Sacred Nature, by Karen Armstrong

Sacred Nature, by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 224 pages)

In the opening to Sacred Nature, Karen Armstrong tells a story of visiting a British library to look at original manuscripts of the poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and John Keats. She was deeply moved by the visit, which she described as “a kind of communion.”

“I was looking at the moment that these poems, which were now part of myself, had come into being. I did not want to analyze the manuscripts. I simply wanted to be in their presence.”

Today, she is troubled by the people who walk through museums seeming more interested in taking photos and selfies than allowing themselves to become absorbed in the extraordinary things stored there. This tendency is also reflected in our relationship to the natural world, which Armstrong says has become an irrelevant backdrop in our busy lives. She quotes Wordsworth to describe this: “light and glory die away / and fade into the light of common day.”

It’s not all because of social media. In fact, the disconnect between humans and nature can’t be fully explained without also explaining the ways in which Western culture dissociated from nature when it embraced monotheistic religions.

The ancient Egyptians believed the annual flooding of the Nile was a “divine event,” as was the rising and setting of the sun; as such, it was near impossible to ignore Mother Nature, who could, at any moment, be ready to unleash divine wrath. As science and theology ran down separate paths that grew further apart, the thought of nature being somehow divine, or even vaguely important, was swept aside as dusty myth.

Armstrong wants to change that, by gleaning wisdom from the myths and practices of the Axial Age, 900 to 200 BCE, a time she says was “pivotal to the spiritual and intellectual development of our species.”

The religions of that time, including Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, had practices that can profoundly benefit us today if we can look beyond our modern view of a myth as being a fabrication, a “charming story,” and instead look at the meaning of the myth and allow it to be a guide. Yes, that is Oprah-level malarky, but hear her out. “A myth is true because it is effective,” she writes.

Armstrong begins by exploring the Confucian belief in “qi,” the energy that links all life, animal or plant, human or divine. Interestingly, Chinese religions are unlike others because they have no creation story, no God-creator, but the opposing forces of yin and yang. (They also were among the first to articulate what is known in Christianity as the Golden Rule.)

Early Buddhism, too, taught that enlightenment could be achieved in not just human beings but was “inherent in plants, rocks, trees and blades of grass.”

Armstrong walks through practices of other ancient modern religions, including the respectful rituals of animal sacrifice (many of the ancients who practiced it would be horrified by our mass slaughter of animals today, she says) and the practice of kenosis, or “anatta,” the “emptying” of the self required in many faiths. St. Paul, Armstrong notes, used the language when he wrote that Christ had “emptied himself” on the cross.

Although Armstrong makes clear the ways that Christianity dissuaded people from seeing nature as sacred, there have been exceptions. A disciple of St. Paul called Denys saw the natural world as revelatory of God, believing “We can only intuit God’s presence through the veils of natural objects, which conceal as much as they reveal. If we could see God clearly, it would not be God. But if we learn to contemplate nature correctly, we find that the tiniest particle of soil can yield a glimpse of the ineffable divine.”

At the end of each chapter, Armstrong offers what she sees as “the way forward.” Her recommended practices include altering our perception of “God” to be not a male dwelling apart from the Earth, but a “dynamic inner presence that flows through all things”; embracing not only stillness and silence, but images of suffering in order to develop compassion; developing our own “Five Great Sacrifices” similar to Hindu practice; the ritual practice of gratitude for the natural world that sustains us; and adopting the Indian rule of “ahimsa” or harmlessness that holds every creature deserves to live, or at least not to suffer. (The Jains took this to the extreme, believing that even stones were capable of pain.)

Regrettably, there is an overarching preachiness in Sacred Nature with regard to deepening “our spiritual commitment to the environment” that will repel some readers.

“Recycling and political commitments are not enough,” Armstrong says, later adding, “We must re-form our attitude to nature and that will entail sacrifice. We can no longer board airplanes, drive our cars or burn coal with our former insouciance.”

You can agree with her completely but still wish for a book that is more poetry, less sermon. Although it is an interesting compilation of major religious traditions’ teachings on the natural world, Sacred Nature will appeal mostly to those who already share Armstrong’s views. B-


Book Events

Author events

JOSH MALERMAN, a horror novelist, will be at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) to presentDaphne on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 6:30 p.m.

MELODY RUSSELL will sign and discuss her book Noni and Me: Caregiving, Memory Loss, Love at Toadstool Bookshop (12 Depot Square in Peterborough, toadbooks.com, 924-3543) on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 11 a.m.

RICHARD LEDERER will discuss and sign his books about language at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Monday, Oct. 17, at noon.

JOHN IRVING The Historic Music Hall Theater (28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, 436-2400, themusichall.org) will host novelist and Exeter native John Irving to present The Last Chairlift, at the Music Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Tickets are $49 and include a book voucher.

History, stories & lectures

BRET BAIER, the Fox News Chief Political Anchor and author of several books, will discuss his career in media and news journalism, followed by a book sale and signing, on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Palace Theatre (80 Hanover St. in Manchester; palacetheatre.org). Tickets start at $59.

Poetry

GAIL DiMAGGIO and KAY MORGAN hosted by the Poetry Society of NH at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Wednesday, Oct. 19, from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Writer events

THREE-MINUTE FICTION SLAM Monadnock Writers’ Group is hosting its regional Three-Minute Fiction Slam on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 9:45 a.m. at the Peterborough Town Library, 2 Concord St., Peterborough. Prizes will be awarded to the top three winners. The first-place winner will advance to the statewide finals and a chance to win $250. Everyone is invited to take part in the free competition by either participating or observing the fun. The competition challenges writers to perform original pieces of fiction in three minutes or less before an audience and a panel of judges. The regional event is part of an annual competition sponsored by the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. See monadnockwriters.org.

TENACITY PLYS and JULES PERLARSKI host a craft class on nonlinear storytelling for all at the Bookery (844 Elm St., Manchester, 836-6600, bookerymht.com) on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 4 p.m.

Album Reviews 22/10/13

Gogol Bordello, Solidaritine (Cooking Vinyl Records)

I swear, one of the few remaining genres I can still consistently stomach is European-folk-rooted punk. Have you ever been disappointed by Korpiklaani or any of those bands? Never mind, I already know you haven’t, like, who could? It’s drunken noise that’s so sweaty and smelly you can’t help holding your nose and bobbing your head up and down to it, and that brings us to this New York City-based outfit that’s been putting out albums since 1999’s Voi-La Intruder. By all rights Solidaritine should be their supernova, given that most if not all of them are Ukrainian, but yes, this band’s putting out a political punk album right now is definitely good business. Typical Ramones/Bad Brains rattle-bang hardcore here for the most part, Slayer meets Borat, you know the routine. A

Laufey, The Reykjavík Sessions (Awal Recordings)

From Ukrainian folk-punk to Icelandic wombat-jazz, we’ve got all the bases covered today, my friends. I dunno, Fader loved this record, and I’m fine with it in the main I guess; her sold-out tour, which took her to Boston’s 500-seat Sinclair in September, compels me to take her a little more seriously than I might, and I’m in a lousy mood right now, so when I say she sounds a bit hacky, you might not want to take it to heart; I’m simply referring to her rather uneventful, unadventurous voice. She’s a good songwriter, though, specializing in a weirdly edgy but quite palatable style that makes the songs sound like they’d been written during mid-century romantic periods; she dabbles in things like bossa nova and cowboy-saloon player piano at odd but fitting moments. She plays piano and cello here at turns, exhibiting some serious musicianship, not that the songs really call for it. Music to drink coffee by, sure. A

Playlist

• We’re up against Friday, Oct. 14, gang, a whole bunch of new albums coming at us in a burst of crazy, hoping for your holiday gift-buying dollar (what, your Halloween skeletons are wearing Santa suits, come on!) and we’ll probably have to start with the ’90s band I like the least, Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their new LP, Return Of The Dream Canteen! No need to belabor the point again; as I’ve said before, I think when historians close the book on ’90s rock, it’ll be Pearl Jam that’s considered the Band Of The Decade. I mean, lots of people love the Chili Peppers, with their perfect blend of jangly, watered-down Sublime-ska and basic quirky bar-rock, but come on, Pearl Jam, you know? Everyone can stomach at least one Pearl Jam tune, don’t kid around with me. Anyway, that, so let’s move it along here and check in with the Peps, and whatever they’ve done this time. When last we left them it was April of this very year, when they released their previous album, Unlimited Love, which saw the return of Rick Rubin as their producer, but wait a minute, it wasn’t that great, and that’s not according to me, it’s what fans have told me: They didn’t like it. So I guess I was right when I uttered such sweetness as “[on and on] the tune drags, with Anthony making stupid rapper hand movements even though he doesn’t rap, and then there’s some psychedelic ’70s vibe that’s just annoying and then some Austin Powers 1960s-pop vibe that also just made me depressed.” So shout out to you Pep fans who agreed that it was an awful album: you like me, guys, don’t you, you really, really like me! Sorry, could you repeat the question? Well no, I think the dude from Primus is a million times better a bass player than Flea, but let’s proceed to the part where I force myself to listen to whatever these overrated little rascals have done to destroy rock ’n’ roll this time. Rick Rubin is on board for this one, rakin’ in the mad bank, just cold helpin’ make boring songs famous, but hold on folks, let’s see what the dilly is with the first single, “Tippa My Tongue,” whatcha think of them apples? Oh, look at this video, this is so cool, guys, it’s like random colorful Austin Powers psychedelic just, you know, weirdness, right, and then they start their little joke song, and it’s sort of a mixture of Eminem and parts from the only two songs people know from this super-hilarious joke band, and look at the guys in their funny music video for this idiotic song, all dressed up in 1970s disco clothes, trying to look like they should be in one of those awful Will Ferrell “comedies.” It’s working, folks, any minute I’m expecting to see John C. Reilly or Chris Kattan pop out of nowhere and make funny jokes, those freakin’ hams, ha ha.

The 1975 is one of those bands that has no idea what the ’70s were really like, yet everyone thinks their ’80s music is ’70s music. Their new album, Being Funny In A Foreign Language, is out on Oct. 14 and features the single “I’m In Love With You,” a tune that’s catchy but unexciting, like if the Cure and Guster had a boring baby.

Todd Rundgren used to be famous, but nowadays he begs for nickels from Zoomers who have been taught that music is supposed to be awful. The title track from his new LP, Space Force, steals the hook from Toad The Wet Sprocket’s “All I Want,” apparently to remind us that “All I Want” was an OK song 40 years ago.

• Finally, it’s annoying quirk-chill band Wild Pink’s ILYSM, the single from which, “Hold My Hand,” sounds like Bon Iver on animal tranquilizers. I do not like it, nope.

If you’re in a local band, now’s a great time to let me know about your EP, your single, whatever’s on your mind. Let me know how you’re holding yourself together without being able to play shows or jam with your homies. Send a recipe for keema matar. Message me on Twitter (@esaeger) or Facebook (eric.saeger.9).

Babysitter, by Joyce Carol Oates

Babysitter, by Joyce Carol Oates (Knopf, 448 pages)

My desire to read books about abduction and murder of children was never strong even before I had children of my own. After becoming a parent, I wondered how anyone could.

As such, I wasn’t sure if I could get through even two chapters of the long-awaited novel from Joyce Carol Oates, which is built around a serial killer who specialized in children. Dubbed the “Babysitter,” because he abducted children between the ages of 11 and 14 who were neglected and unattended, the killer murdered five children near Detroit, Michigan, when the novel opens in 1977.

The victims speak collectively to reveal details: “When we died, our bodies were carefully bathed, the smallest bits of dirt removed from every crevice of our bodies and from beneath our (broken) fingernails, and the fingernails cut with cuticle scissors; rounded and even, as our hair was washed with a gentle shampoo, combed and neatly parted in such a way to suggest that whoever had so tenderly groomed us postmortem had not known us ‘in life’.”

Even as we may want to run screaming from what came before and what will surely come after, we cannot.

Joyce Carol Oates didn’t become one of America’s most celebrated writers for lack of talent, and with that horrific opening, she glides seamlessly into what at first seems an unconnected story: The budding affair between a wealthy housewife in Far Hills, Michigan, and a man she met only briefly at a fundraiser.

Hannah Jarrett is 39, beautiful, privileged, vapid, taught by her parents to prize elegance, simplicity and taste: “Never take a chance of appearing common” is a mantra to which she clings. Her life and her marriage somewhat resembles that of Don and Betty Draper in Mad Men — outwardly perfect, if vaguely hollow, with picture-perfect children, a girl and a boy. Unlike Betty Draper, Hannah Jarrett has a live-in housekeeper, who, despite Hannah’s belief that she is an attentive mother, seems to do a significant amount of the mothering in the household.

When Hannah is contacted by the man with whom she shared an electric moment at a charity event, she decides to meet him at an elegant downtown hotel, enabled by her husband’s business trip and the housekeeper, who will be with the children no matter how late Hannah returns.

On the drive to the hotel Hannah tells herself a reassuring story: she’s only going to satisfy her curiosity, to feel beautiful and desired for an afternoon; she won’t break any vows, but will have a satisfying and fulfilling conversation with the man in the hotel bar about their mutual and ultimately thwarted desires.

That, of course, is not what happens. In her skillful narrative, Oates makes Hannah’s drive to the hotel, and even the ride up the elevator to the man’s suite, suspenseful and chilling. It is a drama seemingly completely unconnected to the “babysitter” killings, but also, we know, somehow entwined. Moreover, there are hints of future — or are they past? — events that push their way into the telling, making it unclear if what happens on any given page is, as Ebenezer asked of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, things that definitely happened or things that simply could happen.

The dynamic between Hannah and her Manila-born housekeeper, Ismelda, is polite, but fraught, as perhaps all housekeeper/employer relationships are. Hannah is both grateful and resentful of the help, and at times the similarities between “the Babysitter,” serial killer, and the babysitter/nanny/housekeeper are a bit heavy-handed. While Hannah’s children, we are led to believe, are not neglected in the way that the Babysitter’s victims are, their mother’s deficiencies are revealed in her interactions with her housekeeper.

Coming home distracted after a tryst, Hannah is so consumed by her fantasy life (“I have a lover!”) that she is unaware that her daughter is gravely ill until the housekeeper apologetically wakes her. While in no way evil or even deeply unlikeable — she is much too bland a person for that — Hannah is not a sympathetic character, even though her upbringing was in many ways troubled. Which is why it’s a shock to so quickly care so much about what happens to her and her family.

When Oates writes, “Despair of women, that men are unknown to them, essentially,” she speaks not only of the overt monsters but also of the hidden lives of husbands and friends. But women, too, have parts unknown to others and also to themselves, as Hannah learns as she is drawn deeper into a relationship despite the frantic screaming of conscience.

Babysitter is no cheap thriller but offers sharp cultural commentary on racism, class, religion and modern-day parenting. Give all the credit to Oates, who has crafted a finely tuned horror story that, like the film Fatal Attraction, is all the more horrific because of its placid suburban setting. A


Book Events

Author events

DONALD YACOVONE will discuss his new book Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m. at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com).

STEPHEN PULEO visits the Nashua Public Library (2 Court St., 589-4600, nashualibrary.org) on Sunday, Oct. 2, at 2 p.m. to discuss his book Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Registration is required.

RENEE PLODZIK, Concord author, visits Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Thursday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. to present her cookbook Eat Well Move Often Stay Strong.

MARGARET PORTER presents The Myrtle Wand at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 6:30 p.m.

JOSH MALERMAN, horror novelist, will be at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) to present his newly released bookDaphne on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 6:30 p.m.

JOHN IRVING The Historic Music Hall Theater (28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, 436-2400, themusichall.org) will host novelist and Exeter native John Irving to present his newest release, The Last Chairlift, at the Music Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Tickets are $49 and include a book voucher.

LYNN LYONS, psychotherapist and anxiety expert, returns to Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 4:30 p.m. with The Anxiety Audit: 7 Sneaky Ways Anxiety Takes Hold and How to Escape Them.

JOSH FUNK & KARI ALLEN Children’s authors Josh Funk and Kari Allen present their newest books, The Great Caper Caper: Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast Book No. 5 and Maddie and Mabel Take the Lead, atGibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 11 a.m.

Album Reviews 22/10/06

Alexis Castrogiovanni, Someday My Thoughts Will Be Like a Range of Mountains (self-released)

Debut EP from this Canadian singer-songwriter/cellist, steeped in ’90s throwbackism in the vein of Tori Amos and tinted with Minski, more or less. Castrogiovanni loves her some angst, as the above influences would handily indicate, but lyrically she’s more concerned with her own inner journey than the usual suspects on which “angry girl music” of the ’90s (exes, bad boyfriends and the patriarchy) focused. This is no Alanis clone, in other words, more an Ani DiFranco thing, characterized by her rapid-fire ranty-singing in “Ex-Girl,” whose beat is driven by the artiste plucking a bass-like line on her cello. I expect most listeners would hit Eject right off if they’re not into Ani or Tori or even PJ Harvey, and that’d be too bad, because the title track fares a lot better, sort of a Bjork-on-meds trip, and the effects she put on her instrumental weapon of choice keep it from being entirely disposable. B-

Chez Kane, Powerzone (Frontiers Music)

Cheerio, Bob’s your uncle, I’ll take any excuse to go check out a gorgeous British hard-rock-singing girl who dresses in basically nothing to shoot her videos, and bonus, fam, she’s actually a sweet, rather shy person, or at least she plays one on YouTube. This is her first solo album, one that doesn’t involve her sisters, who play with her in a band called Kane’d, whose 2013 single “I See Ya” was a pretty neat cross between Alanis Morissette and Joan Jett, if you can imagine. That wasn’t bad, even if it was kind of derivative, but time’s passed. Now Chez is older and is on a mid-1980s Heart trip; opener “I Just Want You” is basically “What About Love” but without an orchestra. “The Things We Do When We’re In Love” rips off Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” and so on and so forth. It all sounds great, but it’s also literally all been done. B-

Playlist

• Watch out, kids, here comes Friday, Oct. 7, bearing albums aplenty, and with that, you can make a note that I have indeed used the word “aplenty” in this award-winning column, as of today! No, there will be lots of albums coming out on the 7th, I’m sure of it, since Halloween is over and it’s basically the holiday shopping season until we get to the snow-and-abject-misery quarter of our year, can’t we just get it out of the way now so we can start thinking about eating fried fish and chips on the beach? I’d love for it to be over already, wouldn’t you? But there’s nothing we can do other than to press on, do our best to avoid getting frostbite, and listen to all the great new rock ’n’ roll albums, like for instance Under The Midnight Sun by U.K.-based ’90s-hard-rock fellers The Cult, you know, the band where the guitarist and the singer beat each other up on stage when their drugs wear off and they remember how much they despise each other. One of those two guys definitely earned some hatred, and I’d nominate whichever of them decided to abandon the slithery, almost psychedelic awesomeness of their breakthrough 1985 album Love — you know, the one with “She Sells Sanctuary,” “Revolution” and all that groovy hippie stuff — and decided to turn the band into some sort of straightforward and boring Buckcherry tribute band on their 1987 Electric LP, with all those stupid bonehead tunes like “Love Removal Machine.” Ha ha, I’ll bet it was the singer’s idea, remember how he had that stupid possum-fur hat on the album cover and all the songs were extra dumb, and you were “RIP, rock ’n’ roll, again?” Man was that album a disappointment, but hey, a lot of water’s gone under the bridge with these guys, so hey, man, maybe there’s something to like about this new album, as in maybe they realized how awful they became 35 years ago and there’s something cool on this album. Just call me a dreamer, folks, I’m going to go listen to the latest “cut” (I hate when that moron bass player Needle Drop uses that word to describe a “song” or “tune” in his CD reviews on YouTube; I only used the term to remind you that I detest Needle Drop as much as the guys in the Cult detest each other) “Give Me Mercy,” and frankly I already have high hopes, because the sample loop of the video shows Ian Astbury dressed like Anton Lavey at a devil conference, and there’s a spooky tree. OK, to the song itself, because that’s why we’re even here in the first place. Huh, look at that, they’re dancing in devil robes, and the guitar sound is awesome, almost kind of emo, maybe they did figure out that they needed to sound like they did in 1985. But wait, singer Ian Astbury’s voice is boring and old-person-sounding. Eh, it’s just the shell of The Cult, but with a great guitar sound, a lot of you would probably like it.

• Holy cats, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard has a new album coming, called Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms And Lava – do I even have room for all that text? “Ice V,” one of the tunes, is an electro-tinged Flaming Lips thingie, it’s OK. Needle Drop had words to say about that “track”/”cut” but I didn’t listen to them.

• Ermagerd, look out, it’s super-heavy (from what I’ve heard) metal band Lamb of God, with their new one, Omens! The title track is metalcore, surprise, and it isn’t as fun or cool as Heriot, if that affects your buying decision.

• In closing we have idiotic ’90s band Bush with The Art Of Survival. Leadoff single “Mor Than Machines” is ’90s-hard-pop oatmeal but with bendy guitar bits reminiscent of Korn added for no reason whatsoever.

If you’re in a local band, now’s a great time to let me know about your EP, your single, whatever’s on your mind. Let me know how you’re holding yourself together without being able to play shows or jam with your homies. Send a recipe for keema matar. Message me on Twitter (@esaeger) or Facebook (eric.saeger.9).

The Milky Way: An Autobiography of our Galaxy, by Moiya McTier

The Milky Way: An Autobiography of our Galaxy, by Moiya McTier (Grand Central Publishing, 244 pages)

In college, I once signed up for an astronomy class. I dropped out after two weeks, having painfully discovered that astronomy isn’t so much about looking at celestial bodies in awe as it is about doing complex math. After that, other than a star-gazing class at a local community college, my knowledge of outer space hasn’t evolved much beyond watching Men in Black, which I maintain is a documentary.

So I was excited about the publication of Moiya McTier’s promised examination of the Milky Way in down-to-earth terms, billed as “an autobiography of our galaxy.” Finally, I could get the astronomy class of my dreams, on my couch, in a mere 244 pages, with an instructor who studied both astronomy and mythology at Harvard and went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia.

And I could have, and should have, except for the dumb gimmick that cripples the book: the Milky Way as narrator.

Maybe if this had been a kindly, wise Milky Way, a sort of cosmic Gandalf the Grey, the gimmick would have been easier to stomach. But we are instead given a haughty, snarky, disparaging galaxy, whose persona is made even worse by its perception that it is talking to puny, finite creatures not really worth its time. “I know it’s likely a lot for you to take in, and your brain is fully formed!” the narrator says at one point.

Another time, it says, “Sadly, your ignorance compels me to explain so much to you that I’m still not at the part about me yet.” And then there’s this: “A mayfly can live its entire life in one room of your homes. Isn’t that sad? Don’t you ever wonder why the mayfly even bothers to do anything at all? Because that’s how I feel about you.”

He seems nice, right? Or she. Who knows? This middle-school snark is hard enough to stomach for one chapter; it’s wearisome for the whole of a book. And this persona is so unnecessary; plenty of people write autobiographies without constantly addressing “dear reader.”

The implication of “Dumb reader,” over and again, is even worse.

To be fair, McTier is trying to convey the unconveyable: the vast chasm between small, finite creatures like human beings and the unknowable expanse of space and, if you’re into that sort of thing, a cosmic Intelligence, with a capital I. But Ed Yong did this without talking down to us in An Immense World, and for that matter, there are Twitter accounts that do as much without even using words, like ones that consist of nothing but photos of outer space or microscopic images.

Maybe this is just the kind of unintentional dumbing down that occurs when astrophysicists try to talk to regular people. There aren’t that many of them, after all, and they’ve got their own peculiar brand of humor. As McTier says while trying to explain red dwarf stars, the most common ones in the Milky Way, astronomers don’t all agree on the “initial mass function” of red dwarf stars: “If you ever want to cause an uproar among your astronomers, stand in a crowded planetarium and claim that the Kroupa IMF is better than the Salpeter. Most won’t be able to refrain from loudly asserting their opinion back at you.” Astronomers are clearly the life of the party.

McTier awkwardly hobbles from the Big Bang (“Don’t concern yourself with thoughts of what came before the Big Bang. That kind of knowledge is not for the likes of you — or even me, though I am fabulously worthy on nearly all other counts — to understand”) to the creation and destruction of other galaxies, to black holes, to the modern, mind-boggling telescopes to myths about space, to theories about when and how the world will end. It’s not all terrible, but it’s like eating pistachios with shells; at some point, you question the effort, particularly when she answers the question of extraterrestrial life, “Well, that’s for me to know, and hopefully for you and your scientists to find out.”

What’s most disappointing is that McTier does have a fascinating story to tell: her own.

In a much-too-short foreword written in her voice, McTier throws out a tantalizing morsel of her life story: how a girl who grew up in a cabin with no running water after her parents’ divorce fell in love with the universe and launched herself on an intellectual journey that found her, in her undergraduate studies at Harvard, having an internship that involved spending hours “analyzing five-dimensional data cubes to measure properties of a distant star-forming galaxy.” This from a girl who had to cross state lines to visit a bookstore when she was child.

It speaks to the power of imagination — she used to imagine the sun and the moon were her celestial parents — but also an incredible internal drive and intellect. I would gladly read 500 pages of McTier’s autobiography. But spare me her version of the galaxy’s in half that. D


Book Events

Author events

DONALD YACOVONE will discuss his new book Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m. at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com).

STEPHEN PULEO visits the Nashua Public Library (2 Court St., 589-4600, nashualibrary.org) on Sunday, Oct. 2, at 2 p.m. to discuss his book Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Registration is required.

RENEE PLODZIK, Concord author, visits Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Thursday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. to present her cookbook Eat Well Move Often Stay Strong.

MARGARET PORTER presents The Myrtle Wand at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 6:30 p.m.

JOSH MALERMAN, horror novelist, will be at Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) to present his newly released bookDaphne on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 6:30 p.m.

JOHN IRVING The Historic Music Hall Theater (28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, 436-2400, themusichall.org) will host novelist and Exeter native John Irving to present his newest release, The Last Chairlift, at the Music Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Tickets are $49 and include a book voucher.

LYNN LYONS, psychotherapist and anxiety expert, returns to Gibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 4:30 p.m. with The Anxiety Audit: 7 Sneaky Ways Anxiety Takes Hold and How to Escape Them.

JOSH FUNK & KARI ALLEN Children’s authors Josh Funk and Kari Allen present their newest books, The Great Caper Caper: Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast Book No. 5 and Maddie and Mabel Take the Lead, atGibson’s Bookstore (45 S. Main St., Concord, 224-0562, gibsonsbookstore.com) on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 11 a.m.

Album Reviews 22/09/29

Maraton, Unseen Color (Indie Recordings)

Well, here’s a nice attempt at prog rock by a bunch of Norwegians, whose first album, 2019’s Meta, set the band off in the direction of serious things like festival concerts and all that happy stuff, not that basically every European band doesn’t get to play at those things. On this one, their fifth in three years, believe it or not, the singer is growing into his own as a Seal-soundalike, at least in album opener “In Syzygy,” which is probably indicative of a desired future as some sort of New Age festival staple band, a la Shadowfax and such. Do I mind this stuff? No, to be honest; it’s not Yes or Return To Forever, it’s slightly like Asia, but with a gentler, less in-your-face melodic approach. “Blind Sight” is really ’80s-sounding; they’re probably big into Tangerine Dream, which works for me, given other tacks they could have taken. It’s OK. B+

Kristian Montgomery and the Winter Kill Band, Lower County Outlaw (self-released)

It’s really not hard for me to keep up with eclectic Vermont-based folk-rocker Montgomery, what with the friendship we hatched on social media, but that’s not why this six-song EP gets a high mark. I was drawn to his stuff from the first time I heard it, a couple of records back; it’s fedora-rock but with top-drawer melodic urgency and no filler. I’m sure the ever humble Montgomery would attribute that to the synergy he’s developed with drummer Andrew Koss, but he’s had it in him the whole while, I assure you, and these songs are yet another quantum leap. His trip is a hybrid that melds bluegrass-tinged folk-rock to, well, name an arena band and he’s probably tried it on for size. “Gypsy Girl,” for instance, starts out with an early Yes guitar line, down to the backward-masked reverb effect, and then goes all-out Allman Brothers like a boss. “Easy To Forget You When I’m Gone” has a Chris Whitley angle to it, if that’s your thing; “Annie Pay Your Band” is a swampy Cajun beef-fest whose lyrics are directed at a Massachusetts concert promoter. A+

Playlist

• Friday, Sept. 30, is the next big date for CD releases, and we may as well kick off the anti-festivities with Slipknot’s new album, The End So Far. There are many people who like this pseudo-metal band, but I am not among them. In fact, one of the least enjoyable interviews I ever did was when I talked to their DJ, Sid Wilson, back when he was trying to sell himself as a massively indie jungle/dubstep edgelord. He went by the name DJ Starscream back then and had a sort of MF Doom trip going on, with some stupid metal facemask thing and all that. Anyway he was really annoying when I spoke to him, like he expected me to know all the obscure underground dubstep guys he was referencing, and the whole interview got bogged down with him trying to “OK boomer” me with a barrage of nonsense. The interview was for a show he was doing in Miami if I recall correctly, and the article had to be full of nice words, so as much as I wanted to simply write a bunch of jokes about how contrived and stupid he is, I wrote some nice things I didn’t want to. Karma did win in the end though, folks — Wilson did send me a couple of vinyl singles that I immediately sold on eBay. But that’s all neither here nor there, Wilson is just one cog in the Slipknot “juggernaut,” so let’s leave behind my memories of wanting to bake him in a pie and see how much I can stand of sampler single “The Dying Song (Time To Sing).” Yup, there we go, it’s the same old Slipknot: half the song is death metal lunchmeat and the other half is old-school emo/nu-metal. A lot of people dig this stuff, which I find is the only interesting thing about it.

• Wait, here’s something I can deal with, the new album from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, titled Cool It Down. As you may or may not know, the New York-based post-punk-revival band features South Korean-born American singer Karen O, along with a guitarist and a drummer who looks like he’s 12 years old. Pretty bratty stuff from this band, historically, not as mentally ill as Hole or whatnot, but pretty jagged and always interesting, so hopefully the new single, “Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” which features Perfume Genius. Well, listen to that, it’s a departure from their norm, but a nice departure: slow, melodic, epic shoegaze, with Karen coming off as an asexual moonbat, which she plays rather well. I love stuff like this and hope you do too.

• I’d be a complete loser if I didn’t mention Doggerel, the new album from Pixies, a local band that helped bring about the fall of the Boston rock scene that was actually happening during the 1980s after The Cars got big. Anyone remember that? If it hadn’t been for bad bands like Pixies and all those guys, Boston would have been a pretty happening place, a legitimate mecca of music that would have attracted major-label guys and big producers, which would have resulted in about 30 Led Zeppelins taking over the world from our dumb New England area, but alas, when all the big shots came to Boston from L.A. and New York, they weren’t impressed by Del Fuegos or the Neighborhoods, but they did sign the Pixies. That brings us to now, and the new tune “There’s A Moon On,” a rockabilly-tinged garage song that is decidedly OK, nothing to hate and nothing to be impressed over.

• We’ll close with Nymph, the debut album from British rapper-DJ Shygirl, who cites Aphex Twin and Madonna as influences. That makes no sense, but the kickoff single, “Coochie,” is nice enough, with its bloopy, half-there, Billie Eilish-ish beat, Empire Of The Sun-inspired melody and Shygirl’s pretty soprano. My stars, the record company’s bots have gone nuts posting comments on the video. Whatever it takes, I suppose.

If you’re in a local band, now’s a great time to let me know about your EP, your single, whatever’s on your mind. Let me know how you’re holding yourself together without being able to play shows or jam with your homies. Send a recipe for keema matar. Message me on Twitter (@esaeger) or Facebook (eric.saeger.9).

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