Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

The Oxford English Dictionary spans twenty volumes. It weighs 150 pounds. It is the be all and end all of English dictionaries. But it is more than that to Ammon Shea. It is the greatest version of Shea’s favorite book.
Continue readingReading the OED by Ammon Shea”


Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

I have a tough time reviewing short story books. The stories are rarely connected to one another and the best you usually get is a theme shared by all. Such is the case with Fragile Things, a collection of Gaiman’s gothic tales (yes, there are other kinds). Unlike most short story collections, however, Fragile Things has two strikes against it before readers even pick it up.

Most people know of Neil Gaiman through The Sandman, his graphic novel series. The Sandman was one of the first popular graphic novels, mainly because the story was so good. But so was the artwork, and there’s the rub. Fragile Things comes with no artwork. For someone used to having the visuals provided with a Gaiman story, this could be problem.

It is not.

Although I feel that all short stories should come with illustrations, Fragile Things, is simply great stories written by a great writer. Add to that the gothic theme and you have something very special because Gaiman is especially good at writing dark fiction. He proved this with The Sandman.

What makes or breaks it for me, though, is how I knew that each story was well written. I didn’t like every story, but no one will enjoy every story in a collection. I knew, however, that the stories I didn’t would appeal to others. Basically, Gaiman’s writing abilities are on full display.

And speaking of the stories, here’s a list of the ones I enjoyed and why I enjoyed them.
The Mapmaker – A nice little story hidden away in the introduction.

The Flints of Memory Lane – This is the perfect ghost story because it doesn’t cost the reader anything. They don’t have to believe in the supernatural forces or objects. All they have to know is that something very unusual happened and it scared someone very much. These are the best ghost stories because they are the most likely to happen to you. Bonus: This one is true.

Bitter Grounds – I hate to call this a zombie story because most zombie stories suck. So I won’t. This story is more like a dream – it picks up in the middle of nowhere with just enough background given and then somehow manages to have a definite ending that leaves much hanging.

Good Boys Deserve Favours – This is a great story for musicians, especially bass players.

Harlequin Valentine – Another great story, now available in graphic novel form.

Feeders and Eaters – This story is just creepy and cool. I’m not going to ruin it for you at all, but if you read one story in this book, and you want it to be a great and creepy story, make it this one. This was a dream Gaiman had. It was first a comic, which would probably also be pretty cool.

Diseasemaker’s Croup – This is a very interesting, very short story.

Goliath – One of the better stories in this book. Very Matrix-like. According to Gaiman, he wrote it to go on the Matrix’s website. Imagine that.

Sunbird – This was an exciting story. It works a lot like stories about the devil, although the payoff and revenge are a bit introverted. Gaiman says R. A. Lafferty was at one point “the best short-story writer in the world” and Sunbird is his attempt to write a Lafferty short story.

Up next: Reading the OED by Ammon Shea.

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Here’s the inner cover blurb in my copy of The Loved One:

The Loved One is a nightmare induced by the unfamiliar diet of Southern California. That region, where all men are displaced persons, is unique in the splendid elaboration of its graveyards, and to these Evelyn Waugh turned for solace and inspiration during a brief visit. Against the background of embalming-rooms and incinerators he has contrived a neat tragedy of Anglo-American manners which we hope will amuse and instruct curious readers of both nations.

How fucking awesome does that sound? Nightmares? Graveyards? Fucking incinerators? And some SoCal hating? Holyshityes.

The Loved One may be a short novel, but it is full with jabs.
At Southern California:

“Sir Ambrose, in accordance with local custom, refrained from listening.”

At female habits of the time:

“In Aimeé’s bathroom cupboard, among the instruments and chemicals which are the staples of feminine well-being, lay the brown tube of barbiturates which is the staple of feminine repose.”

At the English, in which the main character’s love interest describes his Un-Americaness:

“I do not mean just his accent and the way he eats but he is cynical at things which should be sacred.”

And at Southern California again:

“No one in Southern California, as you know, ever inquires what goes on beyond the mountains.”

But The Loved One is more than just a series of barbs. They are merely amusing (and sometimes honest) reflections in a well-told story. The plot does indeed center around graveyards, as that is where all of the main characters work. And it is a tragedy, but the most amazing aspect of Waugh’s book is the way he makes the gruesome images of death and corpses seem so plain. By doing so, the reader’s attention does not stay focused on the darkness of the setting, but on those ever present themes of love and loss and how people deal with them. A funeral home setting is perfect for this parallel and I’m surprised it is not done more often.

Waugh does an excellent job with making a short story not seem scant. The main characters are well rounded, there are supporting roles to help their motives along, and he doesn’t revel too much in unimportant scenery. On top pf that, his story of two men fighting over one woman, a story which has been told a thousand times, does not sound trite. His brutal honesty in describing everything was a refreshment of sorts and made what could of otherwise been a simple love story into an enjoyable frolic through the graveyard.

Up next: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

Consider Phlebus by Iain M. Banks

I should have known. The term “consider Phlebus” comes from our old friend T. S. Eliot. And on the very first page of Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebus, there is a quote from The Waste Land. It was stupid of me to pick this book up, right? Well, yes and no.

As the lead to this article says, Consider Phlebus was a strong influence on the Xbox game Halo, specifically the design of some of the Halo worlds. Fans of either this book or the video game would immediately notice the similarities, but that’s about as much as they need to be mentioned.

Instead, there are two amazing things about Consider Phlebus. One is how unbelievably boring the first two-thirds of it is and the other, conversely, is how enjoyable the last third of it is. Considering what the main character goes through, the monotony while reading it is striking. In the first 150 pages alone, our hero experiences:
– Being executed by drowning in a septic tank
– An explosion in the wall of said septic tank
– An attack on his spaceship
– Getting hit by a ray blast or something (whatever it was, it was supposed to be lethal, according to the other characters)
– A fist fight to the death
– A raid on a temple with some heavily-armed monks, in which no fewer than four other characters bit the dust
– A giant spaceship hitting an even gianter iceberg while he is walking on it (imagine the first scene from Spaceballs, except not funny)
– His spaceship crashing into the ocean, in which another character dies
– A three kilometer swim to shore
– And another execution, this time by being eaten alive (he actually ends up losing a finger so… that counts, right?)

His is Bora Horza Gobuchul, but his name should be James John Bruce Bond McClane Wayne, the Highlander. And although that list sounds like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie marathon on TNT, it was really difficult to read. I mean really bad. It wasn’t so much about where the plot was going, but that it seemed to be taking forever to get there. I marked out one paragraph to illustrate the leaden flow of Phlebus, but after reading it again, I think I’ll spare you.

And then, somehow in the final third of the novel, Banks manages to turn the style completely around. I read the last 150 pages of Phlebus within a day. I could have read it straight through in a couple of hours, it was that interesting. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. And I don’t know how my feelings about reading Consider Phlebus went from thinking it would never end to hoping it would never end.

Phlebus is Banks’s first sci-fi novel, and the first one of a series. It is also credited with reviving the space opera sub-genre of science fiction literature. But even his fans will admit that it is only interesting to those who have read his later works, especially those later in the series it kicks off because reading Phlebus feels like going from an opera to a ZZ Top concert.

Both of which, however, are better than reading T. S. Eliot.

Up next: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

Eye Scream by Henry Rollins

Watch a few videos of Henry Rollins on YouTube and you’ll notice something – the man has some pent-up aggression. Whether he has reasons for it is not for me to say (although it usually seems like he does). But I will say this: Henry Rollins is intense. And his aggression comes out in many ways, sometimes insultingly, sometimes humorously , and sometimes sublimely tragically.

The thing about Henry Rollins is that he certainly has a way with words, which is good because I don’t think I could accurately describe Eye Scream. So I’ll let Henry do it himself. On his website, he says:

Work on Eye Scream started in 1986. I was crossing America constantly and experiencing the morality shifts, attitudes, and rituals in different parts of the country – the difference in the way people were in the Bible Belt as opposed to New York City, the way blacks and whites interfaced, the intolerance of homosexuality, the morality plays. I started to become aware of how brutal the country is and how much ferocity, cruelty, and oppression are inherent in the culture and how much of it was in me. I wanted to document it and create a book that brought the whole thing to a boil and see w here it left me off. In the summer of 1995, I finished the book and started to edit. Re-reading the manuscript over and over, I realized all the things I had picked up over a decade of playing Devil’s advocate and it was inspiring because it clearly defined who my enemies are. As an American, I feel it impossible not to be infuriated by the way things are and have been. I refuse to be happy about the day-to-day and go along with it. There’s too much spitting in my face and too much spitting in the faces of people who don’t know any other way of life. This book is brutal, and at times, funny. I know that I will probably get a ton of shit for Eye Scream. Enjoy, or better yet… don’t. — Henry Rollins

But that is one of the interesting things about Eye Scream. Rollins’ blurb seems at odds with the book. The style of his explanation is focused, while the book is all over the place. In his spoken word stints, Rollins has a talent for being poignant, but funny and edgy at the same time. In Scream, on the other hand, Rollins is ranting and rambling, shocking but without context. And worse of all, it is repetitive. Or so I thought.

The amazing thing about Eye Scream is how my opinion changed while reading it. At first, I felt it was shocking just to be shocking. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason and certainly no structure. After about sixty pages, I went online to see if the story was going to get anywhere. That’s how desperate its insanity had made me; how much I felt like I was falling down a pointless rabbit hole.

Fortunately, except for Rollins’ review (which certainly helped), I didn’t find anything else online because after plugging away at Eye Scream, I began to realize a few things. The repetitiveness of the rants, which seemed to be the book’s major fault when I started reading it, is actually the most powerful aspect of the work.

I believe repetition can sometimes breed complacency, or numbness when it comes to repetitive accounts of shocking stories. This then makes you wonder how such shocking things can have no effect on you. Think about how much thought or emotion you devoted to the earthquake in Haiti compared to the earthquake in South America (donate here).

But the repetitive articles in Eye Scream, which make you feel almost nothing, stand in stark contrast to the ones that are really powerful. You wind up plodding through the mud when BAM! you’re hit by an article that fires on levels. And I mean that. There are some very amazing, concise, and revelatory parts of Eye Scream.

The only bad part about the book is that most of the rants are so raw that they verge on being simplistic, which in my experience is not typical of Henry Rollins. And yet while the insight that is encouraged here is raw and emotional, rather than intellectual and calculated, it causes the after shock to be profoundly self-reflective, as if the extrovert of the narrator brings out the introvert of the reader.

The shocking nature of some of the rants makes reading Eye Scream akin to watching Requiem for a Dream. In a way, I’m glad I experienced it, but I would not want to experience it again. In Eye Scream, Henry Rollins yet again caused me to think, only this time it was in a totally different way. Instead of mixing facts with his own opinions to lead me to a conclusion, as is common in his spoken words, his book made me open my own eyes.

Up next: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

The Fellowship of the Frog by Edgar Wallace

I love mystery stories. I think it’s because they are immune to being kitschy. It seems that the more tackier a mystery can be, the more I want it. The shady gentlemen, the clever yet unconventional detectives, the femmes fatales – I can’t get enough of them. If a mystery has these things, I will read it.

But I have a tough time writing or talking about mystery novels. I feel like I should admit that it’s a lowbrow genre. I mean you’ll never see a Noble being awarded for a series of mystery books (Right? I haven’t done my research.). But at the same time, the features that can make a highbrow novel unreadable, can make a mystery all the more enjoyable. Mysteries, in my view, can easily get away with stereotyped characters and cheesy dialogue. In any other sort of genre, thrillers included (Hi, Dan Brown!), these features will hurt the value of the writing. In mysteries, on the other hand, they are expected and encouraged, in my view at least. But on to the case!

The Fellowship of the Frog starts out with the murder of an undercover detective at the hands of the Frog, the mysterious leader of an ever increasing group of tramps. The Fellowship, so called because of the frog tattoos on the members’ hands, has become so expansive that they threaten the international affairs of England.

The Frog sprechen the Deutsch?

Enter Dick Gordon and Elk, the rozzers on the case of the Frog. Gordon is dashing, Elk doesn’t play by the book. Gordon wants the girl, Elk wants a promotion. In other words, they’re perfect for me. But the questions they have to answer are many:
Who is that strange American who keeps turning up at interesting places?
Who is the Frog and how can they stop him?
Is the Fellowship of the Frog really the coolest name for mystery novel? (Yes. Sweet baby Jesus, yes.)
Will Dick Gordon and Miss Bennett be able to live happily ever after?
Is Elk’s mangling of important historical dates funny way to round out his character? (Ugh, no.)
Will all of these questions be neatly wrapped up in the end? (You better believe it. The Frog is no match for my rules of good mystery writing)

I don’t see much point in running down the whole plot for you. After all, you’re either going to read the Fellowship of the Frog, or you’re going to read a mystery like it. Besides being an enjoyable read, there’s nothing about Fellowship to really set it apart from other mysteries, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. One of the things I liked best about the book was most likely due to the time it was written. Apparently, in 1920s mystery novels, a man didn’t merely sit down, he “dropped with a sigh to the Chesterfield”. Also, in Frog-ravished England, facial hair is whiskers, telephones are ‘phones, and omnibuses are ‘buses. Ah, those were the days.

Fellowship does have some short-comings, though. One of the most obvious is the way it has only two female characters – a safe, gentle one and a dangerous, provocative one. Guess which one the detective gets in the end? This two-women-only syndrome isn’t as bad as it is in the Bond films, but it’s very obvious that these women are not really characters at all. The one oohs and aahs, the other woos and wails. But I suppose novels like Fellowship weren’t really written with women in mind.

For those of you that are interested, Fellowship was made into at least one movie (as were 160 of Wallace’s other books, including King Kong). I can’t say whether the dialogue remains true, but I can leave you with some of the original.

One of my favorite lines from Fellowship comes in a character’s description of Lola, the appropriately named saucy female of the story. He says to her, “… I like you. There’s something about you that is very attractive – don’t stop me, because I’m not gong to get fresh with you, or suggest that you’re the only girl that ever made tobacco taste like molasses…” If a guy complimented you like that, girls, would you stop him?

I didn’t think so.

Up next: Eye Scream by Henry Rollin. Check it here.

The article originally appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread

The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

When I was a teenager, I got into chaos theory (yes, I was that cool). It taught me two things. One, I should not be a mathematician and, two, statistics can be misleading so you should always be wary when someone tries to use them to prove their point.

I’ve been putting off writing this review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers because it made me so angry while reading it. Halfway through, I wanted to toss it out the window. I thought this rage might go away if I let his points sink in a while, but it hasn’t. I still can’t think or write coherently about Outliers because of how stupid it is. So if this article is disjointed, excuse me and blame Gladwell. All you need to know is that if you have even the slightest ability to think logically, you should not read this book.

Outliers is Gladwell’s attempt to explain success by combining statistics with stories of natural talent, hard work, and opportunity. His basic idea is that talent and hard work alone are not enough to make anyone great at anything. If that sounds obvious, it’s because it is. For some reason, Gladwell is utterly amazed that hard-working, talented individuals statistically do better than the rest when given an opportunity. This is the first part of Outliers that angered me. He just can’t get over how talent and determination are not the only factors in achieving greatness.

The second part of Outliers that I found offensive was the patronizing tone Gladwell uses. It’s as if he expects the reader to feel ridiculous that they didn’t think of something so obvious. Like, hey, write a book about everyday facts of life and make millions. Touche, Monsieur Malcom.

Then there’s the italics, the icing on the crap cake that is Outliers. Don’t get me started on Gladwell’s use of italics.

Gladwell starts Outliers with some eerie stats about how most of the players on the two best junior hockey teams in Canada are born in the early parts of the year. He claims that if you look at “any elite group of hockey players […] 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December”. This is based on work done by a Canadian psychologist and it sounds amazing. Gladwell, however, says it’s not because young hockey players in Canada are grouped by the year they were born and so kids born in January will be older and more developed than kids born in December. These bigger kids will then get scouted to play for better teams where they will receive better coaching, thus giving them an advantage to better develop their talents. What’s the real reason that Gladwell’s claim is amazing? It’s not true.

Gladwell says (with those fucking italics, in case you didn’t notice, dummy) that “any” elite group of hockey players will fit the Outliers/Canadian whack-job shrink model. So just out of curiosity, I decided to look at the rosters of the teams Gladwell uses to “prove” his point, the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Vancouver Giants. Guess what percentage of the players were born in the first three months of the year. Less than 40 percent for both teams. Shocking, I know. How about the 2010 Canadian National Olympic team? They’re pretty elite, right? The percentage of players born between January and March is 13%. That’s not quite 40%. And on six randomly chosen NHL teams (the first six on the scoreboard when I looked), the average percentage of Canadian players born between January and March is 26%. Point is, Gladwell is a hoser and the theory is bunk.

Not letting simple facts stand in his way, Gladwell next adds other examples of “opportunity” to his young Aquarius Canucks. He explains that having to play eight days a week in Hamburg made the Beatles a better band. This is the so-called 10,000 hour rule you may have heard about. 10,000 hours is apparently how long it takes for a naturally talented person to become really great. Hence the Beatles went to Germany, played all day and all of the night, and then hit it big in the US. This works if you’re a Beatle, but Gladwell conveniently fails to mention what to do if you’re a Rolling Stone, a Beach Boy, or a Jackson 5. Basically, Gladwell spends tens of pages to say what three words can: practice makes perfect.

The way that this is profound news to Gladwell is, as I’ve said before, irritating. At this point in the book, his don’t-you-see tone, his italics, and his shock and awe at the obvious really got to me. The next chapters on opportunity were more of the same. He actually writes, “successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.” No shit, Sherlock. Being born in Canada instead of the Caribbean was a big help to Sidney Crosby’s hockey career. When children or stoners find this stuff amazing, it’s ok. They have excuses. What’s Gladwell’s? Who knows, and really, who cares? (In case you were wondering, Crosby was born in August)

The rest of the book reads like it was written by someone who was caught in a lie and then trie to lie their way out of it. Chapters Six and Seven continue with more of the obvious. The basic idea is, well, pretty basic: people from certain cultures act a certain way and these cultural rules can lead to problems when their cultures clash. To sum up, when in Rome…

In Chapter Eight, Gladwell argues that Asians are better students than Westerners for two reasons. One, the way they say numbers makes it easier to do simple math in their heads. Two, rice farming is a year-round, painful job which demands determination. Therefore, centuries of growing rice to survive means lots of determined Asians. Gladwell even tries to pitch ancient Chinese sayings against ancient Russian sayings to prove his point. The one that he relies on (and leads the chapter with), “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich” goes up against the Russian “if God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.” Number of days in a Chinese year = 354. If he botched the Chinese saying so bad, chances are he botched the Russian one too. I wonder why didn’t he just use a good old English saying like “no pain, no gain”. Oh, right.

Gladwell also lists international test scores to prove his point that since Asians have better number-words and sayings, their students do better on tests. But there are two reasons why he’s full of crap here. First, mainland China doesn’t even take part in the test he uses, but that doesn’t stop him from saying “the fact that Taiwan and Hong Kong rank so highly suggests that the mainland [China] would probably also do really well”. Yes, and because Sweden, Finland, and Russia do well in international ice hockey tournaments, one would think Norway is also good at hockey. So go ahead and bet on them this Olympics. (On a side note, in the very next paragraph after the quote above, Gladwell admits that no one knows if students in northern China are any good at math. But that’s not enough to stop a little speculation, now is it?)

The second reason Gladwell is full of it in his surmises is because he only mentions one of the two major international student tests, the TIMSS test. Why wouldn’t he give the results for the other test, the OECD’s PISA test? Well, simply put, because he’s a hack. But more importantly, the results from the PISA test don’t exactly fit his conclusions. The top ten countries in the math section of the PISA results is full of countries with awful sayings and no history of growing rice, like Finland and Canada.

Wait a minute, if the Canadian hockey players born in January were also doing well in the PISA test, then that means… nothing. That means nothing.

That’s the major problem with Outliers (besides those italics). Gladwell tells about some interesting people, cultures, and anomalies (and misleadingly begins a terrible book off with hockey), but when he tries to tie these things together, he runs into trouble. The relationships between the different aspects of his theory are strenuous at best and so they make his conclusions seem false (which they are). The sheer obvious nature of all of this is the last nail in the coffin for Outliers. It’s too bad because this book came highly recommended and I really wanted to enjoy it. Maybe Gladwell’s next book, tentatively titled Shit Rolls Downhill, will be better.




UPDATE March 15, 2014: Thanks to a discussion on reddit and /u/erroristswin for helping me realize that it is completely arbitrary to split the Canadian players into teams as Gladwell does. If his theory about 40% of Canadian players in “any elite” league is to be tested, the group of players should be taken as a whole. So in the spirit of being complete (and because it took all of an hour to check, including the time spent learning LibreOffice), I decided to check if Gladwell’s theory holds up when it’s done correctly. We already know it doesn’t for teams, since that is what I did above (because I didn’t realize it was the wrong way to do it).

I grabbed the full rosters of every NHL team from These players may not play every game, but they’re on the roster, so they’re on my list. Which means that my list is basically every NHL player for the 2013-14 season. After I made the list, I filtered out all the players not born in Canada. Then I sorted the players based on their birth dates and calculated which percentage of players were born in which month. Here’s what I found:

Birth month # of players % of players
Jan-Mar 277 29.88%
Apr-Jun 289 31.18%
Jul-Sep 213 22.98%
Oct-Dec 148 15.97%
Total 927 100.00%

So the theory doesn’t hold up. Surprised?



Up next: The Fellowship of the Frog by Edgar Wallace. Check it here.

This article originally appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.