The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Century Edition, Volume 4

I’m not sure I should even bother with this review, considering the book I read is 80 years old and has since gone out of print. Nevertheless I’m compelled to share with you how surprised I was by the content here. We know Edgar Allan Poe as a pretty spooky dude, but the short stories you’ll encounter here will remind you way more of an adult-oriented Dr. Seuss than The Raven, minus the rhyming. let me tell you about my favorite example, as I understood it.

A young lady wishes to become a writer, and she is told by her publisher that the best stories are sensationalist ones, and so he recommends that she get herself into some terrible sort of trouble so that she can write about it afterwards. Let’s say, being eaten by a lion for example. She agrees on this point and decides to see just how much danger she can get herself into.

In the following story, this same character, who has quite the ego, is wandering the streets at night with her dog and slave (this was the early 19th century after all) when she spots a high clock tower with a view she just must experience. When she gets to the top, she realizes that the opening through which she can look out through is just too high, so she needs to stand on her slave’s shoulders. She looks outside for an obscene amount of time longer than her slave can stand with her weight, and then realizes that the minute hand is starting to push down on her neck and decapitate her. This happens very slowly, and after her eye falls out she gets upset, not that it’s gone but because it appears to look up at her with “the insolent air of independence and contempt.” When her head is finally free she bids it good riddance, and don’t even ask how she manages to write this story, or hear the speech made from her head on the ground.

Weirdest. Story. Ever.

Despite the decapitation here it’s definitely not written as a horror story so much as a satire or… I don’t even know. If you’re sick of reading Poe’s old classics over and over and over again, maybe this collection will adequately jar you.

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The Worst Hard Time

This book is so beautifully written, so gut-wrenching, that despite the endless storms you just can’t look away. Timothy Egan expertly paints an intimate portrait of those who lived through the dust bowl and their families. You’ll feel connected to them and their towns across the span of these last eighty years, and you’ll feel the same relief they do when it finally ends. Because as good as this book is, it does convey the same feeling of never-ending hopelessness that living in the dust bowl would spawn. By the end you’re desperate to come up for air. There’s almost no relief through descriptions of more pleasant places and times, and it can really begin to wear on you. Though who could blame the author if his intent was to completely immerse you, as much as writing can, in what these people are feeling?

For those unfamiliar with the dust bowl it can be hard to imagine that houses piled high with dust and air that necessitated the use of masks existed in America and not in a third world country. But it happened, and it happened at the same time as the depression, compounding it into what really can be called the worst hard time. Considering that the dust bowl was a man-made disaster we must also consider that something like this can happen again, and if we’re not careful it surely will. This book is an important example of why we need to learn from the past and that the earth does not exist for us, it exists with us and despite us. A more haunting example there may not be.

Video accompaniment: The Dust Bowl – Ken Burns

Review-orama 2013

I had a goal to read 30 books last year, as I’ve been doing every year. This year I made it to 29. So close! Let’s take a look at the list and my basic impressions.

1. Freakonomics, completed January 5th. This book was really fascinating.

2. The Burlesque Handbook, completed January 20th. Excellent primer for burlesque beginners. This will come in handy.

3. The Stepford Wives, completed January 23rd. Totally better than either movie

4. The History of Marriage, completed April 19th. As a married nerd this was a must. Don’t let the gap fool you; this was a great book including bits and pieces on the history of women, family planning, and even racism.

5. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, completed April 22nd. A great book a la Lives of the Rich and Famous circa 1890-1925.

6. The Uninvited: The True Story of the Union Screaming House, completed April 23rd. I was told this book would be scary. It was not. But despite this and the amateurish writing, I still really liked it.

7. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, completed May 4th. Well done, but this was just information overload. Only really suitable for minds like a computer.

8. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, completed May 10th. A little disappointing, but only because the history of Halloween is not very spooky.

9. The King’s Speech, completed May 19th. Unlike the movie, this was a double-biography.

10. The Nun’s Story, completed May 29th. I don’t always read fiction, but when I do it’s the best fiction ever.

11. Edison and the Electric Chair, completed June 7th. Parts of this were shocking!

12. Life is So Good, completed June 13th. A super sweet, heartwarming, inspirational book.

13. Under The Black Flag, completed June 21st. The author didn’t seem to care about his subject, so neither will you.

14. Hubbub: Filth, noise & Stench in England, completed June 30th. History is totally gross, you guys.

15. Paranormal State, completed July 15th. Everybody needs to lay off Ryan Buell. He’s a cool guy with a cool book.

16. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, completed August 7th. Antonia Fraser is a great writer. Also, I think she is a time traveler.

17. Life in a Medieval Village, completed August 11th. Totally informative, but totally dry.

18. In The President’s Secret Service, completed August 18th. A guilty-pleasure read with a moral purpose.

19. Deliver Me From Evil, completed August 20th. Powerful.

20. Carny Folk, completed August 24th. More than just a fun primer on sideshow standouts.

21. Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans, Completed September 21st. Mardi Gras used to be totally racist, Strangers. Unfortunately this book was mostly pretty dry.

22. U.S. History for Dummies, completed November 17th. I kind of tuned out after the 1960s, but it was definitely helpful.

23. The Corset: A Cultural History, completed November 20th. This book goes way beyond girl fashion. 10/10, would recommend.

24. Mirror, Mirror, Off The Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at it For a Year, completed November 24th. It’s a sociology book, and it’s very insightful.

25. Jack The Ripper: Murder, Mystery and Intrigue in London’s East End, completed November 25th. Quick and dirty. Or, make that messy.

26. How the States Got Their Shapes, completed November 28th. The TV series is way better.

27. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, completed December 3rd. The depression was really depressing. At least the writing this inspired is beautiful.

28. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, completed December 17th. Wars are political, but the content of this book was not. It brought a ton of humanity and new perspective to a distant time in American history.

29. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Century Edition, Volume 4. This book is about 80 years old so I could not find an accurate link to it. I have to ask, WTF were you smoking, Edgar? This wasn’t dark, it was just plain weird.

Well, that’s all for 2013. This year’s lineup consists of women’s studies, black history, atheism, and the dark and spooky. You can check out my updated to-read list here. Let’s hope I can actually make it to 30 this time.

Delusions of Gender

I’m not yet very much in the habit of reading sociology books, so I definitely can’t claim to be anything near an expert on them. But I know what I like. And I like this Cordelia Fine person. She’s witty and intellectual, and she knows how to write in an extremely intuitive way. She makes you ask yourself the right questions, and immediately sets about trying to answer them. The book has flow, and turns what could easily have been extremely dry into a fascinating pleasure. This is a woman I want to have a discussion with at a party, and a woman I would not want to debate. This book never shies away from picking apart the competition in biting personal style.

When I began this book, I’m really not sure what I expected. I suppose maybe an explanation of why men/women is an arbitrary distinction between human beings. But this was my own uncertain hypothesis. What I feel Cordelia Fine is doing in this book is taking various arguments that others have presented about behavior, psychology, and biology, and then either prove or debunk them, while making us wonder how certain sociologists are even still working. There’s no lack of philosophy thrown into the mix. In fact I wasn’t even aware until now that “philosopher” is still an actual job description, and I want to know where to sign up.

I did ask myself if this was going to quickly get boring, as I’m really not a very scientifically minded person, but no matter my doubts, whatever I was reading at the time did make me want to hear more of what Cordelia had to say. “Just one more chapter, then I’ll decide…now let me just finish this next one…” Part of her appeal may be that she is no doubt a feminist, and a spirited one. While other books of this type may either make you fall asleep or make you angry (as certain Victorian sociologists she quoted), this one has you cheering her on. One particularly striking point for me was that the phrases “I think therefor I am” and “fake it till you make it” are actually backed up by scientific evidence. When a group of people were told before a math test, “We want to find out why men do better than women,” the men performed better. If on the other hand they were told simply “we’re measuring your aptitude in math,” the results came out balanced. Likewise, if the people in a group were primed to think about their gender on a test where their gender is stereotypically thought to do worse, through something as simple as checking a box, as opposed to being primed to think about their high level of education, there is also a negative effect on the results. As a person with dealing with depression and anxiety, this came as sort of a breakthrough for me. I don’t necessarily have to think exclusively positive thoughts, but simply priming myself to think of my accomplishments is much more meaningful than being just something people tell you to be nice. Info you can use on the job, for sure!

Cordelia Fine’s incredibly modern view of the world is one I want to see explored in more depth, and her style is bound to get her ideas the attention they deserve. So we have only to sit back and watch it happen. I can’t wait to see what develops.