Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster.

Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam tells the story of con man J.R. Brinkley, the forerunner to today’s “FoodBabe” and “HealthRanger,” a man whose scams were so successful (at extracting money) and popular that he nearly won an election to become governor of Kansas. He helped create the modern radio industry, launched the first real “border blaster” from just over the border with Mexico, and spent about twenty years evading the pursuit of the American Medical Association’s lead investigator Morris Fishbein before finally coming to justice. It is so bizarre and so extreme that it defies belief, both that anyone could get away with a scam so brazen and that his name isn’t that well known today.

Brinkley’s main con was to pass himself off as a surgeon (despite a lack of any medical degree other than honorary ones he received later) who invented an operation where he would implant the glands from goat testicles into the scrotum of a human to give the latter added virility. In other words, he was selling penis pills before Al Gore invented the Internet. And it worked – the con, that is, not the operation, which was complete bullshit and left many patients maimed or worse. Brinkley built a huge practice in the backwater town of Milford, Kansas, in part by also constructing one of the country’s first radio stations and using it to promote his own business. He also filled much of the station’s airtime with country music, spreading the popularity of that genre and thus further building the audience for his promotion of his own business.

When the authorities in Kansas eventually forced him to stop killing people with scrotal operations, Brinkley first staged a write-in campaign for governor that, in just five weeks, may have garnered him enough votes to win, only to have a back-room deal invalidate thousands of those votes and hand the election to one of his rivals. Brinkley later decamped for Del Rio, Texas, opening a new surgery and setting up a half-million watt radio station just over the border that was so powerful there were days the signal could reportedly reach Canada. That station, XERA, introduced mexican and “tex-mex” music to the broader public and later gave us the outsized personality known as Wolfman Jack. Brinkley was a ruthless, sociopathic confidence man, but he was also quite brilliant and kept ahead of his enemies and adversaries for so long because he was a visionary. He saw potential in radio before anyone else did, and rewrote the rules of political campaigns, and also found a fine new way to part gullible people from their money, whether they had it to give him or not.

Fishbein enters frequently into the story as a secondary character, giving the story some narrative greed as he and Brinkley collide several times before the final denouement at a trial where Brinkley was actually the plaintiff, suing Fishbein for libel for calling the fake doctor a charlatan. Whether Brinkley actually believed his “operation” – which barely qualified as such – helped the patients is never clear, as he may simply have been convinced of his own invincibility regardless of the truth. He succeeded for nearly twenty years, running variations of the same scam, frequently upping the ante after he had to pull up stakes in one location, amassing enormous wealth and political power before his ultimate downfall.

That power in particular reminded me of the recent efforts by the soi-disant “FoodBabe” Vani Hari, a woman with no scientific or medical training (and no evident knowledge of either) who has used social media to run protests against specific ingredients in processed foods while encouraging people to do stupid things like take useless “natural herbs” or buy her book. Her post on staying healthy while flying is legendary for its ignorance (such as her beliefs on the chemical composition of air), and she fosters the same kind of anti-science sentiment that encourages vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, and 9/11 “truthers.” Her effort is hardly the only one of its kind; look at NaturalNews, another anti-science site run by a mountebank who peddles misinformation like claiming a raw food diet can cure cancer and fibromyalgia in what amounts to one giant appeal to nature. (Prepare to be shocked: Mike Adams, the self-styled “Health Ranger” who runs Natural News, is a vaccine denier and an all-around quack.) So while it’s easy to read Charlatan and convince yourself that such a sham could never happen today, in reality the fraudsters have just moved online.

Next up: I read S.S. Van Dine’s first Philo Vance mystery, The Benson Murder Case (just $1.99 for Kindle), on the flight yesterday, and will start Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum later today.


My list of breakout player picks for 2015 is up for Insiders. There’s no chat this week due to travel (I’m leaving Arizona this morning), but I’ve got several other posts up and two more coming this week:

* Javier Baez and Brandon Finnegan
* Taijuan Walker and some Dbacks
* Carlos Rodon, Tyler Danish, and Robbie Ray
* University of Arizona infielders Kevin Newman and Scott Kingery

Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live takes no prisoners in its assault on that trendy diet fad, one that is based on both bad science and bad history in concluding that we should eat a diet of mostly meat and vegetables, without grains, dairy, or sugar. You can certainly eat whatever you want, but the charlatans pushing this diet and lifestyle are using a deft blend of myth and outright bullshit to convince people to give up huge swaths of their diet, perhaps with dangerous consequences.

Zuk’s emphasis in the book is more on human evolution than “paleo” idiocy; the latter is more of a hook to get readers into what could have been a dry history of the portions of our genes that determine what foods we can (and thus do) eat. Zuk organizes her narrative around the activity or food that paleo hucksters claim we should eschew, but within each section delves into the evolutionary history and evidence that tell us why, in essence, we eat what we eat and we do what we do. Along the way, she sneaks in some broader attacks on those who believe evolution isn’t true, or misunderstand it (deliberately or otherwise) to draw erroneous conclusions. Foremost among them is that evolution is not goal-directed, and does not have a conclusion or an apex. We are not the end, we are still evolving, and whatever you may believe about the meaning of our existence, we’re not the peak of some lengthy process.

Her greatest assaults, however, are on the codswallop tossed about by paleo authors and enthusiasts who claim, in short, that we have switched to a diet to which we are ill-suited from an evolutionary perspective. Zuk explains, with copious evidence, that humans have continued to evolve since the Paleolithic era, and thus have digestive and metabolic capabilities that we didn’t have during the so-called paleo era. Her leading example is a big one for me: lactase persistence, the genetic ability to continue to produce the lactase enzyme past childhood, most prominent in the Lapp populations of northern Scandinavia and in some sub-Saharan African groups. Such genes have only started to spread, but Zuk argues that if this is an evolutionary advantageous development (as it appears to be), it will likely spread through natural selection over a long enough period of time. She uses similar examples to discuss how we can get nutrition and energy from grains that may not have been as bio-available to us tens of thousands of years ago.

She also explains in a similarly comprehensive fashion that paleo peeps weren’t the good ol’ boys that they’re claimed to have been, and that the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture didn’t therefore rob us of some essential dietary attributes or destroy our metabolisms. She puts the claim that cancer is a modern ailment to the test, and shows that the lack of evidence for cancer in, say, ancient Egyptians, is a case where we can’t conclude that there’s evidence of absence because cancer cells decay quickly and would rarely leave any sign in bones and other hard matter in the corpse. The idea that obesity, cancer, diabetes and other “modern” diseases are entirely the result of a sedentary, agriculture-based diet and lifestyle – and can be prevented or cured via a paleo diet – is just so much bunk. It’s not supported by the historical evidence, and it relies on the evolutionary myth that we were or will ever be perfectly adapted to our environment. Our environment changes, we change in response to it, but there’s no steady state at the end of the line. (Well, maybe after the sun swallows the earth, but that’s beyond the scope of this book.)

Zuk relies heavily on evidence, as any debunking tome should, but her writing is also very clear without oversimplifying, and she does an excellent job of presenting arguments that appeal to our logic or reason without relying on that alone to convince us. She explains why certain genes or blocks of genes might have first spread within human populations, based on certain advantages they conferred – even genes that simultaneously confer some disadvantage. Cystic fibrosis is an autosomal recessive genetic condition, meaning that you have to receive copies of the defective gene from both of your parents to get the disease; if you get just one copy, you’re a “carrier” but won’t get CF. You will, however, have some degree of immunity to cholera, one of the thousands or perhaps millions of tradeoffs and compromises that constitute our genetic makeup, a point to which Zuk returns frequently to hammer home her argument that there is no “perfect” in evolution, or even a clear positive direction. (Zuk never broaches religion, but it’s evident that she rejects the notion of evolution as a guided process, or as Francis Collins’ concept of evolution as the divine way of “delivering upgrades.”)

Paleofantasy may not be the book to convince your creationist friends that they’re out to lunch, although Zuk does present her fair share of evidence to support the theory of evolution; it is, however, the book to give that paleo friend of yours who won’t shut up about gluten and lactose. Eat what you want, of course, but wouldn’t you rather choose your diet based on facts rather than frauds?

Next up: A reader suggestion – Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.


My thoughts on Boston’s deal with Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is up for Insiders.

Game designer Uwe Rosenberg is best known for Agricola, consistently one of the highest-rated board games in the world since its 2007 release, and for his similar titles Le Havre, Caverna (a bargain at $88!), and Ora et Labora (out of print), all of which are acclaimed and highly complex games that require lengthy rulebooks and a two-hour or so commitment to play. That makes his latest game, the two-player delight Patchwork, a huge surprise for its elegance and simplicity, easy enough to play with my eight-year-old and straightforward enough for its rules to cover just four small pages.

Patchwork is Tetris played with a wallet instead of a clock: Each player has a 9×9 board and must purchase scraps of fabric, paying in buttons, and place those pieces on his/her main board. The fabric tiles cover two to eight squares each and come in various shapes, each bearing two costs – one in buttons, one in spaces the player must move on the central board that functions like a timer – with some also returning buttons as income over the course of the game. The object is to cover as many of those 81 board spaces as possible before both players reach the end of the track on the central board, earning points for buttons left over and for becoming the first player to completely cover any 7×7 square on his/her own board, losing two points per uncovered square at game-end.

The pieces themselves are arranged in random order in a circle around the central board, with one neutral token sitting between two pieces in the circle at all times. On his/her turn, a player can buy any of the next three fabric pieces (going clockwise) in front of that token, paying the cost in buttons and then moving his/her piece on the central board – a spiral track that ends in the center, after reaching which the player is done taking turns – the number of spaces indicated on the piece of fabric; after that piece is removed, the token moves into the vacated spot. If the player chooses not to buy any of those pieces of fabric, s/he may move on the central track to the spot one space ahead of the other player, earning one button per space moved in that turn.

The player further back (from the finish) on the central track goes next, so a player may take consecutive turns if s/he buys fabric pieces that don’t advance his/her token ahead of the opponent’s; if one player lands on the space occupied by the other player, she puts her token on top of his and takes one more turn before her opponent goes. The central track has nine button symbols on it; when a player reaches or crosses one of those symbols, s/he earns income, one button per button symbol on the fabric pieces on that player’s own board. There are also five one-square fabric scraps located on the central track; to claim one of those, a player must land directly on one of those spaces.

Players must place any acquired fabric pieces immediately, and can’t move them for the rest of the game, so there’s a spatial-relations component to the game to go along with the resource-management decisions involved in purchasing fabric pieces. Despite the random element to the order of fabric pieces in the circle and the movement of the token, it’s easy to plan out some rough strategy based on what pieces you might be able to purchase over your next turn or two, and you always have to consider what pieces are still available as your board begins to fill up. Games took us 30-45 minutes, with winning scores usually in the teens but, in one instance, all the way up to 33 points:

A 33-point winning game in Patchwork, from @mayfairgames and Agricola designer Uwe Rosenberg

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

It’s been an instant hit in our house because it’s so quick to learn and set up and because the balance of strategy and randomness or luck is just enough to level out the field no matter who’s playing. My daughter took to it immediately, understands how to play it well, and seems to particularly enjoy the tile-placement aspect, figuring out how best to fit pieces on her board. Strong two-player games are such a rarity – the best games out there are nearly all designed for three or more players and play best with four – that it’s a huge treat to have another Jaipur-like hit in the house.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

My draft blog post on Jacob Nix’s pitching and Dillon Tate’s role is up for Insiders.

Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale had been on my radar for years, both as a book recommended by others and something I knew I should read given its genre and critical acclaim. It is a remarkable, harrowing, often infuriating novel of a very specific type of dystopian society, one that goes beyond mere questions of personal freedom to probe issues of gender roles and identities, as well as the difficulty of regaining any sort of agency under severe repression designed to strip subjects of that very power.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States has fallen somewhere in the late 1980s, replaced in a violent coup by a fundamentalist Christian state, one that imposes strict Biblical prohibitions on nearly all areas of life. Women are now second-class citizens by statute, deprived of the ability to work, to drive, to assemble, to read, even to think for themselves. Decisions about their reproductive lives are made largely by the state, which is entirely dominated by older white men. Think modern-day Saudi Arabia. Or Texas.

The narrator, known simply by her assigned name of Offred, is a handmaid, a role of a highly specific form of sexual slavery. Handmaids are assigned to older men in powerful positions whose wives, due to age or other conditions, can no longer bear children. Their role is to try to bear their masters – Atwood doesn’t use that term, but I don’t see a better one – a child, after weaning which they’ll be assigned to a new house and a new master, while the child will be reared by the master and his capital-W Wife. Women who refuse to subject to this new order are sent to the Colonies, an unspecified location where they engage in manual labor from farmwork to cleaning up environmental disasters, or are simply disappeared.

Offred’s story is made all the more uncomfortable because she’s one of the first generation of Handmaids, and was ripped out of her old life where she was married with a young daughter, both of whom are now gone – to where exactly I won’t say to avoid spoiling it, but there’s nothing comforting about any of it. The idea of a regime so repressive that it would break up families for religious/political reasons seems so far-fetched, and yet we still have elements in this country fighting federal orders that should force them to recognize same-sex marriages. (Atwood, herself an ardent humanist, places surprisingly little blame here at the feet of the unspecified sect in charge of the new nation, apparently called Gilead, instead showing the religion as the tool of the oppressors.) When Offred’s master, called the Commander, tries to initiate a relationship with her that’s more than their perfunctory monthly Ceremony of sex – one so bizarre the reader can only wonder how Atwood came up with it – it begins the unraveling of Offred’s little world, one that replaced happiness with a modicum of stability, bringing back actual emotions beyond her regular state of depression and thoughts of suicide.

While The Handmaid’s Tale has a superficial purpose as a warning to all of us about how easily a repressive element like this might take over a previously peaceful, democratic society, or simply to caution us that such groups always exist at the fringes and will try to pounce on any opening they might see to exert their will on others, Atwood’s primary purpose seems to be explore the plight of a woman in a hopeless condition of subjugation. Can such a subject find any reason for hope beyond impossible dreams of a reunion with her family (where there’s life, there’s hope)? How can she claim some sort of agency – here, a capacity to form a desire for action, then to act upon it of her own will – within the confines of a societal structure that deprives her of everything right down to her identity, reducing her to a mere vessel for the propagation of the species? When she even has limited ability to choose whether to live or die, can such a woman find any form of freedom, and are such forms – like illicit sex – worth pursuing simply because they represent a rebellion against oppression? Offred learns of other handmaids who’ve taken their own lives, an expression of their limited agency, and ultimately encounters other “fallen” women who’ve taken to using sex for the same purpose.

Where Atwood might have gone further is in exploring the reasons why victims of such repressive regimes are not more willing to resist. In her alternate history, many women are willing participants in the scheme that subjugates their compatriots, becoming instructor-disciplinarians in reeducation centers set up to turn formerly independent women into Handmaids, or snitching on subversive or illegal activities to try to curry small, temporary favor with their overlords. There is a resistance movement, but it appears to be small and weak, and the idea that women, who constitute just over half the population, would be demoted to the status of mere chattel without more of a fight seemed unlikely to me. Atwood does give us a secondary character, Janine, who seems to embody Shakespeare’s frailty-of-woman, with her excessive emotional displays and subservience to any authority, male or female, that seeks dominion over her. Janine’s character is alternately pitied and despised by Offred and the other Handmaids, but their tacit acceptance of their fate is no different than her explicit version.

Discussing the issue of non-resistance – which is a major philosophical question that arises when we examine real autocratic regimes, notably the Third Reich – further might have led Atwood into the trap that far too many science- or speculative-fiction novels fall, providing excessive detail about the world and its inception, which ruined both Rainbows End and The Diamond Age for me. I’m glad she provided less detail here rather than more if the cost was giving us a lengthy exposition on, say, the power structure of Gilead. It wasn’t until near the end of the book that it became clear that the former university converted for the use of the government’s secret police and for events like the “Salvaging” was actually Harvard, more evidence of Atwood’s willingness to forego irrelevant details to focus on the plot and her themes.

There is another dimension to this book that will always be beyond me, as a man, because I’ve experienced none of the discrimination or even condescension that women face in what is still a patriarchal society; as a white, straight male, I don’t even have a good analogue on which I can draw. The horror of having her daughter taken from her and given to another childless family is always present with Offred, and that was the point with which I had the hardest time because it was the one aspect of her de facto captivity that I could imagine. Nothing else would drive me to madness so quickly.

Next up: Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, winner of the 2014 Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and Locus Awards.

No Cities to Love.

Just a reminder that the top 100 prospects package will appear on next week for Insiders, running from January 28th to the 30th. I’ll chat on the 29th (but not this week), the day that the top 100 itself goes up.

Regardless of the actual quality of the album, Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love (also on iTunes) was going to garner rave reviews from critics and fans who were just happy that the trio was back after a nine-year absence from recording. It didn’t matter whether their sound had changed, whether they could still write great hooks, whether Corin Tucker could still sing, as long as they were still Sleater-Kinney, because that band and that name stood for something, although for what it stood probably depended on where you were standing – independent music, anti-corporatism, feminism, LGBT issues, sometimes stuff the band themselves never openly espoused. They never experienced commercial success commensurate with their critical standing, perhaps in part because of Tucker’s deliberately abrasive vocal style, but also because they never did much to court it. Their breakup in 2006 and move into other projects, notably Carrie Brownstein’s career as an actress (co-creating Portlandia with Fred Armisen – go Thinkers!), only served to heighten their legend, with Brooklyn Vegan promising to play a Sleater-Kinney track on its Sirius XMU show each week until the band reunited. By 2014, Sleater-Kinney was an idea rather than a pretty good, defunct punk band.

That makes it all the more gratifying that their album No Cities to Love, released on Tuesday on Sub Pop, is such a tight, sophisticated, hook-filled record, sophisticated without becoming staid, more of a second take on the Sleater-Kinney sound than more of the same they gave us through their first half-dozen albums. There’s a cleaner sound throughout the record, better production quality combined with less distortion on the guitars (Sleater-Kinney has never used a bass guitar, ironic since that’s often what the token girl plays in male-fronted rock bands), which means the songs are carried by memorable riffs, layered vocals, and non-traditional (for them) drum patterns. Tucker’s vocals are just as intense and emotional as ever, but it’s a lot easier to pick up what she’s saying and to distinguish each vocal or guitar track within a song.

Lead single “Bury Our Friends,” my #12 song of 2014, gave a strong preview of this slight shift in Sleater-Kinney’s direction – angst-ridden yet hopeful, stomping through the chorus (“exhume our idols/bury our friends”), driven both by one of Brownstein’s strongest riffs ever and some intricate drumwork from Janet Weiss. Weiss’ role on the album may be the most pleasant surprise, as she’s expanded her style and is mixed more toward the front; “Fangless,” which opens almost like a prog-rock track that’s made a small withdrawal from the jazz machine, would go nowhere without Weiss’ syncopated percussion lines. You can hear throughout Cities why Weiss has been in such demand from other indie rock acts during Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus.

Album opener “Price Tag” serves both as one of the album’s best tracks and a transitional song to reintroduce old listeners to the band’s slight shift in direction while bringing new fans immediately into the fold, building up a store of potential energy in the verses before exploding into a chorus where Tucker sounds like she’s still holding a little piece of rage in reserve for future use. “Surface Envy” completes the opening troika by paradoxically turning a descending scale into a memorable riff, I think primarily because of how it ends in a crash between Brownstein’s power chords and Weiss’s pulsating drums, an aural waterfall hitting the rocks and splashing everywhere. “No Anthems” borrows a little from stoner rock to underlie Tucker’s introspective lyrics, evincing some nostalgia for the band’s former, reluctant role as standard-bearers for the riot grrl movement. The album’s only real stumble, “Hey Darling,” a stab at power-pop that sounds wrong coming from Tucker’s lungs, gives way quickly to the melancholy closer “Fade,” which alludes to pre-grunge sounds from Mudhoney and Soundgarden in the first movement, after which Weiss powershifts into a march for the bridge, leading into Brownstein’s pedal-point riff that drives the reprise of the first third to close out the song and the album. It’s the most ornate song on Cities, the right way to finish an album that would otherwise have been split in two by its complexity amidst a run of tighter, faster tracks.

I was never fully on board with the hype around Sleater-Kinney, because I thought they were more of A Really Important Thing than a producer of great tracks, which may color my impression of No Cities to Love … but it’s my favorite album by the band, by a huge margin. This is the kind of album we would hope middle-aged punks could produce after some time away from their main act, but that very few artists are capable of pulling off.

If you’re a fan of Sleater-Kinney, I highly recommend this Pitchfork feature story on the band, with many enlightening comments from the band members on the direction of this latest album. I also suggest you check out the 2013 album Silence Yourself by Savages, who walk the same paths first plowed by bands like Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, and 7 Year Bitch.

Among Others.

Jo Walton’s novel Among Others, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 2012, is nothing like any of the other major science fiction or fantasy titles I’ve read. The story is instead a tender coming-of-age narrative with just a dash of magic thrown in, and the book as a whole functions as a paean to the classics of both genres, succeeding because of the appeal of its narrator-protagonist even though there’s minimal action in the novel itself. (The Kindle version is still just $2.99 through that link, more than worth the price.)

Morwenna Phelps (who goes by Mor or Mori) is a 15-year-old Welsh girl who has been left disabled after what is described for much of the book as a battle with her mother, an evil and/or insane witch, a battle that killed Mor’s twin sister. Mor is now at an English boarding school where she’s been sent by her estranged father, with whom she has no relationship (he walked out when she and her sister were babies) but forges a tenuous bond over their shared love of science fiction and fantasy novels – Mor reads more than any human being I’ve ever met, on the order of about 300 books a year given how quickly Walton has her going through titles in the story. As Mor goes through typical teenage stuff – dealing with cliques and ostracism, gaining and losing friends over trifles, taking her first steps into dating – she’s also dealing with the aftermath of what happened with her mother, trying to make sense of everything through books and through her limited magical abilities, which she’s reluctant to use.

Mor reminded me greatly of Flavia de Luce, the chemistry-obsessed heroine of Alan Bradley’s six mystery novels (beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), but a few years older and therefore dealing with more real-world issues – the stuff we might see Flavia encounter now that Bradley has agreed to write four more stories with his star moving to boarding school in Canada. Mor’s experiences in boarding school are tame by today’s standards, but the point isn’t to watch her suffer or squirm – it’s to watch her cope using her relationship with fiction both in direct (finding shared interest in books with peers and adults alike) and indirect (taking lessons from the novels she’s read) fashion. Among Others is a wonderful book, but seeing it win all of these genre awards reminded me of Argo and The Artist doing the same in cinema: They won movie awards because both movies were about how great the movies are. Maybe Walton won because she wrote a book about the power of science fiction and fantasy novels, not to mention a guide to the best of the genres up to the late 1970s. The same novel without the elegaic aspect would have been just as successful as literature, but would it still have earned the same plaudits?

The magical/fantasy aspects of Among Others are part of the background fabric of the novel, rather than central to its story, which I believe is essential for genre fiction to be more than just, well, genre fiction. Mor’s magical skills are mostly limited to her ability to see ethereal creatures she calls “fairies” for lack of any more accurate term, and some power to cast spells that she barely uses; when the soft climax of a rematch with her mother occurs, Mor doesn’t use magic to fight, relying on her emerging self-confidence and ability to control her racing mind to defeat her mother’s ambush. But the bulk of the magic has happened already in the book’s past and comes to the reader slowly via Mor’s diary entries as she opens up to a few friends, particularly the fellow outcast Wim, about what actually happened and what she’s able to see. This book is all epilogue, creating a challenge for Walton to grab and hold the reader’s attention; she does it best because Morwenna herself is so compelling, insightful and intelligent beyond her years, yet still in many ways a child, trying to navigate adolescence on top of the challenges of having an crazy, power-hungry witch for a mother. If Walton wants to give us more of Morwenna’s story, before or after the events of Among Others, I’m all for it.

Next up: After I finish Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat today, I’ll start Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke, one of the Albert Campion mysteries and apparently an inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels.

Have a safe New Year’s Eve, everyone.

The Teleportation Accident.

I had never heard of Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident before a conversation with a restaurant hostess in August, where she noticed I had a book with me (The Magic Mountain, which, let me tell you, is just a great book to get the ladies interested) and we started chatting about novels, mostly classics. She raved about Beauman’s book so much that I bought it, and just crushed it over about 72 hours this past weekend because it is totally insane, clever, and hilarious, even though I’m not really sure it’s “about” anything at all.

Winner of the peculiar Encore Award (given to the best second novel of the year) and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize (so top twelve), The Teleportation Accident follows the transparently-named Egon Loeser, a set designer in Berlin in the early 1930s who is obsessed with the 17th-century set designer Adriano Lavicini, whose prop “teleportation device” failed in spectacular fashion, killing over two dozen spectators and the designer himself. Loeser is also obsessed with sex, of which he’s not getting any since his breakup with his most recent girlfriend, only to become infatuated with the unfortunately-named Adele Hitler (no relation), whom he eventually chases to Paris and then Los Angeles, where he gets entangled in a giant conspiracy involving an attempt to make an actual teleportation device at CalTech. Through all of these escapades, mostly occurring between 1931 and the end of World War II, Loeser remains blissfully ignorant of the charged political atmosphere around him, even when it puts him or his friends in immediate danger.

That last bit is part of how Beauman subverts almost everything about the modern historical novel – where any other author would insert his protagonist Zelig-like into the major historical events of the era, Beauman keeps Loeser in the dark, makes only oblique references to the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust, and even mocks the standard practice by using a secondary character, the bizarrely-named Scramsfield, who claims to know all the famous people in Paris (referring to James Joyce as “Jimmy”) but actually knows none of them. You expect Loeser to be pushed or dragged along by the force of history, yet every plot twist comes about due to accident or coincidence. This is Zadie Smith’s hysterical realism grafted on to Isherwood’s Berlin, Pynchon’s grandiose plotting with Vonnegut’s cynicism and Fforde’s wit. It’s madcap absurdity without devolving into the impossible (except for one last masterstroke in the final few pages).

Beauman’s decision to make Loeser’s obsession sexual is really a Macguffin, as his long dry spell is more of a plot convenience to keep him chasing after Adele and to push him into these bizarre conspiracies and a sort of meaningless competition with the fatuous English writer Rackenham. In fact, I’m not sure the book is about anything at all, which is probably why the blurb on the back does such a poor job of describing the story. It’s not about sex, and it’s only slightly about Lavicini or teleportation. It is, however, wildly funny, often in ridiculous ways, such as the wealthy car-polish magnate whose agnosia makes him unable to distinguish a picture from reality, so a glass of ginger ale spilled on a map leads him to shout “Ambulance! Thousands drowned!” – and that’s before it deteriorates further into “ontological agnosia,” which might be the most apt description of the book’s central theme (assuming there is one at all).

Also tucked into this bizarre picaresque are a grotesque murder mystery, a quack doctor who claims to promise eternal youth by sewing monkey glands onto your testicles, a conflict over public transportation in Los Angeles, a scientist whose mind (at least) jumps back and forth in twenty-year intervals, and eventually another attempt to tell Lavicini’s story and build another stage version of a teleportation machine. Beauman masterfully ties up all his loose ends in that concluding passage and the three epilogues, each more bonkers than the previous one, yet never veering so far from the central plot’s threads that he can’t narrow it all down to a singularity in the final few words. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year, and I can’t wait for his next novel, Glow, to come out here in the U.S. in January.

Galaxy Trucker iPad app.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders, one on Boston signing Hanley Ramirez and an omnibus post covering four moves, two each by Oakland and the White Sox.

The Galaxy Trucker iPad app takes a well-reviewed boardgame (which I’ve never played) and turns it into something more on a tablet, with a “campaign mode” that plays like an adventure or role-playing game layered on the mechanics of the boardgame itself. It’s the most addictive game I’ve played all year, probably too much so – although I had a little spare time this weekend to try it out.

In Galaxy Trucker, you’re a long-haul space trucker who has to build a new ship for each run, preparing it to dodge meteors and stardust, battle space pirates and slavers, and pick up cargo from planets and abandoned ships for sale at your destination. Those various goals and obstacles require you to build a ship that has the right balance of cabins for crew, guns, engines, shields, batteries, and storage for goods … and that’s before you unlock the ability to carry certain aliens as extra crew too. Each component has connectors on one to four sides, so you have to make everything fit together on your ship while trying not to leave connectors exposed to stardust or vulnerable to meteor fire. And building those ships means competing in real-time against AI players to grab tiles from a central pile available to everyone; once the first player completes his/her ship, a timer starts and other players must finish as quickly as they can.

Out in space, the ships all appear on a track, starting in the order in which the players finished building. The journey to the next satellite or moon involves a set of eight to twenty “adventure cards,” overturned in order, each revealing a specific event. The easiest one is open space, where you can go as many spots forward as your engine allows, although position is only relative to the other ships rather than letting you speed to the destination – that is, you have to play all the cards before you dock.

Being first in line gives you first crack at any abandoned ships (where you can send crew members for money or cargo, at a cost of a couple of spaces on the track) or planets (so you can grab the most valuable cargo), but also puts you first in line to face pirates or slavers, who can damage your ship or steal your crew/cargo if you don’t have enough firepower. Meteors hit everyone in line, with smaller ones damaging tiles with exposed connectors but larger ones destroying whatever they hit if you can’t shoot them down. Combat is the one time you’re pitted against your rivals, because all ships are compared using three criteria – firepower, engine strength, and crew size – with the trucker scoring the lowest in each subject to attack, loss of crew, loss of cargo, or other penalties.

When building your ship, you do get to peek at some of the cards (I think 3/4 of them) if you don’t mind taking a brief break from the tile rush, so you can plan accordingly – such as adding weapons facing a specific side of the ship if you know you’ll face large meteors from that direction. That said, the variety of cards in all of the journey’s you’ll undertake means you’re always trying to balance the various components to survive the trip and make as much money as you can through salvage, rewards for finishing first or having the best-designed ship, or completing certain missions in the campaign.

That campaign is easily the best part of the app – it’s a little bit of a choose-your-own-adventure feel, except that you can’t die on page 63, you just go back to port and try again. The challenges increase in difficulty slowly at first, but near the end of the campaign there are two extremely tough ones (so far) that I’ve struggled to get past. The game also gives you a few broader goals to achieve outside of individual missions, and you get to keep expanding areas on your map to see more destinations and potentially earn more money from larger jobs. That “one more challenge” setup kept drawing me back to the game beyond the point when I might have been bored from crushing the AI after getting the hang of the game.

The one flaw in the implementation is the ease with which you can make an unintended move, which is irrevocable under the rules of the game. Dragging tiles down over your ship to reveal them, then dragging them back to the pile, all while trying to move as quickly as possible will result in some tiles accidentally dropped into place on your ship – and if you don’t notice that that happened and reach for another tile, you’ll be stuck with a piece you didn’t want and/or somewhere you didn’t want it.

The graphics are goofy but easy to understand, drawn from the board game for a cartoonish feel; the app itself ran smoothly over a dozen times. (Okay, maybe way over a dozen times.) The puzzle-solving aspect of Galaxy Trucker was the initial appeal, but the campaign mode is what makes it a must-purchase for boardgame fans. I’ve already gotten way more than $7.99 worth out of the game in, well, about five days of playing it.

The Left Hand of Darkness.

I have three Insider posts up on recent moves, one on the Heyward/Miller swap, one on Toronto signing Russell Martin, and a third omnibus post covering Hellickson, Moncada, Burnett, and La Stella/Vizcaino. Also, if you missed my annual boardgames ranking, I posted that on Tuesday.

Ursula K. Le Guin won two Hugo Awards for novels, one for The Dispossessed, which I read earlier this year (and loved), and one for the book I just finished, The Left Hand of Darkness , a much stranger book in almost every respect. Set on a planet that suffers near-permanent winter, the novel manages to explore questions of political philosophy and economy while also delving into the still-current question of gender identity and whether gender is a biological or social construct, even though she wrote the book in the late 1960s.

On Gethen, the planet where the entire novel takes place, the still-human residents have evolved over tens of thousands of years to become hermaphroditic, mostly sexless until their mensual period of “kemmer,” a point in the hormonal cycle when that person’s male or female reproductive organs become capable of procreation for a few days. That means that a Gethenian can be a mother to one child and father to another, producing a different societal concept of families. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy sent from the Ekumen, the book’s united federation of planets (so to speak) that is hoping to invite Gethen into its alliance, which focuses primarily on the sharing of knowledge and limited trade. Ai is distrusted by two separate governments, one a loose, feudal monarchy, the latter a Soviet-style command structure, and finds he has just one Gethenian he can trust, the disgraced adviser Estraven. The second half of the book puts the two of them on a life-or-death journey across desolate, snowbound country, where Ai is forced to reconsider his own aloof, perhaps ignorant attitude toward the character of the Gethenians, including the influence of their mostly genderless existence on their development as humans.

While The Left Hand of Darkness is largely praised as an early feminist sci-fi novel, reading it today it came across as a broader exploration of gender identity questions and to what extent growing up in a two-gender society (that is still relatively intolerant of anyone with gender dysphoria, or even folks who aren’t strictly heterosexual) defines our characters as individual. In a society where roles are not defined by gender because gender doesn’t exist, many questions of equality go away, as do the narrow types of personalities considered acceptable for each gender. All Gethenians Ai encounters exhibit tendencies he considers “effeminate” – the use of the term itself even indicates the trouble he has defining people as “he” or “she” – and others he calls “masculine,” but those terms come from his own experience and have no meaning outside of the two-gender context. Increasing his understanding while suffering the privations of a trip across a glacier with Estraven – who, like most Gethenians, lacks the testerone-driven strength of a biologically male human – becomes essential to the success of his overall mission, if and when he survives.

The political aspects of Ai’s quest dominate the first half of the novel as he first fails to achieve his objectives in the monarchist nation of Karhide, then travels to the totalitarian Orgoreyn, only to get caught up in the infighting among that nation’s 33-member politburo. Much of his difficulty stems from widespread skepticism that he’s actually an alien – he looks similar to Gethenians, just taller, darker in complexsion, and of course of a single gender – and the rest comes from doubt over the peaceful nature of his mission. He spends two years in Karhide, but is hesitant to commit to bringing the ship with the rest of his trade mission (eleven others, all kept in stasis so they aren’t aging while waiting for the call) to Gethen, even though it would likely seal the agreement with the Karhidish monarch. Le Guin’s aim here is vague until Ai crosses the border, at which point she unloads on the Soviets, which I’m sure was a lot more powerful or shocking in 1969 when the book was first published than it is today. We’ve been too desensitized to the abuses of authoritarian regimes to be affected by Ai’s plight in a forced-labor camp.

My one complaint with Left Hand is Le Guin’s use of phony dialect and terminology, something a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers do, presumably to make the whole setting seem more real to readers but instead just coming off as confusing and, to my eyes, a little juvenile. I don’t know why Le Guin needed to create a whole new calendar with names for months and days, all summarized in a appendix at the end of the book. I don’t know why she needed so many new terms for government officials; it seems like an imagination run wild, without the guiding hand of an editor to say, hey, you’re just going to make readers lose their focus on the plot. It’s too strong and thoughtful a novel to waste time on trivial word changes, and given how well the gender identity themes still hold up over 40 years later, a book that deserves a much wider audience than just the sci-fi crowd.

Next up: I’m reading two books at once now, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil as my main read while also trying to read Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz in the original Spanish.


HAERTS – yeah, I’m not big on the deliberately-misspelled band names trend either – put out a strong EP late last year as a teaser for their full-length debut; “All the Days” made my top 100 songs of 2013, “Wings” would have made my top songs of 2012 had I heard it when it was released, and I liked their overall sound and lead singer Nini Fabi’s powerful, slightly smoky voice. Their self-titled debut album came out last Tuesday, including three of the four songs from last year’s EP along with six new tracks that follow the same general aesthetic – indie-pop, a little new wavish but never retro, all buttressed by Fabi’s tremendous vocals.

Produced by Jean-Philip Grobler, who records his own music under the moniker St. Lucia, Haerts isn’t as bright as his own work but features the same kind of lush, layered sounds that made his album When the Night (which made my top albums of 2013 list) so compelling. Haerts’ songs work best when Fabi is at the front, as on lead single “Giving Up,” where she begins singing just over a repeating keyboard line, after which her vocals are doubled before we get the remainder of the band involved. Like “Wings” and “All the Days,” there’s a relentlessness in the backing key and guitar lines, like a haertbeat beneath the voice that gives the album’s best songs their energy.

That’s lacking when the pace slows, as on “Call My Name,” the intro to which is way too similar to Chris Deburgh’s “The Lady in Red” (good luck unhearing that now); Fabi gets to belt it out during the chorus, but by that point I’d lost some interest, and the formula doesn’t work any better on “Lights Out,” which sounds a bit like a mediocre ’80s ballad and doesn’t let Fabi show off at all. Haerts sound best when they hit the gas from the first measure and leave the cruise control on for the whole four minutes – even deep tracks like “Be the One” (with the perhaps unintentional double entendre “can you show it/when you go down?” in the bridge) and opener “Heart” cast a spell with solid hooks and Fabi’s performance. I understand the desire to vary their sound and tempo across the 40 minutes of a full album, but their style doesn’t work as well at ballad speed.

Those songs from last year’s Hemiplegia EP are the strongest, though – the two I mentioned above plus the title track – with mesmerizing vocals and richly textured synth-bass-drum combinations that grow as each track progresses. “Hemiplegia” might be the unlikeliest title for a pure pop song, but it’s a remarkably crafted track that recalls the best moments from When the Night as it adds layers (like the guitar riff at 2:20) to increase its complexity without losing its hookiness. “Wings” is the only track on the album that feels driven by percussion, but the strength of the beat contrasts beautifully with the flow of Fabi’s vocals, but when everything drops out behind her at the halfway point, she hits this series of notes that mark the highest point of the entire album. There’s enough consistency on this album to make it well worth the purchase, as long as you didn’t buy the EP last year; it’s among the year’s best albums, on the strength of those three songs and one of the best new voices in alternative music.