Slow down and chew a book: About “Notes on the Death of Culture”

My book collection is about 95% nonfiction. There are many of what my husband calls “long-haired books” (a derogatory term taken from, I think, Foghorn Leghorn). He is amazed that I stay committed to reading volumes he considers school “textbooks”. I’m a fan of reality; I attempt to understand the world. So what? Thought and introspection is considered tedious in these days of our colossal array of cultural activities, rapid fire news and opinions, and a fast-paced, fit-it-all-in lifestyle including commitments to work, family and leisure. But engaging with a book is time I have to ponder and to learn, to sloooooooow doooooowwwwnnnnn.

I tried modern fiction. I don’t much like it. Every month Amazon Prime gives me a choice of a free download. I’ve gotten three, made it through two, and was unimpressed. They just didn’t grab me. My preference is for well-written nonfiction narratives and essays.

This one might be impressive, I thought, as I spied Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture on my local library’s list of new arrivals. “Essays on Spectacle and Society” – only 240 pages. The Nobel laureate discusses the decline of intellectual life and his problem with global culture.

Notes turned out to be a moderately difficult book to digest. It took me over a week to read as I made my own notes (which I almost always do in order to remember what I read) and grappled with these ideas. This was one of those books that you don’t (or probably shouldn’t) sit back, absorb, and nod, but one where you pause, look away from the page, and think about whether you agree with his premise and why. Read More »


Houdini. Skeptic. (Book Review)

magician spiritsHarry Houdini needs no introduction, but there are several facts that people do not know about this consummate skeptic. That makes this book a must for everyone interested in psychics and paranormal claims. Just the Introduction to this great book floored me. How much we needed Houdini at the time. How much we STILL need a Houdini today.

Houdini was open-minded. He admitted he wanted to believe. He strove to learn if the possibility that one could communicate with the dead was real. In an attempt to convince himself, he had compacts with 14 people for post-death communication. He was sorely disappointed that none ever reached beyond the grave to give him evidence he needed. Meanwhile the “mystifier of mystifiers” (a term disgustingly co-opted by Uri Geller, the unimpressive psychic performer) met all the most famous mediums of his time to test this elusive idea.

“Gladly I would embrace Spiritualism if it could prove its claims, but I am not willing to be deluded by fraudulent impostors of so called psychics…”

In this book, he outlines his adventures with them, how he learned their secrets, and how he applied his knowledge of the tricks the mind can play. He was part of the initial era of psychical research.Read More »


Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 2: Lake Monster Tropes

lmtThis is the second in a series of posts examining cryptids (“hidden” animals said to exist based on local testimony), namely lake monsters, in terms of the folklore, tradition, and native tales of these creatures.

The first part is here: Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?



As I noted in part one, Michel Meurger’s 1988 Lake Monster Traditions (LMT) supports the view that reliance on folklore and traditional stories as evidence of cryptids is problematic for many reasons. Chapter 1 of the book is called “The Enquiry” as Meurger and Claude Gagnon undertake field work to the lakes of Quebec in 1981. Many locations are mentioned but the main reports focus on ten lakes that have known lake creature lore.

The creatures reports can be categorized into six general types:

  • big fish
  • horse-head
  • living log
  • boat-like
  • seal-like
  • serpent-like

At the end of the chapter, there is a handy table that shows either that many different kinds of monsters may live in the same lake, or that we can’t accurately pin down a solid description of several of the famous lake denizens. The latter is far more probable. Decades of attempts have been made to find biological evidence for the source of mystery animal reports in lakes around the world. No cryptid has been discovered.


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Cryptozoology and Myth, Part 1: The Illusion of Facticity in Unknown Animal Reports

What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?

Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?

lmtI’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.

There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.

I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.

The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.


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Is the snowflake to blame for the avalanche? (Book review)

Jon Ronson is someone with whom you could sit down and just start up a conversation like you have known him for years. In fact that happened to me a few years back when Jon sat down beside me at a conference, I introduced myself and we started chatting. I feel I could always just start chatting to Jon. This is why his books are so enjoyable to read and how he gets people with interesting stories to talk to him.

shameI was very eager to read his newest book, So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, because I was sure he would tease out some amazing insights into this phenomena of the 2010s – the age of perpetual outrage.

The last time people were subjected to such public backlash, Jon writes, was almost 180 years ago. Stocks meant you were on display in the public square. You could not hide. The media does this very efficiently now but social media, namely Twitter and Internet search engines, are the most destructive of the current shaming tools.

Jon writes that public shaming is like mirrors in the funhouse – the image is so distorted that it makes the individual look monstrous. The small indiscretion gets blown far out of proportion; we overreact to the distorted story. I had a shaming attempt imposed on me one time years ago when a then-notable female skeptic with whom I was only casually acquainted decided that I should be “ashamed” of following a satire account on Twitter, one she felt was personally degrading to her and her friends. She announced this out of the blue in public to her followers. Who the hell did she think she was?

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Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see – Book review

bhBroadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe

This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.

It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.

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Stone-throwing wall-thumpers: Review of Australian Poltergeists

APPaul Cropper sent me a copy of his new book with co-author Tony Healy, Australian Poltergeist: The Stone-throwing Spook of Humpty Doo and Many Other Cases. He must have known how much I love this topic and was eager to learn about various cases around the world.

I learned about the concept of poltergeists before many of today’s weekend ghost hunters were out of diapers. It seems like today’s paranormal investigators do not know much about the long and detailed history about this particular type of haunting. I didn’t know as much as I wanted to but Australian Poltergeist gave me great info but also an increased interest in seeking out more.

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