Book Review: Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction, by actor Brent Spiner, is a very unusual novel. It blends day-to-day actor life with L.A. noir, overlayed with an insider’s perspective of early Star Trek: Next Generation. It’s simultaneously true and clearly not true. It’s ambitious, funny, and silly. I loved it.

Would I recommend that you read it? No. Get the audiobook instead. It’s read by Spiner (which increases the surreal fictfactigous nature of the story). It also features a delightful array of guest voice actors — including Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, and LeVar Burton — all playing themselves in this unusual, rollicking, shaggy dog, bio-fantasy-fanfic tale.

Did I mention that I loved it?

I’m opposed to spoilers, so I’ll let the publisher’s description carry the weight of more details, but if you want a spoiler-filled second review, see this NPR story. (But, keep in mind, I contend that the audiobook is likely superior to the printed edition.)

I listened via Audible, but of course, the Amazon has all the mediums you might want.



Book Review: Sidewalk Oracles

This 2015 book by Robert Moss is subtitled “Playing With Signs, Symbols, and Synchronicity in Everyday Life.” It’s an easy, first-person read built upon the premise that “the world speaks to us through coincidence and chance encounters.” But only if we are listening.

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I’m not typically hooked by a book’s title, but this one grabbed my attention. Largely because I once bought the charming “Professor Pam’s Urban Divination Deck” from an Etsy shop, and one of its archetypes is “the mysterious puddle” — a phenomenon that happens on our front sidewalk. Furthermore, a life-changing book I’ve read is Coincidance: A Head Test, written by personal saint Robert Anton Wilson. Given these two signs from the universe, how could I resist this book? After all, there’s the old saying that “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Clearly, this book had something to teach me.

The book includes many of the author’s personal stories of synchronicity, which I wasn’t so fond of, as it’s often like reading someone else’s overnight dreams. But he made them as interesting as possible and justified their inclusion by quoting Mark Twain — “I do not wish to hear about the moon from someone who has not been there.”

Thankfully, the bulk of the book is not about the author’s experiences with synchronicity. It’s about recognizing and discovering your own meaningful coincidences. And the book is filled with interesting exercises you can use to tune in to "messages from the universe.” One of these is bibliomancy, or “book-dipping,” which is a basic way to put this whole bit of nonsense to a test. But, fair warning, sometimes you learn what you need, not what you want.

Just a few of the many snippets that caught my attention:

  • The term synchronicity is a modern invention of Jung’s. He coined it because people have a hard time talking about coincidence.
  • The term kledon refers to something you hear, such as a snippet of conversation. Or, I suppose, from a spirit radio. See wikipedia for more.
  • The term kairomancy is the author’s coined word that refers to divination by recognition of meaningful moments.
  • Every so often a synchronistic event is simply a rhyme, rather than an obvious coincidence.
  • The term weird has a fascinating etymology.
  • If you’re of a scientific mind, consider that synchronistic events (and déjà vu) may be related to happenings in parallel dimensions. (See time-reversed interference, which is an actual subject of study.)

If you’re going to read a book like this, I highly recommend that you give yourself permission to imagine — a sadly repressed trait among contemporary adults. (See another review I wrote for more on this.)

I bought my copy from the Amazon. Your local woo-woo shop will likely have it, if not another half-dozen books by this prolific author.


Book Review: Who in Hell

Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers are the authors of “A Guide to the Whole Damned Bunch,” which is probably the most unique book on my reference shelf. (Where it stands between the Oxford dictionaries of Superstitions and Euphemisms.)

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The best way to describe this book is that it’s a “Who’s Who in Hell,” but I’m guessing the publishers couldn’t use that analogy for trademark reasons. Not only does the book list countless known and identified demons, but it also lists people infamous for their mortal sins, all of whom surely now reside in the fiery pits. Politicians, popes, actors, murderers, and all walks of life are represented. Each with a discussion of the actions that damned their souls.

Interspersed throughout are pithy and memorable quotes, such as “Hell is a pocket edition of Chicago” — a quip from antisemite, prohibitionist, and Englishman, John Burns.

Like all good reference books, every time I look up something, I experience serendipitous delight. For example:

  • As of 1996, 85% of Americans believe Hell exists
  • According to Papal decree, unbaptized babies and Protestants go to Limbo, not Hell. This implies that hell is populated with Catholics.
  • Iya is a Sioux malevolent spirit whose foul breath spreads illness
  • Divel was the common spelling of devil in the 1600s.
  • Adrian IV, the first and only English-born Pope, ceded Ireland to the English, causing no end of trouble.
  • While looking up John Dee (whose mortal sin was sorcery) I noticed the listing for Pierre David. David was a mid-1600s priest who committed blasphemy by issuing dildos to the nuns of his parish and insisting that they attend mass in the nude, à la the Garden of Eden.
  • The demon Hael causes gossip, and is known for teaching the art of writing letters.

Another interesting discovery was Belphagor. He’s an Old Testament devil, known for sloth and carnality, who was worshiped by the Moabites. This entry caught my eye because, while I knew the name of the imp guarding my book cabinet, I knew nothing of his story.

statue in gordon meyer book shelf

I bought my copy of “Who in Hell…” second-hand at a local Half Price Books (a great place to find reference books), but if you would rather not depend on happenstance, you can find it via the Amazon too.


Book Review: The Library of the Dead

This is one of the most fun and entertaining novels that I’ve ever read! (Well, technically, I listened to the unabridged Audible audiobook.) The setting is one of my favorite places in the world — Edinburgh — and the many geographical references stirred warm memories and a true sense of place. Never mind that the setting for the story is after some unspecified future worldwide turmoil, and that Scotland is seemingly once again independent and ruled by a King. (That’s all gleamed from the by-and-by, the story is not at all about politics.)

The author, TL Huchu, is a male Zimbabwean, but he has convincingly written the narrator as a teenage girl. She’s smart, funny, and due to the excellent voice acting, sometimes as much of a puzzle as listening to an actual Scot. This definitely increases the fun and intrigue of the story, at least for Americans. (Who knew that a “float” is a small truck, for example?)

In very brief terms, the protagonist can see and speak with the dead, and she hustles a meager income by conveying messages between the departed and the living. There are some other supernatural elements at play too, but the story remains grounded in gritty, familiar realism in nearly every other way. There’s a definite cyberpunk feel to it, too, which I really enjoyed.

This is the first volume in the “Edinburgh Nights” series, and I’ll certainly be continuing with the second. Check them out at Amazon.


Book Review: Secret Route 66

Earlier this year, my wife and I decided to take advantage of an apparent lull in the plague by hitting the road. Specifically, “the mother road.”

Route 66 begins in Chicago, just a few blocks away from our home, and ends somewhere in California. (Where, exactly? Figure it out. Have you confused my blog with Wikipedia?) Our plan was to drive it through Arizona, then diverge into fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.

I should note that one does not actually drive Route 66. It doesn’t exist anymore, except as various non-contiguous historic snippets of varying length. Most of them are business loops through small, forgotten towns that desperately suckle from the teat of having once been a vibrant part of the route.

We’ve driven portions of the route before, I knew there was no shortage of roadside kitsch to explore, so I thought a travel book would be helpful in this regard. (Alas, online resources like Atlas Obscura were unimpressive.) However, I was surprised to find that my local Barnes & Noble had exactly zero books on the subject. What the hell? It’s literally a Chicago landmark.

So, I turned to the Amazon, making heaving use of their “Look Inside” feature to preview the contents of each book that caught my eye. Thank heavens I did, as it revealed how boring and filler-packed each book was. I began to fear that I would never find the mother lode about the Mother Road. (Forgive me.)

Then I came across Secret Route 66 by Jim Ross and Shelly Graham. The book’s subtitle, “A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” was right up my alley. Look Inside revealed the location of road tar footprints improbably left by a very heavy bird crossing the road. I couldn’t click “Buy Now” fast enough.

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I’m glad that I did. The book added a lot of flavor to our road trip. If you’re going to buy into the nostalgia of taking such a drive, you should embrace all the quirky and cheesy things that come with it, and this book will help you do so.

My initial concern about the book was its age. Published in 2017, I feared that the ravages of Trumpism and COVID-19 would render much of the information obsolete. Some information the book includes was probably out of date before the book rolled off the printing presses. However, many of the roadside attractions have weathered other storms and are still in operation (although barely so, in some cases). Furthermore, like the aforementioned chicken footprints, many of the features that Ross and Graham have included are not dependent upon visitors to keep them afloat. (The authors do love pointing out old bridges, for some reason.) As with any book, use the web to sanity-check any information that would throw your plans out of whack if it’s no longer correct.

If you get the book, I recommend paying attention to the small towns that the authors highlight. We pulled off to visit several of them, and they were almost all worthwhile, charming stops. One that we intended to visit is Galena, Kansas. But I accidentally programmed the navigation system for Galena, Missouri instead. We discovered that Galena, MO is a town of less than 500 people with a surprisingly large “downtown” for its size. However, we felt like we were in a Twilight Zone episode. Every business (even City Hall) was locked up tight in the middle of the afternoon. We didn’t see a single person, but there were at least a dozen cars parked on the streets. Was there a mandatory town meeting in progress? Were they watching us? It was an eerie and interesting visit!

The book does have one glaring flaw: a complete lack of any discernible organization. For example, the first item in the book is from the middle of the route. Did it not occur to the authors or publishers that a linear progression, East or West, would make perfect sense? Its random presentation of locations makes the book very difficult to use as a planner, and worse, worthless as a reference during the drive itself. Even a simple map of the route, with locations indicated, would make the book much more useful. Truly, what were they thinking?

To work around the problems of aged info and perplexing organization, I recommend creating a Guide in the Apple Maps app. Moreover, while you’re at it, take a look at the curated Route 66 guides that are available in Maps, they’re perfect for the mainstream attractions.

Happy trails!


Book Review: Horrorstor

I haven’t read a horror novel in decades, but the design and premise of this one was irresistible, so I dove right in. The book, written by Grady Hendrix and properly punctuated “Horrorstör,” is about the haunting of a low-rent IKEA knockoff store called “Orsk.” The book’s design resembles an IKEA catalog and even features (increasingly creepy) products with appropriately Swedish-y names. It’s a perfect execution of the concept.

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Here is a spoiler-safe example of how nicely the story and setting are interwoven:

(REDACTED) was completely immobilized in a wooden box roughly six feet long, twenty inches wide, so shallow that (PRONOUN) face touched the lid. It had the dimensions of a coffin, but (PRONOUN) knew right away that it was a Liripip, one of the most popular sellers in Wardrobes.

Up to about half-way through the book, the story is a fun, clever, satiric take on what it’s like working in a store like IKEA. There are ghostly vibes present very early, but for me, it was akin to an episode of Scooby-Doo.

After the halfway point, the book takes a dramatic turn towards the dark (literally) and disturbed (also literally). No spoilers, but I ended up regretting my decision to make this my “just before bedtime” nightly read. The book never loses its sense of humor or thematic cleverness, but holy hell, there are some frightening things happening in Orsk after closing!

Several years ago, I spent a summer as the sole occupant of a residence hall at Northern Illinois University. Being the only living person in a large building designed to house hundreds was sometimes quite unsettling. This description from the story really hit home for me:

Orsk was so big it needed a certain number of people on the premises to keep it under control. (NUMBER) of them weren't enough. The store was stirring, restless, growing slowly. Emptied of people, Orsk felt dangerous.

I also enjoyed this perspective about ghosts:

I believe a ghost is a subjective experience. It doesn't have an objective reality. It exists solely in the perceptions of the people who see it.

And finally, I’ve read accounts of 18th century séances and wondered how ectoplasm was perceived, this made me view the phenomenon in a new way:

(REDACTED) throat gave a final heave and what (REDACTED) saw next was impossible: it looked like she was vomiting underwater. A thick, milky liquid hung in front of (REDACTED) face, an impossible cloud suspended in midair, soft white tendrils unfurling in slow motion.

The book’s back-flap author bio indicates that Hendrix is a screenwriter, and even though I’m not a movie kinda guy, it’s easy to imagine this as a film. I hope he’s optioned it for a big pile of cash — it’s a remarkable and memorable work. (Although, I’m hoping to shake some of those memories myself.)

I found my copy on the Fiction table in a suburban Barnes & Noble, but you can get one at the Amazon, of course.


Book Review: Make Paper Inventions

This book, written by Kathy Ceceri, gives detailed instructions on making “machines that move, drawings that light up, wearables, and structures you can cut, fold, and roll.” It’s a MAKE and O’Reilly publication, so you know the instructions are top-notch.

photo of book on gordon meyer table

Additionally, the book has just the appropriate amount of educational content about the history and science behind the projects. The book is also chock-full of references to websites and retailers. (It was published in 2015, and there’s a poignant note that references to Radio Shack might soon be obsolete.)

I found the information on building electronic circuits from paper to be the most intriguing, but there is such a wide variety of things to try that I imagine almost anyone will likely find a project that appeals to them. The chapter on making paper was also of interest — somehow Ceceri’s instructions were more encouraging than others that I have read. Also included is a very intriguing machine that generates power using friction and mylar — I can’t wait to try that for myself.

I knew this book was meant for me when it began referencing familiar names and ideas, such as Martin Gardner and Buckminster Fuller. There are instructions for building paper models of their ideas, including a geodesic dome. I also found some new Möbius Strip information that would have been useful back when I used to perform Rick Johnsson’s Moby-Zip routine.

You can get your copy of this fun, easy book, along with many of the specialized materials, at Maker Shed. Or, via the Amazon, of course.


Book Review: Dr. Broth and Ollie’s Brain-Boggling Search for the Lost Luggage

What a charming and amusing book that Michael Abrams and Jeffrey Winters have created! (Granted, I’m about 22 years late to the party on discovering it.) From the charming retro-comics art (with perfect color palette), to the story, to the clever and often tough puzzles, this book is a winner. (Provided you’re into this sort of thing.)

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The story revolves around finding a piece of luggage (lost at O’Hare, of course) accompanied by a time-traveling Alpaca named McGuffin. This simple, fanciful theme opens all the doors to a considerable variety of themes for the puzzles. The puzzles themselves are quite diverse, too, I encountered several that I’ve never seen before.

If you’re looking for a challenging, well-designed book that will take you hours and hours to finish (there are 80 puzzles), this is perfect for you. I stumbled across my copy at the delightful Bay Books in Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, but you can get it from the Amazon too, if you must.


Book Review: Move

Caroline Williams’ book is subtitled “How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free.” It’s a very approachable book of science reporting that includes the latest research into bodily movement and overall health, and how our traditional view of “exercise” is inadequate.

Although there is a bit too much blaming of technology for our woes to suit my taste, Williams does discuss some interesting studies revealing correlations with sedentary lifestyles, lower IQs, mental illness, and anti-social behavior. And, as evidence of how current this book is, there is discussion about how the COVID-19 pandemic has served to limit movement further.

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One thing I particularly enjoyed were the explorations of mind-body linkages — that is, not treating movement as a way of getting fit, but also as a way of promoting mental acuity. By the time I completed the book, I had a better understanding of why there are mindfulness and breathing functions in the Apple Watch.

Speaking of breathing, I also learned that benefits of breathing exercises are decreased by mouth breathing. “In through the nose, out through the mouth” is a cliché, but it turns out at least the first part is backed by science.

There are other tidbits that triggered “aha” moments, and some reminded me of “new age” or “ancient” wisdom. There is some discussion about the body’s role in memory (perhaps the brain is not the seat of all things), and also a long discussion of research into audio frequencies, the body’s electrical network, and rhythm. (Maybe those drum circles aren’t just for hippies after all.)

I also came to new understanding about the role of the vagus nerve. And although I have only witnessed, not experienced, the healing power of acupuncture the discussion of the latest research into the body’s fascia was fascinating.

The book is not only approachable and interesting, it’s also well indexed with an interesting bibliography. Overall, I’m impressed and pleased that I took some time to study it. I bought my copy at Barbara’s Bookstore in Northwestern Hospital, but you can also find it on the Amazon.