Herding Cats

Herding Cats: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection by Sarah Andersen, 5/5

Just as funny and disturbingly relatable as Andersen’s webcomic and other books.

Why I read it: I saw it advertised on the Sarah’s Scribbles website.

Convoluted Universe

Convoluted Universe: Book One by Dolores Cannon, 1/5

In retrospect, I should have known better than to attempt to read a book on any topic written by a self-proclaimed “investigator into the paranormal through the use of hypnosis.” However, I succumbed to the back cover’s tantalizing promise of “metaphysical ideas that border on quantum physics,” thinking that perhaps the old saying it’s the message, not the messenger, was applicable. Alas, I was too optimistic.

In the interest of fairness, I persevered through 113 punishing pages of unmitigated nonsense, presented in the form of interview transcripts with two hypnotized women. The first woman claims to have been a medieval prince in a past life, who was taught the “real” history of earth by an extraterrestrial being. Her story focuses on intergalactic political intrigue and alien visits to earth throughout history, during which they supposedly imparted knowledge and intermingled with humans. There is nothing remotely plausible about these outlandish ideas, which read like standard sci-fi fare, presented in a tedious Q&A format.

Even poorly written sci-fi was more bearable than the interviews with the second woman, who does an absolutely terrible job of pretending to channel alien beings. Her acting is cringe-worthy and she artlessly strings the author along in an attempt to obscure the fact that she has nothing of value to communicate. Here’s an example from pages 99 and 100:

D: Are you listening to someone?
J: (Her voice sounded more normal.) Yes. It’s somebody that wants to speak to you, but they can’t talk English, and I can’t talk that. And we’re trying to figure out how to do it.
D: Can they have someone else communicate it?
J: They’re looking. They’re talking. They’re having a little discussion. They’re in the corner. It’s like they’re trying to decide.
D: Tell them we’re running out of time here. I really want to get the message, because they were giving me instructions. (Confusion) Maybe they can relay it to someone else who can give me the message.
J: That’s what they’re doing. (Softly, as though talking to someone else.) Okay. (Big sigh.)
D: Are they ready now?
J: (Another louder voice.) Perhaps.
D: Because I have no way of knowing if I’m breaking any regulations, if they don’t instruct me.
J: (She started to talk, then cleared her throat, as though the being had to adjust to her vocal cords. The next voice was definitely feminine and softer.) There have been no regulation violations. But we would caution you to be extremely careful in your casual discussions of the phenomenon. You must be careful with whom you share casual information. There are sensitive areas. It is important, I repeat, just casual information and sharing is not allowed. You have done well, and we are thankful. One of the problems could be the nature of the information, and the timing. It is not a matter for everyone to know everything. You are very good at being able to determine who should know what. That is a level of your expertise that allows us to work with you well. It is not a matter of trusting or not trusting you, as much as it is a matter of timing. Time to know, time not to know. So, whenever you are given information in the future there will sometimes be instructions not to divulge it, until you are given further instructions. Perhaps you can find a way if it is necessarily crucial to something on which others are working, to advise them. But do not divulge your source. We will be orchestrating their knowledge, so that anything that is shared with others will be of a nature that it is preapproved.

Throughout, the author does not seem concerned with establishing even the pretense of plausibility and her interview techniques are atrocious, clearly meant to assist her subjects in their inventions. The so-called secrets of the universe that these women are meant to possess are nothing but sci-fi cliches and it is telling that, in both cases, the women made great efforts to get in contact with and work with Cannon, who made herself available to them only sporadically. If, as she claims, Cannon was receiving “lost knowledge” and “allowed to have the answers to any questions [she] wished to ask” from these women, it is odd that she was unwilling to go out of her way to meet with them, and prioritized speaking engagements and mundane entrepreneurial activities over receiving information that, if true, would be of infinite value.

All of this might lead you to wonder, as I did, how such a ridiculous book could come to be published. It turns out that the author literally started her own company (Ozark Mountain Publishing) because no one else would touch her work. The fact that she was forced to go to such lengths would be an encouraging statement about the survival of common sense amongst readers, if it weren’t for the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, Cannon managed to develop a following of people who took her seriously and continue to propagate her bat-shit crazy legacy even after her death.

Why I read it: It came up in conversation with my massage therapist.

The Don Flows Home to the Sea

The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry, 2/5

Like other Russian novels I’ve read, this one contains a dizzying array of characters–41 to be exact, according to its “Key to Principal Characters.” This unwieldy list appears at the beginning of the book and is much less helpful than you might expect since it is organized by last name. Once you’ve scanned from “Astakhov, Stepan” to “Zykov, Prokhor,” you’ve likely either forgotten who you were searching for altogether, or why you were interested in the first place. Add to that a writing style that jerks from unrelatable dialogue, to flowery descriptions of scenery, to endless, dry accounts of military movements associated with the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, and it makes for a very tedious reading experience indeed.

Fortunately, the drama heightened as the story progressed and I felt more invested in the characters and their experiences during the last 400 pages than the first 400. Judging by this trend, I can only assume that if I’d known beforehand that this novel forms the second half of a four-volume work (preceded by And Quiet Flows the Don) and read these books in order, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It was very interesting to learn about the Russian Civil War from an “inside” point of view, though it is difficult to know to what extent personal bias and political constraints affected the author’s depiction of historical events. I perceived a clear anti-Communist perspective throughout and the author was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, but the novel is considered a work of socialist realism and won a Stalin Prize, which seems very contradictory. If anyone can explain this to me, I’d appreciate it!

Why I read it: This copy belonged to my grandfather and has been on the shelf for years. Since I’m trying to read through all my old books, it seemed like a satisfying one to accomplish.

Trader Horn

Trader Horn: Being the Life and Works of Alfred Aloysius Horn, the works written by himself at the age of seventy-three and the life, with such of his philosophy as is the gift of age and experience taken down here and edited by Ethelreda Lewis, 3/5

It’s safe to assume that everyone has a story to tell by the age of seventy-three, but not everyone was a trader who explored central Africa in the late 1800s. As such, “Trader Horn” fully deserves to have his life adventures immortalized in print and lovers of tall tales will have no quibble with his fantastical stories and idiosyncratic writing style. However, readers, like me, who prefer a clear separation between fact and fiction, will struggle to distinguish between the two in this book. At first, I wrongly suspected the author was not even a real person, but further research did not necessarily inspire confidence in the historical accuracy of someone who, for example, embellished even their own age in the book’s subtitle (he was sixty-seven at the time of publication, according to Ian Cutler’s excellent and very detailed article). The fact that editor Ethelreda Lewis was a novelist, not a historian or biographer, and that Horn aspired to be a novelist as well, further muddies the waters. While this sort of factual ambiguity does not make for a very enjoyable reading experience in my opinion, I’m glad that Horn’s life story was preserved instead of being lost forever.

Why I read it: Making progress in my efforts to ensure my collection of old books is more than purely decorative.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, 3/5

I have never read a more enjoyable book about a less likeable person. In fact, I could not put it down and finished it in one day; the story had all the fascination and horror of a slow-motion train wreck. I’m generally a big fan of people doing their own thing, and if your thing is starving to death in an abandoned bus 30 miles from a major highway in a poorly-planned attempt to commune with the essence of Existence or whatever, that’s fine. But what is not fine is being a melodramatic, inconsistent, ignorant, self-righteous douchebag who hurts the people who care for you. Or renaming yourself in all seriousness “Alexander Supertramp.” That is also not fine.

Big shout-out to author Jon Krakauer, who is not only a fantastic writer, but, despite obviously feeling sympathetic towards his ill-fated protagonist, did not refrain from revealing unflattering facts and details about him. I hope Krakauer made a ton of money off the movie (which I will not be watching).

Why I read it: Found it in my boyfriend’s old high school stuff.

Tribe

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, 4/5

Disjointed, unscholarly, easily debatable and offering no real solutions, this book nevertheless makes a tiny but very specific contribution towards understanding the complexities of U.S. mental health issues. Junger postulates that mental health declines as societies lose their tribal features, becoming more complex, prosperous, elitist and individualistic. Further, he attempts to prove that people’s resilience actually increases in troubled times, when society temporarily becomes more communal and egalitarian. His final claim is that long-term PTSD in soldiers is not so much caused by wartime trauma, but the difficulty of transitioning between these two cultures.

Junger makes some controversial statements and is up-front about his book’s origin (a Vanity Fair article) and purpose (nonacademic). Because of this, I feel Tribe transcends its pop-psychology characteristics and can be forgiven for feeling like a very preliminary exploration of a complex topic.

Why I read it: When the title was recommended separately to me by two of my brothers, I knew it was worth checking out.

Night

Night by Elie Wiesel, 5/5

This firsthand account of a Jewish teenager’s experience in four German concentration camps during World War II is short, stark and brutal. While most other historical accounts from this era that I have read contain some sliver of hope, faith, humanity, and closure, there is none to be found in Wiesel’s testimony. Presumably these elements are explored in the following, fictional, books of the trilogy, Dawn and Day. There are many disturbing and moving scenes in this book, but strangely, the thing that hit me most was the author’s brief mention of electrical fences around the camp. Some irrational part of me pictures the Holocaust as happening in the dark and distant past, before modern civilization. Realizing that something as thoroughly modern as an electric fence was used to contain innocent men, women and children, 11 million of whom were doomed to die, brings the horror of the Holocaust back to the very near past, where it belongs.

Why I read it: My boyfriend and I found the battered little paperback in a box of his high school relics. If it’s still not required reading, it should be.