Book Review: The Hooked X

This 2009 book by Scott F. Wolter is subtitled “Key to the secret history of North America.” It covers a number of anomalous archeological findings that suggest history is not as it is commonly taught.

gprdon meyer holding book

Briefly, there are plenty of examples of Europeans knowing about, and visiting, North American more than a hundred years before its “discovery” by Columbus. One piece of this evidence is the Kensington Rune Stone, which was found in the late 1800s, in Minnesota. The 200 lb stone is carved with ancient Swedish runes, including an “X” with an extra stroke, or “hook” as it is come to be known.

Initially, the unusual rune led many to conclude the stone was a hoax, but as the book lays out, there is evidence that the stone is authentic. (The Hooked X was eventually authenticated, long after the stone was found, as a legitimate and ancient rune.)

The book seems to largely be a follow-up to another of the author’s publications, and as such it makes many assumptions about the knowledge of the reader. The first 3/4 of the book sometimes feels as if you are joining into the middle of a lengthy and technical conversation about a topic you’ve never heard. Oh, there are plenty of interesting tidbits you can wrap your head around, but there are also many things that were, for me, presented without context or clarity. There isn’t an Editor credited in the book, and I suspect it didn’t have one. It would have benefited from an outsider’s perspective.

But the last part of the book is much better. This is where evidence beyond the Kensington Stone is correlated to create a convincing argument about an alternative historical record.

A couple of the additional bits that stood out for me are:

  • The fleur-de-lis is a stylized bumblebee, used by Charlemagne. The bee is a symbol of royalty and the Muses.
  • I am very likely related to one of the first witnesses to the discovery of the Kensington Rune Stone.
  • Pentadic numerals are a thing.
  • Christopher Columbus’ real name was Cristobal Colon, and he was likely a Knight Templar. He was also Portuguese, so all the Italians upset about Chicago’s Columbus memorial being moved have misplaced nationalistic ire.
  • Newport Tower, connected to the Sinclair family (of Rosslyn Chapel fame) may very well be an ancient Templar structure. (It’s in Rhode Island.)
  • Venus traces a horn pattern across the sky over the course of a year, and this may be the origin of the Catholic Church putting horns on the devil. (To literally demonize Goddess worship associated with the planet.) The book also states that the pattern followed by the planet creates a pentagram, but the description of this is muddied. I found a clearer explanation here.
  • The tablet held by the Statue of Liberty is in the shape of a Masonic keystone.
  • In its Hebrew form, Yahweh is a feminine word.

If this is your first exposure to the milieu of the bloodline of Jesus Christ, the conspiracies and practices of the Knights Templar and Masons, and pre-Columbian archeology, then there are better books for you. If you’re already hip, you’ll find numerous bits to enjoy, despite the work you have to do to find them among the meandering organization of the book. I bought my copy a few years ago — I don’t recall where — but it’s still available at the Amazon.

Book Review: Over My Dead Body

This 2022 book by Greg Melville is subtitled “Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries.” It’s both a travelogue and a history of burial practices. Overall, it provides a fascinating look into the culture and the American-style business of corpse disposal and, if you’ll pardon the expression, it really tickled my sociology bone. It’s also a beautifully designed book with a handful of nice photos, many from the author. Before digging into the details, suffice to say, I enjoyed and recommend it.

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I learned a lot from this book, and there are too many salient points for me to list here, but this sample should give you a flavor of what stood out for me:

  • The practice of burying a body “six feet under” arose during the plague as an attempt to prevent animals from digging up the bodies and further spreading the disease.
  • While the Donner Party gets all the scorn for cannibalism, the settlers at Jamestown also ate their mates.
  • Speaking of pilgrims, the corn that got them through the harsh winter was largely stolen from Native American graves, where it was buried for use by the deceased in the afterlife.
  • By tradition, bodies are buried with their feet facing East so that they can stand and face Jesus when he returns.
  • It was (and remains) common practice for cemeteries to seek celebrity bodies in order to increase sales of nearby plots. Daniel Boone, for example, was disinterred and moved for promotional purposes. Moreover, Arlington National Cemetery wasn’t nearly so popular until Kennedy was buried there.
  • Mausolus, an ancient leader of what is now Turkey, was buried in an ostentatious tomb and that is where the word mausoleum comes from.
  • An obelisk at Green-Wood cemetery (Brooklyn, NY) is inscribed “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors.” It features a slot where people can slip written confessions inside, which are emptied and burned regularly.
  • Modern US-style embalming was popularized by the actions of Abraham Lincoln, who had the new technology applied to Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. Ellsworth’s body was preserved, so it could be taken on tour to Northern cities as a fundraiser to pay for the war. (10,000 people came to see it in Manhattan.) And yes, there is a US-style of embalming to this day.
  • The magazine Ladies Home Journal coined “living room” to describe a home’s parlor, after the practice of displaying the dead in their house stopped being common.
  • Despite the hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants who built the country, there are very few of their dead (still) buried in the United States. That’s because their remains were disinterred and recovered by the Chinese government.

Those of you who know me or follow this blog won’t be too surprised at my enthusiasm for this book, as evidenced in A Cat at Begraafplaats Huis de Vraag , my review of Grave Plots, and my delight over a book of Cemetery Maps.

I bought my copy of Over My Dead Body at Quimby’s in Chicago, but you can also uncover one by searching on the Amazon.

Book Review: Blah Blah Blah

This 2011 book by Dan Roam is subtitled “What to do when words won’t work.” It’s essentially a primer, a justification, and a tutorial for incorporating sketching into your notes and presentations. For the purpose of increasing clarity, improving focus, and utilizing “both halves” of your brain.

gordon meyer holding book

It’s a big book; about 350 pages. And while the design and illustrations are very engaging and unique, most of the large-format pages are, inevitably, filled with words. Ironically, too many words. There are a lot of redundant and tangential paragraphs that an editor should have pared down or eliminated.

I was given this book by a friend. And I enjoyed it. I also learned a few things, and I thought quite a bit about its methods and arguments. But those of you who know me professionally will attest that I am an avowed minimalist when it comes to instructional design and writing. This book uses, almost literally, the proverbial “thousand words” to describe the “pictures” it prescribes. I had a hard time not slipping into critique mode as I read its meandering and overwritten advice.

That said, there are a few points of particular interest:

  • Words have become our default thinking tool but cannot alone “detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today.”
  • “Words can be used to describe anything, but that does not mean words are the best way to describe everything.” (The author should consider using “depict” in this sentence for clarity and snappiness.)
  • Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham to win a $50 bet from his publisher. The challenge was to write a book using only 50 words, including “Sam,” “Ham,” and “am.” (Constraints breed creativity!)
  • “Language is the single most sophisticated, finely developed, and important technology humanity has ever created. Using words is what makes us human. … it is also our easiest technology to mess up.”
  • School children spend year after year learning how to express themselves using words. But visual education stops at the preschool level, and for most, never develops past that.
  • Too much emphasis on words and language has reduced most thinking to using just “halve our minds” — our visual thinking side takes a back seat too often. The author includes a useful chart that relates simple drawing methods to common categories of information. For example, when dealing with a list, try a map instead.

Despite its length, this book can be a quick read. That’s because pretty much all the salient points are covered in the first three chapters and the two appendices. (One of which is based on the author’s Back of the Napkin business book.)

I recommend this book as a tool for exploring a different way of presenting information. I just wish it were more focused and not quite so gimmicky. You can get a copy from Amazon, of course, or borrow it from the library and skim the front and back portions — after that you’ll know if you want to dive into the blah blah blah of the middle sections.

Book Review: 50 Things to do in the Urban Wild

This heart-filled volume by Clare Gogerty implores the reader to discover, appreciate, and celebrate the natural world that lurks beneath the surface of an urban city.

Or, at least, that’s what I hoped it would do. Such insights can definitely be mined from the author’s pages, but overall, I found the book to be more about small projects suited to suburban (not urban) living.

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The book is charming, and Gogerty’s appreciative enthusiasm is undeniably contagious. But her definition of city life, as a resident of a small English county, differs greatly from mine as a Chicagoan.

But I did discover several hints and perspectives that made me smile, and a few that I will put to use in my own way. The suggestion about creating natural, ephemeral art in public green spaces, is one example of the latter.

While this book didn’t hit home for me, if you live in the suburbs or a small city, I could imagine it really speaking to you. You can find a copy at the Amazon, of course.

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.