6.12.16

Onward and Upward

Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R.Hendrix. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home on the Planets. Pantheon. (November 2016)

From the publisher's website: We are at the cusp of a golden age in space science, as increasingly more entrepreneurs—Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos—are seduced by the commercial potential of human access to space. But Beyond Earth does not offer another wide-eyed technology fantasy: instead, it is grounded not only in the human capacity for invention and the appeal of adventure but also in the bureaucratic, political, and scientific realities that present obstacles to space travel—realities that have hampered NASA’s efforts ever since the Challenger disaster.

In Beyond Earth, Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R.Hendrix offer groundbreaking research and argue persuasively that not Mars, but Titan—a moon of Saturn with a nitrogen atmosphere, a weather cycle, and an inexhaustible supply of cheap energy, where we will even be able to fly like birds in the minimal gravitational field—offers the most realistic and thrilling prospect of life without support from Earth.

5.12.16

Investigating the Penis Snatchers

Julien Bonhomme. The Sex Thieves: The Anthroplogy of a Rumor. University of Chicago Press. (November 2016)

While working in Africa, anthropologist Julien Bonhomme encountered an astonishing phenomenon: people being accused of stealing or shrinking the genitals of strangers on the simple occasion of a handshake on the street. As he soon discovered, these accusations can have dramatic outcomes: the “sex thieves” are often targeted by large crowds and publicly lynched. Moreover, such rumours are an extremely widespread practice, having affected almost half of the African continent since the 1970s. In this book, Bonhomme examines the story of the “penis snatcher,” asking larger questions about how to account for such a phenomenon—unique in its spatial and temporal scale—without falling prey to the cliché of Africa as an exotic other.

Bonhomme argues that the public belief in sex thieves cannot be considered a superstition or form of mass hysteria. Rather, he brings to light multiple factors that explain the rumour's success and shows how the cultural dynamic can operate on a vast scale. Analogising the rumour on both transnational and local levels, he demonstrates how it arises from the ambiguities and dangers of anonymity, and thus that it reveals an occult flipside to everyday social interaction. Altogether, this book provides both richly ethnographic and theoretical understandings of urban sociality and the dynamics of human communication in contemporary Africa and beyond.



30.11.16

Mapping Magonia

You would certainly need a Magonian passport to get into some of these territories!

Edward Brooke-Hitching. The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps. Simon & Schuster. (3 Nov. 2016)

The Phantom Atlas is an atlas of the world not as it ever existed, but as it was thought to be. These marvellous and mysterious phantoms - non-existent islands, invented mountain ranges, mythical civilisations and other fictitious geography - were all at various times presented as facts on maps and atlases. This book is a collection of striking antique maps that display the most erroneous cartography, with each illustration accompanied by the story behind it. Exploration, map-making and mythology are all brought together to create a colourful tapestry of monsters, heroes and volcanoes; swindlers, mirages and murderers. Sometimes the stories are almost impossible to believe, and remarkably, some of the errors were still on display in maps published in the 21st century.

Throughout much of the 19th century more than 40 different mapmakers included the Mountains of Kong, a huge range of peaks stretching across the entire continent of Africa, in their maps - but it was only in 1889 when Louis Gustave Binger revealed the whole thing to be a fake. For centuries, explorers who headed to Patagonia returned with tales of the giants they had met who lived there, some nine feet tall. Then there was Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish explorer who returned to London to sell shares in a land he had discovered in South America. He had been appointed the Cazique of Poyais, and bestowed with many honours by the local king of this unspoiled paradise. Now he was offering others the chance to join him and make their fortune there, too - once they had paid him a bargain fee for their passage.

The Phantom Atlas is a beautifully produced volume, packed with stunning maps and drawings of places and people that never existed. The remarkable stories behind them all are brilliantly told by Edward Brooke-Hitching in a book that will appeal to cartophiles everywhere.

22.11.16

Science and PSI

David Groome, Ronald Roberts (Editors) Parapsychology: The Science of Unusual Experience. Psychology Press, Routledge. (14 Nov. 2016)

Containing contributions from leading paranormal researchers, this edition of Parapsychology continues to challenge and provoke readers with some of psychology’s most puzzling phenomena. Whether believers or sceptics, the book provides readers with the opportunity to further their understanding of the paranormal, bridging the gap between traditional psychology and its so called fringe areas. Featuring updates to many of the original chapters, this book brings readers up to date with the wealth of radical research in the field.

This edition also includes several new chapters, covering subjects as diverse as possession and exorcism, conspiracy theories, reincarnation, and religious belief, many of which are extremely relevant in the world today. Drawing on a range of research, the book provides a balanced introduction to parapsychology, exploring the strengths and limitations of scientific investigation itself. Parapsychology is for readers from a variety of backgrounds; professionals in the field, students, lay readers and anyone who wants to understand what the paranormal can tell us about ourselves. A variety of viewpoints are on offer, with the emphasis on the reader to make up their own mind.

21.11.16

Odd Brains of Britain

S. D. Tucker. Great British Eccentrics. Amberley, (15 November)

From the publisher's website: These islands have long been a stronghold of eccentricity and peculiar behaviour. For whatever reason, eccentricity seems to have been enthusiastically embraced as being one of the defining characteristics of the British people, one of the many things that have become part of our national identity. Is it our status as an island people, set apart from the rest of the world, that has made so many of our countrymen turn in on themselves and go a little strange? Has our long libertarian tradition of the idea of the freedom of individuals to live their own lives as they please, just so long as they do no harm to anybody else, allowed weirdness to flourish within our land? Or is there just something dodgy in the water?

There are probably plenty of reasons, but one thing is for certain: historically, this country has produced some of the strangest people who have ever lived, and in this book Steven Tucker compiles the details of both some of the most well-known and the most obscure oddballs ever to have been eligible to hold a British passport. From the psychiatrist who acclaimed lobsters as being capable of love, to the mermaid-impersonating vicar who invented the Harvest Festival, to the mad aristocrat who invented a tiny gun for shooting wasps, this wild ride through our history’s most colourful characters will both amuse and entertain.


16.11.16

Gods of Ireland, Then and Now

Mark Williams. Ireland’s Immortals; A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Princeton University Press. (25 Oct. 2016)

Ireland’s Immortals tells the story of one of the world’s great mythologies. The first account of the gods of Irish myth to take in the whole sweep of Irish literature in both the nation’s languages, the book describes how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era—and how they were recast again during the Celtic Revival of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A lively narrative of supernatural beings and their fascinating and sometimes bizarre stories, Mark Williams’s comprehensive history traces how these gods—known as the Túatha Dé Danann— have shifted shape across the centuries, from Iron Age cult to medieval saga to today’s young-adult fiction. We meet the heroic Lug; the Morrígan, crow goddess of battle; the fire goddess Brigit, who moonlights as a Christian saint; the mist-cloaked sea god Manannán mac Lir; and the ageless fairies who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves.

Medieval clerics speculated that the Irish divinities might be devils, angels, or enchanters. W. B. Yeats invoked them to re-imagine the national condition, while his friend George Russell beheld them in visions and understood them to be local versions of Hindu deities. The book also tells how the Scots repackaged Ireland’s divine beings as the gods of the Gael on both sides of the sea—and how Irish mythology continues to influence popular culture far beyond Ireland. An unmatched chronicle of the Irish gods, Ireland’s Immortals illuminates why these mythical beings have loomed so large in the world’s imagination for so long.


11.11.16

Magic in the City of Light

Tobias Churton. Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle Époque. Inner Traditions (17 Nov 2016)

During Paris’s Belle Époque (1871-1914), many cultural movements and artistic styles flourished--Symbolism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, the Decadents--all of which profoundly shaped modern culture. Inseparable from this cultural advancement was the explosion of occult activity taking place in the City of Light at the same time. Exploring the magical, artistic, and intellectual world of the Belle Époque, Tobias Churton shows how a wide variety of Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Martinists, Freemasons, Gnostics, and neo-Cathars called fin-de-siècle Paris home.

He reveals how the work of many masters of modern culture such as composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, writers Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, and painters Georges Seurat and Alphonse Osbert bear signs of immersion in the esoteric circles that were thriving in Paris at the time. The author demonstrates how the creative hermetic ferment that animated the City of Light in the decades leading up to World War I remains an enduring presence and powerful influence today. Where, he asks, would Aleister Crowley and all the magicians of today be without the Parisian source of so much creativity in this field?