Monday, June 6, 2011

RatCave Book Club—6/5/2011

Sorry for the delay. I've been so busy recently that I haven't been able to focus on book reports.

Over the last several months I've acquired several tomes of interest. Here they are in no particular order...

A Pictorial History of Magic and the Supernatural (1964 edition)—Maurice Bessy

This coffee table book contains almost a thousand images encompassing the entire human experience of magic, religion, superstition and the occult from ancient times to the mid-20th Century. I gave the book a quick leafing and didn't see a single image that was familiar. Unfortunately, most of them are too small to be of much use for this blog but nevertheless it's interesting to browse. The book follows a meandering path as it touches on one sub-topic after another. It is encyclopedic in scope but not execution. The peculiar text accompanying the pictures is terse and ambigious as to the point of view of the author, who is an editor of a variety of similar books about such things as silent movie stars and boxing.

Note that I got my copy (with a rumpled and defaced but intact dust jacket) for a lot less than that Amazon price. It pays to look.

Doomsday 1999 A.D. (1981)—Charles Berlitz

A breathless "new" set of prognostications by one the co-exploiters of the Bermuda Triangle "mystery". Berlitz mustered as many nuggets of pseudo-history and pseudo-fact as he could find or if necessary imagine. After learning that Edgar Cayce had "a remarkable record of verification," the reader can rest assured that the maelstrom of unassociated and often mutually exclusive bits of already-discredited paranormal chestnuts as well as cherry-picked factoids which Berlitz adroitly mixes into a blend guaranteed to overwhelm the hapless, poorly-informed masses is at best a subject for sarcastic amusement and at worst yet another example of the sheer CRAP that has passed for "knowledge" since the New Age™ began. And this was before the Internet. Definitely a top-of-the-toilet-tank volume.

This is reaching all right. If you've ever bothered to read anything by Martin Gardner or James Randi you've heard the names Puthoff & Targ before. Their "research" into various forms of ESP is a classic example of how intelligent, educated scientists can be duped by others and themselves, and deserves the howls of derisive laughter drawn from the Skeptical camp. In this timeless volume we are treated to all of their photographs, diagrams and faith-based machinery which document their "successful" forays into the investigation of psi. This 2004 reprint is part of the "Studies In Consciousness" series which includes a number of other classics of the genre.

There is no point in my attempting to critique their work here as it has already been expertly demolished by Randi, Gardner and others. See the book list in my article "How's it going, Skeptic?" for required reading. The program of "research" they started at SRI ultimately cost American taxpayers $25M thanks to the CIA (the Stargate Project) and other government agencies and gave Uri Geller's career a nice boost, too. BTW, before he quit Scientology Puthoff was an OT VII.

Also of interest is a five-star "review" posted by Targ on Amazon which consists solely of the testimonial text from the inside flaps of the book. Please go there and vote it down.

Secret Societies... And How They Affect Our Lives Today (2007, first edition)—Sylvia Browne

Oh boy. Where the fuck do I start? There are chapters on all the usual suspects: the CFR, Bildebergers, the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, etc., all written with the inside track possessed by Sylvia's "spirit guide" Francine. Sylvia is a self-styled gnostic Christian so what really caught my eye, though, is that she buys into much of the pseudo-history surrounding Holy Blood, Holy Grail. (The "documentation" that Holy Blood, Holy Grail is based on turned out to be a clever forgery and the entire book was completely debunked. Later, Dan Brown used this pseudo-history in his fictional account entitled The DaVinci Code.) She doesn't seem to believe that Le PrieurĂ© de Sion still exists today but she's squarely in the "they faked Jesus' death but he's still divine" camp. As the late Dr. Gene Scott pointed out repeatedly in his own lengthy critique of Holy Blood, Holy Grail (on live, late-night television in 1985), this makes no fucking sense at all. But if Francine says it's true...

All in all some facts mixed up with a lot of speculation, what she wants to believe and pure moonshine. It would appear that Sylvia actually does believe what she says in this book. But who cares? Her latest title, published just before her unanticipated heart attack, is Afterlives of the Rich and Famous. Now that's a book! Let's find out how Heath Ledger feels about winning the Oscar!!

BTW, I snagged this gem for $1.10 at the local Mennonite thrift store. She isn't making a dime off of me.

The Big Con: The Story Of The Confidence Man (1940, reprinted in 1999)—David Maurer

Maurer was a Professor of linguistics who specialized in underworld argot. In this book he tells, Thirties style, the story of the big cons like "the pay-off", "the rag" and "the wire" (the latter was depicted in the movie The Sting) and the top grifters who ran them. The beauty is in the details and there's plenty of it. Some marks get so into the game that they don't really believe they've been ripped off and come back for more once they'd scraped up some more cash. The ropers live lives of constant anxiety and blow all their money as fast as they can make it. And if there was one thing the fixer couldn't fix it was a fed. Local judges and state politicians were no problem.

The book is a bit long and repetitious by contemporary standards but in its day it must have held readers spellbound. A truly bygone era. No doubt the master grifters of old would shudder at the clumsy Nigerian 419s so prevalent today.

There's a list of all my books reviews here.

1 comment:

metasonix said...

They would also shudder at the idiocy of those (few but enough) Americans who fall for 419 scams.

But then, if an old-time grifter was alive today, and picked up one of those old-fashioned newspaper things, he'd really be dumbfounded by a thing called "Sarah Palin". An attractive middle-aged woman, pretending to run for President, but dumber that a pile of shit. And worse, the news media has an irrational fondness for her. If anything can prove that journalism is dead, it's her "career".

(What would an old-timer make of Bernie Madoff? There's few things more American than a Ponzi scheme.)