Book Review: Breath

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have a favorite class of book, which I refer to lovingly as “my ungabunga bullshit” that usually consists of nutritional or fitness claims drawing on shaky evolutionary science to advance an agenda that, ultimately and disappointingly, leads to pawning supplement placebos. Despite how insulting to the intelligence these tactics are, I can’t help but love the paleo quasi-science they’re pushing. Pull virtually anything from the Joe Rogan recommended reading list and you’ve got a 1 in 3 chance of stumbling on the kind of literature I’m talking about.

These books usually lean heavily on anecdotal evidence (like the entire Carnivore diet), or what we believe may have been how primitive man lived based on the fossil record and modern hunter-gatherer societies (like the Primal Blueprint or the Awakened Ape), and they universally reference our man Weston Price, peregrine dentist, and his discoveries on the miraculous effects of not eating carbohydrates (Good Calories, Bad Calories, the Obesity Code, anything keto or paleo related, et cetera ad nauseum).

I might sound dismissive, but it comes from a place of love. I like what they’re pushing, but I know the limitations of the science and I resent them trying to sucker me into buying “Primal Calm” sugar pills, especially with them saying, in the same breath, that sugar is the Great Western Devil.

In the same breath, bringing us back to the topic at hand. James Nestor is a journalist with disastrous dentition and a mouthbreathing habit that has left him, to hear him tell it, physically deformed. He looked like a normal dude to me, but maybe that’s the problem. Breath takes the same tone and theme as the rest of my ungabunga bullshit books, but rather than suggesting that the answer is “shit in a squatting position and deny the Demon Wheat”, Breath suggests that all of our problems, as highlighted by Price’s hundred year old tribal dentistry journals, are caused by the fact that we breathe through our mouths (and, to a lesser extent, don’t chew enough).

The science is young, but the few studies he referenced seemed legit. A lot of the book was more of a memoir of him serving as guinea pigs in these breathing experiments alongside crazed foreigners who were likewise convinced that proper breathing was the key to immortality, with the craziest and most foreign being Wim Hof, just for context.

I was especially intrigued by the perfect sociopath with the damaged amygdala experiencing fear for the first time in her life when forced to breath carbon dioxide at greater concentrations than usual, which is an effect mimicked in the body by “overbreathing” or not fully pushing the air from your diaphragm on the exhale. The exercise studies suggesting greater athletic capacity when breathing properly (that is, through the nose and emptying the lungs) were interesting, but highly anecdotal, and relied too much on the emotional language of the participants for my own comfort.

There’s also the whole Mewing thing, the glue that holds this collection of yoga techniques and self-report questionnaires together, and that isn’t empirically tested either.

End of the day, there’s not much in Breath that qualifies as actual science. On the same token, “breathe deeply and close your mouth, you stupid animal” isn’t bad advice. It’s like that folk wisdom you hear so much about.



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Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It wasn’t bad, for fanfiction about trees. I just couldn’t figure out a practical way to use this book. That said, the ideas Wohlleben presented were interesting, and I learned a lot. He anthropomorphizes the hell out of the trees, but in trying to frame the forest as a superorganism that communicates chemically and, to a lesser extent, verbally, through its roots and through fungal messengers, you would sort of have to.

Verbally is a stretch, but not only do trees generate their own bioacoustics, they can “hear” other frequencies operating at 220 Hz and grow toward them. Trees stick together. They’re a cooperative bunch. Wohlleben would undoubtedly call them social organisms, if nobody stopped him. He talks about a tree stump in one of the forests he rangers in, chopped down and unable to maintain its biological processes for hundreds of years, yet still alive due to the life support provided it by neighboring trees transfering over nutrients through their interconnected root system.

He goes into great detail about various “behavioral patterns” of different trees, and this is where he started to lose me, since I don’t have enough background knowledge of trees to appreciate it. He holds forth about the wacky hijinks of birches as compared to the more sedate beeches for 40 pages of translated German and I don’t have the context to shake my head ruefully like “oh, those kooky birches”. For that reason, I suspect this book would get a better than 3-star rating from real naturalists, long-time Boy Scouts, and native German speakers.

It’s an awful dry read for a book that draws on so little empirical science, but it’s illuminating in its scope. We think of trees as inanimate objects, the same way we think of walls, or the structural metallic garbage we huck everywhere. Trees are alive, and not just alive in the way bacteria are alive. We have skin, and trees have bark. We have blood, and trees have sap. If you cut through the bark, they lose sap, and become susceptible to infections and parasites. Trees will fight to survive, will attempt to scab over the wound, will deploy poisons and tannins and, sometimes, mercenary fungus to fight off the potential threats to their life. Not only that, they will communicate to the trees around them that they’re under attack using chemicals and acoustics, shooting through what’s functionally an arboreal internet of connected root systems that encapsulates whole forests, and the trees in that vicinity will respond to their “warning” by bringing their own flood of tannins to the surface of their bark in preparation for the coming attack.

It talks a lot about tree competition too, and the slow races to the top of the canopy to maximize photosynthetic potential. Mother trees dropping seeds and then limiting their growth by choking off their access to light, forcing the young trees to focus on strength of trunk and bark thickness for a hundred years before the mother tree finally dies, opening a hole in the canopy for her offspring to access the rest of the light, even as they draw on the decay of her trunk for nutrients.

The Hidden Life of Trees is ideal if you’re a hippie, some kind of deep anprim, or an absolute dweeb about plants. For the layman or hobbyist, it’s not hugely accessible, though not for the usual reasons. Still, I don’t regret the time I put into it. At least now I know that the psilocybin was telling the truth.



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Book Review: Dark Ecology

Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence by Timothy Morton

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Gibberish. The book is a stack of loose connections that never get paid off. Morton invents more complex phrasings for concepts that already exist (spare me the “hyperobjects”, everything an English professor is going to grapple with exists in discernible units of time) then relay-races back and forth between them in an effort to make an argument, such as it is, look less like a collection of Burning Mad doodle book scratchings.

It’s an emperor’s new clothes situation, and has little to do with either ecology or darkness. Skip it.



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Book Review: The Winter King

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


If you put an infinite number of ethnologists on an infinite number of zoom calls with the express purpose of creating the most British name possible, they would all eventually terminate at Bernard Cornwell. You know “American as baseball and apple pie”? Cornwell is as English as crumpets and abusing the Irish.

I don’t hold that against him, though. An accident of birth. Despite his crippling Britishness, he is one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read. The Winter King is gritty and poetic. Every word is immaculate and precise, every line polished to a high sheen. I can’t imagine how many edits went into this colossal novel, but if it’s less than seven, Cornwell isn’t human.

The Warlord Chronicles follow the rise of King Arthur, known colloquially as the “Enemy of God”, which is a fun departure from guy who masterminded the quest for the Holy Grail. The lens through which Arthur is observed is a literate orphan with the catastrophic name of Derfel Cadarn, allegedly based on Bedivere. Derfel comes up in Merlin’s private orphanage/asylum, where he collects crazies and the crippled in an effort to read auguries from the gods in their ramblings or mutilations.

There’s too much story for a play-by-play, and it’s too good for me to ruin here. Suffice it to say, everybody’s bonkers, but 400 AD in general is bonkers, and as the series goes on you, as a reader, become acquainted with the weird logic of the world, its druidic curses and the way people make sense of the catastrophes constantly taking place around them.

Arthur’s a naive doofus, doing his best to inflict utopia on a begrudging Britain while trying to stick to a Lawful Good code of conduct and getting volleyball spiked to the ground by anyone who doesn’t share his vision (that is to say, everyone but Derfel, and even Derfel has his doubts). Merlin is an absolute sociopath. Derfel is an everyman, stumbling along and doing what seems to make the most sense at any given moment.

I think what’s most engaging about the story is the curiosity that comes from hearing about the kind of man Derfel was, this expert man-at-arms, trusted warlord to both Arthur and Merlin, reliable, honest, and direct but capable of cold-blooded wholesale slaughter when the moment calls for it, and his transformation into the cringing, elderly Christian monk in the service of the Mouse Lord, who is one of the most despicable characters in fiction.

I’m already halfway through the next one. Phenomenal novel.





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The True and Terrible Tale of Babyghost Hill

October, late 2000s. Catawissa, Pennsylvania.
Soundtrack: Les Claypool – What Would Sir George Martin Do?

In the Frozen North, there’s only a couple things you can do after nightfall, and most of them are drugs. The truly daring go to Wal-Mart. NEPA is nothing but broken trains and trees, and when the seasons change and fall comes a-calling, you get that Ned Stark entropy reminder barraging you from every angle. The big freeze is almost here, and everything is about to die.

But me and the band, back in those bad old days, we were chasing down the thanatos far and beyond the Suscon Screamer mythos. The spooky season was upon us, and we were going to spend it unravelling the mysteries of the great beyond. We were going on our very own ghost adventures. Bustin’ made us feel good. We pored over the Weird Pennsylvania coffee table books at Barnes and Noble and identified some likely looking hauntings to either debunk or conclusively prove life after death.

Gather round, little ghouls, and let me tell you the true and terrible tale of Babyghost Hill.

Deep in demon-haunted Catawissa, there’s a gravity hill full of ghosts. Let me explain. If you follow the road down Numidia drive, you’ll come to a gully trapped between two hills. There used to be train tracks down there, and you can still see the rails blanketed under the tarmac. Once upon a time, a bus full of little elementary school kids broke down on the first hill, or maybe the second hill, it wouldn’t matter. The bus rolled down to the lowest point, as wheeled vehicles with government bankrolled brakes are wont to do, and the kids never got a chance to evacuate before the train came. More than thirty children died in that collision, breaking the bus clean in half like a Kit Kat.

The tracks were decommissioned for obvious reasons, in keeping with the demands of thirty grieving families. Numidia Drive hadn’t been a gravity hill before, but now, suddenly, it was. The legends said that the ghosts of all those dead kids still haunt the bottom of that gully, and if you stop your car on the paved-over railroad tracks late at night and shut off all the lights, the spirits will push you and your whole damn car all the way up the hill, to keep you from meeting the same fate as they did.

There were three of us that day, your humble narrator and two colleagues, T and R to protect the innocent and safeguard against any potential supernatural repercussions a la Feardotcom or The Ring. This sheath of anonymity can’t save us from the algorithms, but it might be enough to keep the vengeful dead at bay.

T was a broad fellow with a nose ring and a beard any Tolkienian dwarf would envy. He was the designated pilot of our observation vessel, a powerful green four-door chariot called Gram’s Car.

R was stout, with cokebottle glasses and the kind of 5 o’clock shadow that tends to shows up before noon. He read tarot, and could tell you about the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, if you asked.

We three piled into Gram’s Car and rode the hour out to Catawissa, which comes from a corruption of the Algonquin word Gattawisi, meaning “Growing fat”. I think we were debating the relevance of the word “assertive” in the song “What Would Sir George Martin Do?” I remembered there were no streetlamps on that desolate stretch of road, and we had to break out my girlfriend’s giant hazard flashlight to make sure had parked over where the tracks had been. This was before the ubiquity of smartphones, so we kept this monstrosity in the trunk of Gram’s Car for emergencies. It was the size of a duffel bag, beige as hell, made of solid plastic with a floodlight in the front and flashing orange emergency lights built into the sides. I think her father worked some sort of construction, or maybe in a mine.

“All right, wait, dude,” T said. “Maybe we shouldn’t turn off the car.”

“Why?” I asked.

“‘cuz Gram’ll be pissed if a bunch of ghosts jack up her car!”

“Gram won’t know.”

“Until she looks in the mirror,” R said. “And sees thirty pairs of little dead kid eyes staring back at her.”

“Aw naw,” T said. “Gram won’t be able to go in reverse, son, she’ll be pissed. She will be way pissed.”

“She can lean out the window,” I said. “Like in Ace Ventura.”

“Yeah, or, we don’t fuck with a bunch of baby ghosts right now,” T said. “I think we passed a Sheetz like… forty minutes ago. We could go get some ice cream or something, I don’t know. Meatballs.”

“We didn’t come out here for meatballs,” I said.

“Yeah, no shit,” R said. “There’s no meatballs out here. There’s nothing out here, except baby ghosts. Shut off the car.”

“What do you think, R?” I asked. “How we doing with the… uh… veil? This ghost real estate?”

“Prime,” he said. “Tons of ’em, probably.”

“What if another car comes while we’re sitting in the middle of the road with all our lights off like a bunch of damn fools?” T demanded. “Gram would be way more pissed if we got her car haunted, then totaled it.”

“Couldn’t happen,” I explained. “The ghosts will push Gram’s car out of harm’s way. Right up the hill.”

“Dude, what if the other car is also coming from that direction!”

R and I looked at each other. I shrugged.

“Maybe they’ll race,” R said.

“We came all this way,” I said. “Let’s bust ’em. We’re here to bust ’em.”

“Aw, son,” T mumbled again, but killed the engine.

The silence was incredible. The country road silence was compounded by the late October silence and the silence you get from being in an enclosed car. For a moment, nothing happened.

“Myth busted,” I said. “Ghosts are fake. When we die, we cease to be. Owned.”

We used to say “owned” back then. It was a different time.

“It’s got to be in neutral,” R said.

T muttered something and cranked the shifter, and then we all started groaning in alarm as the car rumbled into motion.

“No way dude!” T said. “Naw! The baby ghosts got us!”

“They got our backs,” R said.

“This seems pretty fast,” I said. “Little kids probably can’t run this fast.”

“They fly!” T wailed. “Babyghosts fly, son!”

“It’s not that fast,” R said.

“How many horsepower you think 30 babyghosts translates to?” I asked.

“It’s not that fast! You wanna get out?”

I did. I did wanna get out.

R and I leaped out of Gram’s car and ran alongside it, discernibly uphill enough for it to kill my knees.

“Don’t leave me in Gram’s haunted car!” T yelled. “Aw, naw, son! Naw!”

Maybe babyghosts could have run that fast. I fell back a bit to run alongside them, but I didn’t see anything around the trunk. The car rumbled and roared its way up the hill, then slowed to a very gentle stop at the peak.

“Might be downhill,” R said to me.

“I don’t know, man,” I wheezed. “Running uphill really sucks. That sucked more than it would have on like, level ground.”

“Get in the car!” T yelled. “I’m not tryna sit in here with a bunch of god– damned — baby ghosts!”

We thanked the babyghosts for their assistance and returned to our rightful place in Gram’s car, then tried to start the engine.

It wouldn’t turn over.

“You pissed them off,” T said. “You were back there fartin’ around behind the car and they found out that there’s no bus and now they’re gonna kill us, dude. This is just like when your brother summoned the fire god from the Necronomicon and then your car battery exploded!”

There were shades of similarity, I admit. A few months earlier, my brother brought the Simon Necronomicon to a bonfire we had in the woods by the airport and tried to summon Innani, the god of fire. It didn’t seem to work, but the next day the terminals in my old Volkswagen Jetta caught on fire. We never established conclusively if my little brother was a warlock.

T cranked the engine again and Gram’s car sputtered to life. We all looked at each other and sighed with relief, then we got the hell out of there.

On the ride back to the Frozen North proper, we debated what the data meant. R maintained it could have been an optical illusion. I admitted that it was possible, but I was running 15 miles a week at the time, and it had looked and felt like uphill to me. T insisted there was no such thing as babyghosts, and they absolutely now haunted Gram’s rear view mirror.

We pulled into one of our own familiar haunts, an Exxon on 315 next to the dread Arby’s.

“You talked me into the ice cream,” I said. “Maybe a milkshake. They got one of those milkshake mixers here?”

“Yo,” R said. “Look at this.”

He was standing behind the car, looking down at the rear bumper. He pointed to the caked-on road grime. It took me a moment to see what he meant.

Tiny handprints were all over the bumper, clean little five-finger smudges on the dusty dark green paint.

“No way,” T murmured.

I held my hand out to compare, and it was easily twice the size of those little prints. They did the same, and it wasn’t even close. They didn’t belong to us.

“Does Gram takes this car around kids?” I asked.

“Dude, Gram hasn’t driven this car in like four years. That’s why we smoke in it all the time.”

“Have… you taken this car around kids?”

“I don’t know any kids, son!”

The three of us stood behind the car, staring at the dozens of little hand marks on the bumper and trunk, our own fingers outstretched.

“Babyghost Hill confirmed,” I said.

It wouldn’t be our last paranormal investigation, or our last confirm. Stay tuned for more spine-tingling Coalcracker Goosebumps.

Love,
BT

Postcard from the Fringe: Maze of Darkness

The Maze of Darkness, a classic from my initial transatlantic jaunt. Home to ghosts, wax demons, and Vlad the Impaler.

Obviously, this blog is anonymous, but we were fortunate enough to find this handsome Irish stallion to play the role of your humble narrator.

Let me know what you think. Or let Mr. Death know what you think. I imagine we’re about equally interested.

Love,
BT

The New Hotness: Postcards from the Fringe

Your boy is branching out from book reviews and Bourdainposting to break into the virgin market of théâtre.

Bastard Travel is collaborating with Death Science, the pet project of a bone sculptor and close personal friend of mine named Mr. Death. No, really. We were in a band together.

Select adventures are going to be filmed in spooky campfire story format and hosted on Death Science TV. The segment will be called “Postcards from the Fringe”, as they absolutely are.

I’ll add them as they go up, or you can track them and other mortality-themed infotainment straight the source at www.deathscience.tv

Love,
BT

Book Review: The Player of Games

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Imagine, if you will, a world where gamers were not the most oppressed minority. Imagine instead that they were respected as world-class academics, if academics were worthy of respect. Further imagine that they live in a fully automated luxury gay space communism where every facet of their life is provided for by sassy robot nannies.

This is the Culture. And the best gamer in the galaxy, the Jocker himself, is named Jernau Morat Gurgeh.

Gurgeh only plays real time strategy games. He is the best. He writes dissertations and research papers on how to most effectively perform a zerg rush, or proper tower defense positionings. The Culture eats that shit up. Gurgeh is a rock star, sponsored by both Space Doritos and Future Dew. The androgynous men want to be him, the androgynous women want to be with him, and vice versa.

One day, Gurgeh is pitted against a literal little girl and he realizes he can beat her so bad that he might be able to perform “the perfect web”, which is when you absolutely dunk on a 9-year-old girl in Civilization IV on national television. An insane battle droid named Mawhrin-Skel who was rejected from the battle droids for being insane tells Gurgeh that he’s already run the numbers, and he can show Gurgeh how to do the perfect web. It’s only kind of cheating. Don’t be a wuss. Gurgeh agrees because he’s an asshole.

Not only does the insane battle droid’s strategy not secure him the perfect web, the robot then blackmails him with a recording of Gurgeh’s agreement to cheat in order to trounce this “prodigy” (still very much a 9-year-old girl). Mawhrin-Skel wants to get back into the battle droids, and he wants Gurgeh to do that, somehow.

Gurgeh has no formal rank. He has no sway in the galactic government, and no control over where drones are deployed. His job title is “gamer”. But, rock and a hard place. What’s a gamer to do? He says he’ll try.

A ways down the line, a government droid comes from the government to invite Gurgeh to play a new, incredibly complex game in the empire of Azad. Gurgeh agrees, contingent on the government droid returning Mawhrin-Skel’s previous position to him. The government droid says he probably can’t but he’ll try.

Gurgeh is loaded onto a spaceship and spends two years learning to play the game, which is also called Azad. Azad permeates every facet of life for the warlike, totalitarian empire of Azad, and their stupid fascist children are taught it from the moment they hatch or crawl out of the Apexes or whatever. There are three genders on Azad: males (boring, vanilla, essentially worker drones), Apexes (the ruling illuminati elite, reversible vagina and ovum), and females (uterus and retrovirus for slight modification of the egg once implanted by Apexes). Only the Apexes are allowed to do anything. The other two genders are beaten down from beginning to end of book.

Gurgeh isn’t as effected as he probably should be by the horrors of the empire, their cultural domination/sadism boner, or the torturous slavery lived in by the overwhelming majority of the species, and all the species they’ve conquered and subjugated. You’d think he’d be doubly effected, being from Bernie Sanders’ Starfleet utopia. Gurgeh doesn’t care about anything but gaming. He’s here for one reason: to play Magic the Gathering.

Thing is, Magic the Gathering isn’t just a game on Azad. The species themselves, the whole of the empire, are an obvious stand-in for a theoretical future in which Germany won WWII. They’re a pure fascism, they have propagandists and a gestapo, the whole of their society is held together by pursuit of further conquest and elevation of the ruling elite Apexes. Most things are illegal, but those illegal things are still purchasable, and more sought after for it. There are three layers of taboo pornography permeating the planet, communicated through secret channels and only for those who can pay:

Level 1 is generic smut, banging for banging’s sake.
Level 2 is humiliation porn, where the banging is secondary to the domination of the passive party/parties.
Level 3 is torture and snuff porn.

Gurgeh is exposed to this by a chiding shrew of a robot named Flere-Imsaho, sent to help grease the political wheels and avoid an intergalactic incident. Ostensibly, Gurgeh is supposed to play the game lose quickly, and demonstrate to the roving space viking Azad empire that the Culture is a joke unworthy of their time and warships.

But Gurgeh breaks out his Blue control deck and starts stacking those Ws. Victory royale after victory royale, there’s no stopping the boy. The Azadis recognize that things are going less than ideally and attempt to assassinate him a few times, but he is saved by his human contact on the planet, Culture ambassador and drunken HST analogue Shohobohaum Za.

Za is the best character in the book.

Gurgeh knows that the stakes are for real, and that the way Azad’s political system works is governed entirely by success in this game, which takes a lifetime to learn. The emperor is chosen based on who wins the planet wide tournament. Gurgeh, who has learned this game in two years, is absolutely spanking his way through all of the established pro-Azad players in the empire: priests, judges, bureaucrats, high-ranking politicians; even when they conspire together against him, they wind up activating his Trap card. Gurgeh sweeps the boards and sets up a head-to-head against Emperor Nikasar himself.

Once it becomes apparent that he also whooped Nikisar, and all of the space-Nazi dullards are also able to see it, they break for the day and Nikisar comes to visit him in his chambers. Gurgeh is like “golly, this is such a pretty and fun game we’re playing, and a good time between friends.” Nikisar beats the shit out of him and leaves.

Gurgeh goes into the next day’s session all lumped up and proceeds to noscope Nikisar in front of the entire galaxy. Right before he administers the killing blow, Nikisar has his foot soldiers sweep in and start murdering everyone in the room. Nikisar himself tries to kill Gurgeh with a sword. Gurgeh calls upon all of the combat training he never had because he lives in paradise to kangaroo-kick the Nazi emperor in the tummy, fall on the ground, then skitter across the burning wreckage until Flere-Imsaho shows up, activates his Deus Ex Machina protocol, and creates a mirror shield around Gurgeh, deflecting Nikisar’s laser pistol shot right back into his own domepiece and toppling the entirety of the Nazi space hierarchy.

Gurgeh returns home, where his girlfriend Yay tells him she transitioned to a dude for a couple years but now she’s transitioning back. They bang it out but Gurgeh is still melancholy because the horrible space empire collapsed and now he’ll never get to play Magic the Gathering again, which had become his favorite game.

In the end the narrator reveals itself to be the crazy battle droid, who disguised himself as Flere-Imsaho after manipulating Gurgeh into going to Azad in the first place for Special Circumstances, which is like the Culture’s version of the CIA.

I have a rule where if a book doesn’t have me hooked by 25% of the way in, I quit and never look back. This book very nearly missed the mark. It didn’t get good until after he went to Azad, around halfway through the book; the setup was sluggish, uninteresting, and droning. The first 100 pages could have just been the words “Gurgeh was very good at board games” and the story wouldn’t have suffered for it.

Four stars for that experience, but still an excellent read. I might make my way back into the Culture series, but not right this second.



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