My first crush was a girl with my eyes and silky blonde hair. In seventh grade, I attempted to woo her by leading her up to the bell tower in our small town’s cathedral and casting our eyes to the view. It did not go well, as it turned out she was afraid of heights. It somehow got around that I liked her damned boy cousin, who shared her surname. I kept telling her it was a lie.
My first girl love was my best friend. At sleepovers, we would kiss, and I would play a man, and wedged inside one sleeping bag I’d roll over her and she’d call me by some boy name that had meaning to her over the weekend.
My second girl love I wooed in high school swim class. In the locker room, her and I on opposite ends, I’d take off my shirt slowly, delicately; steadily unzip my pants; slip out of my bottoms inch by inch; I’d stand there as she looked at my body, drinking me in. Shimmy into swimsuits. Then we’d swim. Then we’d return and in the showers repeat the process vice-versa all over again.
Women have touched my narrow feet. Women have held my hands. Women have kissed my lips and forehead and shoulders and below my belly button.
But these stories still appear lost and isolated. Being a woman loving women (in the same vein, a man loving men) can feel perpetually unresolved. Whether lesbian, bi, queer, non-binary, or a ‘something-else’ kind of love entirely, women who love women still struggle to be seen and heard. We may hold hands in public more openly now, but our actions in the bedroom remain closed, still featured mostly through the lens of the heteronormative world.
But what sweet nothings do women whisper to women? What swelling feelings ignite on quiet avenues in evenings, on porch steps under dim lamplights?
SMITTEN: This Is What Love Looks Like is an anthology of poetry written by women for women. Approaching 400 pages with over 100 contributors, the anthology takes the hidden intimacy of girl/girl love seriously, showcasing the marvelous ubiquity and variance of women’s love. Though I’ve read plenty of LGBTQ+ poets, this is admittedly the first time I’ve encountered and read a volume exclusively dedicated to the love shared between women with so many voices all speaking at once. SMITTEN is an invigorating experience, coursing along the entire spectrum of romance, heartbreak, suppression, flirtation, admiration, and of course, love.
“This morning / you never stopped. / Of course / I wanted to hear / every detail about / yesterday’s barbeque / in your old neighborhood / and who married whom / and the history of their kids / and how your childhood tribe / crept across / the grouchy neighbor’s yard / on sulky summer nights. / I was also intrigued / by the Kennedy conspiracy, / how magnesium / is essential for the brain, / and why I should avoid / every wheat-filled thing. / […] / but [the] words got lost / in the orbit of your voice / along with gardenia blooms, / my latest poem, / and the stream of clouds / easing from the coast. / […] / Meet me for a chat / on the patio tonight. / Perhaps you’ll acquiesce / when I quote John Donne: / For God sake hold / your tongue and let me love.”
“Just Saying,” poem by Carolyn Martin, from Smitten: This Is What Love Looks Like
I read this collection around Christmas but decided to pick through it again around Valentine’s Day. It’s a sensual read, but also sticky. What is immediately apparent when reading SMITTEN is how often same-sex love of women is tangled into heterosexual norms, confusing and oppressing lesbian and other queer narratives. In Avital Abraham’s opening piece “Lesbian,” the willful desire to embrace a word that has been unfairly blanketed in such negative associations comes on strong: “Am I a monster? / Because oh, / oh god, / do I want that word to feel delicious. / I crave its comfort, / dream about snuggling into the word lesbian, / like lesbian I’m coming home, / and lesbian warm smiles, / lesbian lazy mornings and, / lesbian a fluffy duvet, / lesbian half coffee, half cream, two sugars. / Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian, / and it still feels dirty in my throat but – / lesbian – / I will keep saying this word until – lesbian – / it burrows its way into my brain and / lesbian makes a home on my tongue. / I will not let this word be dirty.”
Romantic narratives surge forward nonetheless. In Kai Coggin’s “When I Photograph a Woman” she poignantly describes the sexual elogation of the anxiety of physical lust moving onward into a greater desire of wishing to ‘know’ and ‘see’ another person: “she begins to bend to me / a tulip – s t r e t c h i n g – for a spot in sunlight she lets / stiffness and fear / fall to the / floor / (a silk dress) / her muscles relax / under my glassy gaze it take time sure / it takes both of us being a little scared / but there is always the sudden turn where her cheek / becomes more of a song [.]” In Paula Jellis’ “When She Looks At Me” the verse is tender and quick: “In the quiet silence / between sentences / everything is clear / when she looks at me / In the afternoon / of her kiss / in the dark green shadows / she covers me / and fills me / with desire.” Such lines both manage to encompass the immediate and gradual stages of love.
But some of the poems I find the most moving are those of breakups and struggles, struggles both universal and struggles that feel unique to the gay community. In her poem “so she’s a wound” Cassandra Bumford writes: “i could tell you her name, / but all you need to know is / she was a pistol. / […] / now i’m left with bullets inside me. / she never said to remove them. / i’ve found it hard to breathe / while she’s hiding inside me.” In Kim D. Bailey’s “If Only I’d Been Brave Enough” the vice of same-sex oppression bares together, in nebulous lines: “Regret sits like a cat / on my chest, digging / […] / a swing, pushing until the new / heights hold me / hostage, / and I hold / my breath comes / in shallow graves of dead / children’s dreams, there is no / place for this love. / Bravery is broken ladders […]” Many of these more painful pieces employ a run-on nature, speaking to the neuroticism that emerges from love that ends (or never begins) without proper closure.
My third girl love was a stud. She had massive black gauges in her ears, stretching her lobes out. She could imitate the sound of a slide whistle perfectly. She called me her ‘chapstick’ babe, and when she left me, she left a Burt’s Bees tube behind. But half of it had been used. I debated for about a week whether to use it or throw it away.
Of course I used it. Of course I did. It tasted of mango. I wore it all the way down to the bottom, and tasted her, every last bit. Every little bit I could squeeze out. All the bitter, all the sweet, all the sour, all the cream.
That’s what love looks like. That’s being SMITTEN. A collection worth having on your shelf. No book could ever fully encapsulate the great vast diversity and divergence that is love, for anybody. But as the world (hopefully) progresses onward towards a more accepting (and loving) view of same-sex love, SMITTEN is an important book placed into the public sphere.
Four out of five stars for SMITTEN: This Is What Love Looks Like. And I hope all you fine readers have a happy Valentine’s.
Full Disclosure: I received this book as a gift from Candice L. Daquin, Senior Editor of Indie Blu(e) Publishing. It was given, however, under no pretense of review. I simply chose to write a review because I enjoyed the volume. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and see if you make the cut!
The featured image is of Isabel Emrich’s beautiful oil painting ‘Self Trust’ from her “Refracting Beauty” series displayed at Skidmore Comtempory Art.
I didn’t know how to start this review. I kept going in circles, orbiting around stark definitions, Rube-Goldberg machines, Jonathan Swift and his Laputians. Rubbing my temple, in a row boat with only one oar, my unidirectional turning felt synchronicitous, as I pondered and wrung my hands over how best to surmise Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government.
But the answer was there, on the cover, in those tempered but stark words. That’s Hannah for you; a forthright lantern in the darkness. Hannah Arendt, beloved and poignant philosopher and perhaps Patron Saint of all things ‘why.’ I read her book On Violence in my twenties, around the time I discovered whom I’ve come to call “The Erics”, Hoffer and Fromm. So when Howard’s The Rule of Nobody came out in 2015, I was drawn to it, but it sat in my ‘to-read’ list until 2021 this year.
“The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances […]. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.” These are Hannah’s words. It feels prophetic, considering America’s current volatile state. As a survivor of the Holocaust, her interest in social dynamics and mass movements is self-evident, and her insights into the Human Condition remain stable to this day; however, it was not her philosophical contributions to the human race that first propelled me towards Hannah and in a way, also into her. It was her herself—in her most intimate life—as I first got to know Hannah Arendt through her handwritten correspondences with her dear friend Mary McCarthy.
This is just the way of me, to do things backwards, to find the willowy fringe of a thing before I grasp its obvious well-known meat. “Mary, darling—” Hannah begins; “Dearest Mary—” she starts again; I would read, and close my eyes and think for a moment, might I be Mary? I knew Hannah initially through her hopes, her heartaches, her annoyances, her loves, her sorrows. So whenever I bump into Hannah Arendt, whether direct or inadvertent, it feels personal. So I struggled over and over to write a review for Philip K. Howard’s impersonal read.
Getting to know Howard is the opposite of getting to know Hannah—as is fortified by the fact I instinctively use surname ‘Howard’ and first name ‘Hannah.’ (My default functions are showing…) Philip K. Howard writes with brevity, a sturdy head, and though not abrasive the structure of his words speaks to a mind that be-rids the fluff of life and wants to get down to business. Every paragraph has a topic sentence; every logic chain has a beginning and end; no feedback loops or musings; he prefers to talk of things rather than terms; he double-backs only to clarify; he seems not too interested in saving-face if one doesn’t agree.
It’s refreshing, though sometimes I’d roll my eyes while turning a page. Well, I guess it’s just that easy, ain’t it Howard? So my internal narrator would sometimes harrumph and groan, but all and all, Howard is a man whose thoughts are occupied with solutions, and the executing of those solutions. The minutiae of what is wrong with things is a botheration he would rather not play with. In this light I think we might get along, though maybe only in small doses.
So The Rule of Nobody is a book of getting on with it: American politics is broken, overrun with bureaucracy and pointless performative partisan politics, and the answer is to say to hell with the endless debates and paper pushing and put actual power back into the hands of citizens and elected officials. Howard is against what he calls “automatic-government.” When everything is dictated by bullet-list laws and impositions, the ability for people to exercise their judgement is lost. The attempted exactitude of law is strangling the flexibility and nuance needed for people to operate in life. Howard, following Arendt’s lead, realizes that when no one has the power to definitively say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but everyone has the power to ask someone else to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ we have stasis. Everything grinds to a halt. In our desperate zealotry of checks and balances, to make sure that dreaded thing called ‘corruption’ is kept at bay, we tie everyone’s hands. Philip K. Howard’s lesson is candid, and follows the simple idiom: “A man who trusts no one can’t be trusted.” In our paranoia, we have made a quagmire of dead-ends. America is a nation of mistrustful, frustrated souls.
“Between 1969 and 1979 the Federal Register nearly quadrupled in length, expanding not just the scope of regulation, but the granularity of its mandates. Forest rangers used to have guidelines in a pocket pamphlet. Now they had volumes of rules. The purpose of regulation was not to confine executive discretion but to eliminate it altogether. Legal detail replaced public choice. Law would tell you not only what to do, but how to do it. The rhetoric of both liberals and conservatives “converged on the term ‘discretion,’” Professor William Simon observed, “contrast[ing] legality with discretion.’
“Pretty much everyone signed on to the idea of using detailed rules to minimize discretion. Liberals and conservatives like rules, as discussed, because they distrust each other. Corporations like detailed rules because rules provide a safe harbor and, as a bonus, rules are a barrier to entry for potential competitors. Public employees like rules because rules absolve them of responsibility by following the rules, they avoid having to justify the fairness of their decisions. Precise rules were also the sure antidote against violating someone’s rights: The rule made me do it.’ […]
“Out of the cauldron of the 1960s emerged the most amazingly impractical public philosophy ever devised: No one could take responsibility for making public choices. Legal restrictions on official choice now reached its apogee. No president, no judge, no official, no teacher, no anyone, would have authority to draw on their judgement. Public choices would be automatic, like spell-check in a word processing program, or go into the purgatory of perpetual process.”
Philip K. Howard, from The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government
So here we are, with Arendt’s “tyranny without a tyrant.” There is much that can be argued with in Howard’s book, many oppressions he has glibly overlooked, many depressions he has hastily filled with dirt so he can simply get his wagon down the road without breaking an axle. But deep in its heart, in a chamber that is foundational to Howard’s theory of ‘what is wrong,’ there is something profound. Something that I agree with deeply and have aches and pains over when I am alone in my room at my desk, writing my words, penning my thoughts.
And it is Hannah.
In The Rule of Nobody Howard makes clear the differences between what he describes as ‘principles’ and ‘goals’ vs. ‘rules’ and ‘dictates.’ In the book he uses the Australian reform of nursing homes as an example to get his point across. In 1988 the Australian government made a dramatic shift in its ideas on how to regulate its nursing homes, eliminating hundreds of listed ultra-specific regulations nearly overnight and instead opting for a mere thirty-one broadly stated objectives. Rather than making sure each resident had “at least 80 feet” of private space and check-list edicts of the ilk, new reform insisted on more nonspecific terminology, such as making sure each resident had a “homelike environment” and be treated with “privacy and dignity.”
The reform was scoffed at, initially, as supposed regulatory experts doubted that such “motherhood statements” could keep residents of nursing homes safe and secure. But in a welcome surprise, Australian nursing homes flourished. Quality of life improved dramatically for residents, less arguments among caretakers and officials ensued, and infighting and bickering broke way into civil debate and collaboration. The conversation of ‘Did you check everything off the list?’ gave way to ‘How best can we serve our residents? In what way can we improve?’ The Australian government had stumbled upon the difference between rules and principles, or what Hannah Arendt described as methods versus aims.
The human world is chiefly encompassed by two things: the nomothetic, meaning that which is fit for a law-like generalization, and what is perhaps best described by the Hebrew word da’at, meaning something akin to knowledge gained from direct experience with the subject. Both of these do not hold to absolutes, or that without question. One is an open-structure, and one is just plain open. When a system is governed by rules, there is no room for judgement or choices, there is only the letter of the law, and one must follow it religiously, lest one be found astray or out of place. But when we follow principles, or aims, then there is room for voluntary human interaction, for judgment, for choices. Morality, by its nature, can not be automatic. This is Hannah’s greatest epiphany: morality, the goodness of people, can only flourish in an environment where human choices are allowed. This is Philip K. Howard’s kernel of deep wisdom, though it is not his—it is Hannah’s, but Howard is at least wise enough to recognize it.
In August of 1954 Hannah writes an exhaustibly delicious letter to her dearest friend, Mary McCarthy. Hannah’s mind is a garden here, as she breezily traverses over Socrates and Kant and the French and English traditions of philosophy, in her left hand a cutting scalpel and in her right a delicate paintbrush—in her letters she is both a surgeon and an artist, and Mary’s mind frees her to be herself—it’s compelling. She falls upon the Cartesian doubt, the habitual fear likely born out of the Scientific Revolution where all of humankind’s senses were thrown into the boiling pot of unreliability. This “ritual of doubt,” obsessive and inherent in the west, created what she called a “chief fallacy,” and mused over the possibility that it was perhaps “the oldest fallacy of Western philosophy.” The fallacy is thus:
“The chief fallacy is to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process. Truth, on the contrary, is always the beginning of a thought; thinking is always result-less. […] Truth, in other words, is not in thought, but […] is both, beginning and priori.”
Hannah here scrapes against something that jars, that moral truth is neither the end result of critical thinking, nor is it inherent in human existence. It is an involvement of what I will simply call the spontaneous life. If Americana is indeed suffering under bureaucratic stifling, beneath what Max Weber coined “the iron cage” and what Howard has opted to see as the “rule of Nobody,” we must shake free the shackles of fear, and cease to perform the ritual of doubt. Either we continue down the path laid out by old men long dead, to keep to the laws as scriptures and maintain the rules purported by faceless policy-writers who bear no responsibility if things go amiss, we can continue to play it safe, and fulfill the duty of stringent due process.
Or, we can trust and take chances, and bear all consequences.
I negate a star rating for Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government, as this is not really a book review.I’ll just say I recommend reading it.
When I was a child I had a hamster named Pepper, who lived for about three years I recall. When he died, I don’t remember crying. Pepper sat curled in the corner of his glass domain, his shut eye a soothing crescent, looking as if he simply fell into sleep. I asked my father if I could touch him, and my father said I could; so I reached in, and gave him one last pet. Rigor mortis had set in, and as I petted Pepper’s back I could feel his spine, stiff and knobbed although his fur coat still had shine, and curled tightly as he was he reminded me of a seashell, a conch or ponderous ark set on the shore or ocean bed. Pepper was buried in the backyard by the garage. I didn’t feel too bad—I had the distinct feeling he had just up and left somewhere.
This is my earliest memory of death. I probably had encountered it before this moment, but time loosens the bows. My hamster’s quiet, peaceful sleep, endless and never waking, is clearest when I hold shells, running my fingers over their bumps and edges. And not just seashells, but pasta shells and candy shells and gastropod shells and those little coat buttons shaped like clams… My little girl’s assumption that Pepper’s skeleton bore some connection to our underwater kin was surprisingly insightful. I think of it often, veering my brain into the wonder of whether symbolism is innate inside us. Very early in my life I linked death with the sea, and also with the stillness of sleep. Countless have drawn these parallels before me: Thanatos and his brother Hypnos in the ancient Greek; in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet spinoff play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern, “Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?”
The question is refuted, but it stands. Humans oft associate death with the sea, and death with his ‘brother’ sleep. But death with books? Mm, perhaps with the binding, some poor PETA faithful mourning the loss of a beloved cow. More often then not though, we seem to associate books with immortality, the preserved written word transcending our mortal selves into the halls of meaningful permanence.
Immortality is so far from death it could be considered its antithesis. Life everlasting—what’s dead about that? When we link death and books it feels more circumvential. One must maneuver around the obvious lifeblood to find the ghost.
In the state of Pennsylvania, in the city of Philadelphia, on South 22nd Street, there is an austere building, with an iron wrought gate flanked by two imposing lampposts. It is bulky, wide and congressional looking, and inside its walls is a macabre collection of medical oddities. It is the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and here rests perhaps the largest collection of anthropodermic books, or for the layman, books bound in human skin. Upon this a link between books and death slips not through our fingers, but rather assaults as one strolls through the Mütter’s aisles of wet specimens, medical models, instruments, and osteological wonders, including a corset skeleton with the alluding title “The Price of Beauty” and a vast collection of human skulls.
These books are dead. Yet, somehow, also living. A creeping ambivalence overtakes; the books are rather plain looking, so it is both surprising and skepticalizing, but then an actualization hits. Who are these people?, one finds themselves asking. It’s a question asked throughout the entirety of the Mütter Museum but it feels more acute here. After all, a skeleton is by natural law something that is discovered, not created—but a book? Bound in human skin? It pries forth a very specific fascination. If you are a human who feels its tickle there is a knowing it possesses an intangible pull. One is propelled forward and toward these strange covers as though on a sleigh. Librarian Megan Rosenbloom felt that pull, as her grey-blue eyes swept over the volumes. She wanted to know, Who are these people?, or, more accurately, who were they? What would they have to say about the fate and display of their derma? Would they object? Did they object? Were they pleased about their immortality? What were their names?
Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science and History of Books Bound In Human Skin is that exploration, and so much more, as Megan Rosenbloom sets herself on a course to test, catalog, and build provenance for any and all anthropodermic books scattered and hidden about the globe. Like its subject matter, it is an oddity, and a gem of a read.
“Anthropodermic bibliopegy has been a specter on the shelves of libraries, museums, and private collections for over a century. Human skin books—mostly made by nineteenth-century doctor bibliophiles—are the only books that are controversial not for the ideas they contain but for the physical makeup of the object itself. They repel and fascinate, and their very ordinary appearances mask the horror inherent in their creation. Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze. The weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them. Each owner handles this responsibility differently.’
“[…] the conservationists at Harvard Library had discovered that a simple scientific test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine. Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with the chemist who carried out the Harvard test, another chemist, and the curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to create the Anthropodermic Book Project. Our aim is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates turn out to be real human skin, and some books with plausible pedigrees turn out to be frauds. As of this writing, my team has identified only about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in public collections and a few more in private hands. With such a small field of study, any test result could completely reshape our understanding of the scope of this practice. We have to approach every item objectively and let science out the truth.”
Megan Rosenbloom, from Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin
In the mid to late-2000s a chemist named Daniel Kirby started utilizing proteomics to help museums better restore and protect their artifacts and artworks. With modern technology Kirby realized by looking at an object’s proteins he could help distinguish a painting’s egg tempera content, or the type of seal skin used in a nineteenth-century Yup’tik kayak, assisting in recreations. When Megan Rosenbloom found Daniel Kirby, the Anthropodermic Book Project was born. Taking only a sliver of the supposed skin binding (about the amount of a thin fingernail shaving) peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) for the first time in history could prove whether an alleged human skin book was real or fraudulent. Soon, confirmed anthropodermic books started showing up all over the world, though there were still unanswered questions. For one, PMF testing cannot identify the race or cultural makeup of a person; homo sapiens “do not have enough genetic variability among its populations to justify either the identification of geographically based races or of evolutionarily distinct lineages.” For another, PMF testing cannot even really distinguish between homo sapiens and other members of the Homininae subfamily (i.e. chimps, bonobos, and gorillas); however, no book has ever (to modern knowledge) been bound (or allegedly bound) in gorilla skin. That said, Megan Rosenbloom wants you to know that if you do know of a book allegedly bound in gorilla skin to contact her immediately.
The ghostliness of these books makes them uniquely opaque, despite their grim nudity. Stripped of their personage, decontextualized, their true pasts can only be cobbled together through dedicated detective work, old paper trails and the sort. Some anthropodermic books are terrible question marks: nameless, with limited provenance and nothing substantial to grab hold to. But others are blatant in their confessions.
Patterns began to emerge as more and more anthropodermic books were wedged into the light. The majority of acquisitioners and tanners were doctors or part of the doctoring class; when alleged human skin books were outed to be frauds, a large portion of them were centered around ploys of racism; though PMF tests cannot determine sex, many of the skins were claimed to be female, alluding to a rather sinister result of what happens when the distanced clinical gaze collides with the objectifying male one, making women and their skins victims of physicians’ psychosexual pathologies. Yet some defied expectations. One such anthropodermic book, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Peirce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman, was the result of a deathbed wish. The inscription “Hic liber Waltonis cute compactus est” graces the cover, on a gold-tooled black leather strip: “This book by Walton bound in [his] skin.” George Walton, lifelong criminal bibliophile turned armchair philosopher in prison, took end-of-life matters into his own hands. When he died, he requested his memoir be bound in himself; skin was taken from his back, tanned to mirror grey deerskin, and sent to bookbinder Peter Low. He now rests at the Boston Athenaeum, his words preserved in his own suede.
Though one might be inclined to believe Dark Archives is a book of grotesque goggling, it is chiefly a book of history—medical history to be precise. When we die, we inevitably leave something behind: our bodies. Much of Dark Archives circles around the dubious questions of what rights do these bodies have. Who owns them if not ourselves, ourselves which have flown away? Rosenbloom wends us through humanity’s troubling pasts of corpses and their defilements; the dead stolen from graves, criminals hacked up in front of storefront windows to the appeasement of oglers, the moral minefield of surgeons in need of practicing cadavers, the exchange of money for human flesh. In the long shadow of medical butchery, anthropodermic books are a niche, and at times almost seem quaint in the grand scheme of things. But so many factors must converge to make an anthropodermic book possible. It is this chain of compliance that is most fascinating, and it is this chain that presents the most challenging end result of why. What does an anthropodermic book represent? What does its existence mean?
I am not so squeamish about death. From the fungi growth of human composting to how bodies explode when cremated, I am rather captivated by the human corpse’s embracing of ugliness and repellency of what is considered contemporarily aesthetically good. We spend so much of our lives overly concerned with our appearances… I am strangely refreshed with the reality that at the end death throws all that hard work and devotion away. Once dead, we stiffen then fall slack, we yellow and brown and grey; insects flume within us, our internal bacteria goes bonkers and we bloat, blister, and burst; we are all—essentially—eaten, whether by fire or dirt. What’s left of us? In time not even bones. Should your derma befall the fate of an anthropodermic book, your lifeless body will be flayed, your skin pickled in acidic juices then washed and beaten and pressed. It is all an odd, ugly sort of business, a wonderfully odd ugly business. But, why shouldn’t it be? Must we be preserved youthful and plump with intrinsic beauty? Encased in resin, pumped full of formaldehyde, or launched into the vacuum of space, so as to never rot and decay. I suppose what draws me most to anthropodermic bibliopegy is despite the frequent usurping of human rights, it feels like a second life, so unlike that of our first.
These books exist, for now at least. Another ornament to be hung and considered on the tree of the Human Condition. What we can learn from them, and what we believe of their nature, is sure to vary with time.
From 1497-1543 a German artist named Hans Holbein existed. While in his impressionable twenties, he endeavored on a series of intricate woodblock paintings. These paintings were small, small enough to cup in the palm of your hand. In them, Death in the form of a skeleton performs a dance, a dance that yanks the cowl off an astonished monk, steals food from a miser, skewers an adorned knight, pulls the covers off a resting duchess, and leads a crying child away from his parents into the coming night. It is The Dance of Death, and to all peoples of every class he is an intruder, enthusiastically performing his jig. Cut by Hans Lützelburger (who died before he could see the finished product over which he labored, in a crude stroke of irony) the sensational woodblocks were later sold to creditors and compiled for publishing in Lyons in 1538. They have never been out of print, the hypnotic movements of Death’s swinging arms and empty eyes enlivening and alarming viewers for over six centuries.
And in 1816, a famous bookbinder by the name of Joseph Zaehnsdorf commissioned the skin of a woman to give what he saw as “an appropriate binding” for a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. The quantity of the material he was given (meaning, human skin) was in his own words “scanty”, resulting in him having to split the human leather in two, creating a smooth finished cover but a lumpy binding. In the typed memorandum he signs conditionally, “Yours obediently, Zaehnsdorf”. It is macabre in its pragmatism, the capitalist system that incited and buoyed this tome’s creation.
This copy along with two other anthropodermic editions of Holbein’s Dance of Death were later displayed at an exhibition by Grolier’s Club in 1903. Supposedly, three more copies throughout the 19th century of The Dance were made, totaling the number of times Hans Holbein the Younger’s eerie woodblock series TheDance of Death being allegedly bound in human skin to six. Though perhaps the most well known anthropodermic books, Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives barely covers these volumes, likely because of their notoriety. Of these six, only two have been tested, and confirmed by PMF testing; Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 binding is one of them, obedient to the end. The book now rests at Brown University, at the Jay Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island, ‘rests’ holding more weight here than is perhaps norm.
Hans Holbein created The Dance of Death to showcase what he saw as an encouraging—and brutal—truth: Death comes for all of us, regardless of wealth, faith, condition, or class. Sometimes Death’s dance is like an assault, as to a jewel-laden emperor being denied his crown; but other times, Death is more a liberator, as to an old woman limping down a dirt road being released from her pains. Holbein also made The Dance as a sort of warning, a reminder to the most elitist classes that they will not be spared. But what Holbein’s enigmatic dancing Death misses is that though being dead will likely be the same for all of us, our dying—and the bodies we leave behind—will not become equalized the moment Death’s dance is finished. Rather, death just follows the path life has laid out. And, as all of us know, life is not egalitarian.
The skins that bind Holbein’s [Dances] of Death were surely taken without consent, and with disregard of their owners. The commissioners, the bookbinders, the sellers, they all get to have their names passed on through history. But who makes Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 Dance of Death? No name is granted. We don’t know. Without the name, what immortality is given? They are doomed to mere superficial covering, a pale smooth beautiful nothing on a paper throne. Megan Rosenbloom gives new life to these dark volumes, and asks us to think about death, and our dead, more often. Through Dark Archives sheinvites us with compassion into a “more empowering relationship with our mortality.”
5 out of 5 stars for Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin.
The featured image is of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.It is an American museum of medical history, and “helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Photograph via muttermuseum.org – Thank you.
It is July 17, 1974, and a strange man approaches a child playing alone in a yard. It is classic in its unsettledness; we all know this story, so we instinctively hold our breaths. Strangers and children. Predators and prey. The axioms slowly rise in our minds, like a flush over a face. The stranger is Harper Curtis, with jeans, a gimpy foot, and an austere countenance. The child is Kirby Mazrachi, with brown eyes, frizzy hair, and a bee buzzing under a cup. She’s trapped it; there is a subtle omen here. This is a first meeting, and yet it is not. Harper Curtis tells Kirby, “That’s great. Really great. Here we go. Round and round, like your Ferris wheel. I’ll see you when you’re all grown up. Look out for me, okay, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.” and he departs. He leaves behind a token, a prize, that he is both receiving and giving up. This is a beginning with a hole in it, and a reader is left wondering when they’ll get the key.
It is a strong first chapter, a good opening; Lauren Beukes sets the ball on the tee perfectly. But writing about time travel proves to be a tricky thing. For loops in time really always boil down to one ideology: determinism. This is the beast we are led to think we are fighting against. Will Harper and Kirby get swept by the current? Or will they somehow break the cycle, and get swallowed into a quantum jumble?
The unfortunate reality about Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is that this battle never really occurs. Instead, the thriller novel is gobbled into a long sluice of fatalistic linear storytelling of women getting murdered over and over again, and our heroine, Kirby, muddling around in the background performing the blasé actions of the ‘catch-a-killer’ game while simultaneously not getting anywhere. To put frankly, The Shining Girls is a draining experience.
“Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.
There are names scrawled beside them. Jinsuk. Zora. Willy. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Strange names of women he doesn’t know.
Except that the names are written in Harper’s own handwriting.
It’s enough. The realization. Like a door opening up inside. The fever peaks and something howls through him, full of contempt and wrath and fire. He sees the faces of the shining girls and knows how they must die. The screaming inside his head: Kill her. Stop her. […]
Harper takes away his hands and forces himself to open his eyes. He hauls himself to his feet, using the bedpost for balance, and hobbles over to the wall where the objects pulse and flicker, as if in anticipation. He lets them guide him, reaching out his hand. There is one that seems sharper somehow. It nags at him, the way an erection does, with incontrovertible purpose. He has to find it. And the girl who comes with it.”
Lauren Beukes, From The Shining Girls
Right out of the gate something must be stated about The Shining Girls: Lauren Beukes is an incredible writer. Her ability to paint tone and depth into a scene is truly impressive; her prose is osmosed with the mood of her subject so finely that it feels seamless. Without question, Beukes is a great penner of words, and I fully appreciated her analogous and metaphorical choices and what I will call the lexis of her work.
But much halts there. A time-traveling serial killer is an intriguing premise for a thriller, one that feels open to imaginative pathways otherwise exempt from most crime-rooted tales. The expectation of more horror, more mystery, more magical realism, more breadth, is high. Yet, perhaps it was too high for Beukes, as she just couldn’t seem to reach those upper levels. We are left with a shallow, dull slog of murder after murder, useless detective scene after useless detective scene, and a weird unrequited love story that feels vapid in its unidirectionalness. It hurts to say that despite Beukes’ attempt to make The Shining Girls “a book that is as much about the victims’ stories as the killer’s,” the most interesting character is undoubtedly Harper, and the book features his thoughts, his activities, and his triumphs and tragedies most prominently, deranged murderous antagonist overtaking spunky jaded protagonist easily. For a book that implies a 5th dimension, it’s irksomely flat.
The book takes the reader through several decades, bouncing along the chill 90s to the Great Depression and back again. Here Lauren Beukes is actually at her best, describing the mood and atmosphere of each cultural time period in wonderfully researched detail (which actually leaves the question of whether Beukes is simply in the wrong genre and that perhaps her skills would better be utilized in non-fiction, historical enterprises). This time hopping should be an experience that feels like a koan, the solution resisting us as the solving goes on. But it somehow doesn’t. Instead, the fatalism of it all rather blunts the thrill and mystery. Should we be biting our nails as Harper encroaches upon yet another bright victim? When in fact, we already know she is dead, or will be, and that all these events are just part of a daisy chain that feels more repetitious than anything. And what of Kirby, our sole survivor? Beukes just shoves her in, and throughout the work she doesn’t seem to have much agency, and in fact at the end (a light spoiler ahead) seems to be the perpetrator of her own demise.
So, is Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls simply a veiled fatalistic tragedy? The paradox is the story, right? Weirdly, it doesn’t feel like this either. Weirder still, I’m not sure Beukes even noticed her own contradiction. (Though I’m sure by now, some people have pointed it out to her.) The finale feels like a larger story Beukes couldn’t quite figure out and lopped off, almost as if Beukes reached the end of her own intellect and could go no further. Now, is it possible that Beukes in fact did fully understand the contradiction and simply failed in her relaying of it to her audience? Yes; however, this ends up not changing the glaring grimy smudge of this supposed reflective gotcha loop—Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is boring, and the lot of what happens in the book has no bearing at all to the final problem. Beukes seems to forget that the infamous Möbius strip has only one side, and makes little use of any imagination and daring she might have to add any profundity to the mathematical simplicity of her deterministic model. In the end, Harper gets everything he wants because of Kirby, and Kirby gets everything she doesn’t want because of herself. One is left wondering, How does this play out in the self-agency of our dead girls? Beukes becomes the thing she hates: a writer of “All The Pretty Corpses,” a genre trope she actively rejects and attempts to remedy in her short essay by the same name at the end of the book’s reading guide. The irony is so strong it almost leaves a taste of pity in the mouth.
It’s two stars for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. But I will leave with this: if Lauren Beukes ever decides to leave behind the world of fiction and instead picks up non-fiction, I might very much swipe that off the shelf.
When the COVID pandemic first started, something happened. All at once, as if by some great predestined design, billions of hands began rushing.
In the first months of the outbreak, many of us had the most productive and fruitful weeks of our lives. Files got stamped, old projects got completed and new projects got going, essays got written, art got made. Though we didn’t know it at the time, all this vigor and verve was predictable and expected. We had fallen into the well documented formulaic wheel of crisis time, consisting of three steps: emergency, regression, and recovery.
I was no different. Like a human being I behaved as one. I wrote pages upon pages, I scheduled phone/face-time dates and was diligent in keeping in contact with loved ones and friends. I taught myself origami, took some free online courses, went for long meandering walks everyday. Then, like a music box wound and played too many times, I began to wind down, my melodious tune stringing out into off-key notes and whining whispers. I clicked and clicked and sprang springs. Right on the ball, along with many others, I hit dreaded stage two: regression. Some of us got out of the funk and made it to recovery, shaking the cobwebs free and moving on, maintaining course, sticking to the path. Others of us—for reasons both internal and external—didn’t, and found ourselves out of steam and slumped in beds, sometimes lost and wandering off road. Then, there are those certainly like me, who continue to oscillate between these last two steps, regressing and recovering multiple times in a sort of strange, dark dance, a turning and turning about in a labyrinthine waltz of route and wilderness.
But those first two or so months were a ride, weren’t they? The sheer amount of writing I produced in those first several weeks alone can just about make up for the bumbling year I’ve had. It was a glorious time, the river expedient, the way made clear. Those of us who write wrote and wrote and wrote.
And one of those individuals, of course, was novelist and essayist Zadie Smith. And from her fingers was produced her 2020 collection Intimations. A slim volume, not even a hundred pages long, with all Smith’s royalties going to charity, the non-fiction novelette is a moment of history seldom captured: not a moment such as an event or bodily action occurred and recorded in corporeal time and space, but a moment of thought, more of mind than brain, a spontaneous mental state that rippled around the globe that had no actual physical form but nonetheless existed. Within Intimations, put straightforwardly, are Zadie Smith’s emergency writings. The temple of the world fell down, and everyone instinctively, collectively, stood up and started rebuilding. Where were our minds? What, exactly, were we building?
Intimations is a glimpse of the stream of consciousness that with a vengeance spilled forth from all our hands and hearts.
“What strikes me at once is how conflicted we feel about this new liberty and/or captivity. On the one hand, like pugs who have been lifted out of a body of water, our little limbs keep pumping on, as they did when we were hurrying off to our workplaces. Do we know how to stop? Those of us from puritan cultures feel “work must be done,” and so we make the cake, or start the gardening project, or begin negotiation with the other writer in the house for those kid-free hours each day in which to work on “something.” We make banana bread, we sew dresses, we go for a run, we complete all levels of Minecraft, we do something, then photograph that something, and not infrequently put it online. Reactions are mixed, even in our own hearts. Even as we do something, we simultaneously accuse ourselves: you use this extremity as only another occasion for self-improvement, another pointless act of self-realization. But isn’t it the case that everybody finds their capabilities returning to them, even if it’s only the capacity to mourn what we have lost? We had delegated so much.”
Zadie Smith, from Intimations: Six Essays
One of Smith’s initial actions during quarantine lock-down was picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for the first time. This was not some deep attempt at psychoanalysis or a beginners journey of higher wisdom pursuit; in her own words, Smith was seeking “practical advice.” Upon reading this I quickly went to the shelf and fished out my own copy of Meditations—a lovely Franklin Library collection, coupled with Lucretius’ On The Nature Of Things and Epictetus’ Discourses. Realization of the inspiration of Aurelius’ Meditations on Smith’s Intimations was immediate, particularly for Smith’s exiting piece Intimations: Debts and Lessons, where she follows Aurelius’ numbered point system by the letter, listing through her thoughts in a tumbling of prose that follows a more poetic intimacy than philosophical trail.
Zadie Smith, more than anything, as a pen is unsparing. Both tough and generous, her straight-to-the-point style is what makes her writing a tandem spin of bracing and alluring. Intimations—though short and musing—is no different. What is different, it seems, is the haste; Smith’s mind bolts out, with abandon, without destination, and right out the gate it is clear Smith is not pulling from her forehead a story or attempt at reasoning, but rather a slip of streaming responsiveness, and all the uncertainty and rambling it entails. Her words dart: tulips growing in a city garden, ponderings of both doubt and completeness, world leaders, her mother, idiosyncratic New Yorkers, friendships, contempt and knowledge. Smith’s mind travels to where most of our minds travel when left alone with nothing but our thoughts: to the connections we share or once had, and to the void that creeps in when those connections are severed. Who are we, without others?
When things unravel, it is a common problem of human beings to try to grab every thread. Zadie Smith’s writing presents this phenomenon; the instinctive knee jerk reaction to catch the whole breaking ball of yarn before it hits the ground. What is lost in this moment is the understanding that you only need one end; all is connected, and as long as you maintain grip on a single piece you can follow and roll back up the string. The oddity is that when a crisis hits this bit of common wisdom is walloped out of us, as if the compasses of our minds were suddenly pummeled with sledgehammers, all sense of direction lost. This is what makes Smith’s Intimations so intriguing; something ruptures, and the hands whirl into action, picking up every fragment in a berry-picking-like ritual, adeptly moving both hands and collecting multiple pieces into the palms before depositing handfuls into the bucket, nothing sorted but nonetheless gathered. Smith’s Intimations captures this so well, and though the slim collection of essays in and of itself beholds nothing particularly sensational or enlightening, there is a feeling of affirmation that sweeps through.
Time waits for no one, and the world continues in her turns, so our fingers turn, loop, press, and grip, trying to keep up.
After all, though people may walk on their feet, humanity marches upon our hands.
I gave my friend the brow, which is the raised left eyebrow I traditionally extend to invoke my incredulousity on any manner of subjects, but mostly harmless “recommendations” (though, over the years I’ve come to call them “insistences”).
“This is the book by that internet guy you’re always watching who does the sarcastic and mean yellow and black stick-man reviews, right?” I posed in the tone.
“Yeah, but I really do think you’ll like it.” His emphasis on the word really really exposing his doubts rather than alleviating them.
But what the heck, I’ll read anything. So I read Jam by a guy named Yahtzee Croshaw. And you know what? I didn’t hate it.
With a cover that’s a throwback to the 80’s science-fiction paperbacks of yore, Jam starts straightforwardly, not wasting time with unnecessary character build-ups or scenic strolls. Right off the bat, the event happens—BANG! Our protagonist, Travis (no last name), wakes up to go to work and discovers that his city has been overrun with flesh-eating strawberry jam (or, something that very much resembles strawberry jam) by watching his roommate Frank slide down a banister to only be promptly slurped. From this point on, the slightly dim but rather good-hearted Travis and a gang of mishmashed survivors struggle to make it in the ever hungry, ever sticky, ever fruity smelling dystopia.
“It was a pleasant, cloudless Brisbane day. The sun beamed cheerfully across the balconies of the vacant flats opposite. I slid the balcony doors aside, and felt the warm breeze play gently on my face. What a lovely day. By now Frank, Frank who was dead, would have reached the gym, probably flirting with the receptionist on his way to the locker room. If he hadn’t been dead, that is.
I kept my gaze focused on the clear blue sky and stepped forward until I could clench my hands around the railing. I took a deep breath. Then I looked down.
The jam had filled the courtyard and foyer and pushed the water out of the swimming pool. Where it touched walls, little tendrils snaked their way upwards like searching fingers. There was an overpowering stench of strawberries.
From my vantage point I could see into some of the ground-floor apartments. All of them were half-filled with jam, the top halves of TVs and stereos poking up like electronic islets. The occupants were nowhere to be seen.”
With a very thick, bulging vein of modern humor coursing throughout the bulk of the book, it isn’t clear whether Croshaw is punching up or down; really, he seems to have just clipped a clothespin over his nose and jumped in. A story of adventure, Jam has gone the horror/whimsical route, taking the morally confusing path of a lot of contemporary adult cartoons which usually end with creators shrugging their shoulders and balking, “It’s not real, so what does it matter? Just laugh it off, folks.” Croshaw does a little better, never taking up the reader’s time to explain his intentions or lack thereof: there’s jam and it loves the taste of organic meaty bits and its everywhere—oh what are our band of woefully unprepared misfits going to doooooo!
Without shame, I will say I’m a tad of a hardsell when it comes to the slapstick, modish comedy of our times; however, I genuinely found a lot of Croshaw’s Jam funny and even found myself laughing out loud during some of the outrageous situations Croshaw throws his characters into. Ultimately, Jam seems to be a novel about regular people, and the swathe-nature of the modern day zeitgeist: when the worst comes to pass, and the layers of the age are concentrated to their purest elements by way of disaster, what will the archetypal materials of our collective be? Croshaw presents a world hellbent on detachment and irony, emotionally stunted by the ratrace, and trapped inside the restrictive bonds of the 40+ hour workweek. He does all this with a big, jovial laugh track, meanwhile people die and behave selfishly, cower and follow obediently, and sometimes, occasionally, something brave and truly meaningful breaks free. Though not nihilistic, there is a smack of irritation from Croshaw. (Whether he is aware of it, this reviewer can’t say.)
The novel breaks down the event (being the Jam Apocalypse) into 9.2 days, which is fairly rare for a sci-fi, taking a narrative path more commonly chosen by mystery and thriller writers. This works well, considering the intensity of the scape Croshaw has chosen, and throughout the days and nights our characters gain and lose, gain and lose, cope with their present situation by way of camcorders, work projects, hope of a New World Order, and (my particular favorite) a parental attachment to a Goliath Birdeater spider named Mary, all the while waddling around in the jam via plastic garbage bags (it is discovered that the jam, for whatever reason, prefers organic carbon-based snacks and does not consume plastic, therefore much of Brisbane is conveniently spared) and navigating a sailboat from cursory colony to cursory colony, everyone having gone loony from the surprise of flesh-gobbling jam showing up. Some individuals seem to go mad with power (or, mad with potential power) and others grip their fingers around the idea that none of this is permanent or really even happening, spending all their cognitive energies avoiding the very real sticky hungry blob outside. Where the jam-blob came from, no one seems to know, but a few set out to find the inception point, and a couple have secrets that they’re refusing to share.
The book tumbles into a bit of a of Schusterfleck, with the same notes being played over and over again higher and higher until at last the crescendo pops. Ending abruptly, and on a rather bittersweet chord, Croshaw closes up shop. It’s a good enough conclusion, a satisfying enough wrap, and I have no qualms with it. All and all, Yahtzee Croshaw’s book surprised me. Though this reader prefers the lacy, filigreed writing of the late 19th, early 20th centuries, Croshaw’s direct modern style operated perfectly for his humorous, strawberry-preserved tale, mapping the places and plots expertly and rendering fine characters, one-dimensional as they were.
Without further ado, Jam delivers. It’s fun, fast-paced, and is a refreshing turn away from much that currently sits on the science-fiction/fantasy shelf. So go give it a try. This YouTube reviewer has punched out a good book, and this long time reader sends her regards: I liked it!
3 and ½ stars for Yahtzee Croshaw’s Jam. And, I think—maybe—I’ll be more open to my friend’s recommendations from here on.
Now, let’s all go watch The Blob.
The featured image is of the 1958 indie classic film The Blob, directed by Irvin Yeaworth and starring 1960’s bad-boy heartthrob Steve McQueen. According to Wikipedia, “The storyline concerns a growing, corrosive, alien amoeboidal entity that crashes to Earth from outer space inside a meteorite. It devours and dissolves citizens in the small communities of Phoenixville and Downingtown, PA, growing larger, redder, and more aggressive each time it does so, eventually becoming larger than a building.” – As always, thank you.
A decent read for sleuths, James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is a book to remind that little things can invoke big realizations.
For a paperback I snatched from the store on a whim, The Secret Life Of Pronouns turned out to be a very enjoyable Sherlockian jaunt around the basic principles of language and how they reflect the human psyche. Though not exactly a rich, or deeply educative read, nonetheless I learned things and had genuine fun participating in the several exercises and small tests Pennebaker peppers throughout the book. Though there are holes—to be sure—and some of the items presented feel lackluster and obvious, Pennebaker has knitted together a fine, comfortable read that will likely pique the interest of any inquisitive brain seeking to snoop a bit into the external lives and mentalities of others.
Although the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states. Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines–linguists, sociolinguistics, English scholars, anthropological linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others. Some of the most innovative work is now coming from collaborations between academics of all stripes and companies such as Google.
Aside from the points of being a tad repetitious and quite a lot naïve about machine-learning technologies and their impacts, Pennebaker is a fun, pep-filled narrator, enthusiastic about his work and eager to share. This animated, optimistic energy is ensnaring, and keeps the pages turning regardless of whether the subject matter has become tiresome and stretched (and therefore thinned) to its capacity. Certainly, the childlike twinkle in Pennebaker’s eye shows up in his writing, and though the book itself could have been shaved down to 150 pages or less, he makes it worthwhile. Pennebaker, after many years of service in his field, has discovered something; and he is excited—oh yes he is excited—and like a kid with a newfound love of dinosaurs, Pennebaker launches himself headlong into telling us all about it.
Broken down into ten chapters, the book opens with the basics: a short refresher on elementary school grammar, function and content words and what the differences are, and how our words and speaking styles represent our emotional states, and furthermore, our personalities. Specifically, Pennebaker is interested in function words, and the book (rightly so) revolves almost entirely around them.
What are function words? We’ll do a quick lesson. Check out this sentence of mine I hastily jotted down in one of my notebooks some unknown time ago:
…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.
I picked this specifically because its rather nebulous; however, any reader can gauge with some accuracy what I’m talking about/commenting on even without the knowledge of the full context. That is because the above sentence is full of content words.
…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.
Because of content words, it is relatively easy to glean that I am critiquing an aspect of social media and its value for users. Perhaps an image of a person helplessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook jumps into frame. If you are someone who’s native language is not English, and you only know a few choice words, you might pull “picture,” “joy,” “social media,” and “viewers” from the sentence, and still (probably) be able to cobble together what I may be talking about.
But if we highlight these words, a very big confusion emerges:
…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.
Behold function words. Those little things that hardly seem to exist in the midst of an engaging conversation, a bombastic argument, or the sweet nothings uttered in blushed ears. Function words, via Pennebaker, “[…] are words that connect, shape, and organize content words.” If one reads just the function words (regardless of what their native language might be) what the heck I’m talking about is just that—Huh? The heck are you talking about?
So completely unmemorable are function words it’s amazing that a whole book has been written about them. And though The Secret Life Of Pronouns in itself is not such an amazing book, I was once again reminded of how knowledge, and wisdom, often hides in the cracks.
Yet even with this praise, there is a lot that is unclear in much of the statistical data Pennebaker dishes out.
In fairness, Pennebaker acknowledges that the research is still in its infancy—however, along that note, there seems to be a lot of formulating hypotheses and locating data needed to support them after studies and tests have been carried out, also known as p-hacking. Regardless, correlations by those algorithmic machines are fervently being made: women tend to use far more cognitive words and personal pronouns than men do, men tend to use bigger words and more prepositions; when tragedy strikes a nation’s use of the word we skyrockets, when a world leader is about to declare war his/her use of the word I plummets; liars use more verbs and social/emotional words such as she and him, if and any, while truth tellers tend to use more words in general and more self-reference words such as I and me. This all sounds neat-o, but (noted by Pennebaker himself) much of these subjects suffer from a lack of “ground truth” and others seem more to do with the circumstances and environments of individuals rather than the personalities of individuals unto themselves. Sometimes the information contradicts itself, such as in the case of world leaders dropping the word I from their vocabulary during tumultuous times, and research stating the more confident and in control a person feels, the more their use of the word I drops. Are we supposed to draw the conclusion that leaders lodged in conflict are, in fact, more confident and sure of themselves? Such impasses are not discussed, nor it seems even noticed. Much of the data feels cherry-picked, and therefore detached and limp. For a book loaded with tables and charts, it stings of discombobulation and half-finished projects.
There is also the problem of Pennebaker not really delivering on his goal—a window into personality. Can function words tell us if someone is kind or cruel, selfish or generous, neurotic or relaxed? The Secret Life Of Pronouns doesn’t say, but it does say how to utilize function words in finding out whether someone grew up rich or poor, is female or male, or if a person’s relationship is happy or on the rocks. Pennebaker doesn’t seem to think much about how such discoveries and sleuthing technologies could be manipulated by advertising companies and the ilk, or be misused to decide whether someone gets extension on their credit, is let into a prestigious college, lands a dream job, or wins publication in an esteemed journal. Straight into it, the vision of The Secret Life Of Pronouns is severely limited. Though entertaining and interesting, it ceases to have substance or anything really worth chewing on.
But it’s good enough. So give it a read if you’re bored and like sleuthing. Really, who doesn’t like playing detective every once in a while? Ultimately, I enjoyed Pennebaker’s bubbly spirit and gained a little more insight into myself. (Which, I’ve consistently found, is always worth doing.) So, what the heck, I give it a solid C.
Three out of five stars for The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.
In a castle, deep in the Romanian wilderness, five sisters have a secret.
From eldest to youngest, sisters Tatiana, Jenica, Paula, Iulia, and little Stela, by way of a hidden door in their bedchamber, depart to another world each and every full moon.
Dressed in their best, the young’uns go dancing. But not with boys—oh no. Oh no not with fellow young boys. These girls go out partying with dwarves and trolls, with fairies and beasts and other magical forest folk. Free-spirited Iulia spins and spins until her face gets red; elegant and beautiful Tatiana sways serenely, her cascade of black hair tilting on her head; bubbly Stela jumps and jigs with her tiny woodland friends; Paula does not dance, but discusses her studies—at a table with robed academics while the music plays—enthusiastically expounding her writings and theories.
And then there’s Jena. Sensible Jena. Responsible, plain-looking, opinionated Jena.
With her best friend Gogu (who so happens to be a frog) she observes more than she dances, watches over more than she joins. Are her sisters safe? Is there trouble nearby? Jena understands the Other Kingdom can be a dangerous place, so she keeps her wits about her, keeps track of the time, keeps tabs on all her siblings and makes certain that everything goes smoothly and that everything is fine.
The girls pay their respects to Ileana, the fairy queen of the wildwood, and then set off again across the Bright Between. On five boats uniquely shaped—swan, wyvern, phoenix, wood duck, and salamander—they return to their bedchamber in the early morning, sleepy eyed and full of new daydreams. Their secret secure, their secret still secret.
But secrets have an animation about them. Like young girls, no matter how hard we try to keep them out of harm’s way and keep them locked up, secrets have a way of sneaking off. In a series of unexpected events, the sisters’ lives change. The wildwood holds secrets all its own, and seeds planted long, long ago start to take root. Jena tries with all her might to maintain the order, to keep the two worlds divided and to keep her sisters safe; but the forest has other plans, and the magic around her and within her is set to fly—no matter what she has to say about it.
The long room we sisters shared had four round windows of colored glass: soft violet, blood-red, midnight-blue, beech-green. Beyond them the full moon was sailing up into the night sky. I put Gogu on a shelf to watch as I took off my working dress and put on my dancing gown, a green one that my frog was particularly fond of. Paula was calmly lighting our small lanterns, to be ready for the journey. […]
“Come on,” Iulia urged. “My feet are itching for dance.”
The first time we had done this, in our earliest days at Piscul Dracului—when I was only six, and Stela was not yet born—Tati and I had been amusing the younger ones by making shadow creatures on the wall: rabbits, dogs, bats. At a moment when all our hands had been raised at once to throw a particular image on the stones, we had found our forest’s hidden world. Whether it had been a chance or gift, we had never been sure.
An excellent YA fairy tale, Wildwood Dancing starts the party early and doesn’t let up. Juliet Marillier (who, according to her bio, sounds just as magical as the books she pens) is skilled in her abilities, deftly weaving enchantment and mystery and bringing to life well-wrought characters and magical scenes. Taking the very popular folk tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” Marillier leaves behind its traditional German roots and takes it for a spin out in Romania. A bit of a Rubik’s Cube, the book kicks off right away and doesn’t take unnecessary amounts of pages getting to all the juice: tall, dark, and handsome strangers, danger and intrigue, mythical beings, adventure, wild and sudden emotions, and of course, lots and lots of dancing.
With a handy-dandy glossary in the back and a guide to help with difficult pronunciations, the book feels hale and hearty, and a reader can quickly fall into another world.
Fairy tales are popular in YA right now. Ever since women started getting their hands on them, there’s been an eagerness to flip the script. And why wouldn’t there be? No longer willing to be passive victims in their own stories, women insist on a different kind of tale, a tale that involves autonomy, action, and liberation, the inner narratives of young women and girls at last spilling free.
It’s not all good, of course. What reader hasn’t found herself rolling her eyes at overused tropes and ham-fisted scenarios where our heroine shouts, “NOT TODAY, BUCKO!” and kicks comically sexist Evil von Baron Le Pué to the curb while seizing a kiss from the equally preposterous non-sexiest Bad Boy Edward Hot Pants and then using her super powers to blast a sunbeam into the sky to exemplify her extraordinary abilities to overcome all things m-a-n while at the same time riding off into the sunset with one. It can get tiresome, all the mentally ill girls who are secretly psychic or have telekinetic powers, who are not the pretty ones because they are “too skinny” and/or have “wild hair” and are “clever”. It doesn’t fall on deaf ears that YA has problems. But it should also not fall on deaf ears that YA has a lot to offer, and has in fact offered it in abundance. Simply put, perhaps YA has garnered most of its bad reputation over the years on its slow cultural and societal formation into “a girl’s genera”.
So in summary, Wildwood Dancing might be a difficult book to get your son to read. The characters are overwhelmingly female (which can, sadly, be enough of a deterrent) and the tale itself feels traditionally feminine. But books, ultimately, do not have sex nor gender. Wildwood Dancing is a wonderfully told tale about truth, love, and the courage to believe in yourself. It is fun, exciting, and undoubtedly at times titillating (this red blooded woman will admit to some flushed cheeks) and there’s certainly enough fantasy to keep you interested. The sisters are all versatile, flawed, and contain their own desires and dreams. Juliet Marillier does an excellent job of bringing real life struggles to the fore, and just as gracefully guides readers through them, not shunting on painful conflicts and that sometimes human beings don’t get things right; however, with some planning—and some guts—Marillier reminds that we can fix what’s been wronged, and that stumbling is just a part of living.
Read Wildwood Dancing. Why not? Unless you can’t find it. Jump into your boat (your car), sail the Bright Between (your street), get yourself to the Other Kingdom (your local library), and remember, life is a dangerous wildwood.
But, there’s also dancing.
Four out of Five Stars for Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing.
All images are sections of Kinuko Y. Craft’s truly spectacular cover art. Find more of her artwork at http://www.kycraft.com
Any creative worth some heft of salt knows that when a work is completed the journey is only half done. The work must cease its building phase—the artist must stop dabbing, the writer must stop fiddling, the dancer must end practice and get on with the stage—and the work must then be passed into the arms of the waiting crowd. The creative must relinquish control; it is a sacrificial act as much as it is a power grab, and the creative must contain this dichotomy if the creating is to continue and not stagnate. Any creative that falls into either of these two holes will lose the friction needed to make and originate new work.
The conversation will start immediately. If the work has impact (for good or for ill) it will be shared and elaborated upon again and again and again, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years, sometimes for centuries. The creative arc will only end when the masses lower it back into silence. If the work has managed to maintain itself in the physical world, there can be a rebirth. Certain unfortunate works may become perverted, and misused, proceeding forward into the future zombie-like; the creative takes risk every time a work is released and set flown.
Art is the echo of humans in time. The world is full of footprints of us. A book is no lifeless lump of paper, a portrait no mere lonely, empty vessel, but the echoing voice of some individual, who took their two hands and starting clapping fervently into the darkness.
Francine Sterle’s stellar chapbook, Nude in Winter, is a fluent culmination of such echoes, Sterle specifically choosing to reconstruct the voice of paint and painter (sometimes photo and photographer) into the voice of pen and poet. Containing 58 ekphrastic poems, Nude in Winter is both reflection and progression, as image is spun into idea and color into sensation. In each work mulled over, Sterle finds the doorknob, and swings open the closed frames to lay bare the vast landscapes behind them. Interacting with the artworks of known names such as Frida Kahlo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and William Blake, to the lesser known names of Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still, Sterle’s poems are alive and breathing, speaking in clear voices, while still maintaining the thin string tied to the artist’s liminal, braced world.
I do not know why I come to the window— / white curtains framed by a white wall. / The first breath of morning moves them. / They do not hesitate. / If rain dampens the leaden sill, / they shiver in the washed air, / waver when an animal heat crawls / hour by hour across the yard, / tremble when another summer / crumbles to dust. Some days / they refuse to move as if they hear / crows scolding them from the trees. / Soft as an owl’s downy breast, they allow / the light of dawn into the house / to nest on the floor by the bed. / Behind them, everything fades. / I do not know why I come to the window.
It’s not very often a poetry book sends me whirling through WikiArt.org like a madwoman. Every page turned left my mind pivoting in the wonder: What is she seeing? Where are her eyes? Some art I knew, of course; Giovanni’s Madonna in Prayer and Blake’s Albion Rose are hard not to know. Some artists are so renown, even if the painting itself alludes, the unique style of the elite artist pushes in like a tide, and Monet’s delicate brush, Kahlo’s dreamlike, surrealist spectacles leak in.
And the work can grip you—suddenly. Sterle’s words profess a deep yawning into the body of another. I took it upon myself to read aloud to one of my friends “Rag in Window”, and as the last lines came out I fell into a total sob, bending myself over in the chair, forehead to my thighs and book clutched to my chest, weeping.
Sterle’s work instigated the age old question in me: What is art for? It has often seemed a stupidly worded question for it has seemingly unlimited answers which begs (what I’ve always felt, the more apt question) why ask it at all? Open ended, and circular, I avoid it like the plague, yet always someone’s words, someone’s art, someone’s performance drags me back, drags me back and away and back again, an ebb and flow of life that can’t be discarded, leaving it to become one of the most undying questions of life. Why art? What is art for? What is the artist’s goal? Desired achievement and does it matter? Is the artist a mere secondary element to the grander life of a work, or is it more like the relationship between parent and child? (The endearing mark of its nurture almost inseparable from its identity.)
Nude in Winter pokes at these questions, and so blows them open, where Sterle herself then walks into them like rain. With the falling drops, she finds the shapes, the contours, the materials, and she takes these elements and builds her own art: A departed father, an unspoken love, a prodigal son, a girl sexually abused, the metacognition of a sculpture, the doubts of a old man, the morality of observation, the poet debating words at a desk.
Perhaps this is what art is for: Validation of ourselves. Our inner existence revealed, in the careless cascade of peaches from a basket, the green skin of a bearded violinist grown from the pulled sound, color as emotion and memory, our personal pain expressed vividly in some stranger’s rendering… Is this what art’s for? Sterle asks, rising the question up, and the page turns and it falls back in. Her scapes are visceral, her sight imaginative. The laws of interpretation are bent back around and fed to the reader, revealing the age old question yet again, but in new words: Are there laws? What is art for?
Francine Sterle’s chapbook is worth reading. No blunt halfhearted wisdoms are shoved in your face, no chintzy metaphors and tired facsimiles that often weigh down modern day pop-poetry are present. Sterle’s work invites one into a gallery of gasping, singing, whispering beings, each poem displaying another arc, each line carved alive from out the canvas. It is a beautiful book, an intimate book. A book worth reading and a book worth having on your shelf.
Five out of five stars for Francine Sterle’s Nude in Winter.
The featured image is Peaches by the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet. (1883) Available via the public domain. All the artworks (with the exception of Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital) are featured in Francine Sterle’s ekphrastic chapbook, Nude in Winter.
The human relationship with time has always been a pushmi-pullyu one. Usually, when time is exhorted upon in our daily lives, it is spoken about in its quantity and availability that can be allotted and used in the chaotic arrangement that is existing. One has either “too much time” or “too little”; time is “running out” or “dragging on”; we must “set the time”; we must properly “time” musical notes and when to throw the ball; we discuss our past with the mapping phrase “back in my time”; furthermore, time as exactitude, and time as nomothetic. Time, as we experience and use it, is a constantly shifting needle, pushed and pulled throughout our lives. Should a person have one of those suspiciously strange, eerily flawless days, time is “right on”—and, before one can even savor the delicious, punctual moment, the pleasing perfection has passed—swooped into the river of this mystical thing we know of as time.
During the western Age of Enlightenment, time in literature became personified. As nature became Nature and love was exalted to Love, so time was written as Time—a subtle, though I believe, sure expression of our intimate link with the mysterious, rolling hour. Time accompanies us without falter, an ever present companion such as the likes of oxygen proceeding in and out of our bodies and the microbiology of our skin. We occupy time as much as it occupies us. Its material, mechanism, and form mostly eludes us, but its force is undeniable, unstoppable, enviable even… Time, like death, is perfect, in that it cannot be improved upon. In its function, in its being, time is unsurpassed.
I have long been an admirer of time, perhaps because I have long felt time was on my side. As a child, I yearned for my grandmother’s white hair and her vein strewn hands; as an adolescent, I craved a craggy forehead and a bespeckled, splotched chest. Now, in my thirties, I sometimes in the night flip through the pages of old diaries, and with my feet clung to the leather of my seat, chin rested on my beaten knees, I trace the ink I looped into intimate disposition, and consider how I can barely grasp what has been and what will be. Often seen as a bandit, I’ve spent my life viewing time as a great giver. Hasn’t my life been nothing short of but a constant receiving and processing of time? Time is a filler, not an emptier. I think I have been lucky, for this perception has seemingly protected me from much stress and anxiety.
So a book on time was irresistible. I have read several now, one of the best being About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution by Paul Davies. My latest read, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time (in its native Italian: L’ordine del tempo) is a summarized, but rich rendering of Rovelli’s life’s work: the study of space and time. Well plotted and envisioned, Rovelli’s book is written for the layman while not shunting expertise. From the point by point charting of Newtonian time, to the nebulous musings of Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, to a fever dream of possibilities, Rovelli explores far and wide what it means to be in time, and what it means to be time itself.
One after another, the characteristic features of time have proved to be approximations, mistakes determined by our perspective, just like the flatness of the Earth or the revolving of the sun. The growth of our knowledge has led to a slow disintegration of our notion of time. What we call “time” is a complex collection of structures, of layers. Under increasing scrutiny, in ever greater depth, time has lost layers one after another, piece by piece. […]
One by one, we discover the constituent parts of the time that is familiar to us—not, now, as elementary structures of reality, but rather as useful approximations for the clumsy and bungling mortal creatures we are: aspects of our perspective, and aspects, too, perhaps, that are decisive in determining what we are. Because the mystery of time is ultimately, perhaps, more about ourselves than about the cosmos.
The Order of Time is a progression—from beginning to end—into greater and greater entropy; this, I think, is part of Rovelli’s vision, for it is the story of time. The opening chapters are of time’s material, its measurement and mechanism, and what could be considered its proofs. Some myths and beliefs are quickly expelled, and with a very sharp scalpel, time is sliced; what was once explained and referred to as a singular body, flowing and constant and in perfect sync with all of space, is blown apart into innumerable sects. Rovelli explains, “Times are legion: a different one for every point in space. There is not one single time; there is a vast multitude of them.” Gravity, and heat, are massive influences of time’s current. A human being who lives on the seafloor will have more time than one who lives up in the mountains; our aquatic friend’s processes will process more slowly, while our mountaineer’s will process faster.
This is not a matter of perception—but fact. Precision timepieces have shown us that time does indeed move at different rates, and it all boils down to Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity. Thermodynamics also plays a role, keeping time in its forward trajectory. Though time is multitudinous, it is certainly moving in one direction, Rovelli reassures. If I fall and skin my knee, I can not go back. Time is a river, as it has long been waxed and waned; however, each drop of water, each locality, exists only in relation to the others. Though it seems the river is one, it is not. It is our limited perceptions that see it as such. Time is not the broad stroke of a very big brush; it is intricate, painstaking pointillism.
So Rovelli makes a bold conclusion: due to the splintered, smattering that is time, there must therefore be no present, just past and future. In such squeezed, bubbled localities, the present is merely a construction of the human mind; in the material of the universe, time is a strange serpent, a creature of merely head and tail, asymmetrical and without equidistance. This leads to another revelation: that time is something that is happening. To us, time is understood by the diurnal rhythms of the natural world. The rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the comings and goings of the tides, the circulations of the seasons. We count the ways in which things change. From out the fields of physics, we find ourselves being led by Rovelli into the forests of philosophers. If time is happening, and if the happening of life is the continual totaling of events occurring around us, if suddenly, nothing were to move, nothing were to change, would time cease to pass and therefore, cease to exist?
It was a question Aristotle posed, and Rovelli rolls it in his hands, considering. He does this a lot throughout the course of the book, spinning the thoughts of his predecessors, as though spinning a basketball on his finger. It’s a balancing act, and the Law of Angular Momentum. The momentum must be conserved, or the whole thing falls off.
And things do fall off. Certain parts of The Order of Time can leave one scratching one’s chin like a chimp. At stages, a reader can feel the brain growing; a lightheadedness that invokes the sensation that your head will detach from your shoulders and float upward until your crown bumps the ceiling, rolling on its side as though a helium filled balloon. To his credit, Rovelli does his best to put things within reaching distance, but sometimes you’re just left up on your tippy toes, straining for the box. “Many parts of this story are solid, others plausible, others still are guesses hazarded in an attempt at understanding the whole.” Rovelli writes. The Order of Time begins very differently than how it ends; it proceeds from definitive rudimentary bits into manifold extrapolations; lopsided, and on incline, the ball in form of a book that is Rovelli’s mind rolls further and further ahead into question: this, by all means, is time.
Though time is fascinating to me, and I have spent countless hours discussing it in both verbal and written form, it was not the subject of Rovelli’s words that I found most enjoyable about this read—rather, it was Carlo Rovelli himself. (This is something that occurs often to me in reading: it is not only books I find so interesting, but the writers of books as well.) Rovelli has a wandering mind, and his elegant prose and choice vocabulary lend a wonderful freeness to The Order of Time that is so often lacking in the genres of science and nonfiction. In the dilating eye of quantification, the soulfulness and emotion of his study does not leave. Embracing the poetry of a carefully unfurling scene, Rovelli communes easily with his memories, his loves, his life. In what he calls “the residues of the past”, it is Rovelli’s reveries that make The Order of Time a book worth reading.
As humans—most notably over the past several decades—our explorations into the cosmos and the inception of it All seems to be emitting a quadraphonic sound: gravity, heat, space and time are all converging like points on a compass, but in our eager hands the arrow keeps spinning, round and around. It is a question: will we be able to sail deep into the unknown seas with this compass? Are these great titans the guides that will aid us in our strive to know more, and go further than we have ever gone? I don’t know, but over the years of my reading, it is clear to me that slowly, a consensus is being built by an impassioned chattering of scientific minds. These four things, have something to do with the birth of our universe. And if you are someone who is interested in The Big Questions, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is a fine piece of writing to add to your library.
Make time for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. I was not disappointed; hopefully, you won’t be either.
Four out of five stars for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time.