Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite by Matt Kaplan – Book Review

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

From the earliest times, humankind has been obsessed by monsters. As is evidenced by the fact that an entire month-long blogosphere event can be organized around horror stories, our species is fascinated by the things that scare us.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is that most special of nonfiction books – the kind you don’t want to put down. Kaplan has wonderful style, as well as the ability to make his already interesting subject even more interesting. He has clearly done the research necessary to present a well-rounded and informative book. I could tell that the book would be good when he started with this interesting and pertinent information on page 4:

…Rozin, along with many others in his field have a theory that there is pleasure for the mind in watching the body react negatively while knowing perfectly well that nothing bad is actually going to happen. The enjoyment, they suggest, comes from a sense of mental mastery over the body that is responding in a knee-jerk reaction.

To put this information in context, Kaplan describes two different studies, one of people who like very spicy foods and another of people who love horror movies. Both groups don’t just claim to enjoy the actual experience, which others would find to be physically or psychologically painsful, but they also claim to enjoy the accompanying physical reactions, whether it be sweating from spicy foods or a racing heart from the scary movie.

After establishing the human penchant for the things that frighten us, Kaplan works through ten different categories of monsters, from giant animals (many early monsters, King Kong), to the beasties of the water (Leviathan, Jaws) to the created (the Golem, Frankenstein, Terminator). Of course he also discusses werewolves, vampires, Medusa, ghosts, and the like, but what is particularly interesting about each of these ten categories is that by grouping them together in these categories, it is easier for Kaplan to look at the root cause(s) of the fear. For instance, the connection between rabies and the fear of those “cursed by a bite” such as vampires and werewolves.

This also allows Kaplan to describe the things that have replaced some of these earlier fears in the same categories. For instance, the myth of the minotaur seems to have evolved from geological happenings, such as earthquakes. Now that we understand the natural mechanisms that create loud noises and shaking from the earth we no longer use a proxy mythical beast, but that doesn’t keep us from making what are essentially horror movies with natural occurrences – earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, etc. – as the monster. As Kaplan says,

The monster is being created by the same core fear, but believability is forcing the form of the monster to change. -p. 147

Although Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is a particularly relevant read around Halloween, it is a smart exploration of the connection between man and monster that is a good enough read to pick up at any time. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Paradise Lust by Brook Wilensky-Lanford – Book Review

Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden by Brook Wilensky-Lanford
Published by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic

When Brook Wilensky-Lanford learned that a relative of hers had, in his younger days, searched for the Garden of Eden on Earth, she was a bit perplexed. After all, her family definitely did not subscribe to Biblical literalism. As she began to dig a little further into his motivations, however, she found an entire subculture – both religious and secular – dedicated to the discovery of the Garden of Eden. Soon Wilensky-Lanford was on a quest of her own, to discover the breadth of the mania for Eden.

Paradise Lust is a comprehensively researched look at humankind’s desire to return to an Edenic paradise – whether that paradise represents unity, civilization, or progress to any given supplicant – mixed with just a hint of humor and sarcasm. The subjectivity of humor could be a problem in a nonfiction book such as this, but Wilensky-Lanford does a fabulous job of separating the historical record from her own opinions.

It is simply fascinating how many different motivations have driven people to search for the Garden of Eden, particularly the fact that there were secular, not only religious ones. Similarly fascinating is the number of Eden-seekers who have placed paradise in the New World. Columbus, for example, believed he located the Garden in Venezuela, and more than one group has claimed its existence in middle America.

Wilensky-Lanford is an engaging writer, and brings a great deal of clarity to the profusion of quests for Eden. That people continue to search for the Garden on Earth is not an idea that would have ever occurred to me, but regardless, Paradise Lust makes for an intriguing read. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via NetGalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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I is an Other by James Geary – Book Review

I is an Other by James Geary
Published by Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins

Generally I prefer to write my own synopses of the books I review here. I think that reading a different description than the one found on an online bookseller’s site, or on the jacket flap provides my readers with an additional window into the book, and I think the way someone summarizes a book can tell you a lot about said book. Some books, however, are somewhat beyond my powers of synopsis. That being the case, I will have to share with you part of the publisher’s description of I is an Other.

From President Obama’s political rhetoric to the housing bubble burst. James Geary proves in this fascinating and entertaining book that every aspect of our experience is molded by metaphor.

When they say that every aspect of our experience is molded by metaphor they aren’t kidding. Geary covers everything from politics, to brain function and autism spectrum disorder, to the power of metaphor on our psyche. In the best of all worlds, I is an Other would be treated to an extensive scholarly discussion and review. There is a lot of meat there. I am a person who does not tend to take notes or mark passages when I read, but I marked passages in I is an Other like a crazy person. Unfortunately, I am still trying to wrap my head around the entirety of the information presented.

The scope of I is an Other is astounding, but Geary is somehow able to bring it together cohesively in slightly over 200 pages. Each chapter is predominantly self-contained on the chosen subject, although they are best written in sequence, as some prior knowledge is built upon from chapter to chapter. In addition to making a huge topic approachable, Geary also does an admirable job of making his content understandable. He goes into a degree of depth not only about metaphor, but about his different subjects as well, and the same person who is interested in metaphor may not be someone who would knowingly pick up a book on the market crash, or on brain science.

Still, Geary manages to put everything in comprehensible packages – primarily through metaphor, thereby proving the basic premise of the book in the first place. A degree of well-rounded intelligence and breadth of knowledge is assumed, however, as is a willingness to put on your thinking cap because, while Geary wants to make his subject readable, he is not particularly interested in dumbing it down. It isn’t required that you know what an active metaphor is, but you must at least think about it or look it up.

The idea that metaphor is so much more than language was positively revelatory for me, and I think this is a book that could fascinate many who are willing to put in the effort and not be intimidated by the initially cryptic title and cover. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Original Sins by Peg Kingman – Book Review

Original Sins: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom by Peg Kingman
Published by W.W. Norton & Co

After an unconventional childhood – leaving Scotland at a young age for India and the Far East – Grace is not quite at east in the quite conventional society of Philadelphia in the mid-19th century, surely her mother-in-law does not approve of her at all. Life becomes even more complicated when her old friend Anibaddh, a former slave, returns to Grace with a secret, one that will require Grace to travel south, into the heart of that institution which she most despises: slavery.

I did not realize when I first picked up “Original Sins” that it was actually the second in a series or, at least, it is connected to a book set earlier with the same main character. Luckily Kingman balances the series/stand-alone book divide well. There are enough references to past events to tip the reader off to the existence of an earlier book, but the necessary backstory is sufficiently explained, without giving away the entirety of Kingman’s first book, “Not Yet Drown’d.”

I found “Original Sins” to be absolutely captivating. Grace is certainly not the typical mid-19th century American woman, she is feminist and abolitionist in a time when all American women still gave the majority of their rights over to their husbands automatically upon marriage and slavery was still very much a given. Some will complain that Kingman’s work is more about thoughts and beliefs than about story and I would not necessarily disagree, but I also do not think that is necessarily a bad thing. Yes, Grace, and other characters, expound on their beliefs in long discourses, but it is all supported by the characterization Kingman provides and, most importantly, it was fascinating and thought-provoking.

Although “Original Sins” is certainly not for everyone, people who are intrigued by the exchange of ideas about religion, freedom, and human rights will certainly find themselves engrossed. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*

Source: Publisher
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

How to Mellify a Corpse by Vicki Leon – Book Review

How to Mellify a Corpse by Vicki Leon

“How to Mellify a Corpse” is a look into some of the science and superstitions of the ancient world, focusing on Greece (mostly Athens), Rome, Mesopotamia, the Holy Land, Egypt, and Carthage. Leon tries to mix humor with discoveries in science, math, music, and politics, with the great thinkers and odd ducks of the ancient world.

Except I thought the humor really fell flat. I could very clearly see the passages from “How to Mellify a Corpse” that were supposed to be funny, but they all felt to me like they were trying a little too hard. I have the feeling that Leon is actually very funny in person but, for me, it didn’t translate well into “How to Mellify a Corpse” and, if anything, sort of annoyed me. Leon really is sharing some pretty interesting information, but I thought the flat humor detracted from what would have otherwise been interesting facts. I also would have liked the individual stories to be set up a little better. I was often not exactly sure what the point was until I reached the end and, even then, was not exactly sure why I should care. Obviously tidbits of amusing history don’t need a long, complicated story-arc, but I still thought there was a little something missing here in the execution.

Interesting, but not as much as I would have liked it to be.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*

This review was done with a book received from InkWell Management.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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