Autodidact: self-taught


The Match Girl and the Heiress

by V. L. Craven

Match Girl and the Heiress

The premise of Seth Koven’s The Match Girl and the Heiress sounds like the worst sort of contrived Victorian social commentary. Well-to-do young woman (soft white hands and all) gives it all up to venture into the slums of London and befriends a factory working match girl who, in her turn, idolizes her. Together, they try to change the world.

It’s non-fiction, however, so I was very excited. It sounded like romantic friendship , which is one of my favourite topics. As is the Victorian era. So I thought, ‘real life romantic friendship in my favourite time period?’ Result!

Alas, it was not to be. While the book was very well researched. It was, at times, dry even for an academic work. I learned a great deal about the way World War I shaped Britain’s view of pacifism and other social causes. And the rise and clash of different sorts of feminism was quite interesting. But other parts were something of a slog.

The best sections (though few and far between) were analyzing the unequal relationship of the women–Muriel Lester (the heiress) and Nellie Dowell (the match girl), which were nearly perfect mirrors of the way well-meaning middle class whites in the U.S. try to help poor people, especially blacks in the present day. There’s a genuine desire to provide assistance but due to a lifetime of wearing the blinders of privilege they make mistake after mistake.

Unfortunately, I can only recommend this for those specifically interested in class and social issues of the time. 3/5

[I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]


Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

by V. L. Craven

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

The ancient Greeks looked at the world as it was and thought, ‘We can improve upon all of this. Just…all of it.’

Well, not really. But that’s what they ended up doing. Whether it was in ways of warfare, poetry, politics or philosophy–even how we thought about being alive and our place in the world–they had their hands in it and minds on it. They wound up creating Western civilization.

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea follows the Greeks from the time when they were separate, warring tribes with very different personalities to the era of Greece’s unlimited power, to its fall to Rome. It tracks the various movers and shakers of each movement through those times and makes them as real as if they were standing before you. (Pythagoras was a cult-having hippie and the politicians of the first democracy are as unscrupulous as the ones we know today. The more things change…)

Cahill provides translations of poetry and plays and speeches (some from Robert Fagles and some of his own) to illustrate the changing Greek mind over time. There are also images of sculpture, pottery and other types of artwork and architecture, showing the evolution of each of these throughout the golden age of Greece.

Entertaining and informative, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea is an excellent introduction to the history of ancient Greece and its contributions to Western civilization. At 352 pages it’s not for the established Greek scholar, but it is a good overview and gives some idea of the scope of their influence. For those reasons I give it 5/5

[This is the fourth book of Thomas Cahill’s Hinges of History series, which aim to bring to life the people and events of the turning points of civilization.]


The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

by V. L. Craven

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls


[Trigger Warning: This is a review of a book that includes suicide, anorexia and cutting. All of these things are discussed to some degree in this review.]

Here is a wallpaper of Emilie Autumn playing the violin if you’d like a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading.

Emilie Autumn Wallpaper wall.alphacoders

Wallpaper by wall.alphacoders

All right then.

After a suicide attempt our heroine checked into a hospital in L.A. where she was told she would be held no longer than 72 hours. What that meant was, ‘You will be held for 72 hours after we begin treatment, which will happen after we find a bed for you in the Psych Ward and bother getting around to you.’

No one told her that, though.

Whilst waiting for bed upstairs, she’s given her very own Spartan room in the ER, where a kindly nurse allowed her to have a red crayon. This makes her very happy because at least she has something to do now. (She’d arrived with a bag containing some books and her notebook and those had been confiscated, leaving her with nothing to occupy her mind. Nothing is a better idea than leaving a suicidal person alone with their thoughts.)

Asylum Red Crayon

image from

The book is written from the notes she took with her crayons (she gets others later).

Then! She’s finally taken upstairs and given a bed in the actual psychiatric ward. Frabjous day! But there are two areas–one for the ‘normal’ crazy people and one for the criminally crazy people–the violent ones. But crazy is crazy, right? And they needed to put her in a bed. So…

Did I mention it’s co-ed, too? And the hits just keep coming.

The nurses decide to let her have her notebook, during the day, at least, and then they put it away overnight. And Emilie with an ‘ie’ begins finding letters from Emily ‘with a y’ every morning.

Emily with a y’s story remarkably mirrors Emilie’s except she lives in Victorian England and circumstances have landed her at the Asylum for Wayward Girls, which is where young women with mental illnesses wind up.

It’s nice to have something to occupy her mind, but something distinctly odd is going on. Is someone on the nursing staff gaslighting her or has the madness of the others infected her, as well?

A lot of the pages have very small text.

A lot of the pages have very small text.

Though she is confined in the genteelly named Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, Emily with a y’s time is no less fraught. It is run by the imperious Dr Stockill, who is clearly up to something nefarious, and his straight-out-of-Dickens mother Prudence Mournington, who has sorrows of her own.

The girls–of which there are thousands–are helpless at the hands of the doctor, another one called Dr Lymer and a surgeon brought on later who has all the gentle kindness of a slurry scraper.

Emily’s story is just chock full of information about what mental asylums were like back in the day. Hydrotherapy, deplorable hygiene, forced hysterectomies (since the uterus was the cause of female insanity) and of course…

Leeches! Don't forget to bleed!

Leeches! Don’t forget to bleed!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Emilie shares with us the anxious boredom of life in a mental ward. She shows us her diaries on cutting, suicide and drugs (she’s only ever taken prescription pills for mental disorders–not recreational pharmaceuticals).

The staff are convinced she’s anorexic and there’s a delightful foray into her trying to explain exactly why she can’t eat what they are providing her and it has nothing to do with an eating disorder. But that’s what an anorexic would say so they watch her anyway.

Her diaries are honest and I suppose they’d be heart-breaking if you’d never experienced the compulsion to cut or been suicidal, but from the point of view of someone who has it was more like reading my own thoughts finally expressed perfectly.

For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone easily sent back down the dark rabbit hole. Autumn herself offers a disclaimer saying she doesn’t advocate suicide or self harm but that the book is meant to educate and I would definitely recommend it to a person who loves someone struggling with mental illness.

Asylum Diary pages

Speaking of rabbit holes, there are nods to the Alice in Wonderland books, as well as some of the characters of Autumn’s stage shows like the Plague Rats. I am unfamiliar with her music, though I’ll be rectifying that posthaste. Her two pet rats Sir Edward and Basil play important roles, as well, in the Victorian side of the story, where they can speak and help out Emily with a y.

There is artwork on nearly every page–drawings and illustrations done by Autumn herself. There are only a few photographs taken by other people. Many of the illustrations are placed on the page in a way that looks three dimensional.

Asylum camera

This little photography booklet, for example.

The physicality of this book is to be considered, as well. It’s described as weighing ‘nearly five pounds’ which sounds like a lot, but until you hold it and realise just how light most books are… Well, I like books that can double as blunt weaponry. The pages are heavy-weight, glossy stock that I found myself absent-mindedly stroking. I was surprised it didn’t have a sewn-in, blood-red, silk bookmark, but I’m not bothered. It’s one of those books you have to keep smelling. I molested this one quite badly, I’m afraid.

Asylum Lithium

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is half memoir and half Victorian fantasy. It’s all wonderful. To paraphrase Nick Hornby: This book wasn’t just up my street–it was on the front step, peering in the letterbox to see if I was in. It’s a cross between Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Tim Burton if Burton went somewhere really dark. Like, REALLY dark. And without a torch. This dark:

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn't blend in with my theme.

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn’t blend in with my theme.

It’s available from Emilie Autumn’s website . On sale as of this writing, it would absolutely be worth full price. Two thumbs up and 5/5. I raise my teacup to you, Ms Autumn.


The Empire of Death

by V. L. Craven

Empire of Death

Humans haven’t always tried to hide death away–it’s only relatively recently (and in Western culture)–that we’ve decided death has nothing to do with life and we want nothing to do with it. As though not thinking about something will keep it from happening. (This is something Caitlin Doughty addresses wonderfully in her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes , which I reviewed last week.)

by Paul Koudounaris. Loggia of the Oratory of Sant'Anna. Poshiavo, Switzerland

by Paul Koudounaris. Loggia of the Oratory of Sant’Anna. Poshiavo, Switzerland

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris is what it says on the tin, but it’s so much more, as well. It has 290 photographs, 260 of them are in colour. The average person wouldn’t be able to visit all of the sites he did, so perhaps the tag should have been: The Empire of Death: Koudounaris Confronts Mortality in Seventy Places Since You Couldn’t Afford to.

by Paul Koudounaris. Church of San Bernadino Alle Ossa. Milan, Italy.

by Paul Koudounaris. Church of San Bernadino Alle Ossa. Milan, Italy.

Because that’s essentially what happens when looking at the photographs. If you really take the time to look at them it has a similar humbling effect of contemplating the size of the universe. Every skull was once a person with hopes and dreams and families who fought and laughed and loved. It’s an exercise in existentialism.

by Paul Koudounaris. Ossuary Chapel of San Marino Della Battaglia. San Martino. San Martino, Italy.

by Paul Koudounaris. Ossuary Chapel of San Marino Della Battaglia. San Martino. San Martino, Italy.

Which was the intent of the original designers. They were created for people to sit in and contemplate their own mortality–to be aware that they weren’t going to live forever and so they’d better act properly because eternity was a very long time to spend in hell and/or separated from their loved ones who would no doubt be in heaven. Often there would be quotes on the walls, one of my favourites was from the Chapel of Bones of Valleta, Malta:

The world is a theater and human life is the boundary of all worldly things. Life is the personification of vanity. Death breaks and dissolves the illusion and is the boundary of all mortal things. Let those who visit this place ponder well these maxims and carry with them a lively remembrance of death. Peace be with you.

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

Chapel of Skulls. Valletta, Malta

I’ve long been a fan of charnels–since I visited the Capuchin crypt by the Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini in Rome and was rushed out before I could properly appreciate the chandeliers made of human bones. And all of the well-known sites are included including that one. Sedlec , the Paris Catacombs , etc, but many that I hadn’t heard of and quite a few that had been destroyed, either by nature or humans, were covered, as well.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

Capuchin crypt. Santa Maria d Concezione. Rome.

People weren’t all bad, there was a resurgence in charnels in the 19th century where several were restored and some are being restored now. The Eggenberg charnel in Austria has something of a Hannibal touch, where they created an eye shape, as it was meant to be viewed from the top of a well with skulls as the pupil, looking back at the viewer.

by Paul Koudounaris. Eggenberg, Austria Charnel (Beinhaus).

by Paul Koudounaris. Eggenberg, Austria Charnel (Beinhaus).

It’s well-researched and well-written and with maps and notes galore it’s sure to please those interested in unusual facts about history or interesting sites to visit. Or people comfortable with their impending doom (or who want to become so). So if you’re looking for something for that person on your shopping list this holiday season, here’s something to consider.

by Paul Koudounaris. Chapel of Bones. Faro, Portugal.

by Paul Koudounaris. Chapel of Bones. Faro, Portugal.

Koudounaris has a website empiredelamort  that has loads more photos.
He’s also on Instagram under hexenkult.
And on Facebook .

Dahlia Jane also wrote a lovely review, with more photos, on her blog Upon a Midnight Dreary .


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

by V. L. Craven

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Having previously waxed poetic about my love of Caitlin Doughty and her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician and website Order of the Good Death  you can imagine my glee upon learning she had written a memoir about her early years as a crematory assistant, mortuary school student and work in the death industry after graduation.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is more than just a memoir of the macabre–it’s a meditation on the way Western culture treats death with Doughty as a stand-in for the average American who wants to see dear ol’ Mother Deadest looking ‘natural’, even though the process to make her appear that way is about as unnatural as possible.

Doughty starts her journey terrified of death, of facing her own mortality, (the current response of most Westerners). She takes a job as a crematory assistant at Westwind Cremation and Burial and, due to her interactions with the decendents that pass through, her entire philosophy on death (and, necessarily, life) changes. It’s a philosophical journey that encompasses history, religion, mythology and biology, is frequently hysterical (I was laughing out loud every other page) but also deeply affecting.

Of particular interest to anthropology-types were the parts about how we’ve come to deal with death the way we do in this part of the world at this point in time, as opposed to the way other people have done. Or do deal with it but simply in different places on earth like the tribe in Brazil that practises cannibalism as part of the death ritual. They’re not having a gourmet, Dr Lecter-style feast whenever someone dies, either. It’s not enjoyable, but it’s what they do. (Next time you have to go to a wake of a family member you hardly knew be grateful you at least don’t have to eat them whether you want to or not because, ‘That’s just what we do. It’s how we say goodbye. Now be polite and finish off Cousin Martha’s foot.’)

Doughty’s writing style is personable, like chatting with an old friend, if that friend is Wednesday Addams. If you’ve watched many of her Ask a Mortician videos you can hear her voice in your head when reading, which makes the funny bits funnier and the moving bits that much more gut-wrenching.

Speaking of guts, this book is most definitely  not for the squeamish. Human bodies are organic matter and  things happen to organic matter when it begins to break down. Or when it’s embalmed or cremated. Doughty believes in lifting the veil on what death practitioners do and she’s straight-forward about everything that goes on in all its messy, sometimes amusing, human glory.

This book  is, however, excellent for fans of Mary Roach, particularly the one about what happens to the body post-mortem, Stiff . I would also recommend the poet and mortician Thomas Lynch’s wonderful Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade .

This one is definitely 5/5.


And because it’s Halloween, here’s Caitlin talking about the relationship between death and Halloween.


Orange is the New Black (book)

by V. L. Craven

Orange is the New Black Book cover

This review has spoilers for the book (which will be behind spoiler tags), but not the show. They’ve changed so much for the show you can read this with no worries. If you plan to read the book, here be spoilers. If you’re just curious as to what they changed between the book/real life and the show, read on.

First, in real life she was in Danbury in Connecticut, which is the prison Martha Stewart requested to be sent to, if that tells you anything. The book takes place during Stewart’s trial and sentencing so that plays some part of the plot, as it were (she was sent to a prison in West Virginia, ultimately) . The real prison was much nicer (for a prison) than the one in the show.

Second, the real life Piper is annoying like you wouldn’t believe. She’s regularly telling us about how the other prisoners are grateful for her presence and love her so. And how none of the guards can figure out why she’s in there. She also has the unending support and love from every single family member and friend (and friends-of-friends) on the outside.

People send her dozens of books a week to read. And she keeps all of them in and on her locker in her bunk (complaining about lack of space) rather than donating them to the rec room. In the second series of the show you see her going around taking all of her books back from people–even the ones she’s already read. That’s the real Piper. Who cares that you’re bored and will get yourself into trouble or fights without something useful to do like reading. Give me my books back!

Her visitors’ list is full (25 people) and then her counselor breaks the rules and lets her put on as many people as she wants. Rather than refusing this as it’s not fair to the others she just goes on and lets all the worshippers come to visit.

I’m sure it was difficult being away from her regular life for thirteen months, (she was sentenced to fifteen but got two months off for good behaviour) but if I hadn’t been reading it to try to work out who each person was in the show I would have put it down ages ago. They made an excellent decision in focusing on other characters in the show. The book would have been loads better if Kerman had spent less time talking about how great she was and more about other women. She says she learned to be less inside herself but you wouldn’t know it.

The most interesting parts of the book were about the travesty that is the criminal justice system and the real prisons, which she ends up in a couple of times during trials. It’s inhumane what’s going on, but this is not the book to tell you about it. I would only recommend this to hardcore fans of the show. 3/5 absolute tops. And I love fish-out-of-water stories.

On to:

Differences Between the Book/Real Life & the Show

Larry’s love and devotion did not waver for one second. He was there to visit every chance he could.

Piper was good friends with Pensatucky.

Piper was never in the SHU. Indeed she didn’t seem to witness any fights or actual sex.

Piper did not get furlough. (Her grandmother did die whilst she was in prison.)

Piper was not involved with any women in prison—she never told anyone she had ever been involved with a woman in the past.

Alex (in the book called Nora, in real life called Catherine) was in a different prison.

Piper knew she was going on the transport plane to Chicago. Not when, but she knew it was going to happen. She was then flown to Oklahoma to a hellhole of a prison (it’s the U.S.’s hub of the federal prison transport circuit) for several days and no access to phones. Nora/Alex was there, though for their first meeting in over a decade. As was Nora/Alex’s sister who was also involved in real life.
They were then flown to Chicago together to await their turn to testify and that prison was an even bigger hellhole than the one in Oklahoma, incredibly.

The person they were testifying against was a lower player in the group than on the show. It was someone Piper had never even met.

Characters from the show & Who they were in the book

Kerman changed the names of real people for the book and then most of those names were changed again for the show for some reason. I’m trying to work out who everyone is suppose to be. Drop me a note with your thoughts if you’ve read the book.

Piper Kerman = Piper Chapman
Nora Janson = Alex Vause
Pop = Red [In the book Pop is an enormous homophobe, which is clearly not true on the show]
Crazy Eyes = Crazy Eyes [completely different race, though]
Big Boo Clemmons = Big Boo Black [in the book she has a 200+ pound girlfriend named Trina]
Yoga Janet = Yoga Jones
Miss Malcolm = Miss Claudette [in the book she never got into a fight with a guard]
Vanessa = Sophia [she arrives after Piper in the book and isn’t accepted as well as she is in the show]
Delicious & Pom-Pom = Taystee? [it seems like this character is bits of both of those women]
Warden Kuma Deboo = Natalie Figueroa
Mr Butorsky = Mr Healy
Gay Pornstar = Pornstache
Annette = Anita
Miss Luz = Miss Rosa
Sister Ardeth Platte = Sister Ingalls [Sister Platte was one of the few people who allowed Kerman to use her real name in the book]
Joyce? = Nicky?
I’m not sure who Morello is based on, either. Perhaps Nina?


Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

by V. L. Craven

Still Life book cover

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.


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.]


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.


Non-Fiction about Edgar Allan Poe

by V. L. Craven

Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook 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.


Baudelaire by David Levine

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 .


The Goth Bible

by V. L. Craven

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.


How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler

by V. L. Craven

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.]


My Wars Are Laid Away in Books by Alfred Habegger

by V. L. Craven

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]


Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert

by V. L. Craven

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.


The Philospher’s Diet

by V. L. Craven

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]

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