books

Tracking the Man-Beasts

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 9.26.51 AMIt would be tempting to paint Joe Nickell, author of Tracking the Man-Beasts, as a bit of a wet blanket — like the well-meaning uncle who tells kids there’s no such thing as Santa Claus or the neighborhood know-it-all who has an answer for everything. But that’s not what he is — not even close. Far from being a cantankerous curmudgeon who laments humanity’s gullibility in the face of the seemingly inexplicable, he’s a clear-eyed, level-headed investigator who revels in uncovering the truth.

Given the proliferation of man-beasts over the centuries, Nickell is wise to divide his investigation into five categories: “Monster” Men (including a wide range of circus “freaks”), Hairy Man Beasts (of the Yeti and Sasquatch varieties), Supernaturals (like werewolves and vampires), Extraterrestrials (in various shapes and sizes), and Manimals (which take the form of either human-headed animals or animal-headed humans). Throughout the proceedings, Nickell offers a fascinating blend of historical context, pop psychology, and personal experience to explain the seemingly inexplicable. While several of the man-beasts in question are revealed as hoaxes, many others emerge as manifestations of humanity’s greatest hopes and fears. We see Yeti in the footprints of mangy animals because we want to believe that nature still holds mysteries. We see little “green” men in place of barred and barn owls because we want to believe we’re not alone. And, of course, we tend to see all of these phenomena in under cover of night because that’s when our fearful imaginations are most fertile.

While Tracking the Man-Beasts thoroughly debunks the mythologies surrounding many cryptozoological legends, the book’s ultimate revelation is humanity’s infinite capacity for ingenuity and imagination. To borrow a phrase from The X-Files, the truth is certainly out there, and Nickell’s investigation drags it, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the light of day.

The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 8.51.38 AMApologies to Nick Lowe (and, of course, Elvis Costello), but as I walk through this wicked world searching for light in the darkness of insanity, I do, in fact, ask myself if all hope is lost. So much anger, so much arguing, so much partisanship in all corners of the globe. It all makes me wonder why we all can’t just get along — or at least try to find some common ground once in a while.

Fortunately, a new children’s book by Scot Sax offers hope. In The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee, the title characters start off as rivals — each insect revels in ruining picnics and camping trips, but when they meet, they immediately see each other as rivals. Ultimately, though, they come to a realization that theirs is a rivalry based on trivial differences, and with a bit of soul-searching (not to mention some Googling), they eventually figure out that what they have in common is far greater than any trivial differences that might arise between them. And in the end (spoiler alert!), love trumps hate.

With charming illustrations by Molly Reynolds, The Mosquito and the Bumble Bee offers young readers an important lesson on appreciating differences and building friendships — not to mention some interesting information on bees and mosquitoes. It’s a welcome addition to any child’s library — and I can think of plenty of adults who can stand to read it, too!

One More Day

In her third novel, One More Day, Kelly Simmons deftly demonstrates that she is an author who is not afraid to take risks when it comes to the art of storytelling. The novel centers on a young mother whose child is snatched from his car seat while she’s tending to a particularly onerous parking meter. Roughly a year later, however, the child reappears for (as the title suggests) a single day before disappearing again. His reappearance and subsequent disappearance opens old wounds and forces the young mother to reflect on her marriage, her culpability in the disappearance of her child, and to come to grips with distant memories that continue to haunt her. In this respect, One More Day is similar to the author’s previous novels, Standing Still and The Bird House, both of which take memory and the tendency of the past to haunt the present as major themes. With One More Day, however, Simmons pushes into new territory, experimenting with unreliable narration and a healthy dose of magic realism. One also catches a very slight hint of Christian allegory a la William P. Young’s The Shack, particularly given the protagonist’s occasional reflections on faith in general and her relationship to her church in particular. Overall, One More Day is not only a mystery but an existential reflection on the frequently fraught relationships between the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead.

PS: Shout out to FP Dorchak: This one is right up your alley!

Bookmarked: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 4.13.14 PMThe Bookmarked series, in case you were wondering, is a new line of books from IG Publishing in which lesser-known authors meditate on the impact that various works of literature by better-known authors have had an impact on their lives. Tackling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the second volume of the series, Curtis Smith takes a cue from the subject of his investigation and offers what might best be termed an “unstuck in time” reading of the novel. Bouncing from point to point and theme to theme throughout Vonnegut’s novel gives Smith the opportunity to touche on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) Ayn Rand, Genghis Khan, SpongeBob SquarePants, PTSD, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the ancient Stoic theory of Ekpyrosis, which holds that the universe is destined to be consumed in flames only to recreate itself from the ashes. Yet even as Smith’s musings careen from one topic to the next, he never loses sight of the thread that holds them all together. Indeed, if the central question of Vonnegut’s novel was how to write about a massacre, the central question of Smith’s extended essay is how to write about a book about a massacre. The big difference, of course, is that where Vonnegut could only conclude that there’s nothing sensible to say about a massacre — nothing, that is, beyond the plaintive Poo-tee-weet? of singing birds — Smith finds that there’s plenty to say not only about Vonnegut’s novel in particular, but also about writing in general, and its place in our efforts to make sense of the chaotic world around us. We are capable of great savagery, it turns out, but our saving grace is that we’re ultimately a kind, compassionate, caring species. So, yes, we are doomed time and again to witness and sadly participate in conflagrations large and small, but we’re also party to the kindness and curiosity that allow for new life to emerge from the destruction we wreak. In this engaging take on Vonnegut’s classic anti-iceberg novel, Smith comes down solidly on the side of humanity, for better and for worse.

Single Stroke Seven

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.31.21 AMIf gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.

Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.

At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.

As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.

Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”

Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.

Long Promised Road

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.22.43 PMBooks about the Beach Boys tend to focus on Brian Wilson, depicting him as the “mad genius” behind the band’s music. Such accounts trace his evolution from a surf-pop wunderkind to the architect behind the masterful Pet Sounds album, then dwell almost lasciviously on the mental breakdown surrounding the recording of the long-deferred Smile album before turning to his struggles with addiction, mental illness, and the troubling relationship with the Svengali-like therapist who took over Wilson’s life. While such narratives are certainly valid, they tend to ignore other members of the band—in particular Carl Wilson, the youngest of the brothers who formed the heart of the band. In Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys, Kent Crowley aims to correct that.

Less of a counter-narrative than a complementary one, Crowley depicts Carl Wilson as the emotional and musical center of the band, particularly during the years when Brian’s contributions were negligible. In Carl’s early childhood, he was a somewhat reluctant partner in his older brother’s musical machinations, only singing along with Brian under duress and as a result of maternal intercession. Yet as the band started coming together, Carl’s talents as a guitarist and his natural ear for music made him Brian’s closest confidant and later ensured his role as the band’s musical director as the oldest Wilson brother drifted further out of the picture.

As Crowley makes clear throughout the book, a combination of talent and compassion allowed Carl to hold the Beach Boys together through some of the band’s leanest years. Yet even in these lean years, Carl emerges as somewhat of a creative dynamo, crafting some of the finest, albeit most obscure, music the Beach Boys ever created. Indeed, part of the heartbreak of reading Crowley’s account of the band is seeing Carl’s desire to push the band ever forward on the artistic front while personal, financial, and cultural concerns gradually transformed the band into a nostalgia act built almost entirely on the legend of Brian’s genius.

Needless to say, Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in Beach Boys lore. While Crowley’s extensively researched and emotionally sensitive biography can’s fully extricate Carl from that shadow, it succeeds in shining a well-deserved spotlight on the brother whose love for his family and the beautiful music they created together kept the band alive when the rest of the world appeared to have given up on them.

Contemporary Krampus

If you’re looking for a somewhat off-the-wall gift for that special somewhat off-the-wall person on your holiday list this season, Contemporary Krampus may be exactly what you’re looking for. Curated by Mike Drake, this volume offers a wide range of contemporary depictions of Krampus, the “Christmas Devil.” Along with paintings and drawings that range from charming to creepy, Contemporary Krampus also includes brief bios of the artists who produced the works. While the typesetting is a little odd (with text running almost to the edge of the page) and the bios are somewhat uneven (reading like they’ve been taken directly from the artists’ webpages without any editing), the art is what makes this volume particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, here are a few samples…

by Belle Dee

by Belle Dee

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by Angus Oblong

"Merry Krampus" by Richard Svensson

“Merry Krampus” by Richard Svensson

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