Cult Rapture by Adam Parfrey

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Cult Rapture

Author: Adam Parfrey

Type of Book: Non-fiction, conspiracy theory, history, sociology, pop culture

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, the cover was pretty much a dead giveaway, what, with the David Koresh angel of justice drawing. But then you factor in that Adam Parfrey, owner of Feral House and an all-around-odd-content kind of guy, wrote most of the articles in the book and you’ve got an odd book on your hands.

Availability: Published by Feral House in 1995, it’s out of print, but you can still get a copy relatively cheaply online:

Comments: Lord a’mercy, I love books like this. I love these sort of collections of whacked culture, weird theories and weird people. If you’ve read Apocalypse Culture or Apocalypse Culture II, you have a good handle on what to expect from this book, though I sensed a healthy amount of snark from time to time. Or maybe I was just projecting my own snark. But even if there was not any snark, it was still a fun, entertaining book.

Over 15-years-old at this writing, much of the book could seem dated to a person who needs to be up-to-date on their high weirdness and occult-goings-on. Luckily, I need no freshness when it comes to topics odd. But even taking into account the relatively dated elements of some of these articles, this collection was informative, interesting, saddening, silly, funny and in some respects quite disgusting.

So, to make it easy on myself, I’m just gonna discuss the articles in the order they occur, but I will group the ones that left me with literally nothing to discuss at the end. I think my verbosity where certain articles are concerned may be a very good look at my id at the moment. Clearly harmless crazies, Nazis, gross people and certain areas of feminist thought incite my love of typing.

Perversity Think Tank by Supervert

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Perversity Think Tank

Author: Supervert

Type of Book: Non-fiction, human sexuality, pornography, psychology, philosophy

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This tiny book’s arrangement is in itself odd, with a scholarly discussion running across the top of the pages, a more personal narration running across the bottom, and large, black squares over all the pictures. Then there’s the content…

Availability: Published by Supervert in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I have a pretty serious book crush on Supervert. Every now and then you come across an author who seems very much like he or she is on your wavelength, whose words seem like they could have come out of your own brain. Supervert is one of those authors for me. I felt a great amount of kinship reading a few of the stories in Necrophilia Variations (and yeah, when you say that, when you admit a book with this particular title spoke to you directly, you are making a certain statement about yourself and now that I am officially a harmless, middle-aged woman, I feel I am safe making any sort of admission I want). I found myself nodding a lot when reading Perversity Think Tank as the book tried to answer the question of “What is Perversity?”

If I didn’t know this before reading the book, I now understand that defining perversity can be very much akin to holding mercury but Supervert manages to nail down some interesting perspectives on the topic. Mostly, I walked away knowing what perversity isn’t, while marveling that there is another human being on the planet who had thought about the complete narcissism that is involved in reproductive incest, which I will discuss in a moment.

Supervert has a unique insight into perversion. He ran the site PervScan, wherein he scoured news for anything with a hint of sexual deviance to it. While this book was inspired by the musings that the PervScan articles inspired, this is not a compilation of the site’s “greatest hits” though a couple of cases are referenced in the book. Rather, the book uses a couple of cases to ponder what comprises perversion and what does not. Interestingly, compiling all those stories of strange acts showed Supervert that most of the acts he cataloged were not true perversion.

Many of the acts I covered on PervScan – like the three middle-aged brothers who sexually assaulted their bedridden mother while she lay suffering amid lice, roaches, and fecal matter – struck me less as perverse than as ignorant, heedless, cruel. There were days when I thought my compendium of deviant doings was nothing more than a catalogue of errors in judgement and lapses in common sense.

This was an incredibly important point to me because despite my own self-admitted sympathy for the devil as well as an abiding interest in the bizarre and perverted, even I find myself defining any deviation from the norm, up to and including the worst sexual crimes, as perversion when really what was at work was psychopathy or a sub-normal intellect.

Moreover, as Supervert read more and more examples of sexual oddity, that which had seemed somewhat perverted before now seemed somewhat tame.

After you’ve read about a guy who wants to eat his own penis, you feel like you’ve pretty much heard it all. How could mere exhibitionism seem perverted in comparison to a man who wants to fry his genitalia in a pan?

I know, this isn’t the most profound of statements, but it struck me that I don’t know another single person in real life who speculates on such things, who has, in fact, heard it all to the point that little shocks them and the outre seems positively normal and comforting. I often feel as if my interest in perversion is a perversion in and of itself. I wish I knew more people who know the ins and outs of the Armin Meiwes case or all the details about Sharon Lopatka because it would make me happy to know other suburbanites with gray hair and festive glasses and a love of kittens wouldn’t throw me out of their houses if they knew what goes into and on in my head.

Supervert discusses all the various meanings of perversion. He discusses one of the first philosophical interpretations of perversion, an easy conclusion that many have reached before – that sexual perversion is any act that thwarts reproduction. Easy enough but it means that a married couple who have sex after the wife has experienced menopause are therefore perverts and so that really doesn’t fit. Additionally, Supervert brings up Sade, who wrote in The 120 Days of Sodom about a libertine who wanted to masturbate and ejaculate on the crowning head of an infant as it was born. This perversion can only happen because of human reproduction so really, in a sense, this shows the complete creativity involved in true perversion and how useless most definitions of perversion can be. Freud defined perversity as any sex act that diverted the focus of sex from the sex organs. Sort of limiting and pretty much results in everyone who has ever done anything sexual with their hands or mouths in the bedroom in being labeled a pervert and the more the merrier, right? But sweeping generalizations like these do no one any good in understanding the true nature of perversion.

The book brings up all the usual suspects like Sade but then it also discusses those whose opinions on sex are suspect at best and therefore were hilarious to me. The sad, misogynistic, sexually inept Schopenhauer makes an appearance, to my delight. Evidently, he had a foot in a pre-Freud camp that indicated that perversion was anything not involving sex organs because it ensured that those who had bad genes that made them perverts could not reproduce and pass on their defects. Which makes my lack of children somewhat interesting but then again, as Supervert reminds us, Sade had three children. Oh lord, I hate Schopenhauer. His ideas of failsex can only inspire derision in me, his very name makes me groan, and mileage, of course, always varies, but I rather enjoyed the times in this book when I felt provoked.

It was during the discussion on incest that my book crush on Supervert was confirmed. The first part was obvious, but nothing that I had ever really considered. Supervert discusses the perversion in incest and comes to an interesting conclusion. The inbred yokel who has sex with his daughter is likely not doing it in order to violate the taboo of inter-familial sex. Rather, he is doing it because she is likely the only available girl. It is an act of availability that while repellent, is not all that perverse. It is a far different thing for a father to desire his daughter because she is his daughter, or a mother to desire her son because he is her son. A key part of perversion, as far as Supervert is concerned, is consideration for the act itself and not just the easy, sloppy depravity that makes a person simply have sex with whomever or whatever is closest.

But here’s the thing that surprised me anyone else had considered (and secretly thrilled me because when one entertains dark and perverted thoughts, one never thinks anyone else would even in a million years think the same thing): the narcissism present in deliberate incest.

A libertine doesn’t molest his daughter because she just happens to be there. A libertine molests his daughter because he consciously wants to create a being who is both his child and his grandchild – and still a future sex object itself. Then he molests that daughter/granddaughter hybrid to obtain another new being who is child, grandchild, great grandchild – and still sex object.

Once you get to a certain point in this process, the end result is an appalling creation that is more or less masturbation by proxy.

The incestuous libertine approaches ever closer to a reproductive act whose result is a child 100% himself, and yet that ultimate point is always deferred by increasingly small percentages. The libertine can never quite dispense with the shred of genetic material that belongs to the maternal line, and yet the fact remains that, by fucking the offspring of his own offspring, he is inevitably fucking more and more of himself.

It is this awareness of the act and the results that is quite important when considering perversion:

And that, as Sade recognized, is one of the most striking characteristics of perversity: it is deliberate, self-conscious, pellucid. Its hallmark is… its intentionality… The libertine is able to reflect on his unwholesome activities. Self-awareness makes his pleasures all the greater.

Though Supervert discusses much, much more than these conclusions in the book, I think this is quite important and possibly the greatest revelation in this book for me. Too often people with dire sexual compulsions are labeled perverts, people with little control over their acts or those governed by a need that is innate and defies any sort of consciousness. Perversion, as a philosophical approach to depravity, requires far more than a compulsive need or a thoughtless action.

The only part of this book that I found the least bit disagreeable was Supervert’s passage about how rape could possibly be a part of the evolutionary process.

Evolutionary biologists have pointed out that natural selection provides an obvious impetus for it, insofar as rape improves the rapist’s chances for reproductive success. That my friend was raped in Central Park was symbolic: in the greatest swath of grass and trees in New York, she was subject to the Darwinism of her attackers.

Back when I first heard this particular line of thinking many years ago in an anthropology class in college, I was skeptical. Even 100,000 years ago, didn’t women understand the causality between sex and pregnancy even if they did not understand the exact mechanism? Raped women often don’t look kindly on the offspring of rape. If they couldn’t abort, those children were likely abandoned or exposed, or were raised less kindly. The men in societies where their spouses were subject to rape would also have reacted poorly. The rapists were likely subject to physical violence that made them rethink any impulse for rape, if they survived the violence. Or they would get kicked out of the tribe they lived in and would have had a far harder time at surviving at all. If there was ever a genetic code for rape to ensure one’s genetic material lived on, it likely got killed off when the offspring of such unions were subject to abortion, abandonment or resentful care and the men themselves violently neutralized before they could spread very much seed at all. Even if women only became aware of how pregnancy happened during recorded history, I would think that societal reactions to rape would still be enough to wipe out any gene that causes rape within a dozen or so generations. Or that was my knee jerk reaction. It seems there are some who know quite a bit of evolutionary psychology who agree. But regardless of which side is correct, is interesting to me, analyzing what about our sexual natures, dark and not-so-dark, can be seen as innate or learned, or just the result of a bad brain.

Supervert’s book is full of enlightened explanations of the philosophy and reasoning behind some sex acts even I can look at and call bizarre, or perverted, and at times, the best parts of the book were his discourses on the blacked-out images. These images were varied and covered a lot of ground. Like men who like to ejaculate into a woman’s eye. Like a pornographer who wanted to make a skin flick out of a woman giving birth. Like an almost touching picture of a couple on a bed, the man smoking, the woman lying on her side, staring at the man. Like the solipsistic nature of POV porn. Like his reaction to a simple painting and how this painting shows clearly how alone the pervert is in his or her own mind. Like a piece of art that provokes thoughts as to whether or not autoerotic asphyxiation is a perveme (he discusses pervemes in the book – perversion memes). Like a bestiality film clip that proved there is indeed a noise that can inspire disgust. Yeah, I think I most enjoyed Supervert’s reactions to the art he deliberately blocks out of the book.

This book isn’t for everyone but if you are a fellow traveler on certain roads, you will want to get this book. If you do read it or have already read it, I’d love to know how you read it. I read the “top half” from beginning to end, then read the “bottom half.” I paused during the bottom half to read the descriptions that accompanied the blacked-out pictures. I read the book in this manner twice, then looked up the pictures (or as many as were available online) and reread the descriptions. For a small, straightforward book, it requires a lot of attention. While definitely salacious enough to inspire prurient thoughts in those who are simply in this for the titillation, the book is not technically pornography, because the goal is to inspire interaction and thought rather than sexual arousal. In fact, the way the book is set up demands interaction and close attention and is a book I will probably reread again soon. And though I am unsure if the book available on Amazon has the same brown dust jacket as the copy I have, even without it this book is quite lovely. Books as small works of art are rare these days.

(And in the name of all that is sane, of course I don’t advocate incest, pedophilia, bestiality or any non-consensual sex act. It horrifies me that in the course of merely reviewing a philosophical discussion of perversity I have to make this point clear, but perverse thoughts do not equal advocacy nor do they indicate an unsound mind. Any comment along the line of OMG GROCE or a juvenile assertion that exploring these issues is a de facto advocacy of harmful acts will not get deleted because I will be forced to mock such comments because I am weary, oh lord am I weary. )

Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Authors: Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Type of Book: Psychology

Why Did I Read This Book: I admit it. I watch Hoarders. I also read the TWoP thread about the show. When this book came out, people in the thread mentioned the book. Later, a woman whose blog I read also recommended the book.

Availability: Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (boo, hiss) in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am sickly fascinated by hoarding. I have more cats than the average person would think is normal and let us not even discuss my book collection, but at the end of it all, I am pretty finicky. I have a boat load of books but little other items of decoration. And I own two Dyson vacuum cleaners because I just can’t abide cat hair everywhere. Sometimes I think I find hoarding fascinating because it helps me feel better about the areas of my life that are a bit messy, but I also must admit that the whole train-wreck element of some of the homes tickles the tabloid part of my brain.

And yet even though I find hoarding of infinite intellectual and visceral interest, this book was bland for me. I think that there are some issues for me that I don’t really want to understand. Serial killers, for instance. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s interesting to know how people become serial killers through abuse and brain injury and such, but I mostly want to know how many bodies were recovered from the basement. It’s not a good personality trait but we all have our failings in life. I suspect the same thing is at work with hoarding. I just want to know how many tons of garbage were loaded onto dump trucks. I also know how intractable the mental condition behind hoarding can be. In a way, understanding hoarding and how it relates to OCD is almost useless because in the end, it is so hard to treat.

Still, parts of this book held some interest. Of most interest to me was the chapter about Pamela, who fell victim to a guru-like psychiatrist who manipulated her patients into caring for abandoned cats. She eventually ended up in a 16-room house with hundreds of cats, none of which were ever desexed because the doctor felt it unnatural, and the group of believers would go so far as to “rescue” animals who would otherwise have been spayed or neutered. Before long the situation was completely out of control, yet it continued on for years. Pamela ended up in the doctor’s home, caring for cats 21 hours a day. She finally fled when she was in her early 50s, ending up homeless for a while. But even after she clawed her way out, so to speak, she still fought the urge to collect cats. Most hoarders of animals describe animals as possessing a “pure” love, an unconditional love that was denied them in chaotic, abusive childhoods.

It was illuminating to understand some of the thinking or cognitive issues behind hoarding. One man saw limitless potential in every item he hoarded. A bucket with too many holes to hold water could hold something else. A piece of an ancient set of Venetian blinds needed to be kept on the off chance that he one day found someone who might need that slat.

One woman’s example explained the organization issues that some hoarders face. She saw things in terms of the space they occupied, instead of where they should go. Irene kept things in piles because in her mind, if she put them away, she would not remember them. A newspaper clipping, a phone number, her electricity bill – they all went into the same pile on the floor and she blamed a faulty memory when she was unable to find what she needed. She never seemed to understand that no memory was good enough to keep track of things in piles. She didn’t use drawers for the same reason – how could she know what was in the drawers if she put clothes away? Best to keep them out where she could see them. Irene also had issues with decision making, as she often could not assign just one meaning to an item. How could she put things away when some items had more than one meaning or emotional definition. A sweater could be as potent a reminder of a specific memory as a photograph or a diary entry, and therefore the sweater was not just clothing, but a mental place holder for certain events.

This book covers a lot of ground, discussing some hoarders who live in what seems to us like filth yet fear contamination when people touch their things. People who use items and animals to replace people. The perfectionism that makes positive action impossible. The desire to make sure nothing is ever wasted (the woman who saved her maxi-pads thinking she would one day wash them and reuse them was horrifying). The ability to see unspeakable beauty in bottle caps and piles of garbage.

But overall, I think the reason this book didn’t hit me well is because I left it feeling frustrated. Reading Frost’s accounts of dealing with hoarders was hellish. I felt like whacking someone on the head as I read his struggles to get just one cognitively impaired person to throw out one slip of paper with a phone number on it, only to have the patient go and retrieve the piece of paper from the trash. The successes were few and hard-won and I think I am callous enough that I crave the quick, visual fix that the television presentations of this condition offer. Yeah, those house-emptying examples don’t really solve much, but then again, aside from the examples of people intervening with children who suffer from hoarding tendencies, the psychological approach doesn’t work much either.

But my need for a quick clean-up, a definitive though likely temporary cure, is hardly the fault of the authors. I suspect people who like reading books that have case studies of patients with certain conditions, those who find hoarding interesting, or those who are dealing with hoarding will appreciate the looks this book gives into how it is that people end up in a home packed with garbage, unable to function, yet unable to change without lots of psychology and the threat of a city-operated backhoe.

Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

Author: David Aaronovitch

Type of Book: Non-fiction, sociology, history, conspiracy theory

Why Did I Read This Book: I am an avid reader of the odd, as my other book discussion site should prove, and eat conspiracy theory with a spoon. When I saw this book as I wandered through a Barnes & Noble, it was a gimme that I would buy it. That conspiracy theory might actually shape contemporary historical belief seemed too interesting to pass up.

Availability: Published by Riverhead Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I liked this book but not for the reasons I purchased it. As someone who has spent a lot of time wallowing in conspiracy at different times in my life, there was little new for me in this book (though this is not to say there was not some content unfamiliar to me – there was and it was fascinating). Moreover, this book is more a debunking attempt than really a look at how conspiracy theory has shaped modern history for the average person. No one can walk away from this book and feel that any of the examples of conspiracy, their formation and later belief, has affected the modern canon of history, aside from the JFK assassination. Of course people whose personal beliefs lie on the fringe of reason hold conspiracy theory close to their hearts, but I think it is overblown to seriously suggest that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the “plot” to kill Princess Diana in a random car accident with a drunk driver, or Hillary Clinton supposedly murdering Vince Foster is ever going to achieve the level of mainstream belief that will reflect these fringe beliefs as history.

Of course there are always some who believe all manner of odd things. Michael Shermer has shown us that, as well as any other number of debunkers. It often seems as if those who have fringe beliefs are greater in number than they are because the proliferation of conspiracy theory sites on the Internet make the information seem more common place and because the press loves nothing more than a crank with a misspelled sign, wearing a costume and yelling about injustice. The Tea Party (Teabaggers, as they are known to people like me) has shown this in spades in the United States. Get some loud, bombastic, angry, and, in some instances, completely insane people in one place and the press is all over it because crazy is a close second to sales behind sex. But the numbers of Teabaggers are statistically insignificant and recent polls indicate that these people who have received so much press recently as a new force in politics don’t have enough numbers even to impact the 2010 midterm elections. Fringe beliefs among the Truthers and Birthers and Teabaggers will end up as a foot note to history, not history itself.

Aaronovitch does a relatively sound job of showing how, for the fringe, certain myths will not die and will always be a part of a certain zeitgeist regardless of the proof given to debunk these myths. Like the idea that Princess Diana was assassinated or that the Kennedys had Marilyn Monroe killed by an overdose of barbiturate suppositories. There are those who will believe this no matter what, and Aaronovitch shows clearly how the seemingly unbelievable, like the President of the United States is a foreign born citizen or that 9-11 was an inside job, gains some credence. Aaronovitch discovered similar traits that enable otherwise sane people to believe weird things.

1) Historical precedent: If you can show that other conspiracies happened in the past, it is easier to believe they happened now.
2) Elite them against us: All conspiracy theory at its heart shows actions of an elite few – rogue CIA agents killing JFK (which is not that unbelievable for some of us), Jews plotting a world takeover – against the mass of people. Those who do not believe are seen as sheep, people who are so mass deluded they cannot believe.
3) “Just Asking Questions”: Many purveyors of conspiracy theory assume the role of an innocent questioner instead of a provocateur.
4) A circle jerk of “experts” who all quote each other in order to give the theory legitimacy.
5) A veneer of academic credibility, much of which gets echoed by established media but when examined up close, credentials are always suspect.
6) Errors in the theory are explained as disinformation from the forces that the theory hopes to out.
7) Assumption of the role of an endangered victim – those who discuss the theory claim to be under constant surveillance. This assumption of persecution makes outsiders wonder what the subjects of the conspiracy have to hide.

But at it’s heart, this book never convinced me that aside from contemporary news media dropping the ball occasionally that conspiracy theory really is shaping how we perceive history. There may be a sizable minority who have bought into the propaganda of 9-11 conspiracy but where most of the sources are concerned, like the movie Loose Change, I have never heard a single sane person speak of it favorably, and the only places where it is discussed favorably is on sites where conspiracy is the sole topic. Most people (unlike me, for the record), do not think there was a CIA conspiracy to kill JFK, though the evidence in that case has been so muddied and mishandled that differing theories as to what happened were inevitable. Most people, despite the media attention Birthers get, do not think Barack Obama is a Muslim foreigner sent to destroy the United States. While the Kennedy assassination is a different kettle of fish in some respects and has, in fact, affected history, it is hard to see the connection between the actual history of this nation and fringe belief. I cannot say the same about the UK, where a couple of the theories in the book are germane, like the idea that Princess Diana was assassinated, an anti-nuke protester murdered in a conspiracy, or the details surrounding the likely suicide of a Parliament crank. I cannot make that leap mainly because my experience with conspiracy theory exists in an American realm.

But if you get past the notion that history has been deeply affected by conspiracy theory, let alone shaped by it, this book is an incredibly informative, fascinating read. I think anyone interested in conspiracy theory will find much to like in this book. Like many, I knew that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was fake, a scurrilous attempt to pass off fiction as a historical document exposing a Jewish plot to take over the world. Aaronovitch takes this one step further and shows that not only was it a fake, but it was a bad forgery as well, showing the original sources from which the PotEZ was taken, showing side by side analysis. Moreover, I did not know that the men at the heart of publicizing all the supposed crimes committed by President Bill Clinton are the same men behind the attempts to prove that Barack Obama is a Muslim, non-American, socialist/communist/fascist. Joseph Farah and Christopher Ruddy evidently got an 8-year break when George W. Bush took office after Clinton, but got back up to speed in a heartbeat when Democrats took the office back. There were also two British conspiracies that I was not as well-versed in. All in all, this book was worth it for the information I did not know, the connections that show how these conspiracies were created and managed for the new information age.

However, I think reason is not in as short supply as the evening news wants us to believe. Nor is it in as short supply as this book would lead one to think. People believe outrageous things, that cannot be denied. Conspiracy theory is, indeed, a cultural force. I just don’t think it is a force that shapes history and that in a large part comes from my personal experiences with conspiracy immersion, but if it were, the official line would be that Marilyn was murdered, Princess Diana was assassinated by the British royal family, Jews are out to get us and Obama is a Muslim foreign agent. If the fringe had anything more than Internet innuendo, Loose Change would not be derided in every sane circle for all the factual errors it makes. Affecting how elements of history may be perceived to certain individuals is not the same as shaping history as a whole. There is no denying that the fringe affects people who believe it and the history they subscribe to, but fringe belief has not shaped history, modern or otherwise, and in trying to prove it, this book fails.

But it succeeds in telling about some extraordinary delusions of the crowd and how they shaped perception for certain groups (and my local conspiracy expert Alex Jones gets a couple of shout outs). That it does not meet its thesis goal matters less to me than it should because it was simply so damned entertaining – Aaronovitch has an engaging writing style and an amusing, at times caustic wit, and the book is just fun to read. All in all, for a book that missed it’s mark, I can’t believe I am telling you to read it, but I am.

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling, Ph.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You

Author: Sam Gosling, Ph.D.

Why Did I Read This Book: Because the premise seemed interesting – what do my possessions say about me, and more interestingly, what do other people’s possessions say about them? So when I saw a signed copy of this book on clearance at BookPeople, I got it.

Availability: Published in 2008 by Basic Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I wanted this book to be something it isn’t and that is not the book’s fault. It is mine. I am… well, weak at applying science and this book uses a lot of methodology behind discussing the wheres and wherefores of why we have stuff in our homes and offices and how it reflects the images we want to project, the sense of self we want others to deduce. I found myself getting bogged down at times in the Snooping Field Guide, wondering how it is that the final decision was made on what traits people should actually use to denote factual information. Some of the ways we use to judge agreeableness, for example, are pleasant voice and extensive smiling when really we need to use soft facial lineaments and friendly expressions. This part of the book, and when Gosling analyzed two news anchors using pictures of their offices, are the sections I read in the sort of mental black out that I use when I am not interested.

However, other elements of the book did interest me greatly. The premise that a person sends very tangible social clues and cues by simple things, like the placement of art and personal photos in their office, intrigued me. That I never once did anything to any work space when I had a day job, like put up pictures of loved ones, bring plants, hang posters, etc. sent a very tangible message to my employers: I am not invested in this place enough to stamp my personality on my surroundings. And that was, in fact, the message I was sending, however subconsciously I sent it.

In fact, I still have not hung up anything in my office or bedroom, or bathroom or kitchen despite having lived in this house for over two years. I have ideas of how I want my office arranged, ideas that involve a red sofa bed that I have yet to find, that exists only in my head evidently. I have the side tables picked out, an area rug, lamps, but nothing will be finished until I get the couch and until then, why put up art work and pictures if I may need to rearrange them. Clearly, my environment is meant to suit me and no one else, but it also implies a level of perfectionism that is unpleasantly unyielding and suspicious of making do. I have few knick knacks or items that exude what I am about, aside from books, and I have so many books that I suspect that books are the objects by which I identify myself. That and my cats, who are not objects, but certainly social signifiers of a sort.

Reading this book ensures you will never look at a desk the same way. You will find yourself looking at a family photograph, the way it is angled, and realize that the picture exists to show you, perhaps, that the person behind the desk is family-oriented, likes hiking with loved ones, or enjoys nature. Or, if it is angled towards the person behind the desk, you realize the picture is likely there to bolster the person who sits there, an attempt to place close at hand visual memories of beloved people and good times to raise their spirits and ground them emotionally at work.

It’s a neat parlor trick that allows you to know, in a sense, a lot about a person before you ever even get to know them. From purses, to cars, to offices, to simply the contents of your refrigerator, we show ourselves clearly even if we don’t know how to interpret these signals ourselves. Gosling’s own remembrances of why he has a fridge stocked with beverages was touching and illuminating about some of my own behaviors – Mom, if you are reading this, my own pantry is always stuffed! My mother is a good cook in the Southern tradition, and shows love by food. When she was in better health, she cooked rich, hearty meals and her pantry was always full, sometimes overly full. Her mindfulness was centered on food delivery, not on the economy of cooking, and often she would needlessly duplicate items, but some of my fondest memories center around her cooking. My own pantry shows some duplication and I too exhibit love via food, as my pantry shows, as do my collection of cookie cutters and other cookie ephemera. My mother cooked hearty casseroles, I make cookies, and we both have too much of something in our pantries – tomato sauce was a common problem for her, and brown sugar is the item I seem to overbuy. Both overpurchases show very clearly what we are about, I think, if you look close enough into our pantries.

While I don’t suspect this is a book I will read again, it was quite interesting, the semiotics of personal possessions, what a stack of cluttered papers really means, how people interpret the symbols you put out there about yourself. While no one can be completely pigeon-holed, I think that this book raises and answers important questions about social identity and the conscious symbols we use to show who we are and the unconscious symbols that give us away. Like a tidy desk surface but tangles of unorganized cords underneath. Like a faceless work cubicle. Or like a house with empty walls but a wealth of brown sugar in the pantry.

The Death of the Grown-Up by Diana West

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization

Author: Diane West (not linking to her – if I created a link to her and her web stats increased even by one as a result, the terrorists have won)

Type of Book: Non-fiction, sociology, politics, utter pants

Why Did I Read This Book: This would be better entitled, “Why Did I Buy This Book” for reasons that will be clear below. I bought it knowing nothing about it because it was selling cheap, remaindered, at a local bookstore. I like a good political or sociological screed, even if I know I may disagree with it, so I got it.

Availability: You want to read this mess, you find a copy yourself. Not even the lure of being an Amazon Affiliate will make me be directly responsible for putting a dime in this author’s pocket.

Comments: I said in another review a few months ago that in the last decade, I have only encountered one book so bad that I had to stop reading it. I jinxed myself, because I then found The Death of the Grown-Up and encountered so many logical fallacies and uncited assertions that by page 20 I could not go on. The horror is, despite the fact that I knew I was going to disagree with the book’s main premise – that multiculturalism is destroying America – I still wanted to read this book after purchasing it. I like reading ideas contrary to mine. But I disagreed with the premise even more when I later understood that the author uses the term “multiculturalism” to mean “cultural relativism.” I think the technical term for all the problems in this book is “hot mess.”

I read in good faith so it may seem like dirty pool that I am reviewing a book I could not finish. So be it. I’ll take my lumps, if any come. But since I read in good faith, I expect people to write in good faith. When they don’t write in good faith, creating a book to bolster their pre-existing arguments instead of researching, thinking, and at least doing the most minimal due diligence to create a coherent thought, I get to take off my gloves as a polite reviewer. This is not going to be a polite review. My spouse refers to this form of writing as “killing gnats with a machine gun.” He may be right but I’m loading my critical gun right now.

This is not a book written in good faith or even using common sense. It makes illogical assertions, exists almost solely in the realm of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and West shows a complete inability to see that the world she grew up in is not the world I grew up in, or the world you grew up in, universalizing her experiences into a bizarre mish mash of fallacies wherein everything she experienced was good and any other perception of childhood and modern culture is bad.

The Redneck Manifesto by Jim Goad

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats

Author: Jim Goad

Type of Book: Non-fiction, Sociology

Why I Consider This Book Odd: Truly, this may not be a wholly odd book. But Goad himself, while not full-bore odd, is in my little odd book, and since I reviewed his book Shit Magnet on this site, I figured I should keep all my Goad reviews together. Also, since I plan to give my two cents on the ANSWER Me! collection over here, and that is a decidedly odd experience, it seems like a good plan to keep my Goad grouped. In other words, my site, my flexible criteria.

Availability: Published in 1998, Simon & Schuster still have it in print. You can get a copy here:

Comments: This is a verbose and highly personal reaction to a book. Don’t send me any e-mails complaining TL;DR. If reading long-form is not your thing, just save yourself some time and hie yourself on over to Twitter and find out what someone ate for breakfast or what they think of the newest electronic whatever, okay?

I read this book a while back and reread it recently. Damnation, did it make me think hard this go around. I initially read it because I walk an uneasy line between two worlds and wanted a take on being white trash that did not demonize it. I got a college education, I seem sort of middle class, but the fact is, deep in my heart, I am still the little white trash girl I was when I was born. My daddy was poor white trash, and mean with it, a Coors-clutching racist who genuinely thought black welfare queens were the reason he could not get ahead in life.

My mama was poor white (though not trash, certainly nuts and willing to put up with a mean, mean man for many, many years), and though we lived in the suburbs of Dallas in a relatively affluent area, I was always acutely aware I was the other. The crappy rental house where I dealt with bad plumbing, crumbling walls, roaches and even on a few occasions, rats, still haunts me to this day and is likely one of the reasons I am a clean freak. My clothes were not up to snuff until I started working and getting my own money to buy them. My hygiene, while not bad, was not as aggressive as my squeaky clean counterparts in elementary school and I recall a nurse calling me dirty one day. Other kids heard it, and she only said things like that to the black kids and the trash kids like me. I bathed twice a day from that comment on, but was still on occasion teased for my greasy haired past. The resonance of being less than middle class is still with me. I had to work hard to appear normalish and developed a knee-jerk, extreme left-wing persona to cover up my trashy roots. I spoke of white privilege as if I had been a recipient of uninterrupted societal largesse from the day I was born and it should be noted that the people who espoused that line of thinking were invariably white age peers who had enjoyed far nicer upbringings than mine.

I cringe when I think about my childhood. I cringe thinking about my father. Being white trash and super-intelligent resulted in someone who became crazy and mean, a loser at the end of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The taint of his shame clung to me like the odor of a rotting soul. I overcompensated. A lot. Pretentious and tiresome. I may cringe when I think about him but I also cringe when I think about who I was until about age 25.

I can also tell you, in my own dogpatch way, that I been white trash and I been middle class. Middle class is better. But you can be both at the same time, and it would appear that I am. (I also note that Obama created a Commission on the Middle Class, or some such shit. Don’t you be fooled, you tenuous middle class. If anyone needs a commission to understand why it’s so hard to be middle class, they’re a moron. As Mr. Oddbook said, if Obama looked to the left, then to the right at every Cabinet meeting, he’d know why being middle class is so damned hard in this country.)

I had just finished rereading The Redneck Manifesto this month when I followed it with a book called Pearl by the author Mary Gordon. I have another site where I review “norm” books and I wrote about it in excruciating depth over there, but the fact is, I was shocked that a Barnard professor and such an acclaimed writer could produce such mind-numbing drek (because, you know, people the critics love never, ever, never turn out crap). Then I followed Pearl with Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan and I loved it. It was not until I thought of Goad’s book again after I reviewed Pearl that I understood some of the reasons for my tastes and distastes.

In Pearl, no one works, or if they do, it is the sort of work that does not bear mentioning in any detail. The characters are rich, highly educated. These are the sorts of people who can afford to send a daughter to Ireland for a year so she can study language without thinking twice about cost. They travel. And when they worry, they worry about how they missed their calling in life, not whether or not they can pay the bills. Pearl, a young girl, decides to starve herself to death over the “will to harm.” She never missed a meal until that point in her life. Nor had she a job, if I remember correctly.

Last Night at the Lobster is a working class novel. Everyone is working. Busting ass. Worrying over tips. Doing hard work for too little money, but for the most part doing it well. The manager of a closing Red Lobster, named Manny, agonizes over who to take with him when the restaurant is closed by the head office and only five people can go to the Olive Garden. He does not want anyone, even his worst employee, to lose his or her job.

Pearl was not written for someone like me, and it was sort of a shock to realize that. Yeah, I got an education and have a veneer of the middle class about me, but the book alienated me. The privileged world of her characters was nothing but a high-minded moral struggle, playing out choices no one without a trust fund would ever have to worry about. I have no idea what Gordon’s background is, but her books are not for the likes of me, a girl who has been a maid, worked retail, waiting on people and literally cleaning up their shit. All the moral dithering. Who has that kind of time in the real world (and yes, as a person who runs two review sites where I pontificate over books, I sort of see the hilarity in that statement)?

Last Night at the Lobster reminded me of the camaraderie I have felt at my scraping-by jobs. People may look at my husband and me and think we are middle class but we are hanging by a thread, like everyone else in the middle class, it seems. As I recently learned, I could go from white collar to blue in a heart beat. I related to the work, to the need to do the job well even when the rewards were so minimal. I understood Manny. I got it.

Pearl was like a lecture on high-brow literary theory. Lobster was like a letter from an old friend.

And I remembered, no matter what, you get raised white trash, you stay that way. And it doesn’t matter how many “good” jobs I have had or how much money my husband makes. My sympathies will always be with people who work and people for whom life has not been a monied cake walk. It took me a long time to understand this, that my world does not break down the way the world does for a rich, white woman. Class means more to me than race, and frankly, the only reason I can say this is because I am, indeed, white. Being poor and Hispanic or black is not something I can discuss nor should I even try because being white has advantages and I have no business speaking for anyone else. No one sane will deny that being white in the USA carries privilege. All I am talking about here is my own life, my own reaction, and how class made me feel inferior and as if I had to hide, lie and act my way into a way of life that promised advancement even though the color of my skin made it seem as if such struggles were not anything I would have to worry about.

There’s a lot to Goad’s book and I hope the historical and social punch in the face it offers does not get lost in my reaction. While there is likely no one on the planet who agrees with everything Goad says, myself included, I agreed with far more of what he had to say this go around than when I first read the book. The book is interestingly researched, with source cites that run from Edward Abbey to Howard Zinn. The first third reads as an alternative history lesson, one that made perfect sense when I read it, but the implications of which probably didn’t stay with me when I initially learned it because extreme leftism embraces a notion of continuous, uninterrupted white privilege that is heresy to deny. The middle third was a look at the contemporary mores of the working class/white trash culture and the last third was a sociological look at how, in America where we all wanna be rich or die trying, no one seems to get the fact that we at the bottom benefit the powers that keep us here each time we snap at each other’s neck.