Book Review (Graphic Novel) Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Image result for neil gaiman mr. punch

The Comical Tragedy or The Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch

by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean


This is the second book I’ve read (Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban was the first) that focused on the traditional Punch and Judy show. That one was disturbing because it’s post-apocalyptic, and written in a language that is not quite English and is very difficult; this one is disturbing because it’s Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Both are disturbing because Punch and Judy? That’s one messed up story.

So the basic plotline, if you can call it that, of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show follows the story of Punch. Punch is a sinner: a violent, horny, drunken lout who is clever enough and evil enough to get the better of everyone else in the show – if by “get the better” we mean “beat to death with a stick,” which is basically what Punch ends up doing to everyone, including Judy, who attacks Punch after he throws their baby off the stage to its presumed puppety death. Punch also murders a doctor, a police officer, a crocodile, and the Devil himself; I assume there are variations performed by different people, but both novels tell the same basic story about the murderous Mr. Punch.

Both also describe the traditional puppeteers who tell the story. They are strange people, with an unhealthy and almost religious, even zealous, respect and devotion to the show, especially to Mr. Punch himself. In Russell Hoban’s book, the Punch puppeteer is still doing the same story from medieval England, even though the book is set hundreds of years after the nuclear holocaust that wiped out our civilization; all that remains are some broken fragments of language (the book is written in a very strange invented patois), some relics and buildings and such, and the Punch and Judy show, which is retained in exactly the same form.

In this one, the puppeteer seems to be mystical, in that he talks about an old man, one of the other characters, as having been his apprentice long ago, which would make the puppeteer unnaturally long-lived, it seems. Though it’s hard to say, because the story is told from the point of view of a young boy with a strong imagination, and there are other elements of almost magic realism: the main setting is in a carnival at the seashore in England, and the narrator’s grandfather (the one who used to be the puppeteer’s apprentice) has employed a woman to perform as a mermaid, sitting in a costume on a rock in an indoor pond, brushing her hair and singing. The boy takes her as a real mermaid, so maybe the longevity of the puppeteer is imagined, too.

But there’s also the puppets. The puppeteer talks to the boy and tells him about the Punch show, and he seems to imply that once you put the puppets on your hand, then you gain secret knowledge – and lose something, as well, mainly the ability to take the puppets off again, metaphorically, at least. The boy puts on the crocodile puppet and comments on how magical it is that a puppet can come to life once your hand is inside it; the puppeteer offers him the Punch puppet – the one that is the key to the show, and the only puppet that never comes off the hand, as the Punch and Judy show is a one-man act, so there are never more than two puppets on stage at a time (And the narrator points out that this helps to explain all the murders, as the puppeteer has to keep getting rid of the left-hand characters so he can introduce a new one), and one of them is always Mr. Punch. Who, after he kills another puppet, says, “That’s the way you do it!” Freaking weird. And this is a children’s entertainment. I think knowing that he grew up watching Punch shows helps to explain Neil Gaiman, and maybe a lot of other English authors and creatives.

To add to the weirdness, the book is not only about the Punch puppet show; the boy’s grandfather is losing the last vestiges of his sanity, and also about to lose his carnival house, since nobody goes to the seashore to go inside and see a sad mermaid or a weirdass Punch show. The boy is shy and awkward, and not treated well by his maddening grandfather; there is also some tension between the grandfather and his brother, who helps out with the show and who has a hunchback, though the reason for his deformity is a bit of a mystery commented on by the narrator. There is also an unfortunate love affair involving the mermaid girl, though the boy doesn’t understand it and so neither do we, since the story is told from his point of view.

Overall, it is strange and depressing, but also utterly fascinating, like most Neil Gaiman books. And if there were no other reason to read this graphic novel, it would be worth it just for the art: because Dave McKean is a freaking genius, and the way he mixes painting and drawing and collage and photography in the images of this book make the entire experience twice as fascinating as it would be without him; and it’s fascinating enough already.

Highly recommend, though with a warning about the creepiness and the sadness, which is not resolved neatly at the end. Like life.

That’s the way you do it.


Book Review: The Alchemist of Souls

Image result for the alchemist of souls

The Alchemist of Souls

by Anne Lyle

First, the things about this book that I appreciate.

I appreciate, first and foremost, that Lyle was inspired (as she describes in her author’s note) by a name she came across in her research; she said that as soon as she saw the name Maliverny Catlyn, a minor but genuine historical personage, she had to use that name in her book. She’s completely right; the name belongs on the hero she created for this book; and since my own book was also inspired partly by a name, I approve of this wholeheartedly.

I appreciate that the book is exhaustively researched and detailed; that it covers quite a number of aspects of Elizabethan English life; I appreciate that it focuses on the theatre of the time but barely mentions Shakespeare. I appreciate that she made subtle changes, such as making Elizabeth I marry and bear two sons to succeed her, while keeping so many other things historically accurate (As far as I know, that is): that’s a fine line to walk, and she does it well. I really appreciated the religious and political tension she was able to capture; the intrigues were excellent.

I appreciate the skraylings as a theme: this is the major change that turns this into fantasy instead of a historical novel, that when the European explorers traveled to the New World, they discovered not merely the Native American populations, but also a humanoid race with an advanced civilization and apparent control over magic. So now Europe has a new ally to woo and also plot against in their wars between Catholic France and Spain, and Protestant England. It’s a good theme, and it’s done well.

I appreciated that there are strong gay characters and nobody really thinks too much about it. They get some grief for being all sinful and stuff, even from one of the other characters, which Lyle takes advantage of to create a great scene where the bigot gets called out for her hypocrisy. It’s extremely well done, and the most romantic aspect of the book, which does have a variety of romantic entanglements between the several characters.


What I did not appreciate about the book:

It’s too long. I don’t like to say that, since I’m a wordy writer myself, and I love 1000-page epic fantasies like the work of Robert Jordan and GRRM and the like. But this one dragged. There were a few too many characters and a few too many plotlines, and those plotlines went on for too long. While the two main gay characters were interesting in and of themselves, they could have been removed from the story entirely without any real loss to the plot, and the same goes for the weeks of buildup to the theatrical competition. There’s a lot of life in the book, which also has its own attraction, but isn’t necessary for this story. It’s a bit bothersome because this is the first in a series, and it’s like Lyle couldn’t stand to hold back and put some of the interesting things into later books, so she packed it all into this one – and it’s too much.

Though I liked them thematically, I didn’t really care for the skraylings. There were some really interesting tidbits that showed excellent thought and planning from Lyle – like the linguistic nugget that has the skrayling/English pidgin avoiding the letters p, b, and m, because skraylings find them effeminate; and the reason for this is that the skraylings show their canines as a gesture of assertiveness and dominance, and those three letters are the only sounds that require you to close your mouth entirely. That is cool as hell. (Though in the actual writing of the pidgin, Lyle uses normal English, essentially leaving the pidgin implied; so what the hell? I mean, that’s just lazy. There was a guy wrote an entire novel without the letter E, and you can’t write a few lines of dialogue without those three letters? THAT LAST SENTENCE DID IT AND IT WASN’T EVEN HARD! THERE, I DID IT AGAIN!) But the ambassador is a weak character, and none of the other skraylings are given a chance to stand out; I don’t understand the ambassador’s particular personal situation, nor the connection to Mal Catlyn; I don’t like the way Mal just keeps running away, and the ambassador passively lets him go. I just didn’t think much of them.

I hate the ending. At the end of this longish slowish book is a rapid-fire explosion of events that suddenly introduce a new bad guy, have a surprise twist regarding the main character and his family, grant magical powers where they haven’t been before, throw the characters into a search-and-rescue and also a duel to the death, and then end with the bad guys sort of winning. It’s clearly a set-up for the next book(s), and I doubt the bad guys will win in the end; but it made this particular book freaking annoying. Which makes me not want to read the next books.

It’s too bad about this book, because it does have some good elements; but the plotting and pace make it not worth the time. Don’t recommend.

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

Image result for the demon-haunted world

The Demon-Haunted World

by Carl Sagan

Published the year he died, Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is a haunted book. I haven’t read his other work (Though now I plan to), but this one seems darker than what I had imagined his work would be like. It’s not hopeless or despairing; it’s a serious warning about a serious problem, and what seemed to me like a fairly frustrated attempt to cut through a thick layer of hogwash on a specific issue that obviously bothered Sagan quite a lot: namely the idea of alien abduction.

The general warning about the serious problem is the overall thrust of the book, and it is about the need for a free people to think skeptically. Sagan being who he was, he came at the idea from a scientist’s perspective; he describes at length the need for scientists to be skeptical, to be willing to question anything, most particularly their own most cherished beliefs. He gives example after example of scientists describing the need to build beautiful, elegant theories that explain great answers to great questions – and then tear them down completely when those theories are contradicted by the evidence. He talks about the shift from Newton to Einstein to quantum mechanics, and he talks about how astrophysicist Fred Hoyle was able to contribute as much to the field of astronomy when he was wrong as he was when he was right (and in both cases his contributions were prodigious, Sagan says).

Because Sagan is not only talking about science, and because he practiced what he preached, he makes a concerted effort in this book to talk about the flawed nature of scientists, the scientists who did more harm than good, the ones who told themselves they could ignore the ethical responsibility of considering the potential uses of their discoveries – a deception, Sagan argues, as he states unequivocally that the extraordinary power of modern scientific discoveries and the technology that comes from them imposes a greater responsibility than ever before for scientists to act as ethically as possible in considering what potential harm could be done by their work, and taking action to minimize that harm. He talks about the various ways that science can be manipulated and used to do harm; though he is also clear that none of that harm tells us that science is itself harmful or bad or should be feared or avoided. Knowledge is power, and power can be used to do – well, anything; but ignoring the power doesn’t protect us from it, it simply makes it easier for someone else to use it harmfully.

What else is Sagan talking about other than science itself, than the beauty and power of the scientific mindset, of skeptical thinking and a reliance on repeatable experiment and observable data? He’s talking about everything, really. There isn’t an aspect of life or modern society where a skeptical mindset would be inappropriate. The book covers a lot of aspects of society and culture; the exploration of the alien abduction myth, rather than simply being a screed against a continuing falsehood that Sagan, as an astrophysicist, took personally; he goes back through history and connects the alien abduction myth to past myths, of fairy abductions, of divine intervention in the lives of mortals. In addition to showing how a skeptical mindset quickly takes the alien abduction story apart, he also shows how it could be used to remove a dozen other pernicious ideas in our culture, including racism, sexism, and nationalism.

It’s beautifully done. This is a lovely book, fascinating in its ideas and easily digestible in the presentation of them. And as I said, it isn’t hopeless: Sagan also makes sure to express to the reader his unquenchable curiosity and his enormous capacity for wonder, which he also says must be fostered and encouraged along with the skeptical mindset; because when our cherished ideas are disproven by the evidence, when the flaws in our reasoning are found by our own penetrating, skeptical questions, it is our sense of wonder and our need to feel awe that makes us look again for a new answer to replace the one we just discarded. Wonder makes us get up and try again, after we knock ourselves down; and the combination of those two qualities is what gives this book its hope.

The thing that makes it scary is that Sagan wrote it twenty years ago. And on the first page – the first damn page – he said this:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.


The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Yeah. This book scared me, all right. I hope it also inspired me. I do intend to use one entire chapter/essay in my classes this coming school year, to try to make that candle burn a little brighter, if I can; and I would like to recommend that everyone read this book when you get the chance, because after Sagan finishes talking about alien abduction, he talks about democracy, and the need for scientific skeptical thinking and also scientific wonder and awe, to save our democracy, to save our country. And I for one think he was right.

Book Review: When the Turtles Sing

When the Turtles Sing

by Don Marquis


This was a sweet book.

It’s ten short stories, published in 1928, by Don Marquis, a humorist and poet that I have been long acquainted with because my parents read and shared with the family Marquis’s collection Archy and Mehitabel, about a cat and a cockroach who are both reincarnated spirits; the cockroach was a poet, and he sneaks out at night and types poems on Marquis’s typewriter, one key at a time, without any capital letters because he can’t hold down the Shift key. I loved that book, and got my dad’s old copy of it a few years ago, whereupon I read it to my wife, who also loved it. So when I was at the Friends of the Library Book Sale, and I saw this lovely old hardback with a great title and a familiar author, I had to get it.

I’m glad I did. Marquis had a hell of a sense of humor, and more important, he had a hell of a sense of fun: these stories are mostly just fun. They’re good ideas, and they’re actually well-realized; a couple of them take really surprising dark turns, which fits the characters and plots, even if it doesn’t seem to fit the book. But it was an interesting choice, because you have what seems a parody, a caricature of human beings, who get into absurd situations – and then, for some of them at least, you have a fairly serious result, one which follows logically from the story’s events; but I didn’t think we were speaking logically.

The humorous stories are in two sets, one a trio of stories recounted to us by the Old Soak, an elderly gentleman who tells us stories about the strange residents of his small town, particularly the ones who live in a nearby swamp. One of the stories, the title one about the turtles singing (which is actually a quote from the Bible), has a mixed-up comic romance worthy of Shakespeare; but another of the Old Soak’s stories tells about a love triangle that might include a murder, as one man dies accidentally while in the presence of the second man. That story might get wacky, except it was much more about the woman’s attempts to become a full and complete version of herself despite the town’s bias against her, as she comes from the swamp and is therefore unclean and unacceptable. Her story is something of a triumph, as she finds a way to go to college and complete the education she had to begin herself, and then travels to Europe, unencumbered by marriage (She does marry both guys, but the second marriage is more open and free companionship than the sort of ownership that would have been common at the time) and child-rearing; all fine and good – except the story ends with her husband going mad with guilt over the death of the first man, and at the end he shoots himself. So, y’know – not funny.

The other funny ones are much funnier: a pair of tall tales told by an Irish father to his two sons; Marquis gives in to the temptation to write in Irish dialect, which isn’t my favorite thing to read, but he does it well and not too excessively. He does it with the Old Soak stories, too, which have a Twain-esque hillbilly style to them, with a number of malapropisms and strange spelling/pronunciations from a Southern American English dialect. More important, he doesn’t rely on the accent for humor: the stories are funny, and the narrator is hilarious, in both cases.

So I enjoyed the book, which was generally light-hearted and well-written. But now I’m sort of stuck: you see, I liked it, but I wasn’t inspired by it, so normally, I’d sell this book back into circulation so someone else could enjoy it. But this copy is actually from 1928, and it’s falling apart; the binding is broken, and the pages are coming loose from the spine. So I can’t sell it, and if I give it away, it will just get trashed. I can’t let Don Marquis get trashed. Not a book about singing turtles, either. I think that this book will get to sit on my shelf, hanging around like the Old Soak, just waiting for someone to sit for a spell and listen to his stories.

I like that.

Book Review: Christopher Moore’s (Alas!) Bad Book

Image result for the griff

The Griff

by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson


I hate this. I hate it!

I love Christopher Moore. He is one of my all-time favorite authors, one of my heroes. I’ve read everything he’s written, and I’ve loved everything he’s written.

Except this.

This is a crappy book.

Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime; there have been some of his books (Island of the Sequined Love Nun, Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove) that I haven’t liked nearly as much as his best works, like Lamb and Fool and Sacre Bleu. It’s reasonable to think that one of them could sink down low enough to actually be unenjoyable. It is not surprising to me that the one that did so was a collaboration, which none of his novels are; and that it was a graphic novel, which is not Moore’s usual medium. I would guess that Moore had little to do with the actual illustrations – which, unless I’m reading the credits in the book wrongly, seem to have been sort of mass-produced? They are all owned by Harper-Collins, and though a half-dozen people are thanked, no one is listed as the actual artist, other than the person who did the cover, Jennyson Rosero – and the illustrations are a fair piece of the problem with this. But really, there isn’t much here that’s good, so I can’t cover Moore on this one. He made a stinker.

All right: details. So this is an apocalypse story. The Griff are, quite literally, monsters from outer space. They are called The Griff because they look something like griffins: four legged beasts with claws, wings, and lizard/dragon like heads with sharp beaks. They arrive in large space ships, much like Independence Day, and immediately fall to wiping out humanity. (Reminded me of Footfall, if any of you are as deep into sci-fi nerdery as I am. Also, they seem to be summoned by an accidental signal sent into space by guys who uncover a mysterious artifact from the sea-bottom, which made me think of Star Trek IV. Woo! Nerdiverse!) So far so good: but that’s where the first problem appears. The design of the book is so poor that there are a couple of pages that literally can’t be deciphered; the rapid transitions between scenes of slaughter and ineffective human resistance to the invasion are just a jumbled mess. But that doesn’t really matter, because the majority of this story is about the survivors of the initial onslaught.

Which is where the larger problems come in.

First, the character development and much of the plot leans heavily on people being comic book hot, and endlessly horny. Now, Moore uses a lot of humor around sex; but this isn’t funny, this is just lame. The two female characters are in absurdly revealing outfits – one woman wears a wetsuit for the entire story, which seems to be the only reason she is a trainer at SeaWorld – and the male characters do nothing but make horndog remarks, which the women shoot down. Then the one woman – not the one in the wetsuit, the one with absurdly large breasts in a skin-tight spaghetti-strap crop-top, which is generally what one wears as the world ends – has a ridiculous sexualized response to finding a BFG, a Big Fucking Gun, with which she’s gonna go Griff-hunting. Because that woman is a gamer, a master programmer and a genius; therefore, somehow, she is capable of using an actual .50-caliber military rifle, since she’s used them in video games. Suuuuuure. I mean, she’s played all the video games, even created some of them, so she’s badass, right? But hey, none of that matters: what matters is that she’s hot. And, as the book goes on, horny. Her character is mostly depicted as a pinup. Who does finally sleep with the goofy nerd horndog who’s been coming on to her, because comics are all about nerd wish fulfillment.

Image result for the griff graphic novel

Then, at the end of the story, though there is a good twist regarding the Griff, it turns out that the Griff are the minions of – the little gray men. Yes, them. Scrawny bodies, large heads, huge featureless black eyes. Them. Just like every other alien story for the last 20 goddamn years. And the humans finally win, because that’s what humans do: we fight, and we kill, and we win. WOO! USA! USA! I mean – Earth! Earth! Earth!

Anyway. Characters are lame, design is poor, the art is too CGI-crisp for my taste (though to each their own) and the climax and ending of the plot were cliché and anti-climactic and annoying.

I hate that Christopher Moore wrote this, but not that much; everyone throws out a pile of crud every once in a while. Much more than that, I hated this book. Do not recommend.

Book Review: Redwall Book — is it #6?

Image result for Salamandastron


by Brian Jacques

(*Note: it’s #5, actually.)


Now this is a good Redwall book.

There are some things that come close to my complaints in the past: the books in this series, while all well-written and sweet and fun, have tended towards a formula, to the detriment of a couple of the installments. And there are pieces here that are also part of the formula, to wit: a young male member of the Redwall community finds the sword of Martin the Warrior (How the hell could these people lose a sword this many times? I mean, come on! Every book they find that dang sword! Somebody needs to give these guys a pad of sticky notes.); a hare of the Long Patrol who can eat more than three other animals combined; the vermin army that attacks is led by a vicious evil beastie who rules them with fear and violence; said vermin army (spoiler – but not really) is defeated in the end; there are cute baby animals and playful pranksterish adolescent animals and kindly but staid elderly animals; and there’s a lot of food.

Goddamn, there’s a lot of food in these books. It’s like their one way to celebrate both their general happiness in life and also their victories over their enemies: some massive feast, with detailed descriptions of the dishes and the animals eating as much as they can.

But in this book, Jacques was able to add enough newness that the familiar elements felt familiar, rather than stale. Like the animal who finds and wields the sword (A squirrel this time, named Samkim) is not really the big hero: he does some good things, but mainly, he loses the sword and spends most of the book trying to chase it down; a different creature is actually the one who saves the day. While the vermin army was familiar, it doesn’t actually attack Redwall, and so there wasn’t the usual depiction of a siege. There was a siege, but it had an entirely different character because it takes place at the hollow volcano stronghold of the Badger lords and the hare Long Patrol: Salamandastron. And it is the badger lords who save the day. Also, the cute baby animal goes out on a quest, as do the pranksterish adolescents; this made both familiar character types more sympathetic, and minimized their cuteness and pranksterishness, which I really liked. This book had more to do with the badgers of Salamandastron, and also the shrews of the GUOSSIM (“Logalogalog!” has to be one of the best battle cries I’ve ever known. Along with the Tick’s immortal “SPOOOOOOON!”), than it had to do with Redwall itself, though Redwall is still a prominent part of the story; so this one felt like it expanded the world, rather than walked the same old paths.

There was also, though I don’t want to spoil the story any more than I already have (Come on, you knew the bad guys weren’t going to win. This is a children’s fantasy series. No way the bad guys actually win.), some real tension and suspense: because there is death in this book, and it isn’t just minor characters. The battle for Salamandastron has casualties on both sides, and indeed, goes against the badgers in several ways, for much of the book; creatures that seem set up to play major roles end up dying; there is a sad but realistic depiction of a serious contagious disease, and the way such a thing could rip through a community during the medieval times that these books are essentially set in. It meant that when some characters that I liked managed to survive, I was genuinely happy, because I knew there was a real chance they might not, so it was a victory when they did.

Other fantasy authors, take note. Except for you, George R. R. Martin. You already know more than enough about killing off your own characters.

This was a really good book, one of the best so far. Looking forward to more.

Book Review: The Metaphysical Club

Image result for the metaphysical club

The Metaphysical Club

by Louis Menand

I’m not smart enough for this book.

But I want to be, and I think that means I have to keep trying to read books like this, and think about what they say while I’m reading them.

So this book traces the influence of four American intellectuals on the general mindset of the United States. The four are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Supreme Court Justice; William James, philosopher and psychologist (And older brother of the writer Henry James); Charles S. Peirce, whom nobody has heard of but was an influential thinker and writer; and John Dewey, the philosopher who had more influence on American education than anyone else. The wonderful thing about the book is that the sheer volume of information is staggering, and yet it is told in a generally simple and straightforward narrative style, well-written, and with a deft human touch; Menand delves into the men’s youth, their childhoods and upbringings, their parents, particularly their fathers, and the influence those men had on these four men, and builds a fuller picture than I have seen in most histories – and he does it for all four of them, while also pursuing a history of a set of ideas. So for instance, we read about Charles S. Peirce, whose father, Benjamin Peirce, was a mathematician, author, and Harvard professor; we see how the elder Peirce’s ideas reflected and interwove with the dominant ideas of the time – since the book focuses on men who came of age in America in the second half of the 19th century, the most important event was the Civil War and the most important idea Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection – and how his father’s ideas influenced Charles’s thinking, and how Charles’s thinking was affected by Darwin and by the Civil War; and then lastly, how Charles’s thought influenced and was influenced by the thought of the other three men. Along with the philosophy of Emerson and Kant and Hegel and umpteen other pieces that go into an exploration of a whole set of ideas.

It’s a complicated web. That’s why I’m not smart enough: because I knew none of this, knew nothing about these men – had never heard of two of them, and could never remember whether Holmes Jr. or Sr. was the jurist – I could not keep all of the facts and names and such straight. By the end of the book I was having to look back to the beginning of the book to remember who people were; this was made easier by the extensive index in the back, but still, that’s not my favorite way to read. And while I enjoyed the book, it was hard enough to get through that I don’t want to read it again, which is obviously the best way to handle this much information.

But: while the book is a history of four important men (The details of whose lives, while interesting, are not things I really need to retain), it is more an exploration of a set of ideas. And those, I found fascinating, and do want to spend more time thinking about. The basic ideas that stuck with me, after this first reading and without doing more research and thought (I just finished the book fifteen minutes ago), are: truth is socially constructed. We don’t know if what we know corresponds in any way to an external reality, but we can know if it corresponds with what other people know – which, unless we are born with certain ideas already implanted in our brains and our DNA, is the only way we can learn anything. Identity also may be socially constructed, meaning that we only learn who we are in relation to who other people are, and thus who we are not. Conflict is always and only the result of a misunderstanding, which, depending on how optimistic one is, may naturally get worked out on the way to a common understanding. There are no rules that can be formulated that can trump the specific context of an individual case (though I’m probably misstating or overstating that one), meaning that the historicity and specific application of an idea are necessary parts of understanding it.

That’s where this book really shines. Because Menand gives context. To everything. Everything he talks about is grounded in the specific events of the day and of these men’s lives. He has a wonderful habit, too, of giving brief synopses of the end of the story; Charles Peirce divorced his first wife as part of a large scandal in the late 1800’s that cost him his academic career, and before this book is over, we know not only what happened to Charles afterwards, but also what happened to both his first wife and the woman he left her for. It’s great. Even somewhat minor characters, people that move quickly in and out of the lives of the four main subjects, get parenthetical descriptions, like, “Joe Smith (who would go on to international fame as the Ambassador-at-large for chickens), had an encounter that struck our hero in an interesting way.” That was my favorite part of the book as history.

My favorite part of the book as philosophy and thought-provocation? I’ll let you know when I’m done thinking about it.