Autodidact: self-taught

May
16
2014

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

by V. L. Craven

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

Taxidermy has always given me a touch of the screaming fantods. I’m fine with dead humans in whatever form. If Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds came anywhere in my vicinity I’d be first in line. But animals… eh, I don’t know. It’s always been a little too creepy for me. I suppose I hold animals in too high regard.

Then I became friends with a taxidermist and learned just how much they have to know to excel at what they do. It’s not just cutting open a dead animal, pulling out the insides, stuffing whathaveyou in it and sewing it back up. They have to know about biology, physiology, natural habitats and a host of other things. It’s boggling.

So when I heard about Melissa Milgrom’s  Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy I was excited to be able to learn more about the history and current state of the profession. It’s along the lines of Mary Roach in terms of conversational tone and covers taxidermy from the very beginning to its heyday, through its decline and up to the present day.

Some of the most interesting sections involved Damien Hirst and his taxidermist (he doesn’t do the actual preserving of sharks, cows and sheep), Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, and the differences between the US and UK taxidermy scenes. But the entire book was engaging, full of characters. Taxidermists may be solitary types, but they certainly aren’t boring.

Milgrom seems a bit more detached from her subject than Roach–more journalistic–and lends less of a sense of humour to things but it was still an enjoyable read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the subject.

May
09
2014

British Gothic Cinema

by V. L. Craven

British Gothic Cinema

Castles and howling wind (or is it wolves), lightning and thunder and perpetual murk. Capes and lace and bodices and everyone’s overwrought about everything all the time. There’s a candelabra on every other horizontal surface. You know the drill. It’s Gothic. And, if you’ve watched a certain type of film you’re probably picturing Hammer horror films.

British Gothic Cinema by Barry Forshaw is about the influence of British filmmakers on horror cinema from the very beginning of film. Hammer gets a (deservedly) large portion of the book, but other companies like Amicus get their time, as well. Forshaw clearly knows his material and history–explaining how the censorship codes (blood on cleavage used to give people the vapours)–were slowly chipped away.

There are interviews with the some of the key players of the time, and honest reviews of performances by the staple players like Peter Cushing, Vincent Price (shipped in from the States to bring in the crowds) and Christopher Lee. No stone is left unturned–it’s an exhaustive work. Forshaw’s love for the subject shows.

This is an excellent companion to the BBC4 documentary A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss . Indeed, Gatiss is mentioned a few times in the end of the book, as are Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. British Gothic Cinema, on the whole, is about horror cinema, and the British influence on it, though the earliest contributions were period Gothic pieces.

Very academic, I would recommend it only for people already interested in Gothic cinema or fans of film history, but for them it’s a must-read. There are some film spoilers for very well-known films, but if you’re a fan of the genre you’ve probably already seen them. (I didn’t find this to be a problem.) The biggest quibble I had were the typos, of which there were more than a few.

Overall, I did enjoy it, am glad I read it and wound up with a long list of films to watch.

[I was given a free copy of this to review, but was under no obligation to give a positive review.]

Apr
04
2014

Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

by V. L. Craven

Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

Katherine Dettwyler is an anthropologist who’s been working and conducting research in Mali for decades, focusing on childhood nutrition. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa is a collection of her observations. In it Dettwyler introduces us to the social conventions of the region–including an extended greeting that must be got through for every person you meet that makes the obligatory, ‘Good morning, how are you, hope your weekend went well’ look like a snub.

Dettwyler has been there long enough she’s treated less like a tourist and more like an honoured guest–at times being brought special (if stomach-churning to Western palates) foods and feted at dances–at other times she’s treated like just another person walking around. There’s clearly a mutual respect between the woman and her subjects. At times, they’re more than just subjects.

Other stories are heartrending. Mali is a country with less-than-adequate medical facilities and education on the best practises for proper healthcare. This leads to higher rates of childhood disease and death. Malaria, for example, can even be drug-resistant. Something Dettwyler finds out first-hand, unfortunately.

Overall, the attitude of the people Dettwyler met was one of accepting life as it was–whether it was the child who had what we’d call Down’s Syndrome, or the woman who had such severe mental disabilities she was going to allow her child to die from malnutrition. In the Down’s Syndrome child–no one ostracised the child in anyway–she simply went about her life as happy and carefree as possible–something that wouldn’t happen in the West. In the latter case–social services would take the child from the mother immediately. But in Magnambougou there was an acceptance that some children die from malnutrition and this child would be one of them.

The most challenging chapter was probably the one about female circumcision. It follows on from the acceptance in that, when asked about it, people said it was simply the way it has always been. They usually did it when the girls were six months old so they didn’t remember it and all the girls had it done. The boys were all circumcised, as well, so it only seemed right that the girls were, too. When Dettwyler (an American) said she wasn’t circumcised, the woman she was speaking with was shocked. After all, if everyone you know. And everyone in your entire culture has forever done something, how absolutely bizarre is it to find someone who doesn’t? And then to be asked, well, why don’t you?

It’s a slim volume, but is a fascinating look into a culture quite different from the one Westerners are accustomed to. Though it’s somewhat academic, I’d still recommend it for fans of Mary Roach or people interested in anthropology in general.

Jun
21
2013

Non-Fiction about Edgar Allan Poe

by V. L. Craven

Non Fiction about Edgar Allan Poe The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook edited by Peter Haining. A collection of newspaper clippings, comics, reviews, illustrations, interviews, letters and notes written by Poe’s contemporaries. A truly excellent bit is a piece-by-piece destruction of the half-truths and outright lies in Griswold’s defamatory article written about our man before the ground had settled about his corpse. There are dozens of photographs and artwork, some rarely seen. Some of the biographical bits about streets Poe could have likely walked down when in Scotland as a young man could be wearing, but overall, it’s a must for the library of any serious Poe fan.

 

Non Fiction about Edgar Allan Poe

Baudelaire by David Levine

Baudelaire on Poe: Critical Papers by Lois and Frances Hyslop Jr.

Baudelaire, about whom I’ve written before , was an immediate and enormous fan of Poe’s. He felt such a connection with Poe’s work he wanted to introduce it to the French.
The book is divided into four sections. The first two are the 1852 and 1856 editions of Baudelaire’s Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Works , and, because they are two editions of the same work it’s quite repetitive, but still worth the read for the differences. Part Three is from New Notes on Edgar Poe, which was published in 1857 and the fourth part are prefaces to various translations like ‘The Raven’ and ‘Mesmeric Revelation’. It’s always interesting to read thoughts of writers who are coming from a similar artistic place.

Quotes from Baudelaire on Poe can be found here .

Oct
12
2012

The Goth Bible

by V. L. Craven

The Goth Bible

After years of denying being goth I’ve finally accepted it. Yes, I’m as goth as a bat orgy in Transylvania during a full moon on a Friday the thirteenth in October.

They say the first step is acceptance.

Then I became interested in the goth culture and picked up The Goth Bible by Nancy Kilpatrick, which is an excellent overview of the history of the sub-culture, as well as the sub-sub-cultures. (Apparently, I’m industrial goth.)

Like many books by members of non-mainstream cultures, it was be a bit self-congratulatory at times, but overall it was full of interesting information and trivia. Quotes will be added to the Non-Fiction pages on the left side of the page…eventually.

May
31
2012

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

by V. L. Craven

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

I read a lot but I don’t read as deeply as I’d like. Sometimes I want only to read everything I possibly can during my short time on phere, but other times I wish I could get more from my reading. To that end, I picked up Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, a classic for very good reason–it tells readers how to more fully engage with their reading material, no matter the subject. He says that reading is engaging in a conversation with the author and gives suggestions as to how to better conduct the conversation.

He starts with the dimensions of reading, wherein he talks about the four levels of reading that every person goes through, goes into detail on the first two levels (elementary and inspectional, which most people are up to by the time they’re in secondary/high school) and then gives tips on how to be a demanding reader.

The second part starts with the third level of reading–analytical reading. This is something I need to work on so I’ve been taking notes on that section.

Part three breaks down how to read everything from fiction to mathematics, social sciences, plays, history, philosophy–you name it.

Part four is about the most advanced type of reading: syntopical reading, which is the ability to read many books on one subjects and allow the authors of each of those books to talk to you but also to one another about their subject–sort of a literary conference call. This is something that amazes me when others can do it and something that I would very much like to be able to do one day so this section was note-heavy, too.

[This post is from a previous blog.]

May
03
2012

My Wars Are Laid Away in Books by Alfred Habegger

by V. L. Craven

My Wars Are Laid Away in Books by Alfred Habegger

I’m surprised I hadn’t read more about Emily Dickinson before now. She’s definitely my sort of person in many ways. She wore the same outfit all the time (as noted in my previous post, I can certainly get behind that,)she loved to read, was a heathen, had red hair, liked people far away rather than up close and didn’t leave her house for decades. Prior to reading My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger I only knew about the reclusive part. Well now I know loads more and I finally understand a good portion of her poetry. Before, I only knew I liked its delicacy and the way it sounded aloud, but now much of it makes sense.

I particularly enjoyed/appreciated Dickinson’s struggle with religion–she never became a full member of her church even though her entire family was–and her devotion to her work of growing into being a poet. Prior to this book I had some vague notion that Dickinson was rumoured to have had affairs (platonic) with women as well as men, but now I think she overwhelmed everyone she truly cared for in the way she was most comfortable–with words–heaping them upon those she loved with such ardour that no one could completely reciprocate and many took her to be a bit touched. I have a new respect and appreciation for this woman who, though she strove to perfect her art, probably didn’t know the enormity of her impact on the world of letters.

[This post is from a previous blog. Orig. date: March 3, 2008]

Apr
13
2012

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert

by V. L. Craven

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert
Why do seemingly intelligent, rational people believe in irrational, sometimes downright ludicrous things? Probably because the parts of the mind that appreciate cause and effect–even in places where it’s not there–allowed early humans to survive and adapt. In Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief , Lewis Wolpert attempts to explain the evolutionary principles behind the billions of people today who believe in supernatural things with no scientific corroboration. For example, people who believed in the same god would flock together and would therefore be safer than the atheists who were off on their own just getting on with things.

While Wolpert isn’t the most exciting writer, what he has to say is interesting and makes many good points e.g. the cause and effect of learning how to use early tools is the same thought process that concludes: something made the sky and that something is probably like me so there is a sentient being out there in charge. He also doesn’t go into as much detail as I’d have liked, but the book is a good explanation of why people believe unbelievable things. I give it four stars.

Apr
12
2012

The Philospher’s Diet

by V. L. Craven

The Philosphers Diet

I picked up Richard Watson’s The Philosopher’s Diet because I’d loved his The Philosopher’s Demise about his attempts to learn to speak French in his fifties. It was an interesting enough read though it’s not going to change my life at the moment.

Geared towards people who want to lose twenty pounds and keep them off, chiefly by changing what they eat and how they think about food (and by running four miles a day), this book is reasonably inspirational and quite informative. Watson is anti-sugar, salt and white flour and pro small farmers and range fed meat. He’s all about destroying the corporatization of America and taking control of one’s own life by taking control of what one consumes.

The philosophical sections were much more interesting to me than the dieting sections for obvious reasons. The best part of reading this book was that that night I dreamt about the biggest milkshake ever. It had chocolate, vanilla and coffee ice cream in and whipped cream with caramel and chocolate on top.

I woke up and bought the ingredients and made them.
And they were blinding, man. Just blinding.

[This post from a previous blog. Orig. date: April 06, 2008]

Oct
08
2010

Future Files by Richard Watson

by V. L. Craven

Future Files by Richard Watson

Freakonomics with a crystal ball, Future Files by Richard Watson is a fascinating, if sometimes unsettling look into how our world will evolve in the next five decades. No segment of society is free of his long-range sights. From genetically engineered babies to self-replicating nanotechnology, Watson tells us where we’re going and how we’ll get there.

Sep
30
2010

Inseparable by Emma Donoghue

by V. L. Craven

Inseparable by Emma Donoghue

The title pretty much says it all–Inseparable focuses on relationships (both lesbian and platonic) throughout the history of literature. It’s quite good and exhaustive enough to exhaust the reader–a bit too academic for a general audience but a must have for women’s or lesbian studies.

Some quotes:

[0063] INSEPARABLE by Emma Donoghue 4s English|Non-Fiction|Women’s Studies|Lesbian [22.09.10]
-001- It was perceived by the servants of the House that some secret bond of connection existed between Miss Aldclyffe and her companion. But they were woman and woman, not woman and man, the facts were ethereal and refined, and so they could not be worked into a taking story. –from Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy (1871)

-002- Often such critics protest that it would be anachronistic for us to find lesbian themes in a text whose writers and first readers would have seen none.  … Why would playwrights construct so many homoerotic scenarios in dramatic form if they had no expectation that their audience would understand them?

-003- Endings are overrated; they are often the point where the writer bows to convention…I know that my liking for a character is shown bymy giving her a lot of page time and vivid scenes, however I may dispose of her by the end.

-004- they are more interested in the charming scenario of a pair of girls whose bond emerges naturally from their similarity and mutual familiarity. The girls are either known as growing up together or as being “kindred spirits” who fall in love at first meeting. Because of their likeness in age and background, they can act as mirrors to each other, although events will often reveal their characters as contrasting.

-005- _inseparable_ was a common term for female pairs by the late sixteenth century

-006- Mistresses of all a universe we shall be; through our alliance I feel we shall become the superiors of Nature herself. Oh, dear Durand, he crimes we are going to commit! The infamies we are going to achieve!  [EPIGRAPH?| — Marquis de Sade _Juliette_

-007- A secret alliance of two beings who understand one another because they’re alike… –Edourad Boudret _La Prisonniere_

-008- It was _to love_ I yearned more than to _be loved_, and I was entirely free from sexual instincts. — Christopher St John, Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul (1896)

-009- You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else, only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but just face yourself calmly and bravely.

Sep
28
2010

The Art of Fiction (David Lodge)

by V. L. Craven

The Art of Fiction (David Lodge)

This is a collection of David Lodge’s essays regarding the various aspects of fiction that appeared in the Independent . The way he tied everything together was interesting and extremely useful for writers, serious readers or people who simply want to know more about the way novels are put together. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from a novel that illustrates the theme of the essay.

I only gave it four stars because it seemed a bit slow, though that could be entirely down to my current reading speed.

This book is indispensable for writers, as he helped me work through some problems with my novel that I didn’t even know I had.

Sep
25
2010

What’s Your Type of Career?

by V. L. Craven

Whats Your Type of Career?

Based on the Jungian/Myers-Briggs personality test, this is an excellent resource for everyone, whether they’re just entering the workforce, are planning a career change or simply want to know more about why they interact with their colleagues the way they do. With checklists and bullet points galore, you can easily find out your strengths, weaknesses and ways to improve and grow as a worker as well as a person.

Jul
15
2010

Falling into Depression

by V. L. Craven

From The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon

Depressives use the phrase “over the edge” all the time to delineate the passage from pain to madness. This very physical description frequently entails falling “into the abyss.” It’s odd that so many people have such a consistent vocabulary, because the edge is really quite an abstracted metaphor. Few of us have ever fallen off the edge of anything, and certainly not into an abyss. The Grand Canyon? A Norwegian fjord? A South African diamond mine? It’s difficult to even _find_ an abyss to fall into. When asked, people describe the abyss pretty consistently. In the first place, it’s dark. You are falling away from the sunlight toward a place where the shadows are black. Inside it, you cannot see, and the dangers are everywhere (it’s neither soft-bottomed nor soft-sided, the abyss). While you are falling, you don’t know how deep you can go, or whether you can in any way stop yourself. You hit invisible things over and over again until you are shredded, and yet your environment is too unstable for you to catch onto anything.

Jun
03
2010

Noonday Truth

by V. L. Craven

From Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression :

[Maggie Robbins] “You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a grey veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you’re seeing truly. You try to pin the truth down and take it apart, and you think that truth is a fixed thing, but the truth is alive and it runs around. You can exorcise the demons of schizophrenics who perceive that there’ something foreign inside them. But it’s much harder with depressed people because we believe we are seeing the truth. But the truth lies.”

But the truth doesn’t lie–people that are clinically depressed have a clearer view of reality. They did a study (I believe at Harvard, but it may have been another university) where they had ‘normal’ people and depressed people play a game where you kill zombies. At the end, they asked everyone how many they had killed and the depressed people were more accurate than the non-depressed people, who wildly over-estimated their zombie-killing effectiveness. This suggests that the normal folks are the deluded ones.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, ‘If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.’ Perhaps it should say, ‘If you’re not depressed you’re living an illusion.’

People need hope in order to get out of bed in the morning. That makes sense, really. But when you’re depressed everyone else appears to be toddlers–oblivious to reality. You want to kill their inanity and show them the truth because you’re seen it. Welcome to the Church of Low Serotonin. Witness our truth and drain the colour from your world.

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