The Revenant by Michael Punke

revenant

[rev-uh-nuhnt] ˈrɛvənənt/
-noun
1. a person who returns.
2. a person who returns as a spirit after death; ghost.

In Revenant, Hugh Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear, then robbed and left to die by his fellow frontiersmen. He’s beaten, broken, and emaciated. He can’t walk and he can barely eat. Even so, he vows revenge on the men who deserted him. How great does this book sound?

Early on, Glass is mauled by the bear. Want to know how bad? Here’s a description of his scalp post-bear attack:

The skin was so loose that it was almost like replacing a fallen hat on a bald man. Harris pulled the scalp across Glass’s skull, pressing the loose skin against his forehead and tucking it behind his ear. (p. 27)

After that, in true Western spirit, things go from bad to worse for Glass. If being left for dead and robbed of anything that would help him survive wasn’t enough, he also has a hallucination about being bit by a rattlesnake, gets sprayed by a skunk, and has to fight wolves. All this and he still hasn’t regained the ability to walk (OK, so fighting the wolves was a voluntary decision, but that’s just goes to show it’s no coincidence that Hugh Glass rhymes with bad ass).

But regain the ability to walk he will and it is then that the proverbial shit gets real.

Picture credit: Hunting in Yosemite, 1890 by Thomas Hill; frontiersman by Jonathan Blair.

Punke does the reader a great service in this book – he paces it perfectly and he focuses on the character that needs focus at each particular point in the story. For example, Glass is attacked and abandoned very early in the story, but instead of following the two men that abandoned him, or even updating the reader on them, the story stays with Glass. This is just what it should do. The attack, abandonment, and recovery are so intense, that I couldn’t care less about what was going on with the other characters. Fortunately, the focus of the story didn’t let me down.

If you like Western movies, you’ll really enjoy The Revenant. If the story gets too wrapped up in the physical nature of Glass’s quest, his confrontation with the weaker of his abandoners offers a satisfying psychological aspect of Glass’s desire for revenge (a brief foreshadowing of this psychological aspect is what piqued my desire for it). As a bonus, the book leaves sixty pages to catch the more evil of the two men that robbed Glass and left him for dead.

As a second bonus, The Revenant is based on a true story. Nails.

Up Next: Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States vs. Allen and Schweikhart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. I’m going to look at these books one chapter at a time and compare the differences in their subject matter, presentation, writing, and the overall strength of their arguments (since both make a claim to telling it the right way, so to speak). You can expect an introduction next week and I’ll probably add a page at the top to organize each post.

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The Missing Links – February 4, 2011

The Missing Links is just what it sounds like – a collection of links to interesting things I found on the interwebs this week. I hope you enjoy them. This is the second in a never-ending series.

Top links of the week:
Winner! The 7 Greatest (True) Bill Murray Stories Ever Told. There’s no two ways around it, people, Bill Murray is my hero.
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A close second: Kanye West on Twitter validates the existence of Twitter. And now his tweets have been put into song.
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Best in Show: More truth from the Onion. If only this were also true (see my review of Gladwell’s The Outliers here).

Links on Language:
Here’s an interesting language for you – whistling.
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A bit of history on the word groundhog and other words we get from Algonquian (via Dictionary.com’s Hot Word column, which I highly recommend subscribing to).
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The Sordid History of the Oxford English Dictionary in 10 facts. Trust me, there are many more worth looking into. Lexicography rules!
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Anyways, in case you didn’t know, it’s perfectly OK to use anyways.
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The Thomas Beale Cipher – pretty interesting stuff. Feel like cracking an unbreakable code to find a large (and possibly non-existent) treasure this weekend. Go right ahead.
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Language! Backronyms!
The Foosball:
Wanna know how that fancy digital yellow line on football broadcasts works? It’s explained here. Tell your friends in between the commercials this Sunday.
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Have fun watching the game this weekend, but don’t forget it’s being brought to you by Greed, Inc. and they will probably be trying to sue you soon.
Links on other cool stuff:
James Randi takes a bunch of sleeping pills and talks about psychics (TED Talk via mental_floss).
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NPR on Vimeo. The animation about why people can’t walk straight when blindfolded was great. I will mos def be spending a lot of time here watching the other videos.
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Talk about a guy who didn’t know the meaning of foreplay, here’s something to think about over your bowl of Kellog’s
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Wanna know more about eugenics in America? Cause who does eugenics better than the good ol’ U, S, and A?
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The amazing powers of the internet (and our internet overlords): Egypt tweets without internet access.
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What’s the matter, Apple? iPad sales not enough for you? If only you could figure out a way to charge websites for appearing in Safari. Wouldn’t that be great? Anyways, it’s nice to know you’re looking out for number one instead of letting those app developers get all customer friendly.
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On a serious note, here’s a photographed life of drugs and poverty. Scroll to the right to see the pictures.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

At the risk of sounding trite, City of Thieves is a tale of two young Russian men with opposing personalities that are thrown together during World War II. Their city lay in ruins and they must count on each other for survival, which is a pipe dream at best. On top of all this, City is written as a memory of one of the men, who now lives in New York.

You may think you have heard this story before, but so what? City has at least two things going for it that make the reading worthwhile, great even.

First, for some reason, the horrible, horrible things – World War II in St. Petersburg type things – that happen in this story don’t seem bad at all. They’re awful, depressing, humanity-doubting things, but they serve only their purpose – to ground the story in wartime Russia. Sometimes these types of scenes are meant to evoke disgust or some such emotion, but if they’re meant to do that here, they don’t and the book is better off for it. Take them out, and the story will be just as good.

For example, “The rails veered away from the road, past stands of birch saplings too slender for firewood. Five white bodies lay facedown in the white snow. A family of winter dead, the dead father still clutching his wife’s hand, their dead children sprawled a short distance away. Two battered leather suitcases lay open beside the corpses, emptied of everything but a few cracked picture frames.”

Cover Design: Greg Mollica / Cover Art: Shout

OK, out of context, that’s kind of fucked up. But trust me, the deeper story in City is so good that you’ll breeze right through passages like those.

That leads me to the second great part about this novel – the novel part. City very much passes the page-turner test, which is really what novels have to do. Novels are meant to keep the reader enthralled and City does just that. The pace is perfect, with each chapter offering small story arcs that are both interesting on their own and that serve to advance the larger plot.

That’s the long and short of it. I highly recommend Benioff’s City of Thieves. It was so nice to read that I would certainly read more from Benioff.

Up Next: The Revenant by Michael Punke

The Missing Links – 1/28

The Missing Links is just what it sounds like – a collection of links to interesting things I found on the interwebs this week. I hope you enjoy them. This is the first in a never-ending series.

You may hate your wireless carrier, but at least they haven’t kill you. This idiot would-be-suicide bomber in Russian, however, got all blowed up by a surprise SMS from their carrier.

Want to follow what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt online? Check here for the the different ways you can.

There may soon be plants that can smell bombs. For real, for real.

In lighter news, I’m sick and tired of these motherfucking snakes in this motherfucking… house? Yep, there are snakes coming out of the woodwork in this house. No, it’s not in Amityville, but does that make it any less creepy?

Have you heard about those new fangled Do Not Track add ons for your browser? Yeah, well, they don’t work.

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And the best link of the week goes to… dum dum dum… geomagical squares! What’s that? You don’t know what geomagical squares are? Let me see if I can state this mathematically. Ahem… Geomagical squares = Awesomeness.

For even more math, see here (full disclosure: it’s about fractals).

A Tiger Father’s Quest for Success

Last week I read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and although I thought Chua left out some very important information, I was inspired to become a Tiger Parent. My son is two, which means it may already be too late to turn him into an achievement. That’s Amy Chua’s fault for not writing her book earlier, but I decided to forge ahead to see what I can accomplish. I was determined to devote every minute of every hour to making my son be exactly what I wanted him to be, no matter what the consequences. Failure was no longer an option.

I started to wonder which path would be best for my son’s road to success. He’s Catholic, so politics was out of the question. But sports, now there’s the perfect opportunity. I thought about how much financial and sexual success Tiger Woods has had. Tiger Woods. Tiger Parent. Coincidence? I think not.

So with the road decided, I needed to pick a sport for him. It needed to be something that we could play all year round – morning, noon, and night. It needed to be a sport that I could force him to play so often that he would come to despise me and that sport, and then use that hate to fuel his success. That’s what Tiger Parent’s need to do to their Tiglets.

I first thought about having him play soccer, but that’s a lazy sport. I mean, Spain is the best country in the world at soccer right now. What do they do, play soccer in between their siestas?

So the first week I tried to teach him real football. But he couldn’t even catch the ball. I’d throw him perfect pass after perfect pass, but they just kept bouncing off his face. After three hours a day for a week, I decided he wasn’t cut out to be a football player. You do not catch footballs with your face. You just don’t do that.

The next week was baseball. Unfortunately, this went the same way football did, except this time I wasn’t throwing balls at him, I was hitting them. I understand using your body to block a ground ball, but I don’t think using your face every time is a good idea. And he wouldn’t even throw it to first. So baseball obviously wasn’t his sport.

The week after that, we played basketball. More balls bouncing off his two-year-old face.

The ball themed sports clearly weren’t working. It was time to go a different route. I got him a pair of boxing gloves and shoes to see if fighting was his sport. Guess what? He was terrible at that too. As a Tiger Father, you know I wasn’t going to half-ass it, but I at least expected my son to know how to block. He wouldn’t even keep his hands up! Did he think I was only going to work the body? We went over the strategy time and time again, but what’s this? Oh, another uppercut to his baby face.

My son may not have been the best with punching or blocking, but if the boxing training taught me one thing, it’s that he can take a hit. So I didn’t want to leave fighting behind just yet. I thought maybe if I let him use his legs, he might show some promise. After all, he just learned to walk less than a year ago, so the motor function of his legs should be fresh in his memory. But – surprise, surprise – I landed kick after kick with not even so much as a counter jab from him. It was pathetic.

I have knife fighting planned for next week. If that goes well, we’ll move on to swords, but I’m really not too optimistic.

Related: Dear Amy Chua, Where’s the Part about Raising Freakishly Fertile Children?

The World Don’t Need A Bag

Our good friends over at IDNAB have started a petition to get stores to stop using plastic bags. A lofty goal, but a noble one. For those of you that want to be awesome and sign the petition, we’ve added the widget in our sidebar. Just look to the right.

If you want to be really awesome, click “grab this widget” on the bottom left of the widget and post it in your own blog or website.

The full page for the petition is here. And the full link to it is: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/idnab/.

Tell your friends! Use the share buttons below. And thank you.

Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and the Need for a Linguistics PR Team

I could spend this article picking apart or promoting Pinker’s Conceptual Semantics, but what’s the point? There’s not enough room in a blog post to do either. So instead I’d like to devote this post to how much the field of linguistics needs a PR team.

The gap between linguists and the public is no more evident than in the crap people believe about language despite the truth linguistics has to offer them. More often than not, the public’s belief and the linguistic fact are polar opposites. They are so far apart that it inspired me to invent McVeigh’s Law, which states that the probability of an answer or explanation being true is directly proportional to how boring it is. This means that the most boring answer or explanation is usually the correct one (compare the etymology of fuck to what you probably heard about the king and his consent).

Fortunately, other more capable and respected people in the linguistics field have also noticed the need for a Linguistics PR team. Language Log has been fighting the good fight for a while now, as have Language Hat and Stan Carey. But last week saw the introduction of Popular Linguistics Magazine, which aims to do for linguistics what Scientific American has done for physics. Here’s hoping.

There is, of course, danger in getting the public very much involved with an academic field. It’s not that the public is dangerous to academia, it’s just that their general knowledge tends to muddy the scientific waters. For all the zeal and interest people may have in a particular academic field, there’s a point where they go from member of the public to professional in the field. The crossover usually requires a degree, which is all fine and good, but the Internet poses and interesting dilemma. With the ability of anyone to write anything about anything, professionals that attempt to educate the public in their field may find themselves with a new-found appreciation for Dr. Frankenstein (autism, anyone?).

I bring this up because there are competing theories in linguistics, theories that aim to explain the most basic principles of language. Scientific American may have been able to bring physics to the people, but physics come pre-packaged with an organized set of basic equations and principles. There may be debate on topics such as astrophysics, but no one is calling into question the equation that explains gravity. Linguists, on the other hand, can’t even agree on the purpose of language, let alone how or why it developed. <

Before I get too far down the rabbit hole of science I don’t understand, I'll bring it back to Pinker because The Stuff of Thought is his attempt to explain the very nature of language and how it offers us a window into the human mind. It’s a noble goal and it places Pinker in the class of hip authors, who are trying to bring science to the masses. Fortunately, he isn’t a journalist tying a bunch of common sense ideas together and calling it revelatory. No, Pinker at least knows his stuff (even if his writing style is poor).

And if there is one thing that is good about Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, it’s that it pulls linguistics away from philosophy and toward science. Linguistics has only recently undergone the change from armchair philosophic theories to actual, provable, and evidence based theories. The debate among linguists about the basic nature of language may always be a very philosophical debate, but Pinker aims to back up his theory with scientific research, unlike some linguists who develop explanations for language that by their very nature can never be proved and therefore allow the linguists to never be backed in a corner. They can just deny, deny, deny.

I enjoy the shift linguistics is making away from philosophy and abstractions. I imagine that if this trend continues, Pinker’s book will be viewed positively, even if his theories are later proven wrong because it was a step in the right direction. I think the first step for the Linguistics PR team should be to explain the basic debates surrounding the major theoretic fields, as well as to squash the old wives etymology tales (Best way to do that? Make everyone aware of McVeigh’s Law). Keep it simple, people. If the PR team is able to do that, I think they really can bring linguistics to the people in the way that Scientific American brought physics to the masses. Here’s hoping.

Up next: City of Thieves by David Benioff