Monthly Archives: October 2015

Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr

book cover

Our threat response is automatic, but what we fear is largely learned.

…I’m looking at how we experience fear biologically (and the consequences of continuous heightened fear states), how we construct fear socially, and how we interpret it psychologically.

… These are my adventures in fear.

What scares you? It varies for most of us, but certainly death and personal, physical harm will come out at or near the top. It certainly should. Alongside that would be a fear of harm to those close to us. But there are plenty of other things that are probably, ok, certainly listed in a wikiphobia somewhere. Some of our fears are well-grounded, others not so much. Fear of heights makes sense. Fear of open places certainly originated before homo sapiens was the planet-wide apex predator. Fear of snakes sure sounds like a sound Darwinian reaction. Fear of the number thirteen, hmmm. But whatever the cause there is a biological element to fear and that is a primary focus here.

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That’s Kerr on the splat side addressing a fear of heights

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross may have given us On Death and Dying. Atul Gawande gave us On Mortality, the Sy-Fy network and premium cable keeps us well filled with entertainments designed to scare the bejesus out of us. But Margee Kerr, in Scream, has written a nifty look at fear itself. Kerr is both a scientist and a practitioner of the frightening arts. No, you won’t see her on any version of the Walking Dead, Chiller Theater, Creature Features, American Horror Story, Grimm, Penny Dreadful or any of the other frightfests that fill our cables and airwaves. And you will not find her name on the binding of books occupying the same section of the bookstore or library as Stephen King. But Kerr could probably explain exactly how each of the above does what it does to you. She is your goto gal for figuring out why the long-haired ghosts in j-horror get screams from Japanese audiences and a much more tepid response from Western viewers. She can tell you why it makes sense to hold someone’s hand when you are frightened, and can explain in some detail, on a biological level, not only how being scared can be a really good thing, but how it has steered our evolution.

Kerr, with a doctorate in sociology, has one foot firmly planted in the realm of academia, research of the library and real world varieties, and the other in the realm of applied fear-mongering. No, she does not work for Fox News. But she does want you to be scared, and she knows how to make that happen

thrilling activities provide a safe space to give our impulse-control police a break (and for those who believe that screaming and being scared are signs of weakness, being in a situation in which it is OK to express fear can feel pretty good

She keeps her focus primarily on physical, immediate fear experiences and scoots across the planet to sample the fear menus far and wide. Why would she do this? Well there are two reasons. She has an academic interest in learning the mechanisms of fear. And the other interest is a bit more down-to-earth. She works for one of the nation’s best known haunted house venues, Scarehouse, in Pittsburgh. She has spent umpteen hours studying peoples’ reactions to the frights they receive there. So she was, in addition to pursuing her academic interest, researching ways to improve the Scarehouse product, and reports at the end of the book on how she applied what she learned. Ok, maybe a third reason is that this is huge fun for her.

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Kerr puts herself through a fair range of scary experiences, not all of which were part of an entertainment venue. She begins with roller-coasters, noting their beginning with 17th century Russian Ice Slides, scary not merely for the usual thrill of sliding downhill very fast, but for the deeper thrill of knowing that reliability and safety were far from certain. These days the rides may be wilder, and perhaps a bit more challenging, not only to one’s sense of balance, but to one’s ability to keep down that regrettable pair of hot dogs you might have scarfed down prior to boarding the roller-coaster car, (an uncle of mine in the wayback was famous for spewing his partaken beer and partially digested Nathan’s Famous over an unfortunate date at Coney Island) and one’s ability to remain conscious. (I confess I passed out momentarily on one such, in Hershey Park) But the fear of mortal peril has been pretty much eliminated.

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You know who, from you know what

Screaming, appropriately enough, comes in for some attention

There’s something freeing, and even a little bit dangerous, in screaming as loud as you want. Screaming is part of our evolved survivor tool kit, protecting us by scaring away predators and alerting others of danger nearby. Pulling our face into a scream is also believed to make us more alert, intensifying our threat response just as squinching our nose in disgust blocks foul odors from going into our nostril). Adam Anderson at the University of Toronto found that when people made a frightened expression, they increase their range of vision and have faster eye movements and a heightened sense of smell from breathing more rapidly through their nostrils. Not to mention, when we scream, our eyes widen, and we show our teeth, making us appear all the more intimidating to any predators.

She indulges in a range of fears, from leaning out over the top of the CN Tower in Toronto in challenging a fear of heights, to searching for ghosts in some supposedly haunted places, including spending some quality alone time in a notoriously haunted former prison, to looking at infrasound as a possible source for many spectral experiences, to checking out haunted houses in Japan (got scared her out of her wits), to hanging out in a Japanese park noted for the number of suicides that occur there, to fearing imminent personal peril on the streets of Colombia. She also goes to a noted researcher to have her own fear indices checked out, and gets a bit of a surprise there.

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Kerr has a spooky time at Eastern State Pen – from EasternState.org

Kerr takes a wider view in some chapters, moving past the how-can-we-scare-ourselves-for-fun mode to actual application of scientific insight into fear with a look at PTSD and why some folks are more susceptible than others. In another segment she looks at the impact of a shredded safety net (the GOP 2016 platform?) on how difficult and exhausting it is for people to deal with the chronic stress, fear, trauma and violence that results. She also looks at how memories are formed, and at attempts to erase some of those, and offers some intel on the influence of parental helicoptering on one’s ability to manage stress, and on the significance of and elements that make up “high arousal states.” She offers plenty of hard-science intel which I very much appreciate. But Kerr also gives readers plenty of you-are-there experience, sharing some of her personal material, beyond the immediacy of the location and thrill. It is this combination of science and personality that provides the strength of Scream.

Of course Margee is anything but a scary sort herself. Check out her vids, thoughtfully noted below, and you will see for yourself. Kerr’s bubbly and engaging personality comes through quite well. This does not come through quite so well in the book, which felt a bit meandering, drifting a bit away from her core material at times.

In the CV posted on her site, Kerr says

My current research interests involve understanding the relationship between fear and society. People are reporting they feel more afraid today than 20 years ago and many scholars argue we live I a ‘fear based’ society.

Has she watched the evening news, or read most national or local newspapers? One of the things that modern communications has done most successfully is to create an environment in which fear is the top story, above the fold, below the fold, on page Six, and on the nightly news. If it bleeds it leads. We thrive on fear, or seem to. One of our major political parties has a set of policies based almost entirely on fear. Bowling for Columbine did an excellent job of highlighting the fear culture in which many of us live.

Fear is how those in charge control those who are not. Whether it is fear of the other, of jail or of poverty, death panels, jack-booted federals coming for your freedom, the red menace, yellow peril, illegal immigrants, police, street thugs, alien invaders, the zombie apocalypse or rampaging jihadis, we are a nation driven by fear. The fact is that fear does an excellent job of getting past our filters. We live in a cry wolf economy and business is howling. I suppose on a biological level there is some internal chemistry that says, “Well, it sounds like bullshit, but if it isn’t I could die, so why take the chance?” And it does not have to be about death, although that is the all time best seller. It could be about one’s ability to compete in the world, which really is a subtle message about death, the death of your DNA anyway. Too fat? Too bald? Too gray? Too tall? Too short? Too ugly? No one will love you. You will never have children. Better buy our product to ensure that you attract a mate. Buy our product or you won’t get a job. You and your children, if you have any, will starve. Kerr does not ignore this terrifying element of contemporary culture, particularly in her chapter on Colombia, but I do hope that when she dives into these waters again, she gives it more of a look.

FDR was wrong. There are plenty of real things to fear out there, just maybe not the things we are told to fear. In any case, whether one’s fear is justified or not, how our biology copes with fear is consistent. And it is not only well worth learning about, Scream provides an entertaining, enjoyable way to learn. There’s nothing scary about that.

My beloved picked this item up for me from the author at a book fair in return for an honest review.

Review posted – 10/9/15

Publication date – 9/29/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Items Specific to Scarehouse
—–The Scarehouse site
—–A behind the scenes look at Scarehouse by Heather Johanssen
—–The Scarehouse youtube channel
—–Margee’s overview
—–Profile of Margee
—–Margee on Uncanny Valley
—–Why are clowns so scary

A nifty article on the scariness of the simple triangle

One of the places Kerr visited (twice in fact) is Eastern State Penitentiary

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

The Martian by Andy Weir

book cover

I’m pretty much fucked.

Ok, show of hands. How many of you have uttered these exact words? (or words to that effect). Not everyone? I see we have some liars out there. How many have said them at least twice? Three times? Four? Those with hands still up, you probably need to make some adjustments to your approach, find a safer line of work, hobbies that do not entail long drops, stop trying the weekly specials at McBlowfish, or seek out people to date who are into less extreme…um…sports. These are the opening words of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is definitely more screwed than most of us have ever been. Dude missed his ride and there will not be another along for, oh, four years. Supplies on hand were only meant to cover a few weeks, maybe months. And that Martian atmosphere is definitely no fun, lacking stuff like, oh, breathable air, and a reasonable range of temperature. It does, offer, however, extremely harsh (good for scouring that burned on gunk from sauce pans) and long-lasting (as in months) dust storms. And if that was not enough he faces an array of other challenges.

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unfriendly locals

No, Kibby (the 12-year-old kibitzer who infects my brain), no Mars Attacks brain beasts, or that other guy, even though I know he is your favorite. Real challenges. For example, the music he has for his stay consists of disco. The viewing options include 70s TV. Most of us might give serious consideration to minimizing the guaranteed pain, frustration, starvation and inevitable death by, maybe, taking a short hustle outside sans that special suit. It would be a very, very short last dance. Watney is either a cock-eyed optimist or an idiot. I’m going with the former, as he is indeed made of the right stuff. He is armored and well supplied with the sort of can-do designer genes that might make the rest of us feel like the can’t-do sorts we are. He is the poster boy for positive attitude. It does not hurt that he is way smart, with expertise in a wide-enough range of things scientific to matter. It does not hurt that he is an engineer who gets off on taking apart, putting back-together, figuring out, thinking through, testing, trying, and pushing envelopes. But his crew is headed home, and what hope is there, really?

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The Martian tells of Watney’s attempt to survive in a literally alien environment, using only the tools on hand and his wits. It is a gripping story with one of the most adorable heroes you are likely to encounter, on this planet or any other. (No, Kibby, not a kitten) How could you not root for a guy who scrapes through Thanksgiving dinner for potato parts to plant for food? Of course, one might think “been there, done that,” particularly as 1964’s Robin Crusoe on Mars offered a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic tale in a more contemporary notion of a remote locale. A 1905 novel used a different classic traveler in the same sort of format.

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Of course those tellings had a lot more in common with the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs as seen by Frank Frazetta than they do with the vision we have of the Red Planet today, or, say, reality.

Reality
Zabriskie Point 612

Or is it?
somewhere out there
One of these was a shot of you know where. The other was taken at Death Valley, which was used, BTW, in the filming of Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Most of the tale is spent on Watney’s very compelling attempt to survive, going through all the challenges he faces trying to make air, preserve and maybe generate water, make his food last, get some sort of communication set up, deal with things like exploding air-locks, biblical level dust-storms, toppling ground-transport vehicles, you know, stuff, most of it life-threatening. The other end of things is how the folks on the ground deal with this GInornous OOPS. There are technical elements, of course but more interesting, for me, were the political considerations. To tell the crew or not? Imagine how bummed out, embarrassed, and guilty you might be on that ship (the Hermes) returning home, knowing you had left one behind. Might it affect your ability to take care of necessary business for the next bunch of months? Another question is whether to tell the public, and if so, when. How about getting help from other space-capable nations? Are any international dealings simple? There is also some in-house (NASA) staff maneuvering that is wonderful to see.

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Andy Weir – from Smithsonian

In her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes

Having a likeable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud…

Probably the greatest strength of The Martian is the narration of Mark Watney. He is engaging and funny, optimistic and capable. I suppose there are some who might find him lacking in sharp edges, but I thought he worked great.

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Matt Damon as Mark Watney, enjoying the view – from the film.

The new earth-based shooting location was Wadi Rum, Jordan. I am sure they did plenty of color adjustments in post, but boy-o-boy does this place look like an alien landscape.

Gripes
Yes, really, there is too much scientific detail. It is not that it is beyond the comprehension of a lot of readers (although it will skip by a fair number) it is the share of time, the number of pages, the sheer volume of obstacles to be overcome, and the very detailed explanation of so many of them that tilts the book a bit too much towards the MacGyver demo. Weir writes very well about the other elements of the story. Repetition of DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, with the subsequent amazingly clever repair du jour, does get a bit old after a while. I had to fight an urge to scan at times.

But that is really it. Otherwise, The Martian is an absolute delight to read. Watney is lovable as well as capable, and makes excellent use of his sense of humor to look on the bright side of life, in a very dark circumstance.

Whether he makes it out on time or not (not gonna spoil that one) you will cheer him on, hope for the best, and fly past those pages with considerable, if maybe not interplanetary, speed. Is there life on Mars? There will be while you read this book.

Review posted – 1/16/15
Updated and trotted out there again on release of the film – 10/2/15

Publication date – self-pub in 2011 – Bought, edited and published by Crown 10/28/2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s personal and FB pages.

The Martian Chronicles on Gutenberg

Gullivar of Mars by Edwin Lester Linden Arnold on Gutenberg

For a real Martian experience check out NASA’s Mars page

For a realer Martian experience, and ideal for those trying to keep one step ahead of creditors and/or the law, you might want to consider applying to be on a Mars mission, no joke. There is more on this project below but the above link is for the selection process, just in case you don’t mind a strictly one-way journey.

A nifty article from the NY Times (10/5/15) about the woman at NASA responsible for seeing to it that we do not bring Earth germs you-know-where – Mars Is Pretty Clean. Her Job at NASA Is to Keep It That Way. – by Kenneth Chang

I bet you thought I’d forgotten these guys. No chance! I just ran out of time to figure out how to stuff them into the review. So, sorry, I am stuffing them here. That sounds so wrong.

If you want to experience Mars while still on earth, it is indeed possible

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A general National Geo article on Mars

Planetary.Org has an excellent list of all Mars missions to date, and some that are in process

When you are checking your ancestry some of that unusual DNA might come from a place, far, far away. Two scientists look at the unfortunately named notion of Panspermia, (the natural result of guys watching really good porn?) which addresses the possibility that the genesis of life on Earth had its opening act elsewhere.

If you want to know Who goes to Mars for the waters, the answer is yes

And speaking Eau d’Ares a nifty article on the presence of H2OMG you know where in the 9/28/15 article in the NY Times – by Kenneth Chang. Thanks to my pal, Henry B, for this refreshing item.

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Downhill streaks indicate water has flowed – image from NY Times who got it from NASA who got it from JPL

Here is a nifty article from The New Yorker, on work being done to cope with inter-planetary cabin fever. Moving to Mars: Preparing for the longest, loneliest voyage ever by Tom Kizzia – from the April 20, 2015 issue

All right. We’re all done now. You’d better get going or Marvin will lose his cool

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Oh, sorry Marvin, just one more thing, lists.

FILMS
Abbott and Costello go to Mars
The Angry Red Planet
Bad Girls From Mars
The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars
Capricorn One
Devil Girl From Mars
Doom
Empire of Danger
Escape From Mars
Flight to Mars
Ghosts of Mars
Invaders from Mars
The Last days on Mars
Lost on Mars
Mars Needs Moms
Mars Needs Women
Mission to Mars
Race to Mars
Red Planet
Red Planet Mars
Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Rocket Man
Roving Mars
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Stranded
The Terror from Beyond Space
Total Recall

TV Programs
Is There Life on Mars – PBS
My Favorite Martian
Life On Mars – British
Life on Mars – American
Mars One – Proposed – (check this one out)
Race to Mars

Novels
2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson
The Barsoom Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs
—– A Princess of Mars
—–The Gods of Mars
—–The Warlord of Mars
—–Thuvia, Maid of Mars
—–The Chessmen of Mars
—–The Master Mind of Mars
—–A Fighting Man of Mars
—–Swords of Mars
—– Synthetic Men of Mars
—–Llana of Gathol
—–John Carter of Mars
Blades of Mars – Edward P. Bradbury
C.O.D Mars – E.C. Tubb
The Caves of Mars – Emil Petaja
Children of Mars – Paul G Day
City of the Beast – Michael Moorcock
The Daughter of Mars – Thomas Keneally
The Empress of Mars – Kage Baker
First on Mars – Rex Gordon
Icehenge – Kim Stanley Robinson
Life on Mars – Jennifer Brown
Life on Mars (a different one) – Jonathan Strahan
The Long Mars – Terry Pratchett
Mars – Ben Bova
Mars is my Destination – Frank Belknap Long
Mars Plus – Frederick Pohl
The Mars Trilogy – Kim Stanley Robinson
—–Blue Mars
—–Green Mars
—–Red Mars
Marsquakes – Kevin F. Owens
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Masters of the Pit – Michael Moorcock
Moving Mars – Greg Bear
No Man Friday – Rex Gordon
Old Mars – George R.R. Martin
Packing for Mars – Mary Roach – ok, not a novel
Podkayne of Mars – Robert Heinlein
Prelude to Mars – Arthur C. Clarke
Priests of Mars – Graham McNeill
The Road to Mars – Eric Idle
The Sands of Mars – Arthur C. Clarke
Sebastian Of Mars – Al Sarrantino
Shadow Over Mars – Leigh Brackett
Sin in Space – Cyrill Judd (Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril)
Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
Urania – Camille Flammarion
White Mars – Brian Aldiss

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Everything She Forgot by Lisa Ballantyne

book coverMargaret Holloway is 35, a deputy head teacher at a nearby academy, a wife, a mother, and a mentor to a young student who is struggling to pull himself up from his family’s low beginnings. She has a full life but her memory has a large gap. She can’t seem to remember much from the age of 7 and earlier. That begins to change after she is in a major highway pileup, and is pulled from her about-to-go-boom wreck by a mysterious scarred man. There is something about him that is disturbing. The lost time begins seeping back into her consciousness, sparking her to begin opening doors to her long hidden past.

Big George McLaughlin is a gentle giant of a man with the misfortune of having been born to a physically brutal and criminally inclined Glaswegian family, with little tolerance for his more tender inclinations. When teenage George gets the girl he loves pregnant, he wants to do the right thing. Her parents would rather not have her form an alliance with such an infamous family. George gets to hold his new baby for only a moment, before the mother and child move to the farthest reaches of the country. But it is long enough for him to fall in love with their wee lassie, too.

Kathleen Henderson is desperate. Her daughter has been abducted by some strange man, and the police seem to be making no progress in finding her. She is terrified that her daughter has run afoul of a serial child killer at large in Scotland.

Angus Campbell is a journalist with a heart several sizes too small, an inflated sense of his merits, an extreme and hypocritical attachment to what he sees as moral rectitude, and a streak of cruelty that he applies liberally to his wife and daughter. Through dogged research he believes he knows what has become of the missing girl and goes about trying to locate her, convinced that this heroic undertaking will gain him the national notice he merits. For a person of diminutive stature, he somehow manages to look down his nose at practically everyone.

The story moves back and forth between today, 2013, in which Margaret and 1985, when George took Molly, the latter being when most of the action takes place,

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Lisa Ballantyne – from her site

Lisa Ballantyne has a penchant for focusing on the difficulties children experience in families. This was central to her wonderful first novel, The Guilty One, an Edgar Award nominee, which paralleled the lives of a possibly sociopathic young boy accused of murder with his attorney, a man whose childhood had been extremely challenging. Family ties come in for a close look in Everything She Forgot as well. Of course you might want to look away, as some of these families are the kind where the best thing you could do, were you a member, would be to flee, as early and as far as possible. George’s father was a sadistic brute. Angus treats his wife and daughter with none of the tenderness he reserves for his favorite cow. But the ties that bind are still there. And even though George has not seen his daughter since she was piping hot, he feels an undeniable connection. So when chance presents him with an opportunity, he grabs it, follows his heart to the highlands and goes a-questing. Maybe this time, his lost love will agree to marry him. Maybe this time he can be a proper father to his daughter.

Things do not go as planned and George winds up abducting his child and becoming the object of a nation-wide manhunt. If you get the impression there is a strong journey of self-discovery motif here it bears knowing that the title of the UK release of this book was Redemption Road. The journey itself goes, literally, from one end of the UK to the other, from John o’Groats at the northeasternmost point of the Scottish mainland to Land’s End at the southwestern tip of Cornwall, a distance of well over eight hundred miles, allowing the travelers time to get to know one other. (No, George doesn’t walk)

Can George slay his familial dragons? Can he ever be a father to his lost child? Is it even possible that his daughter will acknowledge, let alone accept him? Will the police catch him? Will Angus? Will Molly be returned to her mother?

There are some elements in Everything She Forgot that you may or may not want to remember. First is the degree of Margaret’s amnesia. It seemed to me to extend well beyond the psychologically damaging event that generated her particular manifestation of PTSD. Second, there is an adult character who is unable to read or write. Not some feral person raised by a colony of Orkney voles, but someone who abandoned school as a teen. I suppose it is possible for someone to attend classes into adolescence and still find the funny curved markings on paper indecipherable, but it struck me as a bit of a stretch. While on their journey of mutual discovery George and Molly find shelter when an ex-girlfriend of George’s just happens be ok with him crashing at her flat while she is out of town. But then there are many who cling to a belief in a local lake loch beastie of note, so who am I to gainsay a bit of credulity-stretching? Finally, there are two events in the book that involve harm to animals by the beastly. They are appropriate in their illustration of the characters’ character. But be forewarned, in case this sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you.

There are larger themes permeating the novel. Is DNA destiny? Where does nature leave off and nurture take over? The core of this tale, though, is George and Molly’s coming and growing together. George is an engaging sort, with a heart far bigger than his circumstances would have predicted. You will want him to come to a good end, somehow. Molly is a spunky kid and you won’t want anything bad to happen to her. Her biological father may come from a household of career criminals, but she can feel that there is good in him, that he truly cares for her. Lisa Ballantyne’s sophomore effort offers a journey worth taking. Once you meet and spend some road time with George and Molly you won’t forget them.

Publication – 10/06/2015

This review – 10/02/2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Scotland