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Dear Senator Johnson:

I know that historically you have been an opponent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and a loyal member of the Republican Party, and I believe you made those choices for what seemed to you to be good reasons. I don't agree with you, but I respect that you made thoughtful, informed decisions.

I am writing to ask you to change your mind. If the repeal of the ACA succeeds, if President Trump manages to implement any of his healthcare "reforms," people are going to die. They are going to die deaths that would be preventable--that are being prevented now--because they won't be able to afford the medical care they need. This isn't exaggeration, as I hope you already know; a Harvard study in 2009 found that 45,000 people died annually because of lack of healthcare. If President Trump and his supporters succeed, those numbers will increase--and many of the people dying preventable deaths are going to be people who voted to elect you to the U. S. Senate. I am writing in the hopes that your loyalty to your constituents is greater than your loyalty to your party. I am writing in the hopes that you can see that the Republican leadership, including President Trump and his Cabinet, are not acting in the best interests of the people who elected them, the people whom they promised to govern under the auspices of the U. S. Constitution.

If we believe, as the Declaration of Independence says, that all men (and women) are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, surely that means that all men and women are entitled to health care that is both adequate and affordable. The ACA provides that care, and repealing it out of party politics that are, frankly, petty, spiteful, and deeply inappropriate to our government, is both ethically and morally wrong. I don't usually make statements like that, but for me there is no nuance left in this situation. The repeal of the ACA will kill millions of people, and I might very well be one of them.

As one of the citizens whose Constitutional rights you are sworn to uphold, I am asking you to support the ACA and to vote against any effort to repeal it, undercut it, or destroy the safety it provides to all American citizens.

Thank you.

[anyone wanting to use one of my letters as a template is welcome to do so]
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Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and MurderSmall Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder by Ann Rule

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ann Rule wrote mediocre books, good books, and excellent books. This is one of the excellent ones.
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Dear Mr. Obama,

I hope this letter is not at all unusual, but I am writing to thank you for being the forty-fourth President of the United States, and serving two terms ethically, generously, and in kindness of spirit. Being President is a thankless job, and I appreciate that you were willing to do it twice.

I have been spurred to write this letter by the deplorable actions of our forty-fifth President, but my gratitude to you has nothing to do with him. I didn't always agree with your decisions, but I believed then and believed now that you were making the best decisions you could under the circumstances you found yourself in, and always with the good of the people of the United States--ALL the people of the United States--in the forefront of your mind. No matter what the current government manages to do in its efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act, you did a invaluable thing in making it happen at all.

I am sure you are glad to be retired, and I hope your retirement is excellent, for you deserve it to be.

Thank you again.

Sarah Monette

Monument Review
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Sir or Madam:

This spring, 80% of the beautiful old trees lining the block I live on had to come down. Mostly this was because of the Emerald Ash Borer, and the maple tree in front of our house was dying, so it was entirely necessary and correct. But I was still heart-broken, and I am still grieving for those trees.

That is the microcosm of the terrible grief and rage I feel at the idea of any of our national monuments being stripped of their status. There is no reason for this review to be conducted, except that President Trump wants to break things just to be able to say he's broken them--and, no doubt, to profit from the exploitation of the land and sea that will no longer be protected from his greed.

I have been to Giant Sequoia National Monument. The grandeur and stunning beauty of the sequoias are beyond my ability to describe--the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century would undoubtedly have called them sublime if they'd ever seen them. These trees are worthy of our protection if for no other reason than that they are unique in the world; if they are destroyed, we lose something that is irreplaceable, something the value of which cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Their worth is far greater than any profit that could possibly be made from their destruction.

I have not personally visited any of the other national monuments under review--but now I want to, because I believe that I will love them as I love the sequoias. America is a continent full of marvels and wonders, and if they "belong" to us, then we are responsible for keeping them. The decision to protect these national monuments, including Bears Ears, was the correct decision, and I am writing to ask you not to undo that decision. Each of these monuments is irreplaceable and priceless.

I confess that I am also concerned about what President Trump may do next, if he succeeds in his effort to unmake these national monuments. I no longer believe that any consideration of ethics or decency govern his actions, and I don't believe he has any values other than narrow self-interest, egotism, and greed. Therefore, I am asking you to stop him. Don't compromise, don't yield so much as a square inch. Protect the land and sea that have been put into your keeping.

I will be sending a hard copy of this letter via U.S. Mail, and please do make my comments public. I will also be posting this letter on my blog:

Thank you for the time and attention you are giving Executive Order 13792, even though your attention is more than its petty greed and malice deserve.

[comment tracking # 1k1-8wdp-vjox]

[Please, gentle readers, follow this link and make your own comments. Only about 7,000 people have commented so far, and at least some portion of them are opposed to the protection of the national monuments. The deadline to comment for Bears Ears National Monument is May 26; for all other monuments, the deadline is July 10.

Bears Ears is the newest national monument, only designated last year; it seems to be the monument most directly under attack. I am suspicious that this is the reason behind that separate, and much closer, deadline.]
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Nothing But MurderNothing But Murder by William Roughead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

facsimile reprint of the 1946 Sheridan House edition from Literary Licensing, hardbound, high-quality

"An Academic Discussion: A Macabre Conceit"
"The Boys on the Ice: or, the Arran Stowaways"
"Killing No Murder: or, Diminished Responsibility"
"Pieces of Eight: or, the Last of the Pirates"
"The Boy Footpads: or, More Murder in Murrayfield"
"Nicol Muschet: His Crime and Cairn"
"The Adventures of David Haggart"
"The Fatal Countess: A Footnote to 'The Fortunes of Nigel'"
"Physic and Forgery: A Study in Confidence"
"Locusta in Scotland: A Familiar Survey of Poisoning, as Practiced in that Realm"
"My First Murder: Featuring Jessie King"
"The Crime on the Toward Castle: or, Poison in the Pocket"

A collection compiled by Roughead for an American publisher, with a strong focus on Scotland and Edinburgh (except for "The Fatal Countess": Frances Howard must count among Roughead's "darker favorites," even though he only lists her nineteenth century sisters in his essay (in a different collection) "To Meet Miss Madeleine Smith": Madeleine Smith, Jessie M'Lachlan, Florence Bravo, Adelaide Bartlett, and Florence Maybrick). I found "The Boys on the Ice" both horrifying and creepy, with its sad, terrible image of the boy M'Ginnes, left to die on the ice in St. George's Bay when he was too exhausted to continue: "He was 'greeting.' We heard his cries a long way behind us although we could not see him" (24-25). And "Locusta in Scotland" is a magnificent overview of some five hundred years of murder by poison.

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Ripperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary PhenomenonRipperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary Phenomenon by Robin Odell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have tried and tried, and I can't think of a better word to describe this book than "charming." Which seems so wrong in the context of the Whitechapel Murders and Jack the Ripper. But Odell is not writing about Jack the Ripper, exactly. He's writing about the people who write about Jack the Ripper, what they write, and why, and considering the crazy theories that have been put forward in the last century, Odell's wry, generous, thoughtful voice is charming, like a Virgil to lead the reader patiently and clear-headedly through the Inferno of Jack the Ripper Studies, otherwise known as Ripperology.

Odell is himself a major contributor in the field, so he knows the ins and outs of the community of Ripperology very well. He doesn't explain the actual historical crimes and investigations as well as Philip Sugden or Neil R.A. Bell, and the occasional circumstances of the book's production (the Kent State University Press asked him to write about the relationship between American Ripperologists and British Ripperologists for their imaginatively titled "True Crime Series") create an odd, intermittent emphasis on what the Americans happened to be thinking but he's very good at timelines and cross-correlations and using them to poke holes in various whacked-out theories. (His lack of patience for Patricia Cornwell made me very happy.)

This is an excellent overview of the evolution of the historiography of Jack the Ripper, and a great way to get the gist of books you (a) most likely can't find and (b) most likely don't want to have to wade through (the elaborate castles-in-the-air accusing the Duke of Clarence, Walter Sickert (with or without Sir William Gull), James Maybrick, and a number of other unlikely suspects), but that are important artifacts in the history of this particular and very narrow field of criminology.

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For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, today seems like a good day to repost this essay I wrote in 2014 about how readers can help the careers of authors they like. Please feel free to tweet this, tumblr it, reblog it, whatever social medium you use. Just, y'know, keep the attribution, and thank you kindly.


Back in 2009, when my career as a novelist went into a nosedive, somebody asked me what my readers could do to help. I apologize wholeheartedly to that person, for I no longer remember who they are. At the time, I didn't have a good answer, both because I really didn't know and because there was, at that point, nothing readers could do.

But now I do have an answer, and I'm offering it up--not merely on my own behalf, but so that you all, as readers, know how to help the career of any writer whose work you like. And, as it turns out, the answer is simple. There are three major things any reader can do to support a writer:


I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. Buying the book is absolutely the best thing you can do to help a writer. And that means buying the book when it comes out.

(If you cannot afford to buy the book yourself, ask your library to buy the book. This is good for the library, as well as for the author.)

That's easy for The Goblin Emperor: it's a standalone. But I know there are a lot of people--and I'm one of them--who much prefer to wait to buy the books of a series until the series is complete. The problem is that the message that strategy sends to publishers isn't, "I'm waiting to buy this book until I can buy all the books." The message it sends is, "I'm not going to buy the book." And you end up with a situation like I was in in 2009: by the time the fourth book came out, the second book was out of print (so that readers who were waiting for the series to be complete were now unable to buy all the books), and Ace had already decided not to offer me a new contract. By the time the series was complete, in other words, my publishing career with that publisher was already over; people buying the fourth book (and Corambis, like The Mirador, is still in print) had no effect on my career at all. It was too late.

Another grim--and frequently realized--possibility is that later books of a series never come out at all. Publishers don't necessarily buy all the books in a series when they buy Book One. (Again, to use me as an example, Ace bought Mélusine and The Virtu together, but they didn't buy The Mirador and Corambis until two years later when they'd had a chance to see the sales figures on Mélusine, which is the only one of the four that earned out its advance.) If they don't like the sales figures on Book One, they may choose not to buy the later books at all. Again, the people who were waiting to buy the series never register as potential sale; they register as No Sale.

So if you're one of those people who prefers to wait (and I promise you, I understand and I sympathize), buy the book anyway. Again, this isn't just about my career, because it isn't just in my case that publishing works this way. Any author you like, if they start a series, buy the books as they come out. Nobody will make you read them until the series is complete, and buying the books as they appear is the only direct way you can tell the publisher you want the series to continue.


(I know this is self-evident, but it just felt weird leaving it out.)


There is an indirect way you can tell the publisher you want the series to continue, or the author to be offered another contract, and that is to tell everyone you know that you like the book.


Nobody actually understands why readers choose to buy the books they do. Nobody understands why J. K. Rowling took the world by storm and Diana Wynne Jones never did. Nobody understands why The Name of the Rose was a best-seller. Or Fifty Shades of Gray. Or A Game of Thrones. Publishers are trying their damnedest to find the books that will replicate this phenomenon, but they do it by guess and gamble, and when they succeed, they don't know why, either. Nobody knows why people buy books.

The thing we do know is that word-of-mouth is the best and most persuasive way for a potential reader to find out about a book.

So if you like the book, tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell your co-workers. Tell anyone you know who you think might like it. Blog about it. Write an Amazon review of it. Ask your library to buy it, even if, up in Step 1, you bought a copy for yourself. Get your book club to read it. Spread the word.

Now, none of this is obligatory. I'm not issuing commands here. I'm saying that, if there is a writer whose books you like, these are the best things you can do to help their career continue. And it holds true for self-published authors, as well. The mechanics are different, but those fundamental needs are the same. Authors need readers first and foremost to read their books, because without that, none of this even matters. But to make their careers flourish, authors need readers to buy their books and talk about them.

That's my answer. That's how readers can help the career of an author whose works they enjoy.

Buy, Read, Talk. (Like Eat, Pray, Love, only for books.)
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So, basically, this week has been a clusterfuck in a shitstorm, but I want to also note that there are awesome things out there:

1. The white ravens of Qualicum Beach.

2. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973): I picked up a cheap 2-CD compilation, and holy fucking shit that woman could sing.

3. This video. I usually eschew this particular internet acronym, but I admit it: Reader, I LOLled.

4. George Takei.

5. Deer eat dead people. Forensic scientists have pics to prove it. ETA: See also, giraffes gnaw bones.
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(1) Congressman Mark Pocan
Dear Mr. Pocan:

Thank you for voting against the American Health Care Act yesterday. Thank you for speaking out so frankly against it in your press release. When so much of our current government seems either indifferent or actually hostile to the welfare of the citizens of the United States, I am grateful to have a representative who continues to put his constituents' needs first. Thank you for not betraying your voters.

(2) Senator Tammy Baldwin
Dear Senator Baldwin:

Yesterday, the Republicans in the House of Representatives, after carefully exempting themselves from the consequences, voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When the bill comes before the Senate, I know that you will vote against it. Thank you for being someone your constituents can rely on to protect them.

(3) Senator Ron Johnson
Dear Senator Johnson:

Yesterday, the Republicans in the House of Representatives, after carefully exempting themselves from the consequences, voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I know your voting record; I know how you feel about the Affordable Care Act. But I am asking you, please, to reconsider your stance. The American Health Care Act is a debacle that will harm--quite possibly kill--millions of Americans. If you support Americans' right to bear arms, how can you not support their right to adequate affordable health care?

I am one of your constituents, and I will be harmed by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. When the American Health Care Act comes before the Senate, please vote against it.
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So Cicero had this rhetorical trick of which he was very fond, called praeteritio, which goes like this: "Today, I'm not going to talk about how Cataline fornicates with underage sheep. If I were, I would tell you that he he takes pictures and posts them on the internet as sh33pfck3r999. But since I'm not talking about his unnatural relations with sheep, I'm going to tell you about the filthy filthy things he does with pigs, instead." (My apologies to both pigs and sheep for being included in this hypothetical example.)

Therefore, I'm not going to talk about how the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) benefits me or how much I need the health care I have now or how that horrible list of "pre-existing conditions" set by the American Health Care Act (Trumpcare) paints a target on me at least eleven times (no, you did not read that number wrong). No, I'm not going to talk about any of that. Instead, I'm going to talk about my friend Caitlin.

Caitlin in the daughter of Lynne and Michael Thomas. She has Aicardi Syndrome, which is a rare genetic disorder that affects the development of the brain. As one would expect from such a thing, it causes a horrific array of problems. Obamacare made it possible for Caitlin to get the medical treatment and support she needs.

Trumpcare wants to make her, and children like her, disappear.

Trump makes Godwin's Law so easy it feels trivial even to mention it, but I must point out that the Third Reich also wanted to make children with disabilities disappear, and it was pretty good at it, too.

On the other side, Gandhi, who was no fool, remarked, "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." And Hubert H. Humphrey said in his final speech, "the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped." By that test, the administration of the 45th President of the United States and the 115th United States Congress are failing miserably, and the United States is in grave jeopardy of ceasing to be at all, by any definition, a great nation.

Abraham Lincoln, who's been on my mind a lot recently (and who would be ashamed and horrified at what the Republican Party has come to), defined the government of the United States of America as "government of the people, by the people, for the people," and if that's at all true, if ours is a government for the people as much as a government of the people, then our government owes it to its citizens to make sure that they have adequate health care, that they don't go bankrupt to get the health care they need, and that no one dies because they cannot afford--or are afraid they cannot afford--to see a doctor. (There are a number of other things I think our government owes its citizens, but that's a tangent for another time.) This is not an abstract issue for me. I have dearly beloved friends who could not get the health care they needed because they couldn't get insurance--because writers are, hey, self-employed and therefore, pre-ACA, out in the cold. And it is not an abstract issue for me because I know Caitlin and I know how much she needs medical care that her parents, who work their asses off, could not afford without the ACA.

I've been having anxiety attacks on and off since the evening of November 8, 2016, as I watch Trump and his administration and the 115th Congress rampage through our nation's government like gleeful trolls, destroying everything they can get their hands on simply because they can. This, the third attempt to repeal the ACA, is for me proof that we are being governed by people who are themselves only governed by spite, hatred, fear, and greed.

I have joined the ACLU; I have written--and will continue to write--to my elected representatives, even though two are Democrats and the other is Senator Ron Johnson who does not give a fuck what I think.

And I'm making this post because I have to try to make my voice heard, even if no one is listening. The ACA is something of tremendous value, something our nation should be proud of, not something to tear down because of petty party politics. It makes the lives of millions of Americans easier and less fearful and how the Republican congressmen and -women who are voting for its repeal can even look each other in the face, or even look at themselves in the mirror, is something I will never understand.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if society rewards sociopathic behavior, people will behave like sociopaths. If you need an example to prove it, look at the 115th Congress and the textbook demonstrations of sociopathy they've been giving this week. (Jason Chaffetz, I am looking at you. But not only at you.) The people voting to repeal the ACA do not care about their constituents; they do not care about good government; they don't even care about the ideals they claim their party upholds. They care only about themselves and their bottom line. And if Obamacare is "collapsing," you assholes, it's because you have done nothing for the past seven years but sabotage and stonewall and do everything in your power to keep it from working.

Please, gentle reader, resist. Whatever you can do, even if it doesn't feel like enough, even if you don't think your opinion can possibly matter. Because if we each put a pebble down, maybe we can build a wall Trump won't like. And maybe we can keep the current administration and current Congress from eviscerating everything that lets America verge on greatness.
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The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and MemoryThe Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory by Harold Holzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unexpectedly apposite this week (*facepalm*), this is a collection of essays originally presented at the Lincoln Forum (except for a reprint of the first chapter of The Lincoln Nobody Knows). As is inevitable, the quality varies pretty widely, from the essays by Edward Steers Jr. and Michael Kauffman on the trial of the conspirators, which are well-written and thought-provokingly at odds with each other, to Frank J. Williams' disorganized assemblage of remarks about Lincoln, Obama, and the constitutional rights of political detainees. I disagree with Williams' politics pretty vehemently, but my actual problem with the essay is that it has no clear thesis and doesn't seem to be sure what it's trying to talk about.

The essays in this collection have in common the attempt to understand Lincoln's assassination, and the responses to it by various parties, in the context of April 1865. These attempts range from a collation of newspaper accounts of Lincoln's funeral procession in New York (and how much of the route and the buildings along it are still extant today); to a biographical assessment of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the man who oversaw the conspirators' trial and who became lost in his obsession with avenging Lincoln's death on the men he thought responsible: the leaders of the Confederacy; to an examination of the trials of people accused of celebrating Lincoln's death (sentences of up to ten years' imprisonment were imposed; one soldier was sentenced to death by firing squad for saying, "Abraham Lincoln was a long-sided Yankee son of a bitch and ought to have been killed long ago." (His sentence was commuted, although what happened to him after that is not shown.)

Oddly, the most resonant part of the collection for me (aside from the stupid grief I feel for a man who would have been dead long before I was born anyway) are Elizabeth Leonard's quotes from Joseph Holt's writings. Holt became wrong, and I make no apologia for his conduct of the conspirators' trial, but before that, he wrote: We are all with our every earthly interest embarked in midocean, on the same common deck, the howl of the storm in our ears, and [...] while the noble ship pitches and rolls under the lashings of the waves, a cry is heard that she has sprung a leak at many points, and that the rushing waters are mounting rapidly in the hold. The man who in such an hour will not work at the pumps is either a maniac or a monster. (Joseph Holt, open letter published in the Louisville Journal and the New York Times, May 31, 1861, qtd. in Elizabeth Leonard, "Lincoln's Chief Avenger: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt," p. 123). The ship of state is certainly storm-tossed at the moment and (to bring this into a ring-composition), I wish I believed that the man at the helm was neither monster nor maniac.

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The Black Museum: New Scotland YardThe Black Museum: New Scotland Yard by Bill Waddell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I regret to report that this book is just not very good.

Waddell is a poor writer, showing little regard for his words: e.g., "euphoria" when (my guess is) he meant "hysteria" in discussing Rose Mylett, "another name added to the endless list of murdered women who were believed to be Ripper victims, when in fact there was very little to connect them with the Ripper's modus operandi. Such was the euphoria created by the press of the time" (79). He's preachy and prone to platitudes; his prose is clumsy; and he has lamentably zero flair for true crime narrative. I admit he has an uphill battle in trying to write a book about the Black Museum, but still.

He perpetuates several myths about Jack the Ripper (there were no farthings, polished or otherwise, found near Annie Chapman's body) while taking other writers severely to task for perpetuating myths, and I'm afraid I lost a great deal of respect for him when he started defending Sir Robert Anderson's "Mad Jew" story.

I bought this book because the odds of my ever having the chance to visit the Black Museum are very close to zero. And it does provide at least some of what I wanted. But as a book, it was disappointing.

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Capturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian LondonCapturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian London by Neil Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bell is not a graceful writer, but he conveys his information clearly. He is a sane and responsible Ripperologist--meaning that he assesses evidence logically, refers generally to "the Whitechapel murders" to avoid questions about which women are "canonical" Jack-the-Ripper victims and which aren't, and regards all letters, chalked messages, pieces of kidney, and other communications alleged to be from Jack the Ripper with healthy skepticism--and has done a great deal of research into the lives of ordinary bobbies, specifically in H Division (Whitechapel), but more generally in the Metropolitan and City Police. Questions about uniforms, about training, about what a constable's "beat" actually consisted of, about the likely career path (you could rise up steadily through the ranks as long as you didn't trip yourself up by getting sacked for being drunk on duty--which happened a lot), the procedure for interviewing witnesses, communications between Scotland Yard and individual stations, what happened when someone was arrested for drunk and disorderly, where the chinks were for corruption to creep in. He goes into detail about Sir Charles Warren's rise and fall (including some incidents I had never read about before), and throughout he presents the Whitechapel murders as much as possible as they were experienced by the police of London.

Highly recommended for anyone researching--for whatever purpose--the police of late Victorian London.

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The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher CreativityThe Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron

I can't rate this book, since my opinion of it veers wildly between five stars and zero stars.

Read more... )

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Poison: An Illustrated HistoryPoison: An Illustrated History by Joel Levy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully designed book which talks about poisons from arsenic and snake venom to ricin and sarin. It's not terribly in-depth on any of them, but it does offer a panoramic overview from Cleopatra and Socrates to Alan Turing and Georgi Markov. Levy is an engaging writer, mostly light and deft--he missteps kind of horribly when talking about the assassination of Sarkov by a KGB agent wielding a pellet-shooting air-gun concealed in an umbrella (ammunition: jeweler's ball-bearings that contained ricin). Describing the umbrella as a "slaughterous sunshade" is, I'm sorry, over the top (134)--and very good at explaining how poisons work in a way that's simple enough for a layperson to follow but detailed enough for that same layperson to feel like s/he actually has a good understanding of what's happening, chemically speaking.

The beauty of the design does occasionally get in the way. Some of the font choices are hard to read, and, the sidebar pages offering profiles of the various poisons being printed on colored paper, some of the colors are too dark to easily read the text against.

So: good, but not great.

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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm a little disheartened to learn that Csikszentmihalyi has gone on to become "the world's foremost producer of personal development and motivational audio programs," because that makes his work sound like exactly the kind of self-help bullshit that he says, in Flow, doesn't do any good. But I can see where, from what he wrote in 1990, he could have become a proselytizer for his theory, and, yeah, that is going to lead you into "personal development" and similar dreadful sounding things.

Csikszentmihalyi's theory may not be everybody's dish of tea, and the stronger he comes on the more nervous he makes me, but nevertheless I found this book extremely illuminating and helpful, as it explained to me something about myself that I've noticed for years without having the words to describe.

Csikszentmihalyi says that what makes people happy are activities which have (a) clear goals, (b) clear rules, (c) clear challenges that are neither too difficult (leading to frustration) nor too easy (leading to boredom). He points out that for all we have been socially conditioned to prize unstructured leisure time in which to do nothing (i.e., watch TV), it provides only passive pleasure and does not actually make anyone happy. Unless, of course, you turn your TV into an activity that involves what he calls "flow," which is a possibility that doesn't seem to have occurred to him. He says that people who are good at "flow" (what most athletes call being "in the zone") are able to create these activities for themselves out of jobs that other people find boring or in fact out of boredom itself. He cites the charming example of Herr Doktor Meier-Leibnitz (yes, a descendant of the Leibnitz who was Newton's rival), who invented a complicated finger-tapping pattern game to amuse himself during boring conference presentation. Not only does this game alleviate his boredom without taking away too much of his attention, it allows him, because he knows how long it takes him to go through an iteration, to time how long a problem-solving train of thought lasts. Csikszentmihalyi says that these criteria for flow activities remain the same across differences of class, race, nationality, sex, and age, and that people describe the feeling of "flow" in ways that are recognizably the same, whether they are blind Italian nuns or teenage Japanese gang members.

And it explains to me my fondness for translation, for algebra, for crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and all kinds of puzzle-solving games, for rock climbing (several of his interview subjects are rock climbers), and for dressage, because--as widely disparate as they are when considered as activities--they all meet Csikszentmihalyi's criteria for "flow." I can even recognize that I have invented a flow activity out of my day job, which explains a great deal why I like it.

And I can see that writing used to be a flow activity, but that I've somehow lost the unconscious ability to set goals, so that now I veer wildly between "I've done this before, the puzzle is solved" (boredom), or "omg this is impossible, I'll never be able to do it" (frustration and despair). And Csikszentmihalyi gives me objective guidelines that show what's gone wrong and that offer, if not a solution, at least an avenue of exploration more promising than I've had in a while.

And I appreciate the way that he points out that activities we undertake for their own sake, not because we "ought" to or because they will make us "successful," are the activities we find most enjoyable and most enriching, and thus the activities that are actually more likely to bring us a feeling of satisfaction and success--and more likely to produce poetry, art, music, scientific breakthroughs, etc. He gives a quote from one of his respondents, someone who is both a rock-climber and a poet, which I have added to my collection of quotes that I keep around my desk where they will provide a sanity check: "The act of writing justifies poetry."

I do, yes, find him a little smug, and his understanding of evolution is woefully unnuanced and kind of wrong--not surprising for someone who coined the term "autotelic" to describe people who create flow out of the materials to hand. He is decidedly a teleological thinker who sees evolution as a steady advance toward more complex and therefore better and therefore humans are the current pinnacle of evolution and must take their own evolution in their autotelic hands to make the species advance rather than stagnate or regress. So take his somewhat megalomaniacal concluding chapter with a liberal application of salt, but if you recognize yourself in anything I've said, you might want to give Flow a look.

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truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)

After two years of wandering disconsolately from specialist to specialist like the bird with no feet, I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

ON THE ONE HAND, this is a relief. It means I have a name for why I feel tired and achy and depressed all the time. (And, yes, it probably started cascading back in 2010, when I broke my ankle.)

ON THE OTHER HAND, I'm trapped in a good news/bad news joke. The good news is, I'm doing everything right. The bad news is . . . I'm doing everything right. Diet, exercise, sleep, biofeedback/mindfulness, etc. I already take the most commonly prescribed medications for fibromyalgia for the RLS. There wasn't very much the fibromyalgia specialist could recommend, and I appreciate that he was upfront about it.

(Additionally, because this is the internet, and I know how the internet works, please assume that I have already explored my options thoroughly. I am grateful for good wishes, but I do not need advice.)

So I find that I have to rethink a lot of things. This is not the person I wanted to be at 42, and I'm trying to figure out how to manage myself to get closer to that person, who writes stories and plays music and rides dressage and loves what she does. (And who answers email. Jesus Fucking Christ.) My principal focus is on my writing, because for most of my life if the writing goes well, everything else goes well, too, and hence this blog's new name (all the content from Notes from the Labyrinth is here; I deleted my LJ account, but I did not burn down my blog), because I am in fact experiencing more than a few technical difficulties. As I have the energy to spare, I'm going to try to blog about them, on the theory that other writers and creative persons may be experiencing some of those difficulties themselves, whether because of fibromyalgia or for some other reason.

(Book reviews will continue as they have been.)

We do the best we can with what we have, and this is what I have.


truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)

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