Musings of a different nature

Thoughts on life and the media we consume as we live.

Recap of Hieroglyph Q&A with Neal Stephenson and friends

hiero book

Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future, released this week, is an anthology which encouraged authors “to contribute works of ‘techno-optimism’ that challenge us to dream and do Big Stuff.”

The entire idea came about when Neal Stephenson gave a talk at the Future Tense conference in early 2011, where he “lamented the decline of the manned space program, then pivoted to energy, indicating the real issue isn’t about rockets. It’s our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff.”

Michael Crow, Arizona State University’s president, heard this lament and suggested to Stephenson that perhaps the problem began with Stephenson himself, and other sci-fi writers like him who weren’t thinking big enough in their ideas. Thus, Ed Finn and his Center for Science and Imagination at ASU stepped in, connecting some serious scientists with those great masters of imagination, science fiction authors.

The culmination of these connections are boggling, vivid, and seriously delightful: a structurally sound twenty-kilometer-high steel tower (that would be really high, for those lacking perspective); cities that function like ecosystems, either through technology built to act as biology or through biological infrastructures; a world where machines have been entirely replaced with living matter; or a psychedelic revolution where we’re tripping out on quantum mechanics rather than any sort of drug.

I had the opportunity to attend a Hieroglyph release event with many of the authors, most notably Neal Stephenson, and both of the editors, at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on September 10th. No better place to talk about science and imagination than in the heart of so much innovation, Silicon Valley, right?

first panel

Hjelmstad, Stephenson, and Finn.

After a quick introduction by Finn, who also edited the book, the first panel featured Stephenson and Keith Hjelmstad. Hjelmstad is a professor of structural engineering at ASU who worked with Stephenson on his idea for the book, the Tall Tower. The idea originally came from an old paper by Jeff Landis, Stephenson said, but he realized quite quickly he needed professional help. He was doing fine until he took wind into account. “99.9% of the problem is wind,” he said, with a very, very high building.

Hjelmstad said the “desire to make it real” drew him to the project–he even had a graduate student e-mail him about a design detail that morning. As the world of engineering is often bogged down with many codes and lawyers, which can kill creativity and innovation, this project offered something different.

Stephenson and Hjelmstad eventually came up with something that “looks like a tower, but flies like a kite,” as it was necessary to harness the wind for stability. This was sort of a new way of looking at a building–an organic idea.

There was a brief Q&A after the Tall Tower talk, in which Stephenson shrugged off a question about Google Glass and Snow Crash very modestly, saying the book’s concepts were around before he wrote about them. He said that he doesn’t think science fiction necessarily invents these ideas, but “creates hypothetical futures with the ideas used in a practical way.”

Someone asked about the Tall Tower’s shadow–“diffuse, gray, delightful.”

Most memorably, someone in the audience began animatedly offering up their own idea for some sort of force-field glove which would propel fireballs, just incredibly off-topic. I was sort of baffled, as we were talking about the Tall Tower, and expecting another question, but Stephenson just rolled with this new idea. He suggested some things to think about related to projecting fireballs, saying he knew some people who did amazing stuff with fire, and to a round of applause, concluded that “any engineering problem can be solved–you just have to figure out your objective and the legal ramifications.”

second panel

Newitz, Anders, Rucker, and Cramer.

The second panel featured Hieroglyph‘s second editor, Kathyrn Cramer, and three contributors: Annalee Newitz of io9 fame; Rudy Rucker, a founder of cyberpunk; and the award-winning Charlie Jane Anders.

Newitz said at one point that the most audacious thing about Hieroglyph is that these stories focus on humanity surviving. I think this is a huge, interesting point, and I tend to agree. There is quite a bit of fatalistic, dystopian fare out there right now. Do we really think we’re that bad?

I hadn’t ever heard of Charlie Jane Anders, but her commentary made me definitely want to check out her work. Also, Rudy Rucker seemed wildly wise, like some sort of buddha in writer’s garb, and I’m excited to read his stuff as well.

thingers with hiero

Optimistic cat is techno-optimistic.

The conversation is ongoing, as Project Hieroglyph itself is designed to be an interactive and open experience–don’t let the book’s pages, with all their permanence, fool you. You can contribute your ideas, and perhaps change the world, or just start changing the world’s story.

Hieroglyph at’


Who was Piper Kerman’s girlfriend?

Since reviewing Piper Kerman’s memoir, I’ve gotten questions about this aspect of the memoir that inspired the Netflix hit series quite a bit. Just who was Piper Kerman’s girlfriend, that heroin-smuggling femme fatale?

laura prepon

Laura Prepon as Alex Vause (via)

In the series, Kerman’s girlfriend Alex Vause is played by the saucy, sexy Laura Prepon. But even Prepon hasn’t met the inspiration for her character. She explained the mystery in an interview with

You didn’t get to meet Alex before or during season one. Is she still MIA?
She is MIA, girl. I do not know where she is. And it’s kind of like … we don’t talk about the real Alex — I don’t know. I did want to meet her, but they were like, “That’s not possible.” So I don’t know where the hell she is.

Were you given any reason why it wasn’t possible?
I wasn’t, actually. Honestly, even though we’re based on the real people, the thing about our show is they really let us do our vision of these women. I know that I look nothing like the real Alex, whereas Taylor, you can see the resemblance between her and the real Piper. But also with Taylor, Jenji was like, “We’re doing your version of Piper. Don’t worry about trying to be Piper Kerman.”

I guess I’m asking less because I want to know how you used the real Alex as inspiration, and more because I feel this need to know where she is. We get the satisfaction of knowing where Piper is now, but not Alex.
I understand, totally. Trust me! But, yeah, that’s just not possible. [Laughs.

Where do you imagine her today? In the scene where Alex and Piper are talking about whether or not you could have a future together, Alex says something like, “I’m good at moving large amounts of heroin.” Is that what she’s doing?
Honestly, whatever she’s doing, she’s definitely in a position of power. Because Alex is a power-hungry girl. She’s all about survival; she loves that whole [drug] world because she was in control of it. Wherever she can be, she wants to be in a position of power — and that’s also her relationship with Piper. We always talked [on set] about how I’m the spider and Piper’s the fly. Like when we were doing the strip scene and I was on the bed and she was dancing for me, we talked a lot about that scene and the director was like, “Listen, you do not go to her — she always comes to you.” But then Alex falls in love with this girl, and Piper really does a number on her, and Alex doesn’t know how to deal with it.

It is important to note that on this part of Kerman’s story, the series has already strayed from the book. Strayed extremely far! In the memoir, Kerman explains that she was kept in the same prison with her ex for only a brief time period after being transferred back to Chicago, as they were both needed to testify at a co-defendants trial.

So what is up with the “real” Alex?

In April, Vanity Fair journalist Sue Carswell tracked down the woman who features so pivotally in Kerman’s story, through newpaper articles about the case. Catherine Cleary Wolters, Kerman’s ex-girlfriend from her memoir, agreed to tell her story to Vanity Fair. Wolters is writing a memoir of her own, cleverly titled Out of Orange.

cleary wolters

Catherine Cleary Wolters, Piper Kerman’s
romantic interest from her memoir. (via)

Although the show’s writers takes huge liberties with Kerman’s original memoir, jailing the two characters together for an extended period of time (which allows them ample opportunity for hook-ups, break-ups, and other such drama), Cleary Wolters also seems to recount the details of their actual love affair differently than they were explained by Kerman in her memoir. In the Vanity Fair piece, she says:

“When we were traveling together I started developing a crush on her. And eventually that turned into a crazy mad love affair,” Wolters says. “But that was after she had already done the deed that made her complicit.”

“We weren’t girlfriends,” Wolters adds for good measure. “We were friends with benefits . . . I was not the older sexy, glamorous lesbian who snatched her from her pristine Smith College cradle.”

For having her private life thrust into the spotlight, Cleary Wolters has flown amazingly under the radar and I can see her memoir being a huge blockbuster, rising up out of nowhere with what sounds to be a much more interesting personal story than Kerman herself.

Amazingly, Cleary Wolters also is an author with three unpublished novels, the Vanity Fair article said. I couldn’t find anymore information online about these books, but if there was ever a time people would be interested in reading them, it certainly seems like that time is now.

You can also read the full article by Sue Carswell, The Real Alex of Orange Is the New Black Speaks for the First Time: “I Was Not Piper’s First, and I Certainly Did Not Seduce Her,” on

A Few Of My Favorite Things

People often ask me about my favorite books. As a reader, I could (and often do) talk for quite a while about what favorite means and why it qualifies a thing as important. When I was younger, stumbling upon an author that forced me to read differently, and then as a result think differently, was a memorable and revelatory experience. I think of the books that have influenced my reading habits in some way as important.

I found refuge in diatribes of feminism during adolescence, reading essays over and over that spoke to me, tearing them out of books. I especially loved the essay “Blood Love“, from Christina Doza, in the book Listen Up. I tore it out of the book and folded it up and still have it today, nested in a box with old letters and pictures and other such memories.

i was amelia earhartOne of the first books I stumbled upon at the Sandy, Utah library which made me think of writing as something I totally understood, something quietly settled through its words despite the tragedy in its story, was the tiny novel I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn, published in 1996. A surreal memoir of Earheart’s fated last flight, it begins: “The sky is flesh. The great blue belly arches up above the water and bends down behind the line of the horizon. It’s a sight that has exhausted its magnificence for me over the years, but now I seem to be seeing it for the first time.” Reading the Goodreads reviews now, I can see the overwriting they describe. But then, all I saw was a quiet unreality so clearly created I could melt into, losing myself completely to the story of a desperate Amelia and her alcoholic navigator.

bloggerrebeccaIn middle school, the first book I read for a class and truly loved (maybe even truly read all the way through) was Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.

four books squareNow, I have a handful of books that I look to as favorites, most by authors with many books I adore. Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled is haunting and distant, like trying to read a book as it bends down a dark hallway away from you. The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert tells what appears to be the saddest, simplest story, with ends that begin to unravel as you flip the pages. Walbert writes the style of story I enjoy reading the most, of a seemingly innocent narrator relaying an enchanting past, details blurring and fading as the tale continues. Margaret Atwood is a master of this style as well, with both The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake illustrating the dangers and oddities of memory, as narrators enchant themselves more than their readers while relaying their histories. A.M. Homes‘s This Book Will Save Your Life puts the brakes on life’s cruise control as its main character begins to connect with the people he sees every day. In Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, the wreckage of the tech age is a teenage sex offender.

by bloodFinally, Ellen Ullman‘s By Blood is all the right things–slightly insane and drawing the reader into that insanity, bursting with what seems like too much story in incredibly contrived situations that just might be believable, exploring worlds within worlds of heartbreak and loss. Any book exploring San Francisco’s darker moods is a book after my own heart. This one does so beautifully, as its narrator rides the empty N-Judah line through the fog and towards the wind and chill of Ocean Beach.

But for me, there’s always one book that is undoubtedly my favorite, which stands above the rest. What is it, you ask? More on that this weekend…

Review – Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

nickel and dimed cover


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is wealthy and successful journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich‘s experiment on living and working at the poverty level, seeking minimum wage jobs around the country and the housing she could afford based on her pay.

Ehrenreich’s ability to persuade was proven most memorable in the last chapter, where she takes off her minimum-wage job mask and allows herself the freedom to write a fiery, elegant critique of the American economy as that well-studied woman she is. I think the problem with fish-out-of-water journalism is that it focuses on the journalist’s experience, which by definition must be naively awkward: Ehrenreich is surprised managers are able to search her purse, and she goes into a staff meeting at a diner expecting discussion of marketing plans rather the usual rote rules and regulations. Take a fish out of water, it will flop and it will flail at every turn. Although Ehrenreich is an activist of all kinds, with a rich history of working towards social change, it is clear from some of her astonishment she has worked with quite a bit of autonomy for a long time now. This seems to me to almost diminish the experience of those who work around her, who have grown up working in retail and service industries, and know exactly what to expect, but still can’t make it. I would have much rather read a book where the eloquent Ehrenreich told one or two of their stories in detail, with her unadorned, jarring yet insightful commentary and research added along the way.

Her insights about low-paying, repetitive work and the things it does to your mind were so right on, these sorts of bizarre changes to your behavior and thought patterns. At one point, she says menial labor results in a type of “tunnel vision”:

“Work fills the landscape; coworkers swell to the size of family members or serious foes. Slights loom large, and a reprimand can reverberate into the night. If I make some vacuuming error, which I do often enough, I can expect to spend part of my evening reviewing it and rebutting the reprimand. . . “

Although not a minimum wage worker, this has certainly this has always been my work experience in the customer service and retail industries, and the experience of coworkers around me who obsess about mistakes and fear repercussions for slight infractions . Many years after working at a call center, I still have bizarre dreams of the queue of calls waiting to be answered, or of trying to stay away at my desk early in the morning, jerked awake by yet another ringing phone.

The chapter on working at Walmart was especially relatable for anyone who has worked retail, as Ehrenreich describes the bizarre animosity which develops between staff (who spend all day folding, straightening, organizing) and customers (who spend all day tossing beautifully arranged items about, picking them up with grubby fingers, allowing teething children to gnaw on merchandise as casually as they would a snack). Working in retail, there always seems to come a point of modern showdown: staff standing behind register, glaring at a customer who enters their store or area late in the day, daring them to touch any of the perfectly arranged, elegantly hung, exactly stacked merchandise. Your sense of reality goes, day in and day out, straightening the same area over and over again. Ehrenreich begins to feel this late in the day, as she tires of putting away go-backs in the Walmart women’s section:

“I cannot ignore the fact that it’s the customers’ sloppiness and idle whims that make me bend and crouch and run. They are the shoppers, I am the antishopper, whose goal is to make it look as if they’d never been in the store.”

At one point she comments that she relates to the clothes more than the customers, and feels protective of the space. All this, yes, is exactly my experience when working in retail. She has such a knack for perception, working in that environment such a short time but being able to describe the experience so exactly.

The glimpse into Walmart itself was terrifying to me, much more than Ehrenreich’s struggle to make it at a restaurant chain or housekeeping service. Although the cruelty of the home-dwellers towards the cleaners is cringe-inducing, to the point that I wished Ehrenreich would have revealed herself as a journalist and asked these people what they were thinking in acting in such a way, the true villain in Ehrenreich’s book is the corporation, and the supervisors loyal to it, all getting rich off the back-breaking work of people not able to afford more than a bag of chips for lunch or allowed to sit down when their feet ache. I knew Walmart was bad, I live in the Bay Area and its impossible not to absorb that sort of information just by breathing the air here, but I didn’t know how bad. After reading Ehrenreich’s experience at Walmart (no discussion of pay before orientation, and anti-union talk in orientation, especially), I knew I had to learn more.

I watched the 2005 documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price, which acted as a nice addition to Nickel and Dimed. It featured ex-Walmart managers explaining the corporation’s extreme union-busting activities: flying in a specialist team by private jet to take over the store and install monitoring equipment at the first mention of the word ‘union’ by the staff. Clearly I’m a bit behind on learning about this stuff, but I can’t help but feel its good to know just the same.

Then the Walmart documentary reminded me of the “Who Is Dependent on Welfare” video which floating around the internet, which explains not only the concepts Ehrenreich wrote about in this book but also mentions the issue as it relates to Walmart specifically.

Reading this also made me think of There are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz, one of the most effective works of investigative journalism I’ve ever read. Kotlowitz, rather than focusing on his experience, documented the life of two boys living in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes in the early nineties. More than reading about a privileged white man playing a game of trying to make ends meet and seeing if it can be done, Kotlowitz documented the sheer horror of day-to-day life for these two little people, each with their own shining little personalities being painfully shut down by constant violence and poverty, at Henry Horner Homes. And Ehrenreich touched on this here, but I would have loved for her to go so much further–I wish she would have offered to give these people a bit more of a voice. When Ehrenreich insists the poor are living in a state of emergency moment to moment, it seems like a much more fair solution to be witness to their struggle and offer them a voice and a platform for their actual crisis, rather than imitating or experience with that same crisis as an experiment.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich on

There are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz on

Happy California Bookstore Day!

Saturday, May 3rd is California Bookstore Day (CBD). This is the day all of us Californians tip our hats to the indie bookstores we love, celebrating their existence as stack-laden and sometimes mildly claustrophobic utopias of browsing, where we can still quietly lose track of time as we peruse in search of the answer to that never-ending question, “Where is my next favorite book hiding?”

What would a celebration of bookstores be without some special books and book-like materials published specifically for these underdogs of the free market? One of the greatest aspects of CA Bookstore Day, aside from (duh) bookstore love, are the unique offerings created by authors and artists exclusively for participating indie bookstores. For once, this stuff won’t be cheaper on Amazon.

This year, the pickings are awesome. They include a $20 special edition of Congratulations, By the Way, an expansion of George Saunders’s convocation speech to Syracuse University. These will be signed, numbered, and doodled upon (?) by the author.

Saunders cover

A literary map of California will be available for $40, created especially for CBD.

3 Fish Studios Bookseller copy

Perhaps the most seriously awesome of the items available will be a wooden stencil with a quote taken from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, “California deserves whatever it gets.”

2-21 AG Book Stencil WOOD 2

Here is the whole quote for inquiring minds, from page 66 of DeLillo’s White Noise:

This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.

Although the stencil and its homage to DeLillo is seriously amazing, leave it to the mad hatters of publishing over at McSweeney’s to come up with a beautifully designed concept book so awesome it (literally) tops all other offerings. The publisher created a 2-foot-tall, free-standing, accordion-style book for CBD. In this work of art (which includes a hidden foldout illustration of California landscape), called Bookstories, McSweeney’s poets and authors (Californians, of course) “explore through short pieces the best bookstore they know of that doesn’t exist.”


I’m waiting for McSweeney’s to release an wearable book, or maybe an edible one. There’s always next year…

Visit to get all the details, including which bookstores are participating.

And if you don’t live in California, be glad you don’t have to worry about your state falling into the ocean in an earthquake! Just kidding… Maybe your state has something similar to CA Bookstore Day? If not, maybe you are just the person to start this celebration of those little special places that sell books. Maybe this event needs to go national!


Homer’s Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, with engravings by Thomas Piroli from the compositions of John Flaxman, sculptor. Rome, 1793.

Homer’s Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, with engravings by Thomas Piroli from the compositions of John Flaxman, sculptor. Rome, 1793. via

xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer

xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer

At an old, slow, snail’s pace, I am reading xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Although I am tempted to say Bernheimer is a leader of the modern fairy tale and myth renaissance, I think this would be misleading, as fairy tales and myths resonate throughout our lives like wallpaper lining the rooms of all the stories we create and live through today. No renaissance is needed for something that never left us in the first place. Reading xo Orpheus is like reading myths with 3D glasses on, taking a fresh look at something already intimate and close. Like the best books, it gives me cultural pause and reminds me how often I forget the limits assumed within traditional storytelling.

No book of myths retold would be complete without maybe the most timeless and revisited of all myths, that of The Odyssey. Not only do several stories take on Odysseus, but one also gives voice to his dog, the faithful Argos. xo Orpheus‘s exploration of The Odyssey made me think of the other stellar reinterpretations of that myth:

    • The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood. It may be a requirement, if you are a young woman alive today, to be in love with everything Margaret Atwood. One more reason for my devout membership to the church of Atwood is her beautiful parallel novel to The Odyssey, which gives Penelope her own voice. Penelope tells us of Odysseus’s drinking problem, his tendency to tell tall tales about his adventures, and her own limited opportunities in life (“And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold.”)  Atwood’s version of the story reminds us how much of Penelope is left out of Homer’s tale.
The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad,
by Margaret Atwood

    • The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich. My expectations for The Suitors weren’t very high, but I fell in love with it right away. It reminded me of both Chris Adrian’s The Great Night and, oddly enough, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books. Ehrenreich doesn’t spend time explaining logistics, instead he draws up ruthless and modern images of Odysseus (aptly renamed Payne) and Penelope (Penny) which make the story all the more relatable, stark, and scary. Ehrenreich is an uninhibited writer, and the book blasts passed its deeply meditative bits (“The wisdom of the streets holds here too: everybody’s got a hustle, even fog. And love’s a hustle like any other grift.”) not pausing for contemplation before Penny throws a tantrum or Payne wants to fight something. The power lies in the story’s inability to pause and question the insanity of the world Ehrenreich writes it into, part timeless utopia and part hipster wasteland.
The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich

The Suitors,
by Ben Ehrenreich

Finally, The Boston Review posted a beautiful poem by Dan Chelotti on their website yesterday, “Odysseus Amongst the Swine Glances Towards Ithaca”, in celebration of April as National Poetry Month. Happy Reading!

On Knox – The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh

knox cover 2_Fotor

Falling into the rabbit hole of media spectacle swirled with true crime drama that creates the Amanda Knox story is easy. Like Dorothy being swept up from Kansas and crashing down into Oz, Knox seems caught in a perfect storm of good looks and incomprehensible behavior that, when thrown to overzealous and conspiracy-seeking police and press, can be just as inescapable as any fairy tale.

I read Knox’s own memoir, Waiting to Be Heard, shortly after it was released in April of last year. Like so many others fascinated by the case, I was eager to hear Knox’s own recounting of events. When Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were found guilty of Meredith Kercher’s murder for the second time at the end of January, I researched other books on the whole debacle and decided on Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.

Burleigh’s book interested me, amongst all the others, as it addressed the petri dish which grew the police and media attention on Knox. I knew there was a man convicted of Kercher’s murder that no one seemed interested in. I knew Knox’s sexuality brought up as a piece of evidence used to indicate her guilt. I saw the list of sexist, appearance-based names Knox was called by the press.

Burleigh spends much time exploring the circumstances in which this perfect storm was created. She explains Perugia in detail: as an ancient city, “creative people who find themselves there today complain that the city retains a feudal mind-set that resists creativity and change.” In recent years Perugia has become a pit stop on organized crime trading routes, where prostitutes are trained before being moved along to larger cities. The headlines scream of crimes contradicting the laid-back and party-fueled college town atmosphere. The city’s beauty, Burleigh says, can be deceiving.

The Fatal Gift of Beauty also introduces another concept I wasn’t aware of, the idea of “cronaca nera” or a black chronicle. Burleigh explains that while murder is common in Italy, “a cronaca nera possesses an element of the macabre, diabolical, or obscene that journalists instantly recognize.” Of course it isn’t just Italians that are intrigued by this type of crime. Media in America pander to the white, beautiful girl.

Our first lesson should be to acknowledge and try to understand why we are so much more interested— obsessed even— with the occasional allegedly evil female and so bored with the much more common, and therefore more lethal, sexually aggressive, domestically violent male. When was the last time we saw a garden-variety wife- or girlfriend-beater or violent rapist perp-walked through one news cycle, let alone hundreds? -Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox

Rudy Guede's mugshot via

Rudy Guede’s mugshot (via)

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Kercher murder media coverage, the buzz and chatter surrounding the beautiful white Amanda Knox, is the lack of equal coverage of Rudy Guede. Whenever the case comes up in discussion with those around me, I find myself explaining the basic facts to someone who is unaware a man is in prison for the murder of Meredith Kercher. I think (hope) this has changed now as more articles are released, and more people read Knox’s own memoir. Rudy Guede, for those who don’t know, was without a doubt involved in the crime. Physical evidence concludes that. His handprint was on a pillow under Kercher’s body, his DNA was on Kercher’s purse and in her body, and his bloody footprints (police originally claimed these were Sollecito’s) stepped through the crime scene.

Katie Crouch, who is writing a novel based on the events of Kercher’s murder, said in a Salon article, “It is strange, actually, that Knox has the starring role in this drama, as Rudy Guede had the most interesting life of them all.” I certainly agree. Why does the media insist on discussing the fairly unremarkable Knox, when a fascinating (black, male) character much more deserving of attention is kept at the sidelines.

Guede was born on the Ivory Coast, in Africa, to a polygamous, Christian father. Roger Guede was a bright guy with hopes of attaining a degree in mathematics, forced to give up his dream and work as a mason once he and his son immigrated to Italy. Rudy Guede was neglected from a young age, and his teacher, in The Fatal Gift of Beauty, remembers Rudy wandering the streets as a child. Teachers and neighbors would come together to feed Guede dinner. As a teenager, Guede was brought into a wealthy family, only to be kicked out of the family as his behavior became more erratic. He continued his wandering into adulthood, begging to sleep at friends’ homes or sleepwalking into stranger’s homes or businesses, eating their food and using their bathrooms. Despite all the evidence linking him to the scene and the somewhat bizarre aspect of his sleepwalking (what if this was a sleep-murder?), it is Knox the press wants.

Amanda Knox (via)

Amanda Knox (via)

People built myths around feminine beauty before they learned the written word. Helen and her beauty are at the center of the fall of Troy in The Iliad. Making appearance the focal point of any story, however, is like trying to summarize what is written in a book by glancing at its cover. We know very little of Helen’s actual character, other than the uproar raised by the men surrounding her. Helen of Troy is a contradictory figure in many ancient accounts, maybe sad and lonely, maybe nefarious and mocking men in the Trojan horse. All we know for sure is that she had a pretty face.

Knox, like Helen, was little in the press (definitely at first, now she is able to speak for herself) but her appearance, her supposed sexual activities, her inappropriate kisses and yoga poses. Knox behaved inappropriately, failing to properly emote over the death of her roommate and causing some serious cultural misunderstanding. Burleigh explains:

Americans traveling abroad must learn and respect other national norms and points of view. . . . Neither Knox’s parents nor she had the foggiest idea that her athleticism, sexuality, extroversion, naiveté, stoicism in the face of tragedy, and lack of gravitas would doom her in the eyes of Italians, whose young women are not athletic, who grieve openly, and who comport themselves with great formality— who dress and speak and act within a code of conduct that is far different from what passes for the same in Seattle or, for that matter, most American cities.-Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox

Italian police and press vilified Knox for her odd behaviors and lack of proper emotional display after the death of Kercher, her roommate. I sympathize with this, as I know so many young women who smile when they are nervous or fear they might cry. In uncomfortable situations, I tend to laugh.

In The Fatal Gift of Beauty, Knox describes herself as someone who loves to smile at strangers on the bus, trying to make them smile back at her. This can seem charming, but it also possibly could be some sort of nervous affectation. So much of the trouble Knox got in with the police stemmed from trying to anticipate the needs of those around her, with a dangerously naive lack of understanding of what was truly at risk. While her Italian roommate’s lawyer was at their home almost immediately after the murder, Knox didn’t think to imitate this behavior. Certainly, a girl who wants nothing more than to see those around her smile is at the most risk for giving a false confession when placed in a room with police officers who want nothing more than an admittance of some sort.

The most important lesson to take away from the case is that all authorities in any country where the rule of law is paramount, all police and prosecutors, should remember that it is far, far better to admit error and pursue due diligence in investigations than to force facts to fit theories that defy logic and, ultimately, derail justice.-Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox

Burleigh, most alarmingly, spent time detailing the history of Giuliano Mignini, Perugia’s town magistrate. A man admittedly obsessed with conspiracy theories, he told Burleigh, ““Why do they call it a conspiracy theory?” he asked. “What does ‘conspiracy theory’ mean? How can you call a conspiracy theory the fact that more than one person did a crime together? Why are they called conspiracy theories? Caesar was killed by twenty senators, is that a conspiracy theory? It’s normal that people work together.” A man who cites the epic conspiracy of Caesar’s men to assassinate him as an example of normal human behavior should be cause for concern right away. At one time working closely with a psychic, Mignini developed a theory for a string of unsolved murders involving masons and satanic rites. Investigating this theory eventually led him to an abuse of office charge in 2010. This was the man investigating Kercher’s murder–a man not interested in looking at facts, but seeking to connect dots. He was interested in Knox’s behavior of hitting her head when trying to think during interrogation, because masons hit their foreheads in their rites.

The spectacle surrounding Knox has caused the police to lose sight of justice and, in their struggle to capture Knox, let the real killer practically go free. Guede is now able to leave prison to study. Guede, who has changed his story regarding the whereabouts of Knox and Sollecito during the crime multiple times, seems to be benefitting most from the police interest in Knox and Sollecito. Originally sentenced to thirty years, his sentence has now been reduced to sixteen years; this sentence is less than both Knox and Sollecito received at their most recent retrial. This is despite the fact that Guede is the only one involved with physical evidence linking him to the scene.

The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh on

Related Links:

  • Amanda Knox and Italy’s ‘Carnivalesque’ Justice System
  • Amanda Knox, what really happened: Writing toward the actual story
  • Injustice in Perugia site
  • On falling for Donna

    “I started off loving the bird, the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended up loving the way he was painted.”

    Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (p. 26)

    Right now I’m reading The Goldfinch, and I’m so in love with Donna Tartt’s writing. Her dialogue, especially, just gets right down into me as something very true or very idealistically true of what people could say if they were bright and fascinating or ignorant and horrifying. I’m not sure why I didn’t really get into Donna Tartt’s work sooner. The name was always around, but there are so many good books out there and my to-read list is 300+ books long.

    I actually readThe Little Friend a few years ago, and it baffled me. I understood it was great writing, but I went into it thinking there would be something more there, from the hype surrounding Tartt as an author. I had been so excited to settle in with what I thought would be an engrossing, intense, heavy, good book that the experience left me somewhat turned off to reading more of her stuff.

    Recently, I had one of those amazing experiences where you are out to coffee with friends, someone new is there, and you realize they are an avid reader like yourself. When I confessed my love for mysteries, this fellow book lover suggested Tartt’s The Secret History as an excellent mystery-type book to check out.

    And that suggestion got me to where I am, totally into Tartt. I listened to The Secret History on audiobook, what seemed to me to be a masterpiece narrated by the author. If you haven’t read The Secret History, now is the time. Small private college ideals of intellectualism go horribly awry, and the unfolding narrative account of what exactly went wrong amidst a studious group of Greek students manages to be enchanting and horrifying like only the best books can be.

    The Goldfinch on

    HBO’s True Detective

    true detective mm focus

    For the true mystery lover, there is only one thing that comes close to snuggling in with a well-written, carefully-plotted, page-turner of a mystery novel: the announcement of a well-written, carefully-crafted new mystery TV series on premium television. HBO’s “True Detective“, which premiered Sunday Jan. 12th to 2.3 million viewers, HBO’s largest audience for a premiere drama series in years, appears to be just that TV series.

    The show stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana State Police, chasing both a serial killer and their own demons across a staggered time frame. McConaughey’s character is odd enough to do a loop around the stereotypically troubled cop in TV shows as of late, and circle back around again to intriguing.

    There are a few things that make “True Detective” unique to most hit TV shows. First, the entire first season, every script, was written by one man. Nic Pizzolatto created, wrote and executive produced every episode. Pizzolatto learned the ropes writing on (the American version of) “The Killing,” and now it is time for him to show the world what he can do on his own. Rather than have a team of writers with a single showrunner to steer them (as the traditional open-ended drama series process is usually written, according to the wonderful book Difficult Men), he wrote each script himself. I think this will be interesting to watch, as it may be an evolution of sorts in a way we think that medium must work. I imagine some people might work better solo, and maybe developing a television series with a single writer will create for a more specific vision than developing it with a team. Pizzolatto wrote one mystery novel, Galveston, published in 2011. Hopefully the popularity of the TV show will help create some more interest in the book, as it has good reviews (the Kindle edition is only $2.99 right now). I added it to my endless list of things to read next.

    The second unique aspect of “True Detective” is that it is an anthology. I wasn’t even sure what this meant for a TV series specifically. I looked it up: each season the cast and storyline will be totally different. The message here is to not get too attached: McConaughey and Harrelson will be gone next season, and Pizzolatto told the New York Times the show might next set its scene in Los Angeles, acknowledging the rich noir history of that city.

    true detective magazines 2

    True Detective magazine, via

    With a name like “True Detective”, an anthology series and homage to noir would make sense. True Detective was also a true crime (some would say pulp) magazine launched by bodybuilding and health enthusiast Bernarr McFadden in 1924. McFadden originally wanted to share his passion about health with the world, and he created Physical Culture magazine in 1899. Physical Culture received letters, and McFadden, like every successful businessman, capitalized on these personal tales. He created the magazine True Story: Truth is Stranger than Fiction in 1923, and a trend was created. From the wildly popular True Story, a confessional magazine, countless others were developed, including True Detective.

    While True Detective was originally a true crime magazine, targeted towards those interested in investigating and attempting to solve murder mysteries at home, fiction also worked its way into the magazine: Dashiell Hammett, author of hard-boiled classic The Maltese Falcon, and Jim Thompson, considered a classic pulp author, both wrote for True Detective.

    As much as we’ve fallen in love with the open-ended story arc, an anthology program certainly has its appeal as well. As with the original True Detective magazine, I wonder if the story surrounding one crime will become less important than the process of investigation surrounding all crimes–there is a sort of process here, and there are those who put that process into action all over the country, continuously. Examining an investigation for a season-long snapshot seems like it may be just as intriguing as examining a single case over several years, which never seems to be as satisfying as we all long for it to be.

    Of course the best mystery shows tend to be character studies, investigating not only criminals but the struggles of those who spend their time chasing bad guys. If there is one thing that is most promising about “True Detective,” it is that Pizzolatto seems to fully realize and embrace this aspect of the crime drama. The show’s promo carries the tagline “Man is the cruelest animal,” and after watching the first few episodes it is unclear who the message is meant to refer to: the killer the police are chasing, or the police themselves.

    Related links:

    Laughter, the best medicine?



    Norman Cousins, a journalist and professor, believed in taking massive doses of Vitamin C and laughing to cure illness. Perhaps more important than either one of those specific treatments, he believed in the power of placebo and each person’s ability to heal their own illnesses. I just finished Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, originally published in 1979 and now considered an important classic of patient involvement in medical care. Cousins documents his own path to healing from his diagnosis of a serious form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis (doctors give him a chance of recovery of 1 in 500): he stops taking his prescribed medications, and he leaves the hospital, which he views as not conducive to his healing. He checks into a hotel, and watches funny movies, laughing bunches. After he laughs, he sleeps. He gets an IV of Vitamin C, a slow drip so his body can absorb the Vitamin C better than if he consumed it all at once. And then he gets better.

    cousins smile

    Norman Cousins, smiling.

    Obviously, there is much debate about Cousins healing himself this way. Many doctors speculate that he has experienced a placebo effect, or perhaps (it is now speculated) a misdiagnosis. Rather than protest the placebo idea, Cousins embraced it. “Many medical scholars believed that the history of medicine is actually the history of the placebo effect,” he said. The history of medicine is full of toxic remedies, and we survived these things and even felt better once we took them as cures, perhaps because of placebo. “The placebo is the doctor who resides within,” Cousins said, claiming placebo as an amazing part of our own capacity to heal.

    While some of the book is outdated, some of it comes across as an almost prescient warning of what will be lacking in medical care in the future. I have been reading Ben Goldacre‘s Bad Pharma as well. If Cousins’ book, written 30 years ago, was a warning shot fired into the air that something was wrong with the way we demand and receive medical care, then Goldacre’s book is the summation of that dysfunctional medical train rolling forwards at full speed.

    anatomy of the illness cover

    Anatomy of An Illness as Perceived by the Patient,
    20th Anniversary Edition

    In the chapter called “Pain Is Not the Ultimate Enemy,” Cousins speaks to one of the main themes of his book, the overprescription of unneeded drugs. We are overeducated on pills we can take, while being undereducated on usual causes of pain (like stress) and how to solve those problems ourselves. He says, “We know very little about pain and what we don’t know makes it hurt all the more. Indeed, no form of illiteracy in the United States is so widespread or costly as ignorance about pain–what it is, what causes it, how to deal with it without panic. Almost everyone can rattle off the names of at least a dozen drugs that can deaden pain from every conceivable cause–all the way from headaches to hemorrhoids.” Cousins suggests we could combat this lack of knowledge with education about pain in schools, and “If our broadcasting stations cannot provide equal time for responses to the pain-killing advertisements, they might at least set aside a few minutes each day for common sense remarks on the subject of pain.” I do wonder how Cousins would react if he saw the advertisements on television now, not only for over-the-counter pain medication but for prescription drugs tailored towards every ailment you can imagine, side effects crammed into a voice-over while people dance through a field on screen for the last ten seconds of the commercial, like some bizarre bad joke. This Celebrex ad, in which a woman calmly talks about bleeding and death while a man and his dog calmly bike through a blue screen, is something out of a science fiction novel.

    In the last chapter, “Three Thousand Doctors,” Cousins talks of the importance of touch in the doctor/patient relationship. I have talked about this with so many people, how doctors seem to just read charts and then prescribe medicines without doing much of a physical exam anymore, and how odd that is. A pain doctor recommended facet injections for lower back pain without feeling the area of my lower back that was in pain. Did the doctor know what he was doing? Probably. Am I confident in my doctor, knowing he will shoot a needle in my spine without taking the time to feel what is going on in my lower back? Certainly not. In this chapter Cousins also brings up what seems like a quaint idea to me, that in order to have trust with your physician, they need to be the one to meet you at the Emergency Room during a heart attack. Who has that sort of relationship with a doctor now?

    And finally, Cousins encourages laughter. He encourages it for everyone, especially those with serious diseases, morose and in bed. At one point he explains the purpose of laughter to a depressed young woman with a progressive illness:

         What was significant about the laughter, I said, was not just the fact that it provides internal exercise for a person flat on his or her back — a form of jogging for the innards–but that it creates a mood in which the other positive emotions can be put to work, too. In short, it helps make it possible for good things to happen.
         Carole wanted to know how she could find things worth laughing about. I said she would have to work at it, just as she would have to work at anything else worthwhile.

    There is some debate about Cousins’ actual diagnosis. Thirty years later, it seems that Cousins may have been saving himself from bad medical advice and incorrect diagnoses for much of his life. He was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis when he was young. While in the sanitarium, he stuck with the kids who believed they were healthy until he was released; he was diagnosed with a heart problem and told to stay in bed, he refused (and later he was told that vigorous exercise probably kept him alive), and there are a lot of suggestions on the web that Cousins was suffering from reactive arthritis (from some sort of infection) rather than his more serious diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis.

    Here is Cousins discussing his health (for the first few minutes he is rambling about baseball, ha! Hang in there.); the Hans Selye book he mentions, I assume is The Stress of Life:


    There was also a movie made based on Anatomy of an Illness, by the same name. Cousins was reportedly unhappy that Edward Asner was chosen to play him. Here are the first four minutes of the film:

    Further recommended reading: