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My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue by Samuel Chamberlain

December 16, 2017


Samuel Chamberlain is for the most part an obscure footnote in the history of the American West, but his story garnered some attention in the literary world when Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian in 1985. Like most people who read My Confession nowadays, I came to it as part of my Blood Meridian (and general Cormac McCarthy) obsession. My Confession was the main source material, and though McCarthy took many liberties with the story, I was surprised to see how much of Blood Meridian is lifted directly from it. I’ll address this more in my upcoming review of Blood Meridian, but here I want to focus on My Confession as a standalone work.

Samuel Chamberlain was born in 1829 and grew up in Boston. He was rabble-rouser who got into fights often. He left Boston as a teen and at age seventeen enlisted to fight in the Mexican-American War. Chamberlain gives a good portrait of what the war was like for an average foot soldier, both in the action and between. He writes about the landscape, the people they encounter, the daily activities of the soldiers, his escapades with women and, of course, his frequent fights.


But after the war is when Chamberlain’s story becomes remarkable. He joins up with a gang of mercenaries known as the Glanton Gang, led by an ex-soldier and ex-Texas Ranger named John Glanton, a “gloomy monomaniac hating all mankind.” Glanton’s wife had been killed by Lipan Indians, after which Glanton had hunted the murderers and retrieved her scalp. During the War of Texas Independence, it was reported that Glanton often scalped Mexicans. “Any other man in Texas would have been lynched,” Chamberlain says, but Glanton’s service in war earned him a mere banishment by Sam Houston. So Glanton headed west.

Glanton’s penchant for scalps foreshadows the darkness that will come into Chamberlain’s adventure. As he begins to travel with the gang, he notices that Glanton frequently wandered out of camp at night and returned in the morning with scalps. And around this time, Glanton signed a deal with the governor of Sonora in Mexico (working for his old enemy) to help fight the Apaches. The gang was paid $50 per Apache scalp (right ear attached). But they soon realized that it all scalps looked basically the same, so any scalp could fetch the bounty. The incentive to genocide became incentive to indiscriminate murder.


As if Glanton wasn’t villain enough, Glanton’s second in command—the semi-mythical Judge Holden—was even worse.

But before I get to him, I want to note Chamberlain’s style, because it makes for a bizarre juxtaposition. He writes with a colorful, melodramatic tone, maybe drawing on the tradition of historical romances of the frontier. But against the backdrop of such violence and atrocity, the juxtaposition is unsettling. It’s hard to say if Chamberlain is just naïve in his youth, or if violence was so commonplace as to warrant no special reverence.

Sometimes the flippant style works. When a fight breaks out over a poker game, Chamberlain says, “there was only one way in ’46 to settle misunderstandings of this nature. We went for one another and he very foolishly run onto the point of my Arkansas toothpick…” I don’t know if Chamberlain made it up, but you have to applaud “Arkansas toothpick” and the assertion that his victim has just run onto the point of it.

In another act of casual violence, Chamberlain shoots an “Indian” from across a canyon. As he laments that he won’t be able to retrieve the scalp, he is surprised by a hint of melancholy. “I felt as if I had committed a murder,” he notes. (Hate to tell you, buddy, but you kind of did.)

Even when he is describing the kidnapping and murder of his own love interest, he can’t seem to find the right tone, bluntly noting that by the time he finds her, she had been “outraged by Canales’ [a Mexican outlaw’s] whole gang of demons and then cut to pieces.”

Which brings us to Judge Holden. Holden steals the show both here and in Blood Meridian. This is Chamberlain’s introduction of him:

The second in command…was a man of gigantic size who rejoiced in the name of Holden, called “Judge Holden of Texas.” Who or what he was, no one knew, but a more cold blooded villain never went unhung. He stood six foot six in moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull-tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression…

His desires was blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name in the Cherokee nation and Texas. And before we left Fronteras a little girl of ten was found in the chaparral, foully violated and murdered, the mark of a huge hand on her little throat points out him as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand, but though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime.

Holden is the villain of Blood Meridian, but I assumed the more horrific aspects of his character had been fabricated by McCarthy. I was shocked to see how much was a direct lift from Chamberlain’s Holden (and that a man this terrifying inhabited the American west).

Holden continues his depravity throughout Chamberlain’s account, but what makes him such a great character is that his sociopathic nature is balanced by a refined intellect. “He was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico. He conversed with all in their language, spoke in several Indian lingos…,” could play harp or guitar, was “plum centre” with a rifle or revolver, was a daring horseman, an expert botanist and educated in geology and mineralogy.

When Holden gave a lecture on the geology of the region, this miscreant gang “listened to the demon like literati with marked attention.” Holden claimed that the landscape was a result of “millions of years,” which Glanton called a “damned lie.” Later, while Chamberlain rode next to Holden through the cut of the Little Colorado, the judge talked of an ancient inland sea that used to cover the territory. He remarked that eventually the gang would hit a dead end and need to turn around, but that he was grateful to have seen “the greatest natural wonder of the world.”

Chamberlain notes that Holden avoided combat if the odds were equals and adds, “I hated him at first sight, and he knew it.” As the story continues, they do become protagonist and antagonist to such a degree that one wonders if there was fabrication of Holden’s character by Chamberlain. Nevertheless, the back half of the book, after Chamberlain joins the Glanton Gang, is a fascinating and terrifying account.

Chamberlain wrote his Confessions years after the actual events, so the proclivity to exaggerate and form the recollections into a salable (and unverifiable) narrative might have been great. The story definitely reads like a tall tale, though darker than any other I know of.


I read the large-format edition published by the Texas State Historical Association, which includes images of the actual pages of Chamberlain’s handwritten manuscript and dozens of watercolors Chamberlain painted during his travels. Some of the scenes with people are a little amateurish, but the landscapes are actually quite beautiful and add a whole other strange element to this book. That edition of the book is beautiful, though it currently sells for nearly $400 (bless the public library).



The Circle by Dave Eggers

November 24, 2017


I have read most of what Eggers has written. Although his body of work is uneven, I am a big fan of his. As he’s moved away from the stylistic experimentation of his early work, he’s shown what a strong storyteller he is. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy The Circle.

The Circle is about a woman, Mae Holland, who starts a job and then rises through the ranks at a Facebook-like Silicon Valley company called The Circle. The Circle has the extravagances and borderline creepy rituals of any standard Silicon Valley company. Its employees work day and night developing world-changing technology with the apparently sincere belief that they’re changing the world for the better. Of course, reality isn’t so simple. The Circle’s overarching mission—to make every piece of information public—doesn’t sit well with some people inside and outside of the company.

There are very good and important points to make around privacy as it relates to social media. The problem is that the point Eggers seems to be making—that total global transparency is a bad idea—is obvious. As such, it sets a tough challenge for the characters, including Mae, who have to make the case for things like putting cameras everywhere and requiring everyone to broadcast every second of their lives. Absurd arguments are left unchallenged in service of moving the plot along in what is a fairly predictable direction. The result is that the whole novel feels very long. I found myself skimming through scenes just to confirm that it was going where I thought it was.

On top of this, the writing, particularly the dialogue, is surprisingly bad at times. It’s heavy-handed and often feels like the characters exist only to play out banal arguments. At other times, it reads like a teen romance.

I work in Silicon Valley at one of the big tech companies. A lot of what Eggers includes is standard for these big companies, so maybe I just didn’t find it that interesting. But I would have hoped for something more thought-provoking. Any industry so big and powerful deserves scrutiny, at the very least mockery (Silicon Valley is one of the funniest shows on TV). But The Circle doesn’t go for quick jokes. It tries to make a big argument. Unfortunately, after a long walk, it comes up with meh.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

November 24, 2017


Neil Gaiman’s genre isn’t typically my thing. Although I went through a Clive Barker phase in college, it’s been twenty years since I picked up anything resembling this kind of modern gothic fantasy. I knew Gaiman’s name mostly from his popular Sandman graphic novels and the fact that he was mentioned in a Tori Amos song (I used to be a huge fan), but when I saw that there’s a new American Gods show that looks interesting, I decided to give the book a read. This is Gaiman’s 10th Anniversary expanded edition of the book.

American Gods is the story of Shadow Moon, a kind of criminal errand boy. Upon Shadow’s release from prison just days after his wife is killed in an accident, he is recruited by a mysterious man named Wednesday. Shadow becomes our vehicle into an underworld populated by a cast of gods, some ancient and some modern. Characters personify gods from Norse, Egyptian, Irish, Germanic, African and Native American mythology, though the gods have relocated to scattered small towns across the central U.S. and live a neglected existence. They are joined by a host of new American gods—a god representing media, one representing the Internet, another of roads, another of the stock market. It is a not-so-subtle commentary about the things Americans hold sacred. These ancient and modern gods inhabit a world that spans the living and the dead.

The plot is part travelogue, part detective story, part thriller scribbled across an epic dreamscape. The remixed symbolism allows it to be completely original, yet feel somewhat familiar. The characters are fun and the imagery spectacular, making this long book an energized and compelling read.

The Drop by Dennis Lehane

November 21, 2017


Midway through this novel, one of the main characters says to his father: “You didn’t tell me, Dad, that the world contained men who beat dogs and left them to die in frigid trashcans, or men who drilled bolts through the feet of other men.” To which the father replies, “I didn’t have to tell you. Cruelty is older than the Bible. Savagery beat its chest in the first human summer and has kept beating it every day since. The worst in men is commonplace. The best is a far rarer thing.” That pretty much sums up the feel of this story. Bleak, gritty, at times cruel.

Lehane can write lavish, sprawling stories as he did with The Given Day and the two period gangster novels that followed, but he is most in his element with gritty crime stories so tightly plotted they read like they’re ready for the screen. Such is the case with The Drop, a story about some small-time bar owner and employees in a Boston bar that’s used as a money-stash for the Chechen mob.

The characters are sentimental at times, shockingly dark at others. As they get pulled more and more into a situation they want nothing to do with, you want to turn away. You know nothing good is going to come out of it, but the world is confined and there’s nowhere for these guys to go. They might as well be in prison.

The Drop is a quick read. A good bet for fans of The Wire or David Benioff’s The 25th Hour. Interestingly, the story started as a short story, was then written as a feature screenplay by Lehane (the movie stars James Gandolfini), then as a novel.

What I’m Listening to These Days: My Favorite Podcasts

November 21, 2017

I’ve been an avid podcast listener since Apple released its native podcast app in 2005. I listen on my commute, drives anywhere, walking through the hardware or grocery store, working in the yard or around the house. I listen to podcasts or audiobooks almost everywhere I can. In the past few years, I started listening to podcasts as I go to sleep because it keeps my mind focused on one thing instead of flitting about.

I saw this story about people who listen to podcasts at high speeds. I usually listen to audiobooks at 1.25x or 1.5x, depending on the speed of the performer and type of book, but I rarely do the same with podcasts. However, it did get me thinking about how much I consume weekly. The article says “over 20% of podcast listeners listen to more than six per week.” I would guesstimate I listen to about twenty podcasts a week. Some are shorter than others—the NPR News Now podcast is released twice daily and is only five minutes, whereas Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, released every few months can be five hours an episode.

My favorites have changed over the years. Some of the podcasts I used to listen to religiously—Sound Opinions, Science Friday and On the Media—have taken back seats to newer discoveries. Others, like Slate’s Political Gabfest have been on my must-listen weekly list for a decade.

Here’s what I’m listening to these days:

Every Episode, Always Of…

Slate’s Political Gabfest is all about the chemistry. Although the three hosts have since moved on from their Slate writing days—Emily Bazelon is a legal expert and staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, John Dickerson hosts CBS’s Face the Nation and David Plotz is CEO of Atlas Obscura —they have continued to sync up for this weekly show on politics. I’ve grown to feel like they’re old friends. Their personalities are a great blend: Emily is bubbly and brilliant, Plotz is cranky and argumentative, and Dickerson is a highly-respected, throwback down-the-middle journalist. Their generally left-of-center points of view are usually well-reasoned, and their rapport is a weekly delight. I also credit them with many great recommendations over the years, including getting me started with Audible, Dan Carlin and David Blight’s Civil War course. They’ve responded to more than one of my tweets (as has Dickerson, separately) and years ago featured one of my book recommendations on their show. By far my favorite podcast. I’ve listened to every single one for over a decade.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is released about every 3-4 months, and sometimes the wait can be excruciating. Each show is 1-6 hours long, and he sometimes strings them together in a series (“Death Throes of the Republic” about the fall of the Roman Empire is six episodes, and his “Blueprint for Armageddon” series on WWI is over 19 hours in total). He focuses on the extremes of the human condition and likes to get into the trenches, dungeons and fighting pits of history. Each show is well-sourced and will add columns to your reading list. I credit Carlin for sparking my interest in WWI, among other things. Joe Rogan, another prolific podcaster, said Dan Carlin’s podcast is “one of the greatest things in the history of history.” Hyperbole, maybe, but if more history teachers were like him, Americans would be less ignorant about our world.

Last Week’s Balls is a podcast that two of my friends are involved in (one is a co-host, the other the producer). The show is two old pals, Nikki and Ana, talking about “sports and dating and other stuff.” Some great stories and inventive counter-factuals espoused weekly. The dating stories could be material for a sitcom, and their sports knowledge goes much deeper than mine (except on MMA, which they know nothing about yet opine on freely from time to time). Overall, the show has the vibe of morning talk radio but the charm of two old friends just having a good time.


I Listen To Most Episodes of…

KCRW’s Left, Right and Center is a political podcast that argues all sides of an issue. The lineup has changed over the years. I don’t miss Arianna Huffington, who would audaciously be introduced as neither left nor right but “somewhere beyond” (b.s.—she was clearly far left). But I do miss Chrystia Freeland, who used to appear often and whom I developed a huge brain crush on. I also wish David From was a more frequent guest. But whoever is on, the discussion is usually smart and lively.

The Gist from Slate is loud-mouth word-wizard Mike Pesca talking about politics and whatever else is on his mind, with sometimes interviews from filmmakers, musicians, comedians, comics and writers. I found Pesca abrasive at first but have grown to really like him (except the rare episodes when he sings—that is and will always be horribly abrasive).

WTF With Marc Maron is a fantastic interview show where comedian Marc Maron’s own neurosis and openness set the tone for long sit-down conversations with famous people in his garage. Known for getting in deep with his subjects, the interviews can sometimes feel like mutual therapy sessions. He sometimes fights with his guests, sometimes gets frustrated that he can’t connect, and often reflects on the vibe of the interview. There are currently 864 episodes and some unlikely gems in the bunch. The show where Obama comes to Marc’s garage and the follow-up where Marc talks about interviewing the President are fantastic. His repost of his interview with Robin Williams upon news of his death, with Marc’s devastating intro, is heartbreaking. But the best ones tend to be the guests who you know but don’t really know—Bobcat GoldThwait, Alice Cooper and Willem Dafoe come to mind.


Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is another great interview podcast. Jesse actually helped Marc Maron get started. His guests tend to be smaller names—usually comedians, writers and hip hop musicians. He’s a very smart, charming interviewer. A great podcast for discovering new music and writers.


More Politics

I started listening to Face the Nation when John Dickerson took over as host. He’s a great interviewer and will push his subjects when they spout nonsense, but he deals with too many top U.S. politicians who are trained to stick to their partisan talking points. So the show is often just a bullhorn for politicians who don’t really want to engage. The roundtable analysis isn’t bad, though.

Radio Atlantic is a weekly podcast with a political bent. Like the magazine, it has quality, in-depth content. How a person becomes a Neo-Nazi, an interview with Khizr Khan and Alphabet’s (Google’s) moonshot projects are all recent topics.

The Ezra Klein Show and The Axe Files are both great for their in-depth conversations with big-name people in the political world who actually will engage in substantial conversations. Axelrod is less annoying than Klein, but they’re both really smart and good interviewers.

And though I haven’t listened in a bit, to balance out my left-leaning listening I sometimes listen to The Federalist Radio Hour, Radio Free GOP and Politico’s Off-Message.


On Science and Neuroscience


There is probably no better-produced podcast than Radiolab. The off-beat science stories are fascinating, and the hosts—Jad Abumrod and Robert Krulwich are completely endearing and likable with their childlike curiosity and amazement.

The Hidden Brain and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History are both really interesting, though I’d be more willing to put money on the factual accuracy of the first. Plus, one time someone told me that they’d met Malcolm Gladwell and that he smelled funny. Probably not a fair way to judge a podcast, but sometimes I can’t shake that.

For people who like to think about how we think, Rationally Speaking is smart and usually interesting. And Science Vs takes controversial topics and tries to prove them right or wrong with science.

Podcasts On Books

When I finish a book, I’ll often scan through my list of book-focused podcasts and see if I can find any episodes on that book. NPR Books and Slate’s Audio Book Club are pretty reliable, but I prefer the longer, if less professionally-produced podcasts. The hosts of Literary Disco  are sometimes annoying, but the conversations are usually fun and lively. On Overdue, they talk about the books “you’ve been meaning to read” (ditto on the hosts).



A few other randos that I listen to every once in awhile:


99% Invisible reminds me of Radio Lab in its calming demeanor, but it focuses more on the design of the world around us. Everything from how queues are designed to household products to architecture to how money is made to prevent counterfeitting.

Speaking of currency, Planet Money is an interesting podcast about, shocker, economics.

Creative Confidence and The Accidental Creative are good for the business of creative thinking. And How I Built This interviews top CEOs and founders of the best companies in the world.

Finally, Trumpcast is a good listen if you want to get angry and feel like we live in a complete idiocracy and the world is going to shit.


The exciting thing to me is that although radio has been around for almost a century, the podcast democratizes the medium so anyone with a mic and a voice (and hopefully an idea) can create content. In fact, Dan Carlin was recently on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about that very thing.

We’re still in the early days of the medium. There are still many many voices to be heard, niches to be explored and styles to be invented. I wish there were more listening hours in the day.

What’s in your ears?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy   

November 17, 2017


I remember when I put this book on my list—I saw it on my coworker’s desk way back in 2002. He said it was the best book he’d ever read and was reading it for the second time. Of course, I’d heard of it and had seen it on the great novels lists, but had never had the inclination. I finally got around to it.

I listened to it as an audiobook, and I’ll admit it was because I saw there was a new edition with Maggie Gyllenhaal reading it (I would listen to her reading a phone book).

It’s a great book, but it is an undertaking. It’s very long and dense, and after starting it I bought the Cliff Notes just to keep the names of all the characters straight. But the characters are excellent, the plot extensive and the world rich and textured. The settings come to life as much as the characters. Dialogue around the news of the time (Russia in the mid-19th Century), Napoleon and the wars raging, local politics, the fairness of the current economic system all seem exotic but strangely modern and relevant. There is a sense that human themes do not change that much over time, nor the themes that make compelling stories: Love and loyalty, dreams and desires and danger.

We love Anna (and I particularly liked Levin as well) because they are fully-rendered characters with motivations we can relate to, despite the century and a half separating us. They are complex, and even the lovable Anna has tragic flaws. If there is anything that feels archaic, it is the omniscient narrative point of view that takes us in and out of the heads of the characters. We often know their motivations because Tolstoy tells us. But combined with the panoramic descriptions, it leaves us a sense that Tolstoy understands every nook and cranny of this world (including the minds of his characters) and is giving us a tour. It is a testament to Tolstoy’s epic mind.

After finishing this Anna Karenina, I read the Tolstoy chapter of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals and was disappointed to read that Tolstoy was not as likable as some of his characters. He was a man whose ego matched his talents, writing in his diary, “I have not yet met a single man who was morally good as I…” and “I am a remarkable man both as regards capacity and eagerness to work.” He had a god complex, and his friends abandoned him for it. Most frustrating from our vantage point, he didn’t really want to be a writer. He believed art in general a misuse of God’s gifts and only went through three periods of artistic productivity, two of which produced two of the greatest novels of all time. Jerk.

I’m glad I read Anna Karenina before the chapter on Tolstoy—it’s sometimes hard to separate the art from the artist. Nonetheless, Anna Karenina is a masterful book, rightly deserving of its place in the global literary cannon.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

November 17, 2017


There’s a reason scientists appear in so many Far Side comics. Especially certain types of scientists—theoretical physicists, astronomers, and other scientists who exist on the dark edge of our knowledge. Scientists who dedicate themselves to finding something that may or may not exist. In this case, it’s the story of a group of scientists trying to “hear” two black holes colliding by detecting their gravitational waves.

I don’t understand the science well enough to explain it, but it’s an incredibly poetic notion. Two black holes in the dark reaches of space envelope each other, and these tiny weird nerds on the other side of the universe have somehow convinced the National Science Foundation to fund the most expensive project ever, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a kind of space “listening device,” and are there at just the right time to witness the event.

Unfortunately, much of this book is bogged down in science politics and reads like a nerd tabloid. Jennifer Senior says it well in The New York Times Review of Books:

“To me, the real drama in this story, which Ms. Levin only flicks at in her seventh chapter but never fleshes out in full, is internal: What kind of blind faith does it require, what kind of terror must one beat away, in order to labor in total darkness — toward an objective that so many of your peers believe is folly?”

It’s unfortunate, because in the end, the scientists do hear what they are listening for. Levin was able to add an epilogue describing the moment, and I was so excited by it that I made an audible gasp. Really. The quest struck me as so quixotic, that I figured the book was going to wrap up with an image of scientists listening to empty darkness and a message of, “And that’s why scientists are so weird.” Instead, it ends with the equivalent of a hail mary touchdown pass to win the Super Bowl of the cosmos (sorry for the spoiler—it was in the newspapers too). That made the slog feel kind of worth it.