Archive for the Books Category

Geography of Madness: Book Club Edition

Posted in Books, Culture, Geography of Madness on April 24, 2017 by frankbures

GoMmech.inddIf you’re considering The Geography of Madness for your book club, please feel free to contact me, and to use the questions below for your discussion.

Book Club Discussion Questions:

1) One main themes of The Geography of Madness is that stories (about the world, about our lives, about our bodies) are contagious. Can you think of a story, or an experience, that changed what you believed was possible?

2) Do you believe the brain and the mind are the same thing? If not, what is the difference?

3) The stories in The Geography of Madness raise the question of free will: How much do you choose the life you live? How much do you learn (or catch) you life choices from those around you?

4) Have you ever found yourself immersed in a situation where you did not know the rules? What was that like?

5) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that our mindset and our expectations have biological consequences. Does that resemble your experience? If so, how?
[Further reading: On the Body as Machine.]

6) Try to imagine living in a world where it was possible to have your genitals stolen, either by magic or by ghosts. How would you protect yourself?

7) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that a strong sense of self—of your story— can help to activate your endogenous (internal) healing systems and vice versa. Do you remember a time when a stressful or difficult period seemed to be followed by a health problem or sickness?
[Further reading: Writing the Self]

8) In The Geography of Madness, did anyone’s genital actually disappear? If not, what happened? Does it matter?

9) Is there a belief that everyone around you holds, but that you don’t share? How did you come to doubt this?

10) The Handbook of Depression points to a genetic marker associated with greater vulnerability to depression. Yet this link only holds true in Western cultures. Why would that be?

11) Have you ever had a health problem you were afraid to talk about, or that others didn’t believe in?

12) In The Geography of Madness, the author argues that cultural syndromes are “real” syndromes, but that their causes might not lie where we think they do. Do you think they are “real” or “imaginary”?

13) Over the last few years, gluten intolerance has been rising. This rise occurs at a time of increasing anxiety about the relationship between food, health and identity. What’s changed: our bodies or our culture?

14) After reading The Geography of Madness, how would you describe what culture is?

15) How much does a your culture create you? How much do you create your culture?

16) Have you ever had a cultural syndrome?

Q&A with David Grann

Posted in America, Books, Clips, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing on April 21, 2017 by frankbures

grann-bookFrom Nieman Storyboard:

David Grann had never heard of the “Osage Murders” until a historian he was talking to mentioned the series of mysterious deaths among members of the wealthy Osage tribe in early 20th century Oklahoma.

When I learned about these crimes several years ago, I was shocked that, like so many Americans, I had never learned about them in school or read about them in books.
Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker and something of a history writer himself, couldn’t believe that the sinister campaign targeting the oil beneath the Osage reservation land was so little known.  So he started looking into the killings.

There wasn’t much online. No one seemed to have told the victims’ story in a comprehensive way, even though, as Grann puts it, the campaign was “one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.

Read the rest here.

Brand You: Questioning Self-Promotion

Posted in America, Art, Books, Clips, Culture, Writers, Writing on April 4, 2017 by frankbures

jf16_coverFrom last year in Poets & Writers, now online:

It should be said that writers have always been keen self-promoters, as Tony Perrottet pointed out in a New York Times article: In 440 BCE, Herodotus shilled his Histories to wealthy patrons at the Olympics. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant flew a hot-air balloon featuring the name of his latest short story. Walt Whitman wrote anonymous reviews of his work, declaring, “An American bard at last!”

But at the end of the twentieth century something changed, something deep. In an influential article titled “The Brand Called You,” published by Fast Company in 1997, Tom Peters admonished not just corporations, not just celebrities, but everyone to think of themselves as a brand, to promote themselves as a brand, and to see life and work as an endless branding opportunity.

This has come to pass. Today, it’s accepted that anyone with a pulse and a keyboard can and should promote anything that comes to mind. As a result, most of us are drowning in a promotional tsunami. It can feel like a crushing weight, like social media has become a giant pyramid scheme in which we are all selling some idea of ourselves, even as we struggle to believe our own marketing.

Read the rest here.

On Rimbaud’s Trail

Posted in Africa, Books, Geography of Madness, Travel, Uncategorized, Writers on July 19, 2016 by frankbures

From Longitude Books:

One of the places I remember most clearly (and fondly) is Obock, Djibouti, a town on the edge of the Red Sea where I traveled several years ago for a story for Nowhere Magazine. Obock is hot and miserable and there is nothing to do. At night thousands of migrants stream through the area on their way from Ethiopia and Somalia to the Middle East where they hope to find work. When I got there I found that the hotel the tourism office in the capital recommended had closed long ago. On my first day I was harassed by the local police for being there.

What I remember best, though, was how refreshing it was to be so uncatered to, so far from everything. It didn’t matter to anyone (except a few curious folks) whether I was there or not. This must have been something like was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud felt when he first arrived there in the mid-1880s to escape his former life and become an arms dealer: It was like the whole world could slip away.

Read the rest hereIMGP3480.JPG.

Empty Tombs: A Q&A with Tom Bissell

Posted in Books, Clips, Travel, Travel Writers, Writers on March 29, 2016 by frankbures

apostle-cover_250From MinnPost:

For five years, writer Tom Bissell worked on a novel about the Apostle John, before he resigned himself to the fact that his “half historical, half contemporary” account was not going to work.

He set it aside, but one fact stuck in his mind: John’s tomb was located in Turkey and was supposedly empty — the only remains of the Twelve Apostles unaccounted for. Later while he was serving in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan he heard rumors that Matthew’s remains were in nearby Kyrgyzstan. Where were the others?

From this question grew the idea for a travel book on the Apostolic tombs, and for the next few years Bissell traveled through Jerusalem, Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, Spain India, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan as a sort of doubting pilgrim who wanted to “explore the legendary encrustation upon twelve lives about which little else is known and even less can be historically verified.”

Read the rest here.

The End of the World as We Know It

Posted in America, Art, Books, Clips, Culture, Science, Uncategorized on February 24, 2016 by frankbures

imagesConsensus is growing that we have entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene. As it does, so does anxiety about our fate as a species. This was the subject of a recent piece I did for Aeon on our love of apocalyptic fiction, film and stories. We fear the end might be near, but we also fear we are part of something from which we have no way to extricate ourselves. If you feel this too, read on.

One day in the early 1980s, I was flipping through the TV channels, when I stopped at a news report. The announcer was grey-haired. His tone was urgent. His pronouncement was dire: between the war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, AIDS in the cities, and communists in Afghanistan, it was clear that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were upon us. The end had come.

We were Methodists and I’d never heard this sort of prediction. But to my grade-school mind, the evidence seemed ironclad, the case closed. I looked out the window and could hear the drumming Hugh-Howey-WOOL-COVERof hoof beats.

Life went on, however, and those particular horsemen went out to pasture. In time, others broke loose, only to slow their stride as well. Sometimes, the end seemed near. Others it would recede. But over the years, I began to see it wasn’t the end that was close. It was our dread of it. The apocalypse wasn’t coming: it was always with us. It arrived in a stampede of our fears, be they nuclear or biological, religious or technological.

Read the rest here.

Live Well, Die Fast

Posted in America, Books, Culture, Geography of Madness, Science on January 22, 2016 by frankbures

1215_CoverThe business of longevity is massive in America—land of perpetual youth. One of its most ardent boosters is Dan Buettner, who has created a minor industry around the so-called “Blue Zones,” where people are reported to live extra-long lives. Most of his advice qualifies as common sense: Eat plants, exercise, be part of a community. I don’t have any problem with most of this. In fact, I do most of it.

What I do have a problem with is the way the Blue Zones capitalizes our refusal to accept death as part of life. And even if we allow that some Blue Zones exist (though many have been debunked), the idea that you should try to replicate those in your own life strikes me as naive and sad and beside the point. The science of longevity is extremely complex. How long you live depends not only on what you eat, but on what you believe—something I write about in my new book, the Geography of Madness. For example, one study found that those with a more positive view of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with a negative one. If that’s true, it means the very people most desperate to stave off the end (the natural market for the Blue Zones) would be the least likely to benefit from such advice.

In any case, if you care, you can read my short critique here.