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Frankenstein: the Birth of a Monster

30 Oct

When it comes to horror stories, Frankenstein is probably the most famous of them all. Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece has sent shivers of fear through generations of readers, inspired countless adaptations, and become the gold standard for tales of terror and suspense. It’s a story that becomes even more unsettling, though, when you realise it was inspired by twitching corpses, violent volcanoes and disturbing nightmares…

Mary Shelley’s famous novel barely needs an introduction. Its protagonist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is fiction’s original ‘mad’ scientist, dedicating himself to chemistry at university so that he can learn how to create life out of inanimate matter. The being he cooks up, however, is repulsive:

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, … his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Dr Frankenstein looks with horror upon his monster (credit: Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein)

Disgusted, Dr Frankenstein deserts his horrible creation – but the monster will come to haunt him for the rest of his life. First, it murders Frankenstein’s little brother; then, when the scientist refuses to create a female companion for it, it kills his closest friend and beloved wife too. Distraught, Frankenstein vows to take revenge and pursue his monster until one of them is dead. But the scientist fails in his mission and, after months of pursuit, he dies from pneumonia near the North Pole.

When Mary Shelley began to write her spine-chilling story, she was just 18 years old and without a novel to her name. So what inspired her nightmarish tale? In an introduction to the book’s third edition in 1831, Shelley finally explained how she “came to think of and to dilate upon such a hideous idea”. As it turns out, the true story behind Frankenstein is even more intriguing than the novel itself, involving electrified frogs, reanimated corpses, and a rather strange summer holiday…

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Book review: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

2 Oct

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, self-gratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not.

Why Is the Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it spends a fair bit of time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?).

Jesse Bering – science writer and psychologist

But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them.

In the hands of someone else, this might all have been rather trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on these controversial topics is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal.

There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree:

“Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.”

Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style, and it’s this that holds Why Is the Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. The essays are grouped into themes, but there’s no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this means that the book can be dipped into at any time, with each essay acting as a stand-alone chunk of text.

Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is the Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again.

This review first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Guru magazine, alongside an interview with Jesse Bering. Download the magazine for free here.

Book review: Logicomix

2 Apr

Logicomix is a Greek book which charts the history of mathematical logic during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although this prospect may sound as enticing as a piranha pedicure, please bear with me – for this is no ordinary book about maths. There’s mystery! There’s suspense! There’s even some romance!

Logicomix has two key features which helped to propel it towards the summit of bestseller charts when it was released in 2009. Firstly, the history of logic is recounted as an enthralling tale about the men who devoted themselves to this mathematical quest. Secondly, the story is presented in a beautifully-drawn comic book form – think Tintin if he swapped his dog for an abacus.

The comic’s superhero is Bertrand Russell: philosopher, logician and all-round superbrain, whose speech to an American university in 1939 acts as the story’s backbone. Beginning with his early life at Pembroke Lodge, Russell describes his own mathematical journey and the great minds that he meets along the way.

Bertrand Russell’s Eureka moment…discovering a paradox in set theory

Logicomix works well both as a general history of logic and as a stand-alone tale about the lives of some extraordinary men: this is not just a book for mathematicians. Logic is a complex subject, and the authors do their best to make it accessible to the uninitiated reader. This was the first time I’d come across a lot of these concepts (e.g. set theory and Russell’s paradox), but the lucid illustrations helped a great deal. The book also takes regular breathers from the main storyline to illustrate discussions between the authors, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

A recurring theme throughout Logicomix is the apparent connection between logic and madness, not the first time that this has been noticed:

“It cannot be a complete coincidence that several outstanding logicians of the twentieth century found shelter in asylums at some time in their lives: Cantor, Zermelo, Gödel, Peano, and Post are some.” (Gian-Carlo Rota, Italian mathematician)

Among these, Cantor and Gödel play a central role in Logicomix. Georg Cantor suffered from chronic depression and spent much of his later life in sanatoriums, and Kurt Gödel died from starvation due to an obsessive fear of being poisoned. Bertrand Russell himself was no stranger to mental instability: he revealed in his autobiography that a lonely adolescence led to him to contemplate suicide and, later in life, his eldest son was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Russell and Hyde

It’s this moving, challenging theme that gives Logicomix it’s depth and leaves a lasting impression. It was touching to read about the actual mathematicians responsible for the proofs and equations; their trials, successes, and seemingly endless thirst for mathematical truth. I heartily recommend Logicomix to anyone who has a passing interest in maths but is discouraged by dusty textbooks and chalky blackboards.

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