Book Review: The Merry Spinster

gordon meyer holding book

This 2018 short story collection by Mallory Ortberg is subtitled “Tales of Everyday Horror.” While I would quibble with the “everyday” designation (the book is quite otherwordly), I fully agree with “horror.”

Each of the eleven stories is essentially a fairy tale for adults. You may recognize some of them right away, while others draw from a diverse range of influences, which are thoughtfully outlined in an appendix. For example, for “The Thankless Child,” the author cites influences that include Cinderella, King Lear, and Psalm 139. I loved that this appendix is included in the book!

The writing is crisp, clever, and sometimes challenging as Ortberg freely plays with pronouns and genders in several of the stories. This is fun, and contributes to keeping the reader engaged with the unfamiliar. (Talking fish, mermaids, and gender roles by choice not fiat! Where is this is place‽)

I should also mention that, generally speaking, the stories are dark. Ortberg’s take on The Velveteen Rabbit will stick with me for a very long time. As a back-cover blurb observes: “The Merry Spinster will ruin your most-loved fables, in the best possible way.”

Here are just a few of the many phrases and concepts that tickled my fancy:

  • “Humans die,” said the grandmother, “and humans suffer too, for they lead short lives and when they are dead, no one eats them. They are stuffed in boxes and hidden in the dirt, or else set on fire and turned into cinders, so no one else can make any use of them; they are a prodigiously selfish race and consider themselves their own private property even in death
  • A king’s wife is outranked by her belly.
  • The devil’s hour occurs at 3AM, the inverse of Christ’s death on the cross at three o’clock in the afternoon.
  • “… she looks at one as though she disapproves of how one parts one’s hair, or spells one’s name, somehow.”
  • “A whip for a horse,” I said, “a bridle for a donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.” I don’t know why I warned her next, but I did. “I’m going to speak a bible over you now,” I told her. “Brace yourself.”
  • “I did not ask what the frog wanted,” his father said, “I asked if the frog expected to be let in.” All the other daughters had stopped pretending to eat at this point and stared in open excitement at the prospect of watching one of their number get into trouble.

I bought my copy at The Writer’s Block, but of course, it’s also available at the Amazon. Enjoy!

P.S.: For more on fairy tales for adults, see Book Review: The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers and Book Review: The Fairy Tale Review


Book Review: Existential Physics

This book by Sabine Hossenfelder is subtitled “A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.” It’s an interesting and refreshing approach to the seemingly impossible “facts” that others are offering about quantum mechanics. One of the great characteristics about this book is that Hossenfelder fearlessly identifies, and describes in clear detail, situations which science currently does not, and probably never will, prove or disprove. (Which is actually quite a big swath of the assertions you hear about the quantum world.)

Technical writers, of which science writing is a subset, don’t get a lot of love or praise. (Ahem.) But Hossenfelder deserves such, as this book is a gem of the genre. One of her very humane tactics is to include a chapter-concluding section called “The Brief Answer.” Instead of wading through all the details, skipping ahead to this summary makes the Big (but Less Interesting) Questions a lot more approachable. Because, frankly, some of them intrigued me more than others. For example, I devoured “Does the Past Still Exist,” but jumped to the brief answer for “Are You Just a Bag of Atoms.”

Here just a few of the notes I took:

  • Sociologist Steve Fuller claims that academics use incomprehensible terminology to keep insights sparse and thereby more valuable.
  • Science and religion have the same roots, and still today they tackle some of the same questions. (Indeed!)
  • Demarcating the current limits of science helps us recognize that some beliefs are not unscientific, but rather, ascientific.
  • “In the end, I hope you will find comfort in knowing that you do not need to silence rational thought to make space for hope, belief, and faith.”
  • Measurement in quantum mechanics destroys information for good. Other than that, and also black hole evaporation, information can’t be destroyed. Once someone dies, information about their unique ways, wisdom, and kindness becomes irretrievable and disperses quickly. But if you trust the math, the information is still there, somewhere, somehow, spread out over the universe but preserved forever. “It might sound crazy, but it’s compatible with all we currently know.”
  • In an interview with Tim Palmer, he and the author discuss how scientists who ridicule religion might alienate youngsters who would otherwise consider scientific pursuits. Science and belief are not always incompatible.
  • You can find many different diagnoses on death certificates, but those are just details. What really kills us is entropy increase.
  • Penrose’s conformed cyclic cosmology sounds a lot like Vishnu’s cycle of creating and destroying the universe. And Penrose’s theory is compatible with current scientific knowledge.
  • For the first time ever, I feel like I understand why the past, present, and future simultaneously exist, and there is no “now.”
  • Much of the supposed weirdness of quantum mechanics just comes from forcing it into everyday language. (See previous bullet point.)
  • Saying what’s beyond what we can observe is purely a matter of belief. If it cannot be observed, claiming it exists is ascientific, as is claiming it doesn’t exist. Don’t pretend that either of those is science. (Paging James Randi!)
  • Religion matters to people in a way that science does not. The two are “non-overlapping magisteria” and according to many people, science is too cold, technocratic, and unhumanly rational.

I bought my copy of the book at Barbara’s Bookstore, but you can also find it at the Amazon.



Book Review: A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century

My parents taught me to always “clean my plate” at meal times. That is, you should eat all that you’ve been given.

“Please clean your plate dear, the lord above can see ya. Don’t you know people are starving in Korea?” — Alice Cooper, Generation Landslide

Intentionally or not, for my whole life I’ve adopted that same attitude towards reading books. Oh, I have plenty of books in my library that I haven’t read (in re tsundoku), but once I begin reading one, I feel obligated to finish it.

That is, until this book. Written by “Heather Heyring and her partner Bret Weinstein, it is subtitled “Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life.” That intriguing premise, and the cool cover (yes, I know) made it seem like something I’d enjoy. I was mistaken.

I won’t belabor the point, as based on other online reviews and the vitriol expressed towards the authors, I don’t need to overly justify my viewpoint. (Unfortunately, I learned about all this after I had purchased the book.) I’ll only add that while the authors might be smart biologists, when it comes to sociology, anthropology, and technology they are sadly lacking in sophistication.

But as is my practice, here are a few points that stood out for me:

  • “…culture exists in service to the genes. Long-standing cultural traits are as adaptive as eyes, leaves, or tentacles.”
  • The authors insist on using WEIRD as an acronym for societies which are “Western nations, with highly Educated populace, an Industrialized economic base, and are Rich and Democratic. That they labored so hard to make this derisive naming work will tell you a lot about their mindset.
  • “…the methods and language of science are imitated by institutions and systems not engaged in science, such that the resulting efforts are generally not scientific at all. Not only do we see words like theory and analysis wrapped around distinctly untheoretical (sic) and unanalyzed (and often unanalyzable) ideas, but — worse — we see the rise of a kind of fake numeracy, in which anything that can be counted is, and once you have the measurement, you tend to forgo all further analysis.”
  • don’t mistake identifying an effect for understanding an effect
  • REM sleep is the creative stage of rest

I stopped reading the book after one too many Jesus references, assertions about males being inherently dominant and females naturally submissive, and a statement that gender dysphoria is caused by endocrine disruptors in our environment. Skimming ahead, the latter half of the books seems filled with platitudes (“smile more”), glib advice (“sit around campfires with your family”), and, sadly, anti-vax bullshit.

Typically, when I’m finished with a book, I’ll donate it to a local Little Free Library so that others can enjoy it. This one is going straight into the trash.


Book Review: More Sneaky Feats

This book by Tom Ferrell and Lee Eisenberg is subtitled “The Art of Showing Off and 49 New Ways to Do It.” Published in 1976, the audience is clearly teenage boys, which I still consider myself to be.

There are several great little stunts described in this book, most of which are accompanied by Eisenberg’s charming illustrations.

a scan by gordon meyer

I was already familiar with many of the stunts (given my lifelong obsession with the subject), but there were many new ones, too. Some of the ones that caught my eye include:

  • Tearing a phone book in half. I already know how to do this, but the method here is slightly different. This is undoubtably a vanishing skill, as finding a phone book to destroy is harder than ripping it.
  • Sticking a card to a wall. I wonder if this also works with beer mats.
  • A “Grandmother’s Necklace” style stunt using thread spools that ends with a dramatic, visual penetration.
  • A cat’s cradle style of buttonhole penetration.
  • A fun sight gag where a loose thread on your lapel or shirt turns out to be many yards of thread. (Spoiler alert: it’s unspooling from inside your pocket.)
  • A fantastic version of the Cartesian Devil, made with an eye-dropper.
  • A coffee can rolling boomerang that I simply must try soon.

This is the second volume in the Sneaky Feats series. The first volume apparently has 53 stunts, so I will keep my eye skinned for a copy of that. I found the present volume on Cherokee Street in St. Louis, inside a delightful used bookstore run by a gruff, pandemic-denying old man. If you want a copy (and you know that you do), I recommend the multi-volume compendium, which is currently available on the Amazon.


Book Review: Creative, Not Famous

This charming and inspirational book by Ayun Halliday is subtitled “The Small Potato Manifesto.” That’s because it’s about pursuing creative endeavors for joy and personal edification, not for mainstream success.

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This book is inspiring, insightful, and clever. It’s filled with stories and advice from like-minded people who create things because they must, not because they have calculated that doing so will let them hit it big. I would have preferred more narrative, but a big part of the message here is that you are not alone. As the prophet Timothy said, “Find the Others.”

Although I never had the vocabulary to talk about it, I now realize that I have long been a “small potato” person. Looking back, this has applied from my earliest books, first software, and my ongoing performances.

In my corporate life, and by observing that of my wife’s, I have witnessed far too many “strategic” moves based solely on growth, with other consequences be damned. Too many good products and people have been ruined in the pursuit of getting bigger.

Halliday isn’t the first to embrace being small, and to be clear, this book is more folksy than philosophical. But if you commit yourself to small potatohood you might also enjoy The Long Tail, The Gift of Obscurity, and The Case for Low-Cost Ambition. (Some of these are by authors who are only small potatoes in spirit, not in distribution, but don’t let facts distract you.)

Just a few of the many tidbits that caught my eye:

  • Think of yourself as one long work-in-progress. A false step leads to something else. Not everything has to last forever. It’s OK to let something run its course, then end it. (A philosophy that I came to embrace with my Usable Help.)
  • “Bask daily in a subject that brings you pleasure. Study it. Leverage whatever tools are within your reach to present your knowledge to a possibly disinterested wider audience.” (This might be the most impactful statement in the book for me.)
  • I particularly enjoyed learning of Ben Snakepit, whose long-running daily diary comics make me think of my Pandemic Drip Dry and 30-word dice tales projects.
  • Let go of moldy old goals. “I am likely to be on my deathbed trying to forgive myself for not having gotten to everything I wanted.” — Liz Mason
  • Freely and generously give small encouragements to others. Even if it feels awkward. Amen! I think trying to do this every day is a good resolution.
  • A small potatoes creative challenge: Practice bibliomancy with a subject that you know little about. Open to a page, point to a paragraph, and create something (in any format or media) that day which reflects what you’ve selected. Sounds fun! (Stay tuned.)
  • Jealousy stems from the fallacy of scarcity.
  • “Crowdfunding is necessary in a country where the arts are so underfunded.” — Meghan Finn. And that’s why we have Patreon, GoFundMe, et al.
  • Do your future self a favor. Preserve and document your work. Keep a copy of everything in multiple, portable formats.

I got my copy of the book from Quimby’s. Failing that, buy one from the book’s indie publisher, Microcosm. Failing that, if you must, the Amazon.

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash


Book Review: A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching

Subtitled “Getting to know the world’s most misunderstood bird,” this book will forever change your perspective on your city’s “flying rats” — and hopefully strike that insult from your vocabulary.

Cleverly written and charmingly illustrated by Rosemary Mosco, this finely produced book covers the surprising history of the birds, how to appreciate their diversity and situation, and how to interpret their behavior.

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Here are just a few of the many tidbits that spoke to me:

  • All pigeons are doves. Why are there two names? “Pigeon” derives from the French language, brought to England by the Normans. “Dove” derives from the Old English of the Celts and other first peoples.
  • Pigeons, like dogs and cattle, are domesticated animals. The ones you see in the wild, around the entire globe (except Antartica), are all descendants of feral birds that escaped captivity.
  • As far back as written records exist, pigeons were raised by humans for a variety of purposes, such as communication, sport, and meat. Their waste provided essential ingredients in gunpowder and fertilizer.
  • Pigeons evolved from the T. rex and emerged as their own species about 60 million years ago.
  • North America had its own local breed, the passenger pigeon, but they were hunted to extinction by hungry expansionists. (Much like the bison were, although those did (barely) survive the onslaught.)
  • Although the finches of the Galápagos were instrumental in Darwin’s work, he raised pigeons in England to solidify his theories.
  • Reuter (Yes, of Reuters news service) used carrier pigeons to span the gaps of where his European telegraph system couldn’t reach.
  • The murky white swirls in pigeon poop are urine. That’s how birds (not just pigeons) pee.

This was such a fun book. Granted, I used to train and raise doves, so I might be slightly biased. But as an unappreciated cohabitant of our urban cities, pigeons deserve some respect. I bought my copy of the book at Barbara’s Bookstore, but you can get it from the Amazon too.


Book Review: Coding Games with Scratch

This book caught my eye because, as a youth, I enjoyed learning LOGO (specifically, SmartLOGO) and Scratch is a modern equivalent of that fundamental gateway drug.

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Scratch seems like an ideal way to introduce OO concepts, and the built-in sprites make it much easier to make a functional game without getting bogged down with pixels. The Scratch runtime is freely distributed; sort of. You must deploy your creation on their website, which automatically makes it eligible for modification (AKA “remixing”) by others. (A sly indoctrination into open source culture.)

Like all DK publications, the book is visually engaging and well-designed. The copy I read was an older edition, but I see that it is regularly updated to keep up with Scratch releases.

I borrowed the book from my favorite neighborhood Little Free Library, but you can get yours at the Amazon.


Book Review: Enquire Within Upon Everything

This book is a Victorian-era “miscellany” — a household manual of useful information and processes. This particular edition is a reprint of the 100th version, which was originally published in 1903.

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The publishers have cleverly subtitled this edition “The Victorian’s Answer to the Internet.” A claim that they justify on the back cover by recalling that Tim Berners-Lee’s precursor to his World Wide Web was named “Enquire,” in an homage to this book.

The Internet analogy is apt, in that the breadth of subjects covered is quite impressive. Recipes for food, medicine, and cleaning are quite prominent. As are card games, seasonal fruit and crops, finances, and far too many more to list. It’s easy to imagine how this might be the only book (aside from the Bible, of course) that a household would need. (And compared to the other, very useful!)

Today, it is largely a historical curiosity. It certainly contains a lot of lost wisdom, but modern citizens rarely have the need to make carbon paper, or dress a dead Snipe. (Here, my younger readers wonder what the heck carbon paper is used for, while older readers are surprised to learn that a Snipe is not just a mythical creature of campground shenanigans.)

If you’re a writer or researcher, you’ll love this book for its ability to describe how to clean kid gloves, treat scurvy, or engrave ivory. For the rest of us, it’s amusing and curious to open to a random page and realize that “simpler times” were indeed quite inconvenient and complicated.

Another modern audience for this book is the survivalist (or devout Mormon) who is prepping for the end of the world. Add this publication to your two-year’s supply of food, and you’ll be able to look up how long you can safely hang a chicken carcass (two days, in mild weather), or cure dropsy. (But be sure to also pack a dictionary to look up obscure terminology.)

I bought my paperback copy, new, for less than five dollars at Half-Price Books. Amazon offers more expensive hardbound editions. But, I’m guessing it would be easy to find public domain copies, thanks to Sir Berners-Lee.


Book Review: How to Lie with Maps

I read this book as part of my research for a forthcoming edition of my Bizarre Fact Files series. The book is a well-written, deep exploration into the techniques and politics of cartography. By the time I finished this technical exploration — learning about things I didn’t even know existed — my perspective on mapping was forever changed.

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Yes, I said the politics of mapping. As this book makes clear, every map is a political statement. Maps represent reality, but are not of reality. And the power to define reality lies with the person holding the pen.

Although I didn’t see it referred to in the book, I feel obligated to also mention Alfred Korzybski’s meditations that “the map is not the territory.”

One of my favorite chapters, “Data Maps: A thicket of thorny choices” should be required reading for every social scientist, if not citizen voter, for its clear discussion of how aggregation, homogeneity, and other choices make it easy to distort “data.” Keep this in mind the next time you see a purported map of crime levels, real estate values, or other “facts” superimposed on an areal map. (The author’s book Mapping It Out: Expository Cartography for the Humanities and Social Sciences promises even more about this important topic.)

There were numerous tidbits that caught my attention. A few examples:

  • Deliberate blunders, “trap streets” are non-existent features placed on maps to catch copyists. But this common practice died off in 1997 after a court ruled that even imaginary streets are “facts” and can’t be copyrighted. (What the hell‽)
  • Souvenir, a typeface used for map labels by the US Geographic Survey, is an abomination in the context of mapping. The author makes a compelling case for how it ruins cartographic features with its heavy-handed and ugly typography.
  • Commercial placements on maps eschew important cartographic features (such as elevation, and topography) in favor of paid inclusions. This renders the maps useless for functions such as emergency management and national defense, but makes them handy for shopping.
  • Online mapping, covertly paid for by commercial placements, has forever changed the expectations, style, and quality of maps for the public. In Europe, bookstores still carry high-quality regional maps, but good luck finding them in the United States. (Younger readers might be surprised to learn that gas stations used to give away printed maps to customers!)
  • Placenames, those words which define a location or area, are often just accepted as being true, but in reality they can reflect bias and politics. Traditionally, mapmakers have accepted local vernacular, but that leads to codifying some odd, and often racist, stereotypes. The author has a separate book about this topic, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame.

How to Lie with Maps, published by the venerable University of Chicago Press, is not a casual read. But for an outsider such as myself, it was fascinating and insightful. The author, Mark Monmonier, has several related titles, as well as a rich website that will take you deep into a delightful rabbit hole. To get your copy of this book, try the Amazon.