Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Attrocities needs to win some kind of award. It bravely goes where other history books fear to tread, and it may be the best book I will read this year. I have had my head in it off and on for the past three months, and I have been constantly amazed at how deftly the author has pulled off this gargantuan task.
Instead of just telling history via the traditional route—the rise and fall of nations and empires, the victors of battles, the ideological struggles, and the court intrigues of kings and queens—White also keeps his eye on the millions upon millions of people who have lost their lives due to human violence and indifference.
Author Steven Pinker writes in his Foreword to the book:
[White's] scorn is directed at the stupidity and callousness of history’s great leaders, at the statistical innumeracy and historical ignorance of various ideologues and propagandists, and at the indifference of traditional history to the magnitude of human suffering behind momentous events.”
If ever there was a book to appeal to the better angels of our nature, this is it.
White, a librarian in Virginia by day, is a self-described atrocitologist. Until the publication of this book, he has been best known as the creator of the online Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century. Data from this web resource has been cited by 377 published books and 183 scholarly articles according to the book jacket. (Insert Ask a Librarian commercial here.)
White loves statistics, and he knows the numbers people want to argue about the most are death tolls. He also knows that people will argue over his death toll estimates in this book. The important thing is, he didn’t let this stop him from producing this important work.
White covers the 100 deadliest multicides beginning with the Second Persian War (480-479 BC, death toll: 300,000) to the Second Congo War (1998-2002, death toll: 3.8 million). For each entry, he gives us good historical background, lists the type of multicide involved (i.e. civil war, failed state, ethnic cleansing, religious conflict, etc.), names the major players and any secondary participants, and tells us who usually gets the most blame.
Following the individual entries, White provides an analysis, gives us a look at the raw numbers, discusses runner-up and disqualified events, and provides a note on perspective: future historians, he writes, may view 20th century events—from the First World War to the deaths of Hitler, Stalin and Mao—as “a single massive upheaval…which took the lives of some 150 million people.”
Real students of history may disagree, but for this dabbler in history, there were dozens of fascinating revelations. I’ll just share a few:
• I would have assumed that Europe would have been the site of the most destructive war related to Christian ideology. I would be wrong. It happened in China (Taiping Rebellion, 1850-64, death toll: 20 million), when Christian-convert Hong Xiuquan came to believe he was the new Son of God, the younger brother of Jesus.
• If you think the Twentieth Century was the deadliest in history, you’re right. Some of the very worst atrocities take place in that century: Second World War, death toll: 66 million; Mao Zedong’s rein, death toll: 40 million; Joseph Stalin’s rein, death toll: 20 million; First World War, death toll: 15 million; Russian Civil War, death toll: 9 million; Chinese Civil War, death toll: 7 million. Plus, two multicides stretched into the Twentieth Century: Famines in British India (18th-20th centuries, death toll: 27 million) and Congo Free State (1885-1908, death toll: 10 million).
• I was surprised to see those Famines in British India ranked as the fourth worst atrocity in history. Typically, we think famines are caused by nature, the departure of the rains. But White shows how famines are often caused by human conflict or greed. In this particular case, the famines in India were caused by commercial exploitation, and an inept and uncaring Britain that worried more about profit.
• War kills more civilians than soldiers. Turns out, “the army is usually the safest place to be during a war.”
• Some of the entries you would expect to find under their own big headings are part of larger narratives. For example, the Holocaust toll is part of the Second World War toll. Likewise, the Trail of Tears is part of a larger entry: The Conquest of the Americas after 1492, death toll: 15 million.
I could go on and on, but you need to experience this book for yourself. Every library needs a copy. Everyone who cares about the future of our world needs to give it a look.
Oh, and the next time you hear someone advocating a little revisionist history—you know, like the Holocaust didn’t happen, or the Atlantic Slave Trade (1452-1807; death toll: 16 million) should just be called the Trans-Atlantic Trade, do me a favor: throw this book at them. It’s big and heavy and should knock some sense into them.
I remember a friend telling me years ago that romantic love was an illusion. Of course, it also has a lot to do with our biology. Musician Joni Mitchell has called romance a “trick of nature, fueled by anxiety and insecurity… to get us to procreate.” In order for romantic love to be successful, both parties must be under the influence of this biological trick; or as my friend would put it, both people have to buy into the illusion.
All of that sounds pretty darn cynical. After all, romantic love is powerful stuff—so powerful that the creative among us often devote their artistic lives to consider it, analyze it, and dissect it in paintings, sculpture, song, plays and film. And in books.
I finished Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84 six weeks ago. I’ve been reading like a house on fire, but I just haven’t set aside time to blog about my recent reads. The space between finishing Murakami’s latest and this blog post has given me a chance to consider just what this book says to me, and I think I can put it into words now.
1Q84 is about the magical, mystical and illusory journey that romantic love inspires, and about the biological, sexual, and emotional journey that nature demands. It’s also about the danger of falling in love, whether because we put ourselves in an overwhelmingly vulnerable position, or because the path to our loved one is fraught with antagonistic obstacles and trap doors. So powerful is this love, we can put our very life on the line to achieve both the ecstasy and the contentment promised by the union with our loved one.
It’s a Barnum and Baily world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.”—It’s Only a Paper Moon by Billy Rose and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg
Our protagonists, Aomame and Tengo, could not seem more different when the novel begins. She is the product of parents who practice an unforgiving fundamentalist religion, while Tengo is the son of an obsessively insistent television-fee collector. In the present (1984 Japan), Aomame is a physical fitness trainer and self-defense instructor who sidelines as a serial killer, offing men who have cruelly presided over the destruction of the women in their lives. Tengo is a math instructor and aspiring writer.
Through their memories of growing up, we discover that both have little if any love from their family. We also discover that they knew of each other as children, and that they shared a magical moment of connection when they were ten years old. The memory of this connection eventually propels them to try to find each other, as they both realize that they have entered an alternate reality—a world that has two moons in the sky, and a world that is being influenced by an other-worldly force that is intent on taking control. (Aomame refers to this world as 1Q84, with “Q” for “question mark.” In my mind, I pronounced it q-teen-eighty-four.)
They each take different paths to the alternate reality—Aomame through an unconventional exit from a highway, and Tengo through the editing and polishing of a fantastical tale that introduces the “little people,” the outside force that is attempting to emerge into our world—but they ultimately find themselves at the same intersection, a point where they have come to believe in themselves and each other and in the power of love.
I could go into more of the story, for there is much to this story: the religious cult that provides an opening for the little people, Aomame’s path to vengeance, Tengo’s mysterious memory of his mother, the confounding teenage girl Fuka-Eri, the short story “Town of Cats,” the surprising pregnancy, and the ugly-beyond-ugly private investigator. I suppose literary critics could have a lot of fun discussing how the various elements relate to Aomame’s and Tengo’s great love story. But I’ll leave that to experts more adept at literary analysis.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this: Murakami’s story is not over when the two lovers find each other. Now they must find out if they can escape 1Q84 and return to their 1984. Just like lovers in real life, who have entered the emotional and spiritual place where romance is born and cemented, they must now incorporate their union into everyday life. Can Aomame retrace her steps along the highway to return herself and Tengo to the world they remember, or does another reality await them?
When I finished the novel, I wondered if Murakami really needed 925 pages to tell his story. Now I’m wondering if that’s a metaphor as well: It may take a long time to get there, but the journey may be fun, and the destination may be worth it.
Found a brand new Simon Brett, Fethering mystery, at the library and just finished it this weekend. Guns in the Gallery puts Fethering residents Carole and Jude right in the thick of family jealousy, ex-lovers, artistic temperments, and psychological problems.
Simon Brett is a master of the mystery plot. His stories keep you guessing right up to the end. I had a completely different person picked out as the murderer of young fragile Fennel Whittaker. Carole and Jude play off their opposite personalities as they investigate the various suspects.
The Cornelian Art Gallery kicks off a Private View, that starts more in motion than controversial art. The art show reveals a canvas of characters, boyfriends, ex-lovers, jealous siblings, parents needing parenting, and the townspeople of Fethering. Simon Brett mysteries are packed with plot twists and turns, leading you on with an Agatha Christie flair.
One of the best things about Simon Brett is his prolific writing. Choose from the Charles Paris, Mrs. Pageter, Fethering series, or the new series with Blotto and Twinks. Looks like it’s turning into a very British summer for me.
I09 broke the story of Ray Bradbury’s passing at the age of 91. Many generations got their first taste of extraordinary writing from timeless classics like Fahrenheit 451, Illustrated Man, .and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even “non-readers” thrilled to his stories. The LA Times has more about the great man and some video clips.
Here’s a lovely video from The Big Read funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ray Bradbury thoughts on books, reading and libraries.
Please enjoy and remember back to your first Ray Bradbury story or book.
Nothing makes me happier than finding a new Bryant & May, by Christopher Fowler. The Memory of Blood brings back the whole cast of characters from the Peculiar Crimes Unit. We are cleverly informed of their personalities and peccadillos from a “Wikileaks document”. Arthur St. John Bryant and John May are the senior detectives and solver of the most difficult crimes. This time Fowler uses London theatrical history to capture his audience.
Our host for the New Strand Theatre production, The Two Murderers, is the less than scrupulous entrepeneur, Robert Kramer. Combine him with an unhappy wife, unfaithful lovers, a set designer with an interest in torture chambers, a plagiarizing playwright, murderous puppets, and you’ve got a perfect Peculiar Crimes Unit story.
Nathan, baby of Robert and Judith Kramer is mysteriously strangled by Punch (of Punch & Judy fame) and tossed from the window. There we begin a string of deaths, with ties to The Two Murderers and the Punch and Judy characters. Twists and turns, as Bryant & May, and their team look to solve a hanging, death by Scold’s Bridle, and pitchfork. Even amid murder and mayhem, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments between characters.
A side story involves Arthur Bryant writing his memoirs and the mysterious demise of his editor, Anna Marquand, with national security implications, of course. Never a dull moment in a Christopher Fowler mystery.
I love summer, and since Oklahoma can’t seem to decide what season we’re in, I’m declaring it summer. So I’ve put aside my chores, and my computer how-to manuals and I’m reading for fun. Started with David Handler’s The Boy Who Never Grew Up, which despite the fact the book was written in 1992, Hollywood looks much the same as it does now. Stewart Hoag, ghost writer extrodinaire, has been sent to help Matthew Wax, movie mogul, get over the imminent collapse of his marriage by writing his memoirs. His wife is writing her own, and we’ve got the “he said, she said” war emerging. Wax is quite literally pulling his hair out over his lady love, Pennyroyal. Hoag has plenty to deal with, adolescent grown-ups, crazy ambitious actresses, and toss in some arson and racy photos and you’ve got the idea. I almost forgot Lulu, a charmer for all dog lovers. The mystery parts are well developed, the ending is a suprise and you meet one Hollywood character after another.
Then of course, I found a Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden I hadn’t read. How is that even possible. Poppy Done to Death. Poppy, Aurora’s sister-in-law, is about to be accepted into the prestigious “Uppity Women Book Club.” Before she can accept this honor, she’s murdered in her own kitchen and Aurora discovers the body. There’s lots of infidelity going on, with desperate housewives and husbands on the prowl. It’s hard to find anyone still faithful to their partner. In little Lawrenceton, Georgia, the saying “no one really knows anyone”, couldn’t be truer.
Aurora has a new love interest since the death of her husband, Martin. And the relationship is moving along in surprising ways. Her half brother Phillip, provides an unexpected visit, and adds to her personal narrative. Charlaine Harris is always a good cozy read. Interesting characters, strong Southern charm, and a mystery to keep you reading until the end. Grab your sweet tea and put your feet up for this one.
When the culture wars returned a couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of Sheri S. Tepper’s 1998 novel Six Moon Dance. My brain blew a fuse. It was one of those serendipitous moments when what you’re reading informs the news of the day—and vice versa.
Whether you believe the current culture war is about women’s health and access to contraception, or about religious freedom, or both, there’s no denying that reproductive and sexual politics have come into play. Just turn on any cable news station.
When it comes to literary commentary on gender issues, Tepper is a master in the science fiction/fantasy genre. Her novel The Gate to Women’s Country is a landmark in feminist sci-fi. (And a darn good read, too!)
In this Tepper novel, the author turns gender stereotypes on their head. On the human-colonized planet Newholme, a matriarchal society has evolved. A virus that attaches itself to the double-x chromosome means fewer births of live females. Women become treasured, and the families of young men pay dowries to the families of young women to forge families. As in pre-modern times, the marriage arrangements are not romantic but economic. Once a woman has given birth to children—done her “duty”—she can buy the services of a consort, a man who has been trained in the art of pleasuring women.
This is where protagonist Mouche comes in. He is the son of parents who have been unable to produce daughters. These families are unable to pay dowries for their sons because they have been unable to collect dowries for daughters. Their options are few. One option is for the family to sell a son to a Madame who grooms young men to become consorts. And so Mouche finds himself in the house of Madame Genevois, the most prestigious consort house on the planet.
In this house, Mouche will rediscover the “Timmys”—another life form on the planet to which human children are intimately connected. But as children grow older, they are told the Timmys are illusions and must be ignored. But Mouche can’t ignore them. And increasingly, it appears the other residents of Newholme can’t ignore them either. For the Timmys once held the key to protecting this volcanically-active planet, an activity that reaches dire proportions when Newholme’s six moons align.
The above description of Six Moon Dance doesn’t even begin to touch upon this almost-epic work. Suffice it to say there are many more characters, many secrets, and a million-year-old back story that only adds richness and intrigue to Tepper’s commentary on gender, sex and mysogyny. And once the big questions are answered, and you feel you have just finished a great book, there is the most delightful of payoffs.
There are a number of interviews with Tepper out on the web, but this is my favorite one!
We humans are a curious lot. We like to see ourselves above nature—higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. We often fool ourselves, believing we are in control of the natural world that surrounds our homes, schools and businesses. Well, at least until the next tornado, earthquake, flood, famine or disease comes along.
Even people who know full well how interconnected we are to the natural world can experience eureka moments of understanding. It happened to journalist and food author Michael Pollan one day while he was watching a bee move from flower to flower. He marveled that the bee really had no understanding of its role in the plant’s reproductive cycle.
And then Pollan was struck by the fact that he was in the middle of planting potatoes in his garden. Potatoes! He was servicing a tuberous root that was domesticated thousands of years ago by the Incas in South America. Human beings have spent centuries helping the potato spread across the planet. That’s when Pollan’s 2001 book, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World was conceived.
Pollan looks at four plants in Botany of Desire, and explains how a particular attraction humans have for each of the plants has led us to move heaven and earth to cultivate them across the world. Because of our desires, we have made them four of the most successful plants in history.
Our pursuit of sweetness has made the Apple the most popular fruit on earth. Our love of beauty has made the Tulip a star. Our desire to get high has made Cannibis one of the most modified plants in the world. Finally, our history with the Potato is a compelling reflection of our desire for control in a chaotic world.
Pollan’s book is filled with histories and stories that will make you look at our relationship with these plants in a whole new way. You’ll see Johnny Appleseed in a completely different light. If you think the Housing Bubble is bad, wait until you read about the Tulip Bubble. You’ll see how we’ve changed Cannibis from a tall, ugly weed into a compact beauty that can be grown indoors (so as not to alert the authorities). And you’ll discover the dangers of monocultures (think Irish Potato Famine) as you follow the potato from its Inca origins to the french fries you buy at McDonald’s. (We’ve even grown potatoes in space!)
PBS was so impressed with Pollan’s groundbreaking 2001 book that it commissioned a documentary based on it. You can explore for yourself online, but don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the printed version. After all, the book is always better.
Online magazine Vice calls Harold Bloom “the preeminent literary critic in the world.” It’s hard to argue with that. This writer, critic, professor, and staunch champion of classic literature is one-of-a-kind. My friend Lloyd loves him, and talked to me, in particular, about one of Bloom’s most popular works: The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.
My only other exposure to Bloom, until recently, was his work Jesus and Yahweh : The Names Divine. Although the subject of that work was investigating what we really know about Jesus, the author spent some time expressing his love for the Old Testament, the Jewish Tanakh. (This was also my first exposure to the idea that Bathsheba could be the author of the Torah, the first five books of the bible. A bit more on this controversial idea here.)
Knowing he placed the Old Testament up there with Shakespeare (or is that other way around?), I was not surprised to see Bloom’s latest work staring at me from the library stacks. (Although I was excited.) The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible is the author’s celebration of “the sublime summit of literature in English.” Bloom also includes Shakespeare in this “sublime summit” for both the works of the Bard’s major phase and the KJB emerged during the same time period, 1604-1611.
Bloom reads passages from the KJB alongside those of the original Greek and Hebrew texts, as well as the Tyndale and Geneva Bibles, to illustrate how the KJB translators improved or diminished the text.
During the journey, we discover how Songs of Solomon inspired poetry and Shakespeare, how God’s voice changed from mocking to “threatening rhapsody” in Job; and we meet the strangest, but perhaps the most literary, Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
Tyndale is the master translator in this picture, and his Bible and other works influenced the KJB translation:
The inexplicable wonder is that a rather undistinguished group of writers… brought forth a magnificence almost to rival Shakespeare’s. Without Tyndale as fountainhead, it could not have been done, but Tyndale’s powerfully rugged prose is very unlike the orchestration of the sentences of the KJB.”
Yes, orchestration. There is beauty here. Millions of people read the King James Bible for its religious dogma and spiritual inspiration, but Bloom says we should look at it a different way as well: as a masterpiece of English literature.
I’m not a great fan of Halloween, generally. I live in an early 20th century eight-plex that makes it pretty darn hard to pass out candy and “oooo” and “ahhh” at the little tykes in costume. I’m not a party person, either. Plus, I’m not easily spooked. I prefer those holidays where family and friends gather. Halloween is just sort of… meh.
I do try to get in the mood though by renting a scary movie or reading a horror novel. So when I came across a discounted copy of Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter at a book store in September, I thought: “Oh! This will be a good book to read around Halloween!”
So I start it mid-October, and it takes me until the week of Thanksgiving to finish it! Honestly, the horror in this book was just getting through it.
I had never read a Straub novel, but this one appeared to have everything going for it, including praise from the likes of Stephen King, Michael Chabon and Booklist. And the author is a bestseller and an award-winner to boot!
In the novel, a 60-something writer in the present is moved to finally find out what really happened in a Madison, WI field in the 1960s. His wife and three of his friends were present at the event, where one person was slaughtered and another simply disappeared. The young high schoolers were seduced by a guru passing through town at the time—a guru who needed their help in lifting the veil from our perceived reality to discover what really lies underneath. A ceremony in the field was an attempt to discover the greater spiritual truth about our world.
That’s pretty much it. Except that at the beginning of the book, we already know the dead guy is dead, the vanished guy is gone, and the other people in the field are still alive. There. Is. Absolutely. No. Suspense. In. This. Book.
So why did I keep reading it? Well, to find out what happens, of course! I mean, there is a mystery. It’s not particularly interesting, but the thing about mysteries is you want to find out. And the thing about horror—unless just the thought of a monster face gives you the willies—is that it is successful or not based on the amount of suspense an author can make the reader feel.
Oh, there’s a sort-of-interesting side story about a serial killer, and a sort-of-interesting final revelation where a demon teaches us why we need evil in the world, but sort-of-interesting is the last thing you need a horror story to be. You want it to be a page turner. You want it to spark a chill or a shiver. You want it to make you feel alive. This book fails at all three.
Any Peter Straub fans out there? Tell me what you think about this author. He certainly has a way with words, but I sure hope he has some better stories than this one on the shelf.
And while we’re at it, anybody have suggestions of really good horror novels?