New Year, New Year

rc2_8828 This morning, somewhat against my better judgment,[1] I ran the New Year’s Day Dash, a 5-mile (road) race. Thanks in part to a few friends pacing me the first mile and a half (or perhaps I mean letting me hang with them before they took off), I finished in 40:34, a personal best and about a minute faster than my time last year. Perhaps that will be auspicious.

Everyone has been posting about their New Year’s Resolutions: go to the gym, lose ten pounds, eat healthy, get eyebrows under control. Some good ideas, some not so good. Well, I already go to the gym and I don’t really want to lose any weight, and my eyebrows are a lost cause. Instead, I’ve been thinking about books.

I read a lot. But after Goodreads sent me an email congratulating me on reading three books last year, I started going through my records and memory, as best I could, because surely that couldn’t be accurate. And, luckily (surprise), it wasn’t. I just didn’t review everything I read.[2] But I also have a bad habit of reading in parallel, so I might get halfway through something, then put it down and not come back for a year. Also, I read a lot of books for work–last year, I edited books on topics ranging from screenwriting to the rhetoric of the gross anatomy lab to Asian philosophy to nursing. So if I feel like I read constantly, it’s because I do . . . but it’s not always reading for pleasure.

Having come to this determination, I have made a list of books I want to read in 2015. As a writer, it helps to keep the mind fresh, and I begin to find that it’s important to find an escape from the grind of reading to edit, which is a different type of reading. I have to shut down that part of my brain sometimes. There’s no theme to these books, other than for most of them I saw reviews in different publications and found them interesting, and they’re in no particular order. I can’t guarantee I won’t get distracted or add or subtract from the list, but I’ll see how far I can get with it. My other resolutions are to finish reading/blogging about Ulysses, remember to water the plants in my office, and get my SADs under control. Let’s do this!

  • Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd Review
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Tender is the Night and The Crack Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (maybe)
  • Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimer McBride
  • Island, by Aldous Huxley (maybe)
  • Viviane, by Julia Deck
  • Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon Review
  • Relentless Forward Progress, by Bryon Powell
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert
  • Gligamesh, by the people of Babylon
  • The Way of Kings, by Branden Sanderson
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, by Lauren Slater (maybe)
  • Blind Descent, by James M. Tabor Review
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard
  • Blueshift, by Claire Wahmanholm (a pre-publication copy kindly provided by the author)
  • I’m not going to say I’m going to read Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre, but every year this time when my SADs get bad I try to.

Are you reading anything interesting next year? Or, alternatively: Any other resolutions?


You can check out book reviews I’ve posted here on the book review and book reviews tags, because apparently I suck at metadata. Also check out the writing category for reviews of films, plays, and other stuff (I promise most of it is not bitching about how difficult it is to write a novel).

[1] Against my better judgment ought to be the title of my blog sometimes. This particular race was against my better judgment because it was cold and I was up late the night before and also I have some tendonitis in my ankle.

[2] I usually only put reviews on Goodreads if I’ve written a review of them, and I only do that when something interesting strikes me about the books to write about.

I Do My Thinking Myself: The Modernist Detective and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. Reprint, London: Penguin, 2014.

Philip Marlowe takes a case for an old general by the name of Sternwood. A rich man, Sternwood has two daughters who run wild. He has received some IOUs—a spot of blackmail for one of the daughters (Carmen)—and wants Marlowe to look into it. As Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood mansion, the general’s other daughter, Vivian (Regan) calls him in to ask if he has been asked to find her estranged husband, who departed suddenly not long ago. He hasn’t, but he will before he gets out of the mess he’s just walked into.

The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first novel, furnishes a complex and twisty plot in which bad guys and good guys alike go down like dominoes. A woman’s ex-lover shoots a man who is photographing said woman in the nude and steals the photo plate, only to have it taken from him. The thief gets killed by the dead photographer’s lover; then the thief’s girlfriend tries to sell some information about the vanished husband’s ex-lover and winds up getting her intermediary killed by the ex-lover’s bodyguard . . . there’s more, but maybe I’ve made my point. At every turn, wisps of truth float through Marlowe’s fingers as he tries to figure out who knows what and who’s lying to him (hint: it’s almost everyone).

The book is set quite firmly in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Prohibition is over and so, largely, is the recession; the oil derricks[1], which were responsible for putting the city on the map, are beginning to lose their primacy on the landscape, and the place is starting to grow rapidly. Not every detail of the book holds up well by modern standards. For example, the amount of fuss Marlowe kicks up about some pornographic books seems silly by the standards of the internet. A young woman being photographed nude is potentially a major scandal, whereas today it can make someone’s career. There’s a gay character who isn’t treated very well (although to be fair, when Marlowe chews him out, he has just murdered a man in front of Marlowe), and there’s a somewhat perplexing racial slur.[2] In addition, the question of who killed the chauffeur is famously left unresolved—however, I have to admit that had I not read an anecdote in which Chandler confessed to not knowing either, I likely wouldn’t have noticed that detail. Throughout, if these petty complaints ever threaten to overwhelm the story, Chandler throws in another beautifully crafted line to make the reader forget her complaints—although calling them lines fails to acknowledge how masterful his prose is in sum, how well-chosen each word is.

At the end of the book, we leave Marlowe in a bar in something of a moral quandary. Midway through the book, he mentions a chess board in his room: “There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight. . . . The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights” (168–170). By the final pages, Marlowe has taken over the role of the knight, and in doing so proved himself correct. He cannot apprehend the murderer or even reveal the location of the murdered man’s body lest he give the game away. All his attempts to protect the general and his daughters have backed him into a corner. And so he drinks and ruminates fatalistically on death, “the big sleep” (250). This paralysis is intentional. In effect, Chandler is producing a treatise on the modernist detective novel, and does as effective a job in defining it as he does in his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.”

The Victorian detective, epitomized by Sherlock Holmes, is a figure of romanticized panopticism. No matter how grave or petty a crime is, no matter how complex, Holmes reassures us that the criminal will be found. Marlowe, in his own words, is not Sherlock Holmes: “I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don’t know much about cops. It’s not things like that they overlook if they overlook anything” (131). Later he adds, “I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whisky, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it: I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of [gangsters]. I dodge bullets and eat saps and say thank you very much” (247–248). Unlike the comparatively aloofness of earlier detectives (such as the aforementioned Holmes; Philo Vance, who is also namechecked by Marlowe; or C. Auguste Dupin) who never get their hands dirty, Marlowe cares about his cases and spends his time sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. He also reflects on the process of detection and how it has been represented to his clients.[3] The world has changed a lot since 1893; on the eve of the second World War, there are no reassurances to be found.

Ultimately I don’t think this is Chandler’s greatest novel—I’d give that accolade to The Long Goodbye—but don’t let that hold you back from reading it. Chandler, even on a bad day, is better than most contemporary writers could ever hope to be.

[1] Mentioned recently on Marketplace.

[2] Perplexing in that I’ve never seen an expression like that used. It was clear from context that it was slightly derogatory in some way.

[3] If the modernist detective novel is characterized by a greater degree of self-reflection, a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, and yet a feeling of futility or of being trapped by the situation in which one finds oneself, the postmodern detective novel is characterized by a broadening of focus in an attempt to solve crimes by looking at the ills of the society that produced the criminal, or by a sense that crimes are in some sense unsolvable. I’ll get back to you about the post-postmodern (i.e., contemporary) detective novel.

Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters

A few brief bits of housekeeping before we get going: first, I have back-linked all the episodes of


Ulysses so far commented upon to the introductory blog post, which will now also serve as an index. It can be viewed here. Also, in many cases I have made some small tweaks to the writing to make the style slightly less bombastic or grandiloquent or I guess casual and more something my MA advisor wouldn’t have shaken his head at and dismissed out of hand. Still not perfect. Oh well. Also, for those of you who are sick of Ulysses, I should have another comic ready to go soon. The summer sabbatical was nice, but I am starting to feel like drawing again. Hooray? Also, you might have noticed that I moved all The Joy of Fishes-related links to this page. Just a reminder, if you read it, please consider reviewing it on Amazon or Goodreads. Thank you!

And now, Ulysses. Enjoy.

This section of Ulysses, “The Lotus Eaters,” takes its name from an episode in the Odyssey referred to somewhat briefly in chapter IX of Homer’s text. Odysseus and his men land on an island to get fresh water and food. Odysseus sends a few men into town to see what’s up. It turns out everyone on the island eats lotuses, and the lotuses are so delicious that once you taste them, you don’t want to do anything else but lie around eating lotuses all day. (Please make your own joke about the 1960s here.) Odysseus marches his men back onto the boat and gets out of there tout de suite.

In their 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which happens to also be an adaptation of the Odyssey, the Coen brothers used the episode of the Lotus Eaters to refer to religion—specifically, as our heroes are wandering through the countryside, they come across a long line of (somewhat stoned- or hypnotized-looking) people dressed in white, waiting in line to be baptized.

Not coincidentally, although almost certainly unrelated to the Coen bros, this episode of Ulysses has a lot of religion in it. In fact, the whole book has a lot of religion—it’s set in Ireland, after all, a place where divorce was illegal until 1996[1] because of the influence of the Catholic church. But if you are about to quote Marx’s quip about religion being the opiate of the people and think we’re done, think again. This is Joyce—nothing is so uncomplicated.

In the first episode (Telemachus), we saw several different ideas about religion. Stephen, called a “fearful Jesuit” by Buck Mulligan, seems to believe in a deity he is unwilling to worship. Like Lucifer[2], at the end of Portrait, we get this scene between Stephen and his friend Cranly:

After a pause Cranly asked:
—What age is your mother?
—Not old, Stephen said. She wishes me to make my easter duty.[3]
—And will you?
—I will not, Stephen said.
—Why not? Cranly said.
—I will not serve, answered Stephen.
—That remark was made before, Cranly said calmly.
—It is made behind now, said Stephen hotly. (Portrait, 259–60)

Stephen claims that he “neither believe[s] in [the eucharist] nor disbelieve in it” (Ibid.), but his stance in Ulysses is a bit less equivocal, telling Haines, “You behold in me . . . a horrible example of free thought” (1.625–6). “Free thought” meaning “thought free from the dictates of ‘Christian revelation’ “ (Gifford 24). He is quite firm on this point, to the extent that he is unwilling to take communion to appease his dying mother. But as much as he makes these claims, he’s still very much in the grip of religion, seeing himself as well as “a servant of two masters . . . an English and an Italian. . . . The imperial British state . . . and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church” (1.638–43). In fact, like Lucifer whom he quotes, Stephen is defined by religion and God, regardless of the latter’s existence; his desire to disobey the church brings him into much more strife than simply not caring about religion would—compare his refusal to take communion to appease his dying mother versus Bloom’s relaxing through a church service he doesn’t particularly understand or care to learn about.

In the first episode we also see Haines, who “couldn’t stomach that idea of a personal God. . .” (1.623), and Buck Mulligan, who is an irreverent medical student (as I already quoted, his feelings about death are put to Stephen like this: “And what is death . . . your mother’s or yours or my own? You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom. It’s a beastly thing and nothing else” (1.4–6)).

Finally we get to Mr Leopold Bloom. His attitude towards religion seems to stand somewhere between irreverence and ignorance.[4] For example, it is difficult to know whether or not he is joking when, watching a service, he muses, “Letters on his [the priest’s] back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in” (5.372–74). Similarly, he attributes the use of wine during the Eucharist ceremony to it being “more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they [the parishioners] are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage. . .” (5.387). During the mass he thinks of sex: perhaps he will meet Martha “one Sunday after the rosary” (5.375); imagines the priest murmuring to the communicants “Shut your eyes and open your mouth” (5.349–50); considers the confession process as a sadomasochistic ritual in which the confessor asks the priest to “punish me, please” (5.426); and imagines a woman confessing her infidelity (5.427–32). It should be noted that Bloom actually proposes the idea of the mass as an opiate during this section: “Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first” (5.350–51) and sees the communicants as walking with “blind masks” (5.353) to take communion.[5]

What does this add up to? For Stephen (and probably for Mulligan, whose “Ballad of Joking Jesus” is showcased in several sections), religion is a source of creative energy if not comfort. For Bloom, it’s a source of mild interest. For none of them is it actually a sedative or distraction from the true woes of the world. But perhaps other things are—for example, Bloom ignores the gravity of the service to think about sex. While walking, he meets M’Coy, who is so wrapped up in preparing for a trip to the races that he will miss Paddy Dignam’s funeral (5.169–73). In another scene, Bloom calculates the amount of porter a local businessman must have sold in order to make a million pounds (answer: about 15 million gallons)—a lot of porter, and another common addiction (5.304–12). Bloom muses on drugs as well—cigars have “a cooling effect. Narcotic” (5.272), and the Chinese might prefer “an ounce of opium” (5.327) to learning about Christianity. All these things (sex, drugs, gambling) are in our modern time are commonly understood as things that one can become addicted to, which is to say that they can certainly be so distracting as to take one away from the duties of one’s life.

The message here is difficult to tease out, and of course different readers will draw different conclusions. Is Joyce suggesting that religion is problematic, but other things are problematic too? That “worldly” things like sex and gambling prove more of an opiate than religion? That somehow the removal of a deity from religion causes it to become one more distraction like any other? Any of the nice moral summaries I come up with sound pat, and I’m not convinced that Joyce actually believed any of them, since he notoriously indulged in both drink and sex himself (see for example Chiasson 2014). Ultimately there’s not an easy answer here, perhaps because there’s no author trying to pass judgment—although I’ve used the word “addiction” in the preceding paragraph, Joyce wouldn’t have, even were he alive today. This is just life—sometimes some things blind us to other things that are going on; preoccupied, we find ourselves unable to interact with every encounter the way that we should. In other words, perhaps everyone is an eater of lotuses.[6]


[1] As noted by (I’m sorry) Christopher Hitchens, the repeal of this law was opposed by, among others, Mother Theresa herself. (He noted this in several places; see for example his letter to the New York Review of Books here.) Also, I note from her Wikipedia page that she is now The Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, M.C., which is annoying because she’s from Macedonia.

[2] I’m not prepared to walk you through the mythology here. I suggest a reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a good book. Or, the relevant reference, as summarized in Portrait:

Lucifer, we are told, was a son of the morning, a radiant and mighty angel; yet he fell: he fell and there fell with him a third part of the host of heaven: he fell and was hurled with his rebellious angels into hell. What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin. (126)

[3] “Easter duty” refers to “the obligation to receive Holy Communion at least at Easter time . . .” (Catholic Essentials website, quoting “A Catholic Dictionary, 1951”; link below). Receiving communion requires that one have confessed first as well, so Stephen’s mother is essentially requesting him to go through the whole ceremonial shebang. See

[4] Bloom later comments that Christianity is “more interesting if you understood what it was all about” (5.423–24). It’s hard to know how to take the INRI remarks in view of this.

[5] It’s worth pointing out that Bloom’s attitude towards Judaism is typically more reverent—and tinged with remembrances of his father. See for example 7.206–13: “Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pessach. Next year in Jerusalem. Dear, O dear! All that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage Alleluia. Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu. No, that’s the other. Then the twelve brothers, Jacob’s sons. And then the lamb and the cat and the dog and the stick and the water and the butcher. And then the angel of death kills the butcher and he kills the ox and the dog kills the cat. Sounds a bit silly till you come to look into it well. Justice it means but it’s everybody eating everyone else. That’s what life is after all.” Sharp readers will note this is as slightly wrong as the earlier INRI (it’s not “into the house of bondage”), which certainly leads to more questions. However, the topic of Bloom’s (putative) Judaism exceeds this essay, so I will return to it at a later time.

[6] Having spent my past week hanging out with a bunch of actors, I feel pressed to add something about the performativity of the mass scene—the way in which the priest seems to be moving through a series of steps (suggested by him reading things off cards and the like) rather than truly engaged in the service. So, too, one could ask if the predictable actions of the parishioners are meant to suggest members of an audience, or even of a Greek chorus, performing some kind of specific role. But no space for that here. Perhaps another time.


Catholic Essentials. “Easter Duty.” 2008.

Chiasson, Dan. “ ‘Ulysses’ and the Moral Right to Pleasure.” The New Yorker, 16 June 2014:

Hitchens, Christopher. “Mother Theresa.” The New York Review of Books, 19 December 1996:

Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

That Sick Feeling: From Hell Reviewed

Note: I read this book in October 2013, and worked on the review for almost six months, then forgot about it. I don’t know why this happened. The date in my Word doc is October 13th.

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 1999. 572 p. 095857834-6.


In Whitechapel, London, in the 1880s, humans live in powerless poverty and squalor. By the end of the decade, hundreds of the unemployed would be injured at the (1887) “Bloody Sunday” rally in Trafalgar Square, where they were protesting their lack of employment and the Irish Coercion Act, a crack-down that underscored how powerless the working class were. Beneath working class men, the “working girls” of Whitechapel were even less secure as they tried to make their way in the world. Often married very young, at the age of 12 or 13, they were condemned to poverty and prostitution when abandoned by their husbands (the ones who didn’t die in childbirth, anyway). By the end of the 19th century, wealthy women could inherit land, but womankind in general still could not vote. And worse, a monster was preying on the women of Whitechapel. In the fall of 1888, an unknown person or persons murdered at least five prostitutes in London’s East End, vivisecting four of them. “Jack the Ripper,” as the killer came to be known, was never caught, and the theories the case has spawned live on today, too many to enumerate.

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell takes as its starting point the theories of one Stephen Knight, who evidently heard the story in his book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution from the illegitimate son of English painter Walter Sickert, Joseph “Hobo” Sickert. (Walter Sickert, incidentally, was somewhat obsessed with the murders and was fingered as Jack the Ripper by a number of theorists including Patricia Cornwell, based largely on the evidence that he drew moody paintings of murdered women in dark rooms and that he allegedly had a congenital deformity of the penis.) Joseph Sickert (also known as Joseph Gorman)’s story makes his father only an accomplice, but the whole thing is so rotten that’s hardly a consolation. Basically Knight/Sickert maintain that: Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward (“Eddy” to his friends), grandson of Queen Victoria, knocked up a working class girl, Annie Crook, and secretly married her. Of course Victoria finds out about the whole nasty business and sends the girl to her physician ordinary, Sir William Gull, who certifies her insane. The baby (a daughter), however, survives, and when a group of prostitutes led by Marie (or Mary) Kelly find out about her, they try to blackmail Walter Sickert and Victoria asks Gull to “take care” of them too.

As it happens, according to the way our boy Joseph tells the story, his mother was the daughter I just mentioned, so he is descended from legitimate but unacknowledged royalty. Decide for yourself how much doubt that casts on the story. The story also ignores the powerlessness of the prostitutes to actually carry through on any kind of threat–while it seems possible a gossip tabloid might have run the accusations (maybe), it seems unlikely that anyone would have believed them in the face of a denial from Victoria.

Running behind all of this is a hint of Freemasonry: Allegedly, both Prince Albert Edward (later Edward VII, Prince Eddy’s father) and Sir William were masons, hence Gull’s willingness to do something that would admittedly seem entirely insane to any reasonable person.

In the hands of Alan Moore, though, this story becomes slightly more elaborate. Gull is a mason, yes, and a patriot. He has also suffered a stroke-cum-theophany; it is not entirely clear that he is the same person after that event, although the implication is that he is, just with more outlandish theories. Gull is certainly bidden on to his task by Queen Victoria, but he also sees himself as striking a blow in a battle for supremacy between men and women that dates back to the stone age (see Robert Grave’s The White Goddess and other books about the idea of a mother goddess being supplanted by a father god for more of this idea). He is an unrepentant misogynist who worries that women will somehow gain back the upper hand and (re)subjugate men. Additionally, he sees himself as moving society forward, noting that some crimes can cause the public to agitate for certain things, as in the case of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders leading to the formation of a police force in 1811. What exactly he is leading society toward is unclear, but at a pivotal moment he tells his (semi-literate) driver and assistant, Netley, “I have given birth [to the twentieth century].”

Moore does a good job of allowing Gull enough time to explain his theories. In fact, he spends an entire chapter driving around London with Netley, talking about the architecture of Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Dionysian architects, the solar and lunar symbols of the battle between men and women, prostitution through the ages, and how all these symbols, both pagan and Christian, get rolled up together into one big ball of conspiracy that makes sense if you don’t look at it too hard. Then Moore undercuts Gull brilliantly: at the beginning of the next chapter, we see the morning routines of Sir William contrasted against the woman who will be his first victim, Polly Nicholls. Gull wakes in a bed, is fed a good meal prepared by his cook, and is driven to work in a coach. Polly, on the other hand, is sleeping on a bench, sitting up against a wall with a clothesline strung across to stop her from falling over. This was in fact the cheapest form of accommodation available to Londoners of the era. To see the privilege on the one hand and the crushing poverty set against it is to realize how out of touch with reality Gull really is, and how unlikely his fear that women will somehow “win” is.

The story from there on out is roughly the one you are probably somewhat familiar with. Women die, the police continually foul up the investigation, and Gull grows increasingly out of touch with reality. The narrative begins to flip back and forth between Gull and Inspector Abberline, the hapless but clever detective assigned to the case.

It seems moot to discuss Sir William Gull and whether or not he was really the murderer. Nearly every man of any social standing who lived in London during that autumn has been theorized to be the Ripper, as well as most men of no social standing. Some of the information related here about Gull seems to be true: he did come from an impoverished background, he was a doctor, he was quite intelligent, and he did seem to have some disregard for what today we would consider to be medical ethics. His selection as the murderer makes as much sense—or lacks as much sense—as anyone. Personally, I think there were some who have been named, like Francis Tumblety, a known misogynist who boasted that he had a collection of female reproductive organs, who were probably more likely suspects. But in the context of From Hell, Gull’s character is built so that he makes sense as the killer, and that is what matters. It can help to remind oneself that this is fiction based on facts; as Eddie Campbell put it in a blog post, he’d “always liked to imagine that our William Gull is a fiction who just happens to share a name with a real one who existed once” (source).

In a certain sense, it doesn’t matter who the killer actually was because the killer was everyone. Several of the women Jack the Ripper offed would have been dead within a year or so anyway, since they were impoverished, living in insanitary conditions on the streets of Whitechapel, which as far as I can tell was quite a bit worse than what you might find in a major city today—for example, Londoners of this era had to deal with diseases like tuberculosis, attacks from packs of feral dogs, crime, diseases caused by the terrible pollution and inadequate nutrition, and poor housing . . . and of course, if they were lucky enough to have a job, they might have to face conditions in the factories . . . if not, there were workhouses. This is reinforced by the scene in which Campbell and Moore depict hundreds of people writing letters to the police posing as Jack—a disturbing but real event. To put on my Žižek hat for a moment, is this an outgrowth of Victorian anxiety about the poor? Or, alternatively, about women, women’s place in the world, sex, religion, colonialism and aliens in the metropol[1] . . . the list goes on. Moore presents a holistic view of the crime that, in some way, should clarify what happened but in actuality serves only to confound what has happened. It is a conceit of crime fiction that crimes can be picked apart and a definite killer and motive can be found. In reality, life is rarely cut-and-dried. Certainly, general motivations can be discerned, but what really causes a certain person to commit a specific crime?

The thing I keep coming back to is that Mary Kelly never really finds out what’s happening to her. The audience knows, sort of, both the reasons Victoria objected to her continuance and the reasons Gull gives. Mary Kelly at best has a small sliver of the picture; she is able to piece together that her friend Annie Crook got into trouble with royalty and that her friends are being murdered one by one. She can’t see the whole picture, and Gull doesn’t oblige her with a moustache-twiddling moment of revelation before he offs her.[2] I feel like because I do see the whole picture that this shouldn’t be an issue, but I keep circling around the lack of resolution (obviously, because I’ve been writing this review for six months—can you tell?). Perhaps this is reminiscent of the way the people of London felt, knowing something was walking among them that they could not understand. Mary Kelly, for her part, likely felt nothing at all for very long.

To bring this to a kind of conclusion: The collected version of the comics has not only a short epilogue, “Dance of the Gull Catchers,” that tackles some of the difficulties surrounding naming Gull as a suspect, but also Moore’s extensive annotations explaining the origins of his theories and various obscure pieces of Victoriana. The art is illustrative without being overly graphic. The writing is solid. Really, if you haven’t read this book yet . . . why not?


[1] The Victorians were, as far as I can tell, a very anxious people. Or at least a people whose anxieties have been highly researched.

[2] I should mention, for those unfamiliar with the Kelly murder, it was really gruesome. The real life killer really dissected her; the best that can be said is that the coroners at the time thought she had been killed relatively quickly and then mutilated. I don’t recommend looking up the photos unless you have a strong stomach.

Book Review: Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

Horowitz, Alexandra. Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. New York: Scribner, 2009. 978-1-4165-8340-0.

Worldcat. (This link may not work for everyone.)


I grew up with cats, although I spent much of my youth desperately wanting a dog (specifically, a cocker spaniel I would name “Wolfgang,” precocious little shit that I was). In retrospect, it’s a good thing I didn’t get one, since I would never have suspected how much work dogs require in order to keep them happy.

Almost as soon as I got my first apartment, I got my first personal cats. It wasn’t until last March, over ten years after moving out of my parents’ house, that I finally got the dog I’d longed for (not a cocker spaniel, thank goodness). There is still one resident cat in the household, and I like it that way. I would not define myself as either a cat person or a dog person—someone who prefers one animal to the exclusion of the other—but more of an animal lover in general.

(Full confession: As I write this, the cat and dog are wrestling, an activity that provokes a lot of yowling, and I am rethinking my desire to have pets.)

Anyway, at my age everyone has either a dog or an infant, or (in the case of some unlucky souls) both. I find infants tedious*, so it’s nice to have a good reserve of dog facts in case I need to one-up some oblivious acquaintance who persists in explaining how intriguing her spawn actually is.

Alexandra Horowitz is an unabashed dog person, and also a Ph.D.-holding cognitive scientist with experience studying a variety of mammals, including humans, rhinoceroses, and dogs. In Inside of a Dog, she gives a brief overview of research on dog cognition, behavior, and umwelt—the “subjective or ‘self-world’” (20). For example, humans are primarily visual creatures. Dogs are far and away primarily olfactory-dependent. What does this mean for how they perceive the world in which they live?

In exploring these and other questions, Dr. Horowitz gives a comprehensible but not overly complex review of the current literature regarding dogs. Her tone is conversational and lightly humorous (no surprise to anyone who recognizes the source of the book’s title as that old Groucho Marx line, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”). While a few of her sentences fall short (in particular, one retelling of an old Woody Allen story made me wish for my red editor’s pen), she’s a competent writer on the whole and the book is a quick and delightful read.

As an academic, I’m used to making my way through somewhat more complicated works—the stuff published by university presses with a hundred pages of bibliographic notes and a full index in the back, to say nothing of analysis of the statistical data in the referenced studies. Here, there is none of that—although some (probably most) papers and books she referred to are listed by topic at the end, there are no in-text citations or notes. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not leveling accusations that something vital has been omitted, but I could have handled (and would have enjoyed) a slightly more scientifically rigorous book.

Horowitz’s book is not about dog training, but it does contain some information on how to train a dog. Ms. Horowitz here differs from the majority of trainers in that she feels that teaching too many commands to a dog somehow loses part of the dog’s dogness: “When come here has been learned, a good argument can be made that there is little else by way of commands that an ordinary dog needs to know” (286). She also does not approve of punishment (much like B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning) and suggests that inappropriate behavior should be allowed to die out through ignoring it—what Skinner called extinction. There are problems with this, however. For example, when one’s dog is playing too rough with the cat, simply ignoring the behavior is not sufficient, since the cat’s response to the behavior is rewarding to the dog (not to mention that, depending on the size of the dog, the cat may risk physical harm from unrestrained play). Some better way of terminating the behavior is necessary. However, Dr. Horowitz makes a good point when she says that we have to allow

"Wait...inside of a what?"

for the dogness of a dog in training it, and recognize that regardless of how well trained a dog is, it’s still a dog, not a tiny furry human.

An anecdote: My dog, a shiba inu got from a rescue in northern Illinois, knows fewer than ten commands. She does the usual sit, stay, prone [i.e., “lie down”], down [i.e., “off the sofa”], and up [“jump into the car”]. More interestingly, despite not being formally taught that the cat is referred to by the word “cat,” and despite not having any herding instincts (I mean, shibas were originally bred for hunting small game), when we say, “Maya, where’s the cat?” she will run and find the cat and herd her to us. So how does that happen? Horowitz offers a few clues: When sheep dog puppies are raised with sheep (which they have to be, in order to become good sheep dogs), they come to believe that the sheep are essentially other dogs. So the dog may believe that “cat” is just a name applied to this other dog in the household. After all, they both have pointy ears and whiskers. She had also seen us go through the motions of looking for the cat (and of evicting the cat from the bedroom, where she is not allowed to go). The first time Maya noticed the cat trying to go into the bedroom, she herded her away from the dog. Our laughter and periodic praise for this kind of behavior probably led to her understanding, in some way, that we like it when she responds to our inquiries about the cat by finding the cat (dogs are keen observers of human behavior; while Derrida felt discomfort at his cat’s gaze reminding him of “the animal that therefore I am,” the gaze of a dog is more of an inquiry into our humanness, an evolutionary attempt to bridge a gap between two species that have long lived together). So without conscious effort on our part, we suggested to the dog that her assistance in surveilling the cat would be appreciated. If only we could train her to bark when she wants to go outside or something.

Dr. Horowitz brings the book to life with little drawings and descriptions of life with her dog, Pumpernickel. Somehow these descriptions wound up being really touching, instead of just illustrating various points she was trying to make. I’ll admit it, at the end of the book, when she talked about Pump’s inevitable old age and death, I cried. I’m a soft touch when it comes to animals, though. I can’t help but take this as an important warning delivered in an almost Daoist way: over and over again, Horowitz implores us to pay attention to our dogs. Look at them, really see them. Apart from the benefits in understanding canine behavior, it really drives home the point that, although now you have a partner, a dog, a cat, a child, eventually things will change and you will not have these beings anymore. So pay attention–they’re standing right there. Do you really see them?

At the end, Inside of a Dog has at best whetted my appetite for more information. I have a lot of questions about the evolution of companion animals, both dogs and cats, and what we can expect to see in these terms in the future. But unfortunately, neither this work or others is likely to answer my questions regarding my dog—Why does she bark at cardboard boxes? Why the phobia of paper towel rolls? As Dr. Horowitz points out, there’s a lot of individual variation among dogs, things that cannot be accounted for on the basis of breed or genetics. Just because there are some dogs out there that understand more than 200 words doesn’t make my dog a genius. It just means that some dogs are really smart.

* Also ugly. I am vaguely acquainted with one woman who seems to spend an incredible amount of money getting professional portraits of her infant every few months, and it’s not helping. I assume that parents are compelled to post photos and declare how adorable their offspring are on various social networking sites almost from the moment of birth by the twin demons of sleep deprivation and oxytocin, because really there’s no other explanation. I should also add that if you’re reading this and you have kids who are over the age of, say, two or three, I do find them pretty interesting and you shouldn’t take this personally.