ICool Tools bookjacket’ve never really read more than an issue or two of Wired  magazine, only because I knew if I did follow the periodical on a regular basis, I would further more be a slave to technology than is humanly necessary. That said, for a few years now I have been a loyal follower of the “Cool Tools” blog curated by Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired. The blog proved so popular and full of, well, cool tools, that Kelly collated the best of the best into one gigantic catalog-reference guide of the same name. Over 450 pages of a seductive hybrid, melding your grandmother’s clockwork Sears catalog and the bottomless carpetbag of an exceptional, twinkle-eyed gadget clown. Initially, I checked it out from the library (of course), but after a day or two of barely exploring one-third of the tome, I knew I had to purchase my own personal copy. 

The “title” page reads thus: “A cool tool is...anything useful that increases learning, empowers individuals, does work that matters, is either the best or the cheapest or the only thing that works.” The inside and back covers are divided and indexed into 31 separate topics such as Craft, Dwelling, Edibles, Big Systems, Mobile Living, Storytelling, Aurality, Science Process, and Somatics. Sold yet? Ok, there is also another index by the specific  name of the tool and QR codes in each and every entry to link you straight to the web, usually the manufacturer’s specific site or Amazon. The back cover alone also gives you options: Raise backyard chickens, Erect an igloo, Publish an ebook, or Design your own fabric. Kelly and his team inform you in the first seven pages that all entries and/or links are as updated as possible, provide a FAQ, a How To Use This Book primer, and a handy supportive entry of a book on de-cluttering your life. Sounds counter-productive, right? Not really. Think of it as a non-threatening “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Kelly plays the wide-eyed Tools R’ Us Virgil to your drooling Dante. 

This seems like a sales pitch, I know. As if I’m the underground marketing intern for Kelly’s company; but the title is self-published and most of the profits go right back into the people and materials that shaped the book in the first place. The best part is that you can spend hours slowly thumbing through it and not even think of purchasing anything.  Opening it randomly now, this is what I find: Three Jaw Brace, Virtual Piano, Silicone Pinch Bowls, and Etymotic Research Earplugs. If you put this title on hold down at your local library, make sure you bring a big bag as this book is like a yoga mat for cats.  Your brain, your budget, and your exposure to stuff that’s actually productive, however, will most certainly need their own personal Corpse pose.  Enjoy. 

‘Tis a good thing that I canceled my Spring Break trip to Crimea because, whether hosting the Olympics amid conflict over human rights, racing to police Pussy Riot's random protests, or facing the tense scrutiny in the fight for Crimean annexation, Russia hasn't been this magnified since Reagan and Gorbachev sat through numerous photo-ops pretending to like each other. With all the negativity surrounding this great kingdom as of late, I was reminded of my first memorable images and introduction to Russian culture...skewed as it may have been. 

For someone whose formative years were sculpted in the late '70's through the 1980's, the image of Russia, other than my grandmother reading me sinister Baba Yaga tales, was discovered mainly through the synaptic helmet that was the burgeoning American media scene.  Initially, it was James Bond films, Robin Williams's discovery of true freedom in Moscow on the Hudson, or Yakov Smirnoff's anti-Cold War comic "therapy."  

Suddenly, the image became more ominous, a threat to the milk and honey U.S. zeitgeist. It was always "Us vs. Them," through the simplest, primordial lens of good vs. evil and everything was securely color-related. Anything referenced to Soviet life or Cold War politics was unscrupulously "red," moreso than any of the malingering effects of the McCarthy "Red Menace" years, and it seeped into American culture via John LeCarre and Tom Clancy books or the Hollywood films Red Dawn, Red Heat, and WarGames. You had  to choose or risk becoming ostracized: Yanks or Commies. Wolverines vs. Russkies. MI6 vs. KGB. Rocky vs. Drago.  

Once in high school, it was my trusty English teacher who introduced me to the more respectable literary and cinematic windows of Mother Russia. Not only did I devour classic films and books such as Ivan the Terrible  or every single frame available on Rasputin, but I learned that Russia had so much more to offer than Dr. Zhivago, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. Sure, I read the assigned Crime and Punishment  and Fathers and Sons, and I connected with Dostoyevsky while my classmates groaned, yet through college I learned that not all Russian literature was depression, oppression, and long brutal winters. There, slumbering comedic enlightenment came in the guise of The Master and Margarita, Gogol, and Viktor Pelevin with characters, stories, and political musings that I never knew existed outside of the omniscient, censoring hand of the Iron Editors (I assume in red  pen, naturally).  

The Russian legacy continues to innovate and astound into the 21st century as well, with genre fiction such as Sergei Lukyanenko's pseudo-Angelic Watch  series or stories from the hilarious pen of ex-pat Gary Shteyngart. Whatever your personal desires in Russian literature or culture, they can all be accommodated down at your local library should you seek more than blizzards, "If I Were A Rich Man," or the former governor of California's Oscar-snubbed role as a KGB agent. For in this expansive landscape of history and determination, Behemoth is not just a subversive, vodka-swilling black feline but a rich, thunderous bibliography of a resilient nation. Pazhalsta!

So IAn Inhabitant of Carcosa by Ambrose Bierce haven’t been this knee-deep into a tv show since The Sopranos ended and believe me you don’t want to know the withdrawals I had from that  North Jersey family.  Only four episodes into HBO’s new crime series True Detective, and I have regained faith in episodic storytelling. Inspired, I had to post a tribute to one of my personal literary heroes, Ambrose Bierce, the "Devil's Lexicographer," following dialogue I heard from characters in True Detective.  Suspects in the juicy crime story, interrogated by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, reference his story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” as well as The King in Yellow, a collection of stories by Robert W. Chambers. This is the perfect segue to highlight these pioneers of early American weird fiction.  

For those not familiar with Bierce’s life, he was a versatile man known for a sharp, sarcastic tongue and deadly with the inkwell. He fought for the Union in the Civil War, an experience that generated his Tales of Soldiers, eerie pieces that begin as war stories and end up nails of psychological terror. This all sounds quite gruesome, and much of it is, but another Bierce trademark, black humor, always finds its way into his work. He wrote with this sardonic style and in fine retrospection, it defined him.

During his time in San Francisco William Randolph Hearst gave him his own column, Prattle, which sustained his journalism career and earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” He lived in London briefly with Twain and Bret Harte and his mysterious disappearance in Mexico while chasing Pancho Villa was a fitting ‘end’ to his Wild West, accomplished life.  However, it was his stories of horror and the supernatural, many written with different narrative devices unknown in literature at the time, that would establish a diverse legacy of an important American genre initiated by Poe, Hawthorne, Irving, and Charles Brockden Brown.  Yellow Sign, Yellow King, Carcosa, Bierce, Chambers, LovecraftGhosts, werewolves, Confederates, zombies, the unknown, or agoraphobia, Bierce wrote it all.  

“An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and other Bierce stories influenced Robert W. Chambers, a successful romance novelist whose stories in The King in Yellow  tell of a cosmic terror controlling our world through an infamous play that spells doom for anyone who reads it.  This in turn would eventually inspire H.P. Lovecraft, who called “The Yellow Sign” ‘altogether one of the greatest weird tales ever written,’ in his Cthulhu mythos and dreaded Necronomicon. Each generation inspired the next, but Chambers and especially Bierce were integral to the timeline of American horror fiction.  Their stories are still fresh and it’s comforting to see their presence in 2014, even on television. Buy the ticket, take the ride: early American weird fiction

 

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