“Wyrd” Progress Update XIII

Went through a full read-through of the 90 odd pages written today, which was good as the story is now fresh in my mind and I made some detailed notes in the from of a chapter beat sheet along the way, so that I will now be able to reference those annoying details that I’m not sure I’ve already mentioned, such as a character’s age, or whether they already said that; and hopefully prevent writing something that totally contradicts what I’ve written earlier.  Also got Chapter IV a little further along.

Vortigern’s eyes widened at this, finally wiping the look of suspicion off his face.  Meanwhile the interpreter continued to relay every word that’d been spoken to Hengist in his language.  Vortigern seemed to realize this just now and stopped Artorus from saying anything further.

“And you are here to help us, along with our Saxon friends,” – he held out an arm to Hengist, turning and smiling at him and the interpreter and then turning back to them – “against those invading scum from the north and against our shores.”

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“Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” by Mary Roach (Norton, 2008)


We are now eight years into the twenty-first century and the world has made many great strides in areas like medicine, anthropology, sociology, politics, and increasing our knowledge and respect for our planet and the many different peoples who live on it. And yet the United States is still a country that views sex as an act to be hidden behind closed doors, performed infrequently (preferably for the purpose of reproduction), and as quick and easily dispensed with.

In the May issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, “a survey of sex therapists concluded the optimal amount of time for sexual intercourse was 3 to 13 minutes.” Now Mary Roach, author of the bestselling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, has turned her scientific mind to an act that can only be performed in specific ways according to laws in certain U.S. states.

The empirical study of sexual intercourse has certainly come a long way since humanity began having problems with performing the act, and Roach does a fantastic job of showing just how much work and research has been performed in the name of science on the subject of sex. While the author does go back to the days of ancient Greece, Bonk is not arranged chronologically, but rather by subjects ranging from human sexual response; to how the shape, size and placement of the sexual organs can vary from person to person and how this affects people having sex; to sex toys and devices; to what exactly is going on biologically during an orgasm.

Roach continues as she did with Stiff to “turn off” readers as she goes into detail on what takes place during penis surgery, having seen it performed before her very eyes; as well as revealing the scientific fact that because an orgasm is essentially a reflexive response to specific stimuli over time, a dead body would be able to have one. Roach makes a giant leap for humankind into the world of sexual study in volunteering herself and her husband to be studied scientifically while performing intercourse.

Just as in the author’s other books, Bonk is an eye-opener for readers, no matter their background; after absorbing it cover to cover one feels educated enough to make diagnoses for those experiencing sexual dysfunction. But then this may be one of the reasons Roach wrote this book: for those too ashamed to seek clinical help. She makes her point clear: that sex isn’t something to be hidden especially when problems affect people’s everyday lives. There’s a group to help everyone – even a special one for the disabled who are unable to have sex in ordinary ways – and offer advice and help in maintaining a healthy sexual relationship.

After finishing Bonk, one can see how this subject has been taboo for so long, and this continues to be the case with the current U.S. administration being a major advocate of abstinence over contraceptives. But at the same time it is clear that many people over the years have devoted their lives to the scientific study of sex, and here we see a different world of those who want to help and educate others. Ultimately, whatever goes on between consenting human beings behind closed doors is their business, but is there any reason why it shouldn’t be enjoyable?

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 26th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes” by McSweeney’s (Vintage, 2008)

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When Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney’s Book of Lists hit book shelves with the cover of a triumphant, ethereal, blue, rearing unicorn, readers curiously started reading and then found themselves bursting with laughter, buying the book, and entertaining friends with it. The editors of McSweeney’s return with The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes; and if the title doesn’t capture your interest, maybe the cover of a plucked headless chicken – with a smoking cigarette in one flabby wing, while smoke effuses from its cylindrical hole of a neck – will.

With an introduction from John Hodgman about the cash cow industry of satire, McSweeney’s aims its new book at the intellectual crowd as jokes and humor are procured at the expense of classic works and authors revered in collegiate halls. The first piece, The Recruitment of Harry Potter, is from the viewpoint of a quidditch coach looking to recruit Harry Potter to the team. It warns to stay away from talk about He Who Must Not Be Named and anything involving family. From this we go to George Samsa, currently dealing with his life as a cockroach, having his disability claim denied by Social Security for very specific reasons.

McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes runs the gamut of literature, leaving no book unopened or unmocked. There are short pieces, such as Possible Titles For Future Sue Grafton Novels After She Runs Out of Letters, including: “/” Is for Slash and “Ctrl+X” Is for Cut; and there are longer pieces like Submission Guidelines For Our Refrigerator Door. Then there are plain weird and unusual pieces like Thirteen Writing Prompts, including ‘Write a story that ends with the following sentence: Debra brushed the sand from her blouse, took a last, wistful look at the now putrefying horse, and stepped into the hot-air balloon,‘ and ‘Your main character finds a box of scorched human hair. Whose is it? How did it get there?

Whether it’s Jane Eyre Runs for President or Jean-Paul Sartre, 911 Operator, or Klingon Fairy Tales, readers will be laughing out loud and rolling on the floor – or if you prefer LOLing and ROFLing – for hours. And for all those people forced to read long and boring classics, or listen to their teachers verbally worshiping dead writers, McSweeney’s Joke of Book Jokes is a restorative tonic, the book you’ve been waiting for that will make those hours and hours of late night reading of lengthy, purple prose worth it, because you’ll get all the jokes!

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 25th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World” by Thomas Cahill (Nan A. Talese, 2006)

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In the fifth book in his Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill takes on the period of the Middle Ages, going into depth on the important people of the era and what effect they had on the history.  Regardless of the actual content of the book, Mysteries of the Middles Ages deserves an award for excellence in design and layout.  It is one of the most ornate and beautifully designed books I’ve ever read.  As soon as one opens the cover, one is greeted by color and lavish design, colorful photographs and paintings, as well as eye-catching and picaresque fonts, as if it were an illustrated manuscript.

Cahill begins with a somewhat lengthy introduction spending a little too much time on the content of his past books and leading through the centuries up to the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages.  He then skips past the “Dark Ages” and jumps to the twelfth century with Hildegard of Bingen.  There is very little mention, and certainly no chapters on the likes of Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, or William the Conqueror, who were all incredibly important people in first setting in motion specific events, ideas, and practices that gave rise to the High Middle Ages and the great strides made therein, as well as creating precedents and standards that are used in today’s modern age.  Subtitling this as “And the Beginning of the Modern World,” is somewhat insulting when only in a small aside does Cahill discuss Muhammad and the birth of Islam in the late sixth century, after spending a quarter of the book on Jesus.

Nevertheless, for what Cahill does spend his time talking about, he does well and thoroughly.  Using a conversational and at times jocular tone, making this a book for the layman, he begins with Hildegard of Bingen and then goes on to Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most important women in the history of the Western World.  It is here that Cahill digs into the deep and complex history of the High Middle Ages with the rise of the universities and the growth of science and math and art and the crucial stirrings of what would come to be known as the Renaissance, beginning in Paris, then Oxford, and finally to Italy with Padua, Florence, and Ravenna, concluding with Dante.

While Mysteries of the Middle Ages should not be considered a complete telling of the important people and “hinges” of the Middle Ages, it nevertheless is an excellent book on the High Middle Ages, and some of the important people who made great strides and leaps – sometimes at the cost of their own lives – to help create the civilized and advanced world we live in today.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 5th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever” Edited by Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2008)

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Christopher Hitchens has made quite a name for himself with his National Book Award nominated book, God is Not Great, and before the paperback edition is even out, Hitchens returns with an edited collection of “essential readings for the nonbeliever.”  The Portable Atheist may not necessarily be that “portable,” as it is a thick and oversized paperback; but is nevertheless a unique collection of Atheist writings taken from the history of the written word.

The collection begins with a lengthy introduction from Hitchens as he waxes rhapsodic about the growth of Atheism as a belief, the futility of religion, and how it has caused more harm than good.  The first piece comes from Titus Lucretius Carus in his De Rerum Naturum (On the Nature of Things), a Roman philosopher who lived in the first century BCE.  Lucretius discusses the theory of atoms and how everything is composed of these minute building blocks; an everyday fact of life now, but something that was laughed at and mocked for much of history.  In the brief passage, Lucretius speaks of devastating storms and catastrophic events not attributable to the gods, but of something quite natural and ordinary; he even hints that there is no afterlife.  Mark Twain, a staunch evolutionist and ever a satirist of religious faith has this to say: “Unless evolution, which has been a truth ever since the globes, suns, and planets of the solar system were but wandering films of meteor dust, shall reach a limit and become a lie, there is but one fate in store for him.”

Emma Goldman, a Russian-born anarchist who became a champion of civil liberties and labor rights in the United States, who was deported to Bolshevik Russia in 1919, was a strong voice in the early Atheist movement: “Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”  H. L. Mencken who worked against religious fundamentalists trying to ban alcohol and the teaching of evolution, and was made famous for his accounts of the Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee in 1925, in this amusing piece asks: “Where is the graveyard of dead gods?”  For the numberless amount of gods throughout the history of humanity haven’t survived – some completely forgotten, others barely recollected – and his final almost solemn comment is: “All are dead.”  Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame offers an insightful piece about being certain in his Atheist beliefs and how it is important to use the time we have now and not to waste time on thinking about the afterlife: “Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”

The renowned Atheist proponents are all featured in The Portable Atheist: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett; as are authors like H. P. Lovecraft, George Orwell, George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and John Updike; so are poets such as Percy Blysshe Shelley and Philip Larkin; as well as scientists like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan.  It is a fascinating and captivating collection of Atheist writings that one can simply pick up at any point, wherever one may be, and pick a reading of their choosing – whatever length or format they wish.

The final piece is from bestselling author of Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who “escaped” Islam and its oppressive faith; she offers up this sobering outlook: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is Atheism.  It is not a creed.  Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell.  Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love.  There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 5th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The World From Beginnings to 4000BCE” by Ian Tattersall (Oxford University Press, 2008)

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The World From Beginnings to 4000 BCE marks the first in a brilliant new series from Oxford University Press, bringing a short but thorough history of the world known as The New Oxford World History.  The series will be split into three sections: Chronological Volumes, Thematic and Topical Volumes, and Geographical Volumes, each at the affordable paperback price of $19.95, with The World From Beginnings to 4000BCE starting off the Chronological Volumes.

Ian Tattersall, a curator in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, begins the book with an introduction and explanation of evolutionary processes, what exactly Charles Darwin was talking about, and a clear and precise definition of natural selection.  This serves as a foundation to the subsequent chapters which cover fossils and paleontology, when humanity began walking on two feet, as well as the history (as we know it, according to evidence) of the Homo genus.  It is at this point that our ancestors are clearly defined as being separate, different, more intelligent than any other life on the planet, and why that was and what it meant to us as a species.

In the final chapter, leading up to the prehistoric-approaching-historic date of 4000BCE, Tattersall discusses the beginning of settlement and the inception of towns and eventual cities in Mesopotamia, in what is today Iraq.  Tattersall doesn’t let his writing just speak for itself, using pictures, graphs, and charts to explain the facts and the evidence.  The World From Beginnings to 4000BCE is an ideal reference book, or laymen’s history book for those interested in this crucial defining period in our ancestry.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 1st 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square” by Ned Sublette (Lawrence Hill Books, 2008)

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Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music, embarks on a daring undertaking in a detailed and complete history of the Big Easy.  Sublette spent the 2004-2005 year in New Orleans, leaving just three months before Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees broke, changing the city forever; making this book all the more meaningful and emotional.

With extensive research, Sublette starts at the very beginning, explaining the topography and geology of the Mississippi River and the substantial yet flooded Mississippi Delta, and how there was simply nothing that could really be built there before the advent of water pumps and the possible draining of the area.  In a time when the land that would one day be Louisiana was being fought over and used by the Spanish, French, and British, while every piece of natural resource in this part of the world was being used for the benefit of the Western World, coupled with the unceasing influx of slaves; a group of settlers began a town that would one day become the great city of New Orleans.  The town was somewhat doomed from the beginning, with a influx of forced citizens from France consisting of prostitutes and convicts.

From its genesis, New Orleans was composed of an entire world of nationalities, cultures, faiths, and languages.  Like the spine of a book, Sublette uses music as the backbone of The World That Made New Orleans, discussing the influences and developments of these different people, many of them slaves.  It is a city that, after the catastrophic events of Hurricane Katrina, will never be the same – like New York missing the World Trade Center skyline.  Thankfully, Sublette does an incredible job of revealing the many chapters in the history of New Orleans.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 16th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Near Death on the High Seas” Edited by Cecil Kuhne (Vintage, 2008)

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The sense of adventure is a facet of humanity, and while some choose to ignore it, others indulge in it: dabbling with the dangerous, playing with the portentous, and facing one’s fears.  Near Death on the High Seas is a collection of real life stories about people who strive for thrill and adventure, through the medium they love: a boat and the open sea.

Beginning with an inspiring foreword from the late William F. Buckley Jr., the first story begins simply about a man and his boat; having traveled the seas many times over, he is a skilled seamen but on this particular day there’s a storm that will give him a run for his money and leave his beloved boat in pieces, while he barely escapes with his life.  Provocative, descriptive, and well-written, the important thing to remember is that each of these stories actually happened, and while at times they seem to copy each other, these are real lives being brought close to the edge here, and in some cases where not all the characters survive, real people have sadly died in these catastrophic events.  Near Death on the High Seas also includes memorable and renowned high seas stories from Thor Heyerdahl on his Kon-Tiki traveling to Easter Island, as well as Sir Francis Chichester on his Gipsy Moth traveling around the world.

Near Death on the High Seas is a book that will take you across the icy cold seas of the world, through torrential storms and typhoons, as well as the horrors of the deeps; all from the comfort of the comfortable seat you choose to be sitting in at this moment.  The key is to remember that while these are incredibly written stories of daring and destruction, they are stories about real people who faced these real dangers for the thrill to be on the water in a boat.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 15th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215” by David Levering Lewis (Norton, 2008)

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In a time when our involvement in the Middle East seems almost certain to last for the rest of our lives, it is now more important than ever to understand why.  The Middle East is still a very misunderstood place, with a deep and complex history that many haven’t an inkling about; a history without which the knowledge and existence of many modern day marvels like medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and classical literature would be severely retarded.  God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis, a professor at New York University, is a book that takes you back to the very beginning of Islam, and the specific instances that led to its creation.

Lewis begins with the fall and breaking apart of the Roman Empire, and how the western known world went from a seemingly unstoppable empire to crumbling and dividing countries.  Lewis sets the stage with the  western chunk of the Roman Empire being overrun by invading barbarian hordes, and the more successful eastern part consisting of Byzantium and nearby Persia.  Coupled with the growth and growing interest in the Christian and Jewish religions, along with the less popular Zoroastrian beliefs, as well as other smaller cults, the Middle East seems set for a new prophet.  Much like Jesus, or any prophet in the religions of the world, from the beginning they are rarely seen as the great, world-altering people that they are, and Lewis is clear to point out such is the case with Muhammad.  It is a fascinating look into a religion and culture that has captivated and converted the hearts and minds of a considerable number of the world population.

With Muhammad, along with the Qu’uran, firmly on the path of the growing faith of Islam, Lewis goes into detail with the genesis of the Muslim Empire, as it sweeps across the western world country by country, converting and conquering, ruthless in its unstoppable pace.  All the important battles and places show themselves in God’s Crucible, and Lewis does a good job of providing a quick history lesson with each “people” that the Muslim army faces in its conquering, but fails somewhat in going into depth about the complex culture of Islam and the Muslim Empire as it grew and developed over the centuries, focusing more on the important battles, and its winners and losers.  Nevertheless, God’s Crucible is a very important book in our current world, which at the very least will give one some answers to the status quo.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 1st 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu” by Laurence Bergreen (Knopf, 2007)

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Laurence Bergreen, whose last book, Over the Edge of the World, charted Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, returns with a fresh and thorough biography on the remarkable and renowned thirteenth century traveler, Marco Polo.  Marco Polo begins in a style that is becoming modern with biographies such as Caroline Alexander’s Bounty: near the end of Marco Polo’s life when he is a renowned traveler of noble stature and wealth, then returning to Polo’s younger life as an inexperienced person making it all the more poignant.

Marco Polo was not the first to feel the urge and thrill to travel the world; it was an experience and almost expectation instilled within his family for some time.  At the age of seventeen, barely a man, Marco Polo began his first journey with his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo bound for the court of Kublai Khan in 1271.  While the focus of the book is on Polo’s time spent with the Great Khan, Bergreen details sights and experiences on the Polos’ travels across the known world to China where Marco became a personal adviser to Kublai Khan in 1275.  Marco then spent almost twenty years in service to the Khan, traveling the many surrounding countries and gathering intelligence and acting as a tax collector for the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty.  It is here that we see through Marco’s eyes and how he views this world that is greatly different to the one he was used to in Venice: from Asbestos manufacture, to crocodile hunting, to the sexual habits of the different peoples; the practice of offering up one’s wife to passing travelers was one that greatly perplexed and put Marco ill at ease.

While the book does cover Marco Polo’s life, Bergreen seems almost hesitant to offer commentary of opinion or the Polo’s habits, ideas, and reactions.  Nevertheless, Marco Polo is a fascinating read into the life of the often misunderstood Venetian.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 16th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.