 times. Welcome to Books, Brains & Beer! (No Oxford comma, thanks.)

That said, I’ve relaxed a bit over the past few years. I’ve matured. I’m a little wiser, and a little less naive. And I reserve the right to blog when and how I want to; hence this post. I can’t say I’m (currently) inclined to attempt full length book reviews, but I still enjoy sharing what I’ve read and talking books with my blogger buddies, so how’s about a happy medium? I’ll write two-sentence reviews of (most of) the books I read during 2016. (At least, those books not otherwise listed in previous posts.)


Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Thin Ghost and Others, M. R. James. James is among the undisputed masters of the English ghost story, and tales such as “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “The Mezzotint” show why. As I proceeded chronologically through James’s works, I felt the quality began to decline.

Europe in Autumn, David Hutchinson, Solaris, 2014.

Europe in Autumn, David Hutchinson, Solaris, 2014.

Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson. Set in a near-future Europe rife with borders and microstates, Europe in Autumn is sort of an espionage thriller with a sci-fi twist. I enjoyed it quite a lot, but thought there were some structural issues.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness. Ness, who is apparently a rock star in the world of YA fiction (Who knew?), pens in The Rest of Us Just Live Here a safe and comfy story of a group of friends who are not “the chosen ones.” An entertaining send-up of YA conventions.

Dark Matter, Blake Crouch. Like The Wayward Pines TrilogyDark Matter is destined to be adapted for screen. Plot-driven candy.

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis. In the near future, historians study the past by traveling through time, in this case to plague-ravaged England. Willis has a command of relentlessly grim period details but, as with similar stories, I was annoyed by the arbitrary rules imposed upon time travel.

Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire. I read this one after encountering a glowing review by Cory Doctorow. In doing so, I learned two things about myself: 1. I probably don’t like the same things that Doctorow does, and; 2. I’m probably done reading YA forever.

The Incorruptibles, John Hornor Jacobs. This “fantasy western” of sorts, in which our pioneer heroes use demon-powered firearms to fight indigenous feral elves, disappointed me. It read like a D&D dungeon master ported his player’s handbook into what he thought might be a unique setting for a campaign.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 1, Alan Moore. A brutal and fun reimagining of well-known Victorian characters. I recommend this one.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness, Candlewick, 2011.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness, Candlewick, 2011.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. I read more YA last year than is usual for me, and this was the best of the bunch. I became (unexpectedly) emotionally involved.

The Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories, Michael Sims. An excellent collection of ghost stories, my favorite of which was Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Captain of the Pole-Star.” Of course, these are all public domain now, so you can find them elsewhere.

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood is considered one of the scions of “weird fiction” and was an influence on Lovecraft. An entertaining collection of stories marked by much better writing than that of the creator of Cthulhu.

My Revolutions, Hari Kunzru. A vividly told story of a former sixties radical. One of the best written books I read through 2016.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson. Simonson’s book is often pushed as a romance–which it is, between a fastidious English retiree and a Pakistani-English shopowner–but it’s really a comedy of manners. The documentation of Major Pettigrew’s foibles amused me to no end.


Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, Robert Whitaker. A necessary corrective to the notion that popping some pills can make one happy. But take it with a grain of salt: Whitaker is a journalist, not a doctor or researcher.

Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction, Murray Stein. Stein imagines Jung’s psychology in geographic terms, which can be helpful given how abstract it becomes. A sympathetic and approachable introduction to “depth psychology.”

Dungeons & Dreamers, Brad King, ETC Press, 2014.

Dungeons & Dreamers, Brad King, ETC Press, 2014.

Dungeons & Dreamers: A Story of How Computer Games Created a Global Community, Brad King. Really very interesting introduction to the gaming industry in the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s misnamed. The influence of D&D on video games is acknowledged but glossed over, so keep that in mind.

The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, Jonathan Rottenberg. Rottenberg asks, “What might be the evolutionary purpose of depression?” An interesting (if somewhat speculative) approach.

The Santa Muerte: The Origins, History, and Secrets of the Mexican Folk Saint, Gustavo Vazquez Lozano. A pithy introduction to a figure that’s becoming better known in the United States. Superficial, but Lozano disagrees with some of the better known academic sources.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford, Graywolf Press, 2012.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford, Graywolf Press, 2012.

Last but not least, where the f*ck do I put Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty? It’s neither fiction nor history, and two sentences can’t do it justice. Red Plenty is a semi-fictionalized account of the Soviet planned economy of the 1960s. It may sound dull; it’s anything but. Each chapter focuses on a different character (some real, some composite) and their travails as the promise of communism, which seemed assured in 1960, glides out of reach through the decade. Probably the best book I read in 2016.


Flash Reviews: Books, Brains and Beer’s Winter of Discontent

Had you fooled, didn’t I? You thought I was back for (at least) semi-weekly rants about robots and doughnuts and whatever book(s) I was reading at the time. And you were at least partly right, ’cause that was the plan. Then, as it often does, Life got in the way. Since January, I haven’t been online much except for work. I haven’t even kept up with my blogger buddies, which makes me sad, and I feel a little guilty, but I suspect they function quite well in my absence (perhaps better!) and, more importantly, they “get it.” It’s not like I’m snubbing them. With the exception of From Couch to Moon.

Since I don’t have the energy to fully review everything I read from September 2015 through the present, it occurs to me that I can, at least, give a summary, much as I did last August when I reviewed my Long, Strange Summer. Without further ado, then, my Winter of Discontent. (I’m being cute; my discontent has nothing to do with what I’ve been reading.)


Summer of Night, Dan Simmons

This book. I don’t… Well. It’s horror. Crossed with the author’s nostalgia for 1950s/1960s Americana, which I find fitting for a horror novel…but Simmons is genuinely nostalgic for small town life, with its homogeneity, and its cultural shortcomings. There is a certain breed of white, male American author who came of age in the postwar years and who cannot resist writing a paean to his childhood while trying to also make it into horror. I suppose Simmons and King would have a lot to talk about. This is the third (non-sci-fi) Simmons I’ve read, and by my estimation he’s at a 33% success rate. Skip this one.

Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest, better known for her zombies/Civil War mashup The Clockwork Century, here reimagines Lizzie Borden, she of “forty whacks” infamy, as a reluctant hero defending humanity against Lovecraftian monstrosities. I’ve now read a handful of Priest’s books, including several from The Clockwork Century, and have come to expect premises that are more promising than their execution. That’s true here, too. If you’ve read and enjoyed Priest, you’ll probably like Maplecroft. If you haven’t, perhaps start elsewhere.

The Mathematician’s Shiva, Stuart Rojstaczer

Narrated by the titular mathematician’s son, The Mathematician’s Shiva is the story of her nutty family’s mourning period. As with most Jewish American fiction, this is comedy peppered with tragedy. Some familiarity with Judaism might be helpful, but isn’t necessary. Quite amusing; recommended.

The Treasure of Sainte Foy, MacDonald Harris

An unexpected treat. See my full review here.

Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand

I’m not quite sure how to classify Generation Loss. Suspense? Horror? “Thriller”? It seems to straddle all of the above without fully belonging to a single genre. I enjoyed it, but was a little disappointed by the finale. I preferred Hand’s recent novella, Wylding Hall (see below).


I mean, this cover. It’s hardcore.

The Keep, F. Paul Wilson

Sometimes I likes me some well-done schlock. The Keep begins as a straightforward horror novel: During World War II, Nazis occupy a mysterious, abandoned castle in the Carpathian Mountains. You can probably see where that’s heading, and it begins with promise. Unfortunately, it begins to sag under the weight of Wilson’s mythos, apparently elaborated upon over the course of his bibliography. You can avoid this one.

Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon

Among the best, and perhaps the funniest, of all the books I read in 2015. An eventful (and hilarious) weekend in the life of burnout writer Grady Tripp. Highly recommended.

The Night Gwen Stacy Died, Sarah Bruni

The Night Gwen Stacy Died demonstrates the degree to which comic books have become modern mythology. A troubled young man who calls himself “Peter Parker” kidnaps a teenage gas station attendant who begins calling herself “Gwen Stacy.” Any Spider-Man fan worth his or her salt knows that calling oneself “Gwen Stacy” (or, really, being anywhere in proximity to Spider-Man) can’t end well. The Night Gwen Stacy Died has some problems, especially near the end, but overall is well told and worth reading.

Nobody is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey

Alternately maddening and heartbreaking. Read my full review here.

The Gospel of Loki, Joanne M. Harris

The Norse myths as retold by a gossipy Loki. This was just…boring.

Hold the Dark, William Giraldi

A dark story about murder and other unsavory incidents in a remote Alaskan town. The prose reads like Cormac McCarthy light, complete with declarative sentence fragments and arcane profundities. Despite some structural problems, Giraldi’s book is worth your time.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Now this. This was my kind of book. With light horror touches, Wylding Hall tells the story of a band recording its hit album at an old English manor in the 1970s. That alone should tell you that weird things are going to happen. I really enjoyed Wylding Hall and highly recommend it. My only complaint is its brevity; it’s a novella.

A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab

I finally broke down and read this after seeing everywhere. The magical story of several “overlapping” Londons: Grey London, in “our” world, which is mundane; Red London, rife with magic; and White London, from which magic is slowly leaking. Predictable in spots, and clearly the first entry in a series, but enjoyable.


The Road to Character, David Brooks

If you’ve enjoyed the singular fortune of having not read anything by David Brooks to date, I advise you to not spoil it by reading this book.

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane walks ancient paths (“old ways,” get it?) throughout England and beyond. An intense and moving meditation on place and man’s relationship to it. Highly recommended.


Probably while reclining on a couch.

How to Read Jung, David Tacey

I always thought of Jung as a bit of a kook, and parts of this book confirmed my beliefs. Still, being a weirdo doesn’t mean that a person is unintelligent or boring. Jung has some peculiar but compelling ideas; this is an excellent introduction to them.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, Cheryl Strayed

The basis for the Reese Witherspoon movie, which is amazingly faithful to the text. For most of you, then, I recommend skipping the book and watching the movie.

Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, Stacy Horn

Belive it or not, until recent years Duke University sponsored investigations into phenomena that fall under what we currently refer to as “the paranormal.” Horn looks into the history of the Duke Parapsychology Lab. Imagine Mary Roach without the twee humor. So boring.

Unruly Spaces: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, Alastair Bonnett

Like Macfarlane (above), Bonnett, a geographer, is interested in place–particularly strange places. He chronicles empty cities in China, islands off the coast of Australia that turned out not to be there, and places in India that, because they host near-stone age peoples, are off limits to modern man. A delightful tour of some of the world’s strange geographies.

Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior and Happy at Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy, both by Richard O’Connor

Yeah, I sometimes read self-help/pop psychology. Judge away. Some of my motivation is academic (“What is being said here? How is he saying it? Who is his audience?”) but I’m also seeing if there are any useful nuggets among the chaff. The verdict? As with all self-help, there’s quite a bit of drek here, but O’Connor seems more realistic (and curmudgeonly) than many of his peers (he is a respected psychologist), but I did find a few things of value, for instance a brief but thorough introduction to mindfulness meditation. (Mindfulness is all the rage in therapy these days. Unless it has already peaked.) Warning: Rewire, published several years after Happy at Last, repurposes a lot of material from the latter. Go with Rewire.


Flash Reviews: The Long, Strange Summer of Books, Brains and Beer

Once upon a time, I was a book blogger. I read books. I wrote about what I read. I read about what other book bloggers read. And I argued with my fellows about books. Mostly with From Couch to Moon. Because she sups upon the tears of her vanquished foes. Woe unto you, unsuspecting Heinlein fan, for From Couch to Moon is become death, destroyer of patriarchy.

I lost my momentum earlier this year. Life got in the way, as life does. Rare is the book blogger who remains steadfast in his or her dedication to the craft. Consider Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased. Not only has he been blogging for four years, but he also employs in his blog name the Oxford comma and an ampersand. Pleased with his grammatical choices, Chris reads pulps paperbacks whilst sitting upon the graveyard of American industry.

If one were to form an impression of my year’s reading based on my entries here, one might assume that I have given up on reading altogether, that I am even now dressed only in my skivvies, eating Lucky Charms out of a mixing bowl, and staring into the middle distance, a victim of la cafard. Quote Philip Caputo:

“…the battalion began to suffer from a spiritual disease called la cafard by the French soldiers when they were in Indochina. Its symptoms were occasional fits of depression combined with an inconquerable fatigue that made the simplest tasks, like shaving or cleaning a rifle, seem enormous.”

Or blogging. So many French soldiers gave up on their blogs while in Indochina. A real tragedy for social media.

But lo! I have been not been idle. No, indeed, I have been reading as ever. Permit me to share with you here some of the books I read over the course of the past few months. (This may or may not be a prelude to a return to active blogging.)


The Waterworks, E. L. Doctorow

I read this after learning via a New York Times article that it’s one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s favorite books. Solid historical fiction, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. If you’re looking to try Doctorow, stick with his masterpiece, Ragtime.

The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, Okla Elliott

This high-concept dystopian novel has received a lot of attention. I’m sorry to report to you that it’s bloated and its conceits a bit overdone.

Alexander Tuvim: Not his real name!

Aleksandr Tuvim: Not his real name!

Wayward, Blake Crouch

Pines, Blake Crouch

The Last Town, Blake Crouch

Make no mistake: Black Crouch is by no means a writer of literary fiction. In the epigraph to Wayward, Crouch quotes Michael Crichton–an apt comparison. But let’s be honest; Crichton has his place. Sometimes you want candy, and that’s what Crouch gives you. And he’s really good at it. Crouch’s books may not be terribly deep, but they’re compulsively readable.

Ack-Ack Macaque, Gareth L. Powell

Great concept, poor execution. I preferred the original short story. But given its popularity, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.


Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer

How has it been 11 years? As always, Krakauer takes something worthy of an article and pads it into book-length. It held my attention, though.

How to Read, Eckhard Gerdes


The Fellowship: Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

I was so looking forward to this and am sad to report that I was a bit let down. A solid introduction to the Inklings, but nothing really new here, and I feel like the Zaleskis strained at times to make palatable to the modern reader the moral failings of Tolkien et al. (Look, people can be jerks and still do great things.)

The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul, Rodger Kamenetz

Why do I do this to myself? No. Just no.

Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today’s Jewish Mystical Masters, Rodger Kamenetz

Do you speak Jewish? No? Then skip this one.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison

People love this book. Love it. Jamison is significant because she was open about mental health at a time when it wasn’t popular to do so–and it’s still a very important issue. Jamison is a skilled writer, but her prose is sometimes overwrought.

Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, Peter Manseau

Eh. Didn’t need to be a book. Casual readers will find themselves bored to tears by Manseau’s detailed history of the mid-twentieth century American Catholic church.

One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, Alan Lew

The late Alan Lew was a really interesting guy as well as a fantastic writer. Lew devotes most of One God Clapping to the decades he spent as a devotee of Zen Buddhism. Despite Lew’s inclinations–Buddhist, Jewish–there’s fodder here for anyone who considers themselves a seeker.

American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, Hannah Nordhaus

An entertaining if forgettable diversion into one American family’s history.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

I highly recommend My Promised Land to anyone interested in understanding the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Shavit, a Haaretz journalist, identifies defining moments in each decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, reporting with nuance and sympathy the motivations of Palestinians and Israelis. He also employs some truly outstanding turns of phrase, for instance, “For one long moment, he who is their Nebuchadnezzar wishes to be their Jeremiah.”

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Bart D. Ehrman

Bart Ehrman is the New Testament scholar (and avowed agnostic) you never knew you wanted to read. Don’t start with this one, though, which is in part a recapitulation of his other popular works.

A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, Deborah Baker

A (sadly) somewhat dull travelogue of Allen Ginsberg’s 1962 trip to India, although it does include a truly excellent exchange between poet and student of Zen Gary Snyder and his wife, Joanne Kyger. I paraphrase: Gary: “Don’t you want to study Zen and learn to obliterate the ego?” Joanne: “What! After all the time it took to get one?!”

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

An examination of the collision of “traditional” Laotian culture with that of modern American medicine. The Laotians and their doctors not only speak different languages; they nearly exist in different worlds. The clinicians treat what they understand is a biological illness but what is, for the Laotians, a spiritual malady–and, perhaps, a gift. Also a pocket history of the Laotian people. Good stuff, this, but you need a strong attention span.

The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, Rodger Kamenetz

It’s good enough, but unless you’re Jewish or Buddhist, you don’t need to read this one.

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, Bart D. Ehrman

I confess that I’m an Ehrman fan, indeed, a partisan, if you will. (He has his detractors both within and outside of the Academy.) The logic Ehrman employs in his examination of theodicy–the philosophical reconciliation of human suffering with the existence of God–is reductionist but compelling. Lest you fear that God’s Problem might be highfalutin, Ehrman writes in a clear and entertaining style fit for the layman. Probably among the best places to start for an introduction to Ehrman’s thought.

That's me in the corner.

That’s me in the corner.

And? What next, you may ask? Shall I return to blogging? I’m not certain, but I admit that I’m tentatively leaning toward “yes,” with the caveat that my activity will appear much reduced compared to my previous efforts. I suspect that, were I to begin writing reviews now, I would schedule them to begin posting in late September or October, and on a weekly frequency. I’ve missed the conversation in which my blogging comrades and I once engaged. (Except for that with From Couch to Moon, she’s scary.) So a return seems likely, if not inevitable.

On Not Sleeping

There are few things as miserable as not being able to sleep.

(Admission: There are many things in life worse than not being able to sleep. Aside from the obvious ones, such as hunger, poverty and war, there are rarer but nonetheless still unpleasant experiences including, but not limited to, wild dogs, milky discharges, and poopy diapers.)

For people who enjoy generally comfortable lives, though, the loss of sleep is one of the most frustrating and also one of the most common difficulties they will endure.

I have a troubled relationship with sleep. I suffered from extreme sleeplessness as a teenager, tossing and turning until I had only two or three hours until I had to wake up. What sleep I got was fitful and riddled by nightmares and, I suspect, night terrors. (I say “suspect” because I was never formally diagnosed with them.) The most vivid nightmare I ever experienced took place near the end of my senior year of high school and involved a humanoid shape that is best compared to some popular images of aliens. A friend of mine was convinced that I was abducted. I think I was stressed out. A few months after graduating, I found that I was able to sleep for nine or ten hours at a stretch, a blissful and fleeting time in my life that would never be repeated.

My current bout with sleeplessness began in 2007 and was formally diagnosed as insomnia. I was prescribed Ambien for about a year, but it didn’t really help. I didn’t sleep much more than I did usually and I’m told that, when I did, I was always moving, raising and lowering my arms, kicking, and so on, a routine that would explain the weariness I suffered every day.

Insomnia is a self-fulfilling cycle: You can’t sleep, so you think about how you can’t sleep, and you become so worked up that…you can’t sleep. You pressure yourself. Sitting in the living room at 3am, you can see how dark it is outside. You can hear the absence of the background daytime noises to which we’re all accustomed, the telltale signs that life is going on around us. And you think: “I should be asleep!” Perhaps some people are disciplined enough to make productive use of the “extra” hours they acquire through sleeplessness, but most of us are too preoccupied with the thought that we’re supposed to be sleeping right now, and it’s ridiculous that we’re not, and, okay, I’m going to read a little bit, but I can’t concentrate, so maybe I’ll watch some television, but the shows that are on at this time of night (morning?) are all crap, so I’ll just stare out the window at that street lamp and OH MY GOD WHY CAN’T I SLEEP!!!

I don’t have as much trouble sleeping anymore. I still have some rough nights (like tonight), but I generally get sufficient sleep.

Here are some things I’ve learned you shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t stay in bed. It will only make you more frustrated and anxious and prevent you from falling asleep.
  • Don’t look at screens (said the dude blogging at 11pm on a Monday night). The light freaks out your brain.
  • Don’t watch TV in bed!
  • Don’t dwell on it. (Easier said than done.)

Here are some things you should do:

  • Read a print book.
  • Write down the things that are bothering you.
  • Keep your bedroom cool.
  • Make sure that your bed is used only for sleeping and, uh, procreating.
  • Create a pre-bedtime ritual, such as making some herbal tea.
  • If all else fails, and if sleeplessness persists for at least two weeks, talk to your doctor.

Now, one interesting tidbit I learned during my travails with insomnia is that the notion that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is essential is an eighteenth century construct. Prior to the advent of widespread artificial light, people apparently engaged in “segmented sleep,” meaning that they would go to sleep when it got dark, sleep for a few hours, wake up in the middle of the night and talk or even perform chores, and then sleep for another few hours until dawn. This behavior has been documented in modern societies in which there is little to no artificial light, for instance, villages in certain parts of Africa.

A. Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Tech, has ably documented humankind’s preindustrial sleep patterns. If you’re interested in a thorough examination of our relationship with night (not just sleep) through the eighteenth century, consider reading Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch discusses not only premodern sleeping patterns, but also the discomforts from which people suffered, as well as the real and perceived dangers of nighttime. Be warned: At Day’s Close is a work of academic history and may be more comprehensive than the average reader would like. (I found it readable, if a bit dull in spots.) You can always read just the chapter on sleep, though, or, if you have access to a library, you can download the article on which the chapter was based, “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” American Historical Review, CV, no.2 (April 2001), 343-387. Ekirch’s paper will tell you everything you want to know about segmented sleep.

At Day's Close.

At Day’s Close.

I found Ekirch’s work via a 2007 article published in The New York Times: “The Sleep-Industrial Complex” by Jon Mooallem. I can’t recommend Mooallem’s article highly enough. You’ll read about the interest corporations have in selling you the notion of eight hours of untroubled sleep, from pharmaceuticals to mattress companies. Mooallem’s piece can also serve as a primer to Ekirch’s work if you’d rather skip the academic scene.

Books about sleep as a socially constructed phenomenon have lately begun appearing on the scene. (Now you can read about why you can’t sleep while you can’t sleep!) For instance, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, by David K. Randall, was published in 2012. I haven’t read Randall’s book, but I intend to; it received generally positive reviews. The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, was published just a month after Randall’s book. Again, I haven’t read this Wolf-Meyer’s book, but I mean to. Based on its title, methinks I detect a wee hint of bias. YOU CAN’T SLEEP BECAUSE OF CORPORATE CAPITALISM, IDIOT.



I appreciate works such as Ekrich’s, Randall’s and Wolf-Meyer’s because they question the common wisdom. Am I sometimes skeptical of their claims? Yes. But my skepticism, especially of things psychological, has been refined since reading Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. Watters demonstrates the cultural influence on emotion and mood disorders. Consider the case of depression. Watters documents the ways in which American pharmaceutical companies essentially marketed the disease to the Japanese. Japan has a tradition of respecting depression; those who are depressed are perceived as noble. When the Japanese market opened up to American SSRIs, though, the pharmaceuticals plastered Japanese public transportation with advertisements that listed the symptoms of depression (as determined by the ways Americans experience it). Japanese patients showed up in doctors’ offices with ads ripped from magazines. American companies taught the Japanese how to experience depression the ways Americans do. Other chapters cover schizophrenia, anorexia and PTSD, and they are all equally fascinating. All of this opened up for me the sociology of mental illness, which is off topic and another post entirely.

In any case, whether you’re reading this at 3am or 3pm (and nodding off due to boredom or low blood sugar), I hope you found something useful here. It’s time for me to get some shut eye. So, you know.

Books for an Autumn Evening: Nonfiction

I recommended earlier this week books appropriate for reading on a fall evening. It was 85 degrees on the day I wrote about pumpkins and cider and all things autumnal. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, not a sweater, and the tea I was drinking was iced.

The weather has since then improved. A front blew through, bringing with it colder temperatures and hints of autumn. The leaves are starting to turn. Tacky Halloween decorations are beginning to pop up on suburban lawns. Pumpkin spice is in everything, everywhere, all the time. Addicts are doing lines of it off of the mirrors in Dunkin’ Donuts’ restrooms.

He's pretty scary. The guy on the right is creepy, too.

He’s pretty scary. The guy on the right is creepy, too.

To celebrate the newly seasonal…er…season…I proffer a list of nonfiction books to read on a fall evening, vaguely grouped by topic.

The paranormal. Fringe-ology, Steve Volk; Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, Joseph O. Baker; Seeking Spirits: The Lost Cases of the Atlantic Paranormal Society, Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson, Michael Jan Friedman.

These books on the paranormal run the gamut from the silly to the academic. As you might expect, Seeking Spirits is a breathless account of TAPS‘ further encounters with ghosts and goblins; it opens with one authors’ encounter with some sort of forest spirit, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. Paranormal America is a serious attempt by sociologists to understand “the paranormal” as a fringe religious phenomenon. Bader, Mencken and Baker shed much-needed light on the paranormal beliefs of average Americans, but the presentation (group x believes this about this, group y believes this…) becomes repetitious. I recommend Volk’s Fringe-ology. Volk investigates several phenomena, some of which he’s able to explain and some of which remain mysteries. I wrote a longer review for Geekadelphia.

Ghosts. Will Storr vs. the Supernatural: One Man’s Search for the Truth about Ghosts, Will Storr; Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, Christine Wicker; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach.

Mary Roach (Gulp, Stiff, Bonk…which sounds like one of my Saturday nights, hey-o!) is the elephant in the room. Roach’s signature style involves the popularization of science through pithy jokes, a tack that gained her an audience but I was never able to get past. In Spook, Roach seeks scientific evidence of the afterlife; unsurprisingly, the results are ambiguous. Wicker, formerly a religion correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, admirably describes her trip to Lily Dale, New York, the last bastion of spiritualism. I recommend Will Storr’s investigation of ghosts, which is an honest portrayal of a skeptic’s inquiry into his most deeply held beliefs.

Possession and exorcism. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, Michael W. Cuneo; The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, Matt Baglio.

Surprising as it may be, belief in demonic possession and the power of exorcism in on the rise not only in the United States but throughout the West. Cuneo examines the penetration of the practice of exorcism into Protestant denominations, which have traditionally eschewed it. His account reads like a memoir, and it’s clear that he pities the “believers.” Baglio’s book follows an American priest as he is trained by an Italian exorcist. The Church apparently runs conferences on exorcism, and the Italian exorcist was barely able to keep up with demand for his services. Conclusion: There are a lot of people who believe that the devil is intimately involved in their lives.

Salem witchcraft. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, John Putnam Demos; The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692, Richard Godbeer.

Few events in early American history are as indelibly imprinted on students’ mind as the Salem witch trials. Scholars have for decades puzzled over the causes of the panic. Putnam’s tome, and it is a brick, approaches the events through a variety of lenses, including sociological, psychological, and so on, and is probably better for readers with a background in the period. The same might be said for Godbeer’s book The Devil’s Dominion, which definitively demonstrated that the upright Puritans believed in (and practiced) magic, too. (Sidenote: Godbeer wins the best surname contest, hands-down.) Readers hoping to get a feel for the period and the nature of witchcraft belief are better off picking up Escaping Salem, which tells the story of a failed witch hunt.

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, Jim Steinmeyer. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably familiar with the adjective “Fortean,” which refers to strange and inexplicable events. Fort spent his life documenting the weird, including fish and frogs falling from empty skies. This is a serviceable, if brief, biography that will give you a sense of the flavor of Fort’s writings, and perhaps inspire you to do a bit of your own research.