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Review: The Penguin Book of Witches

The Penguin Book of Witches

Katherine Howe, editor

It’s fitting that Penguin is releasing its annotated Book of Witches in time for Halloween—and not just because of the seasonal correlation of Wicca and the feast of Samhain. The history of the witch is long and complicated. The difficulty of distilling thousands of years of witchery into a single volume is perhaps best illustrated by considering the variety of Halloween Penguin Book of Witchescostumes celebrating the witch.

A cursory search of costume shops gives you such options as sexy witch, crone witch, neon witch or glitter/sparkle/glamor witch. Would you like a traditional black dress with a broom, or something made of lace? You could be a witch from Oz or Salem, Sabrina or American Horror Story.

And would you like a cat with that? Or perhaps a toad or flying monkey?

Oh, you can even dress up your dog as a witch, if you feel like it. Whatever. You go do you.

Point is, the witch is not a singular entity: it’s a character that has assumed many forms in film, folklore and the imagination, be it funny or frightening, sexy or silly, from the East Coast (good) or the West (wicked). In her introduction, author and academic Katherine Howe gives as good a definition as I’ve ever read:

“Witchcraft is less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power, whether that power lies with the church, with the king, or with the dominant cultural group” [xii].

Indeed, the bookshelf of my youth was loaded with books on the topic: fiction anthologies devoted to the witch; sensational Satanic Panic potboilers; historical and sociological treatises; feminist takes; and cumbersome source material such as the Malleus Malificarum and The History of Witchcraft and Demonology.

I wish this book would have been around back then. Howe does a great job of sampling the primary sources to create a palatable, yet thorough history. She begins with references to witchcraft in the Bible and guides us, inevitably, to Massachusetts Bay.

The meat of The Penguin Book of Witches are the trial transcripts and testimonies from that dark period of 1692-93. While the prose doesn’t exactly leap off the page here, the importance of these documents, and the clarity of Howe’s introductions, is worth enduring a bit of the old English.

That the Salem Witch Trials remain a relevant cultural reference more than 300 years later speaks to their importance. It remains one of our country’s greatest shames, and its memory serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come and a warning about how low we may sink.

Sadly, no matter how much humanity progresses, the same dark drive that fueled the colonial witch craze still smolders within us. The 20th century alone gave America two Red Scares, internment camps, the West Memphis Three, the Satanic Panic, the War on Drugs and all manner of smaller scale oppression, discrimination and fear-mongering.

The post-9/11 world has given us Guantanamo Bay, George Zimmerman and a Red State/Blue State schism.

Fittingly, Howe offers a word of caution as she segues into the closing section, “After Salem”: “While no witch trial in North America—or Europe, for that matter—would ever again approach the magnitude and fatality of the Salem episode, witch belief did not disappear. It merely changed form” [193].

This line, for me, is the ultimate takeaway from this book. Witches, as portrayed by Halloween costumes, are creatures of the imagination, folklore and literature. But by any name, the women who were burned, stoned and hanged were victims—not of demonic possession or supernatural forces, but of the all-too-human folly of superstition, prejudice and mob mentality.

The same goes for all victims of a witch craze. The importance of studying the witchhunts of the past is that they are difficult to recognize while they are happening. They occur under the insidious guise of patriotism, decency and traditional values. The label “witchhunt” is only applied in the aftermath.

By reading the transcripts of the trials and examinations, and the post-Salem mea culpas, we can hopefully prevent or at least minimize oppression in our time and in the ages to come.

Howe’s collection is a great place to start.

September Shorts: Nonfiction

September. The sunset comes earlier than the day before. That much-agonized-over summer reading list is about to expire, and how far did you get? How many books did you unofficially add?

Book lovers are an ambitious lot. If I never bought another book, I could probably read for a decade with the books I already have but haven’t read yet. Yet, you’ll still find me at the local bookstores, thrift shops and library fairs stocking up for the nuclear fallout that is the ultimate bibliophile fantasy (a la The Twilight Zone, sans the cruel ending, of course).

We’ll never get to all the books we want to read in a lifetime, let alone a summer, so here are some wonderful summer reads that you may have missed.

Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity

Matthew Paul Turner

America has a complicated history with God. The Puritans, though devout religious misfits in England, laid the American Godfoundation for the most successful secular democracy in the world. The paradox continues to play out through international politics. To Europe, we are considered zealots. To the Middle East, we are either godless heathens or Zionists.

Even within America, it’s complicated. Are we one nation or one nation “under God”? Depends on whom you ask and, perhaps more telling, in which state you pose the question.

Turner’s book begins with a similarly difficult question: “Where would God be without America?”

Well, he probably wouldn’t be as much fun, for starters. Beginning in the early 1800s, Turner writes, the modest ways of the Puritans gave way to rowdy revivals, complete with hops, flips, shakes and mysterious catatonic states followed by fits of frenetic celebration:

“Could the God who was causing people to get down on all fours or lie slain in the spirit really be the same God who led the Puritans across the Atlantic from England to Boston?”

Turner traces the legacy of America’s god, from the earliest settlers through Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin, exploring the ways in which biblical interpretation got tangled up with political and economic unrest and swelling nationalism.

It’s a fascinating look at the past and future of the deity that America supersized and spread across the globe.

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town

Beth Macy

A Taiwanese businessman once told John D. Basset III that when his country was on top “don’t expect us to be dumb Factory Manenough to do for you what you’ve been dumb enough to do for us.” Americans, he said, would do anything for a bargain.

This fact fueled the offshoring of furniture making to Asia. The result was cheap foreign labor and cheaper products. In exchange, American factory towns were devastated as companies took their plants and their jobs overseas.

Basset, however, showed the eastern businessmen another side of Americans—they would do anything for what’s right, even at the cost of a bargain.

Basset waged a war against offshore vultures and even his own family. He was not necessarily a likable man, but his defense of his factory town is heroic and brilliantly recounted by journalist Beth Macy. One of the best reads of the summer.

Review: Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon

One of my favorite songs has a line that goes, “Tell the kids to keep on coloring outside the lines/ Until they lose their limitations and their minds are free/… And tell Bob Ross thanks for all the happy little trees.”Happy Cloud, Happy Trees

The song is “To Bob Ross, with Love,” by Gym Class Heroes, and they crush it on more levels than I have blog space to discuss. So I’ll give you the bullet points.

  • It’s a great song, regardless of the theme
  • It’s a song that encourages creativity, imagination and pursuing your dreams
  • I’m a sucker for songs like that
  • I love Bob Ross and always watched his show growing up (and still do whenever I can)
  • I hope to one day have a pocket squirrel, like Pea Pod, who helps me paint
  • I totally dig those ASMR channels on YouTube (which I trace back to Bob Ross)
  • I’m one of those kids who was encouraged to color outside the lines

I didn’t have coloring books growing up. I had blank sketch pads. My parents didn’t want to impose on me the pressure of conformity and a color-by-numbers world. When I wanted to create, I was given a blank sheet. It’s served me well.

To use another quote from “To Bob Ross, with Love”: “My mama made me this way/ I thank her every day.”

Preach it.

So I admit there was trepidation when I started reading Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon. It’s an academic book, from the University Press of Mississippi, penned by Kristin G. Congdon and Doug Blandy, and illustrated by Danny Coeyman. I feared that an academic treatment would reduce those joyful half-hours of public television bliss to a post-structuralist treatise. Thankfully, that is not the case.

The focus of Happy Clouds, Happy Trees is the phenomenon of the painter and the cult-like nature of his fans, which is incredibly fascinating.

Ross is all the more mysterious for the minimal amount of unauthorized or paratextual materials surrounding him. Mostly, what we know of Bob Ross comes from his program. We don’t have a cache of letters, no scandalous videotapes and, most significantly, no family interests looking to exploit the painter, who died in 1995, for a fast buck.

That’s good and bad. The good is that those of us who grew up watching Ross still know him only by his on-screen persona, not his off-camera flaws. By comparison, the premieres of The Joy of Painting and Michael Jackson’s Thriller came a mere 42 days apart.

It’s still possible to watch The Joy of Painting without feeling dirty.

The mystique of the painter’s life has fueled his cultish (in the best sense of that word) following, and the authors do a wonderful job of exploring the Bob Ross phenomenon and its devotees.

One of the most fascinating narratives in the book is the trinity of Ross, Andy Warhol and Thomas Kinkade. While Ross and Kinkade are sometimes paired in the collective consciousness (due to their being the only two contemporary painters many Americans know by name), they could not be more different. While Ross did his show for free (his income came from art instruction and supplies), Kinkade never met a check he didn’t cash. Ross idealized the wild outdoors, while Kinkade idealized property and domestication. Ross never sold his artwork, while Kinkade established a corporation, chain stores and a subdivision modeled after his paintings.

Perhaps the most significant difference is that Kinkade automated the process, mass producing prints with a few dabs of paint (done by other artists and, occasionally, Kinkade himself). Ross was all about the process. It wasn’t The Profits of Painting, it was The Joy of Painting. We don’t collect Ross, we connect with Ross. The focus is the act of creation, not its end product.

The authors argue, rather convincingly, that we should instead be comparing Ross with Warhol. The two make an odd couple at first, but by book’s end, the connection is apparent. Both defied the norms of fine art and gallery culture (though they were received very differently by that world), and both had a working-class ethic to their craft.

I doubt that MoMA will be racing to organize a Ross retrospective anytime soon, despite the well-composed arguments of Happy Clouds, Happy Trees.

Ultimately, as the authors write, it doesn’t matter. The Bob Ross Phenomenon has nothing to do with fickle gallery predilections or snooty art criticism.

It’s all about the man, our connection to him and that ineffable thrill of creation. Bob had a word for it.

He called it joy.

Review: The Mad Sculptor

I first encountered Harold Schechter in the mid-’90s at the (sadly) now-defunct Twice-Loved Books in Youngstown, Ohio. My friend Todd and I would travel there often, lost The Mad Sculptorfor hours among their three floors of books and playing with the occasional store cat.

You would most often find me in the basement, where the true crime section was wedged into a nook behind the stairs. And you would most often find a Schechter book tucked beneath my arm.

I am not only a fan of crime writing, but an advocate. There is a stigma with the genre that I have always felt was undeserved. Even in progressive-minded bookstores like Twice-Loved (where I was able to order first-edition Aleister Crowley tomes in the pre-Internet age), crime reporting was given only subterranean shelf space.

That’s a shame. Crime writers like Schechter are historians, sociologists, documentarians and cultural commentators, and to be relegated to back-shelf status by the literary mainstream is a disservice to the many great writers (and well-informed readers) working in the genre.

I asked Schechter about the breadth of his work in a 2012 interview:

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” he said. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book, The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

That in and of itself would make for a good read, but Schechter is a skilled storyteller and, more importantly, a devoted historian. His research into the man who would become The Mad Sculptor not only unearthed a traumatic upbringing, but also documented the changing post-Depression personality of the Beekman Hill neighborhood where the murders occurred.

Turns out this neighborhood was home to a series of sensational murders a year prior to Irwin’s massacre.

Weaving a wealth of historical documents into a cohesive narrative, Schechter gives us not only the crime and the cultural mindset, but also the role the media played in the tale, from the earliest indictment of an innocent man through fictional jailhouse confessions and a business arrangement with the Chicago Herald-Examiner so shady that it would make Rupert Murdoch cry foul.

In fact, all of the media coverage (including the persistent “blame-the-victim” approach that made a fuss over Gedeon’s modeling career and her father’s fondness for “French art” postcards) makes today’s television news seem downright ethical (well, almost) by comparison.

If I have one critique of The Mad Sculptor, it’s that we don’t learn much about Irwin’s time in prison. We get factual data, such as how long he lived after his conviction, when he died, and such, but not the in-depth reporting showcased in previous chapters.

But in a time when most movies and many books run far too long (only quantum physics can explain why it takes longer to watch The Great Gatsby than it does to read the book), it’s not really a bad thing to say that Schechter could’ve gone on for another hundred pages or so and I would have been with him all the way.

Schechter had a run in the 1990s that would make any writer jealous, penning best-sellers about Albert Fish, Ed Gein and Depraved, Schechter’s account of H.H. Holmes.

The latter is an example of the literary caste system writ large. Depraved, published in 1994, predated Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City by nearly a decade. While both tell the story of the same man—and the same crimes—one is relegated to the dusty shelves of true crime while the other is a modern classic and prominently displayed at the front of the store.

This is not a knock on Larson’s book (he did nothing wrong by writing an excellent book and reaping success), but rather an example of the double-standards that sometimes emerge in publishing. I point this out not to get on a soapbox but rather to appeal to readers who may never otherwise stray to the nether regions of the bookstore or think that crime writing isn’t for them:

Yes, you will find The Mad Sculptor in the true crime section, but it is greater than the sum of its kill count.

Yes, Harold Schechter is America’s finest crime writer, but he is so much more.

Let this book be your introduction to another historical viewpoint, and don’t be afraid to drift to those shadowy corners of the bookstore where you’ve feared to tread before. To quote Nietzsche: “I am a forest, and a night of dark trees; but he who is not afraid of my darkness will find banks full of roses under my cypresses.”

Take it from the weird kid who spent hours in those shadowy basement corridors, collecting the flowers of history in the dark.

Review: Playing at the World

Playing at the World

Jon Peterson

Remember the first time you crawled a dungeon, slayed the dragon and stuffed as playing_worldmuch treasure as you could into your “bag of holding”? Felt good, right? But the true prize wasn’t the booty. Sure, I enjoyed counting the gold and platinum coins, drooling over the prospects of upgraded armor, a magic-enhanced broad sword and whatever mischief I could scare up with a few copper pieces at the local tavern.

But what intrigued me most were the tattered spell scrolls, mysterious tomes and the secrets of the ancients.

It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. A rabid imagination is the primary tool that all fans of role-playing games bring to the table, and a trove of yellowed parchment and faded maps makes us froth at the mouth. Just how powerful is that fireball incantation? What wisdom could be discovered in that old paladin’s codex?

That’s what it feels like digging into Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games. For any experienced gamer, this is a hoard worthy of any dungeon campaign.

It’s no longer groundbreaking to think of gaming as a topic for academic or cultural studies, but while many books have been written about gaming and gamers, they tend to be focused on a particular aspect of the genre, rather than presenting a comprehensive history. Peterson spent more than five years of archival research and writing creating Playing at the World, the definitive history of gaming and, by far, the most ambitious.

Though originally published in 2012, Peterson’s book has been reissued in honor of D&D’s 40th birthday. Four decades can offer a lot of history, but Peterson goes even further, tracing its lineage back to chess and existing war games.

By Peterson’s own admission, this book isn’t necessarily intended for a mainstream audience. It is a dense, detailed work of history and, if I dare say, sociology. It belongs on the book shelf (or e-reader) of any serious gamer, and though it may not be a front-to-back page-turner, it is an important resource for anyone who geeks out on geeking out.

The book’s most important contribution, though, has yet to be realized. In the decades to come, as gaming and gaming studies grow even bigger, Playing at the World will serve as both source material and historical lockbox upon which the future of gaming is framed and its past is preserved.

Review: Divine Fury

Divine Fury

Darrin M. McMahon

Since 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has bestowed its “genius grant” on 873 Divine Fury(ostensibly) geniuses—“talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” reads the MacArthur Web site.

But is this the truest definition of “genius”? Considering that the title is so commonly conferred upon basketball coaches, celebrities and rock stars (a recent Rolling Stone article referred to Kanye West as a “mad genius”—seriously), is being a “genius” even that impressive anymore?

In Divine Fury, historian Darrin M. McMahon isn’t questioning MENSA credentials so much as tracing the history of this loaded term and how it’s changed over the centuries.

Our etymological quest begins with the ancient Greeks, for whom being a genius was a form of madness. McMahon culls pithy quotes from Plato revealing a lesser-known side of Socrates: He was quite haunted. (This from the Phaedrus dialogues—no wonder the brilliant 20th century philosopher/madman Robert Pirsig chose Phaedrus as his alter ego in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.)

Whereas contemporary culture views genius as something you possess, ancient philosophers believed the inverse: Genius possesses you. More specifically, a demon possesses you, for good and ill, and this was the belief for centuries. McMahon documents many cases of “genius,” from the ancients to modern times, and how the concept evolved and then devolved into our current celebrity-obsessed culture.

It’s a curious evolution, and one I wouldn’t have thought about much before reading Divine Fury. McMahon deftly illuminates this secret and complicated history through literary accounts, keen observation and a strong narrative. His writing can be a bit tangential and academic at times—but hey, the man’s an academic! What do you expect?

I certainly wasn’t expecting to think about genius as a populist concept, but there it is. In some ways, the history of genius is the flow of agency from the elite to the proletariat. While I would rate that as a good thing, an unfortunate consequence is that genius has become just another noun that anyone can claim.

The change is due in part to advanced medical knowledge. In ancient Greece, Socrates believed a demon was whispering in his ear. Today, we’d slip him some Paxil.

Or give him his own TED talk.

Ultimately, it remains a fuzzy line between madness and genius. Is it the possessed or the possessor? Are 98th percentile test-scorers (the threshold for MENSA membership) the elite or merely outliers? Or is each of us capable of becoming an Einstein?

No matter, from now on I’ll be slower to label someone a genius.

Unless that “mad genius” Kanye West splits the atom in his next video.