Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994

Archive for the ‘Books’

Oliver Sacks’s latest dispatch from the edge of death

July 30, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Science No Comments →

Oliver Sacks illustration by Aidan Koch

In February the neurologist, writer and all-around super-nerd Oliver Sacks wrote that he had metastatic cancer and did not have long to live. He sounded more serene and cheerful as he awaited the end than many people with decades and decades ahead of them. Last week he published an update on his condition. It is dire. And yet he sounds almost excited to be at the final frontier. We know that when the time comes, in the event that there is an afterlife and there is any way he can report to us from there, he will.

We haven’t gotten around to reviewing his autobiography On The Move because we get too emotional.

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I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss — losing people dear to me — by turning to the nonhuman. When I was sent away to a boarding school as a child of 6, at the outset of the Second World War, numbers became my friends; when I returned to London at 10, the elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.

And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,”a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated 82nd birthday earlier this month. Here, too, is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive — hence the lead casket.

Read it.

Earworm: Devil May Care

July 30, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Music, Science No Comments →

Woke up the other day with this playing in our head. Why, we have no idea. We read the chapter on earworms in Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, but he doesn’t know what causes them, either. Earworms are also known as “last song syndrome”, but in this case we hadn’t heard Bob Dorough in years when he started singing in our head. We have a cassette of one of his albums, which a friend recorded from vinyl, but our one surviving cassette player has a perpetual whirr. So we were happy to find Devil May Care on YouTube, along with his other songs including Baltimore Oriole and Blue Xmas, an anti-Xmas song that ranks up there with Christmastime is Here from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Yes, we like bebop, our musical tastes are guy-ish and Dorough’s singing IS odd.

The Moss Library Sale: Hard-to-find books at 20 pesos each

July 17, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Announcements, Books 2 Comments →


Our friends the Mosses are having a big library sale at their house in Quezon City. On sale are over a thousand books, hardcover and paperback, at 20 pesos each. Most of the books are now hard to find, and there are lots and lots of collectible Penguin Classics.

We went there this afternoon chanting, “We don’t need more books, we just want to see what you’ve got. No, really, we don’t need more books.” An hour later, we had filled up a box with 25 books by Georges Simenon, Shirley Jackson, Jan Morris, V.S. Pritchett, Nancy Mitford, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lawrence Durrell and Pauline Kael. And we were already exercising maximum self-control. Total expense: 500 pesos, less than the current retail price of one trade edition.

If you’d like to go to the library sale, email us at We’ll reply with details and put you on the list. The sale is until July 30 only.

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UPDATE: As of 6pm on Monday, 20 July 2015, there are no more books available from the Moss Library. Much as Jason enjoys entertaining guests, you’ll have to wait until he opens a bar (We would invest in that).

Thanks to everyone who attended the library sale and provided new homes for those books. We know that bibliophiliacs like to crow about their acquisitions, so tell us what titles you found in the stacks.

Ex Machina is the other side of Her, and fiction is the weapon of Homo sapiens

July 13, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, History, Movies, Science 4 Comments →

The danger of Science-Fiction Week is that you may feel like abandoning other genres altogether, they seem so staid and predictable in comparison. We saw Alex Garland’s excellent Ex Machina, starring Alicia Vikander as Ava the artificial intelligence, Oscar Isaac as her creator, and Domhnall Gleeson as the programmer chosen to administer the Turing test. Garland got his SF cred from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, in which a team that includes Cillian Murphy and a bearded Chris Evans embark on a voyage to turn the sun back on. He also wrote the novels The Tesseract, set in the Philippines (reportedly he wrote it in Quezon), and The Beach and the screenplay for 28 Days Later.

Alicia Vikander, like Oscar Isaac, is in every other movie that opens this year, and she’s so good we cannot begrudge her Michael Fassbender assuming they’re still together. We loved Domhnall Gleeson in About Time, in which he was part of a family that used their ability to go back in time to read Dickens over and over again (there are worse ways to use time). And Vikander and Gleeson were by far the best parts of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (they were Kitty and Levin), except possibly for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s moustache.

In Ex Machina, the tech billionaire behind the world’s most popular search engine—we think of him as Larry/Sergey—creates AI and gets one of his employees to test her. Lonely geek becomes emotionally attached to a program: it’s Spike Jonze’s Her, minus the whimsy, romance and the high-waisted pants. Ex Machina challenges the viewer to define what “human” is, and the results are uncomfortable. It makes us think that the singularity isn’t near, it’s already here and Asimov’s Laws no longer hold. The movie is chilly, and it’s supposed to be, so the sudden disco break is welcome.

Then we saw Alicia Vikander in James Kent’s Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I. Vikander plays Vera, and she’s surrounded by some of the most adorable young British actors today, including Kit Harington (or as we call him at home, Christopher Darling), Colin Morgan (from the TV series Merlin, which makes us very angry because it takes painful myths we love and makes them cute), and Taron Egerton (from Kingsman). If you still haven’t recovered from the season finale of Game of Thrones, see Jon Snow clean-shaven here.

Testament of Youth reminded us of Joe Wright’s Atonement, no surprise since Brittain’s book is cited by Ian McEwan as one of the sources of his novel. Vera is a young woman who falls in love and gets accepted to Oxford in the same year—she’s all set to go to university with him when WWI breaks out and everything goes to hell.

Sapiens, available in hardcover at National Bookstores, Php1255

Seveneves got us to thinking about the survival of the species, so we picked up Sapiens, a history of the species by Yuval Noah Harari. We’re on chapter 4. It’s a fascinating book that makes leaps of logic that academics may scoff at, but we have no problem with.

The first part tries to answer the question: How did a species in the middle of the food chain suddenly vault to the top? We’d always thought that Homo sapiens descended from earlier versions of the species, Neanderthals and so on, but Harari points out that a mere 70,000 years ago there were six human species on the planet and sapiens basically won out. The competition was bigger and stronger, but sapiens could work together towards one goal, thanks to their ability to imagine things that did not exist, and to tell each other stories that bound their community together. In short, their weapon was fiction. So all you people who don’t read fiction, you’re doomed.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is 50 years old.

July 10, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books 5 Comments →

Study for Baron Harkonnen from the great science-fiction epic never made, Jodorowsky’s Dune

Dune is set in a far future, where warring noble houses are kept in line by a ruthless galactic emperor. As part of a Byzantine political intrigue, the noble duke Leto, head of the Homerically named House Atreides, is forced to move his household from their paradisiacal home planet of Caladan to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune. The climate on Dune is frighteningly hostile. Water is so scarce that whenever its inhabitants go outside, they must wear stillsuits, close-fitting garments that capture body moisture and recycle it for drinking.

The great enemy of House Atreides is House Harkonnen, a bunch of sybaritic no-goods who torture people for fun, and whose head, Baron Vladimir, is so obese that he has to use little anti-gravity “suspensors” as he moves around. The Harkonnens used to control Dune, which despite its awful climate and grubby desert nomad people, has incalculable strategic significance: its great southern desert is the only place in the galaxy where a fantastically valuable commodity called “melange” or “spice” is mined. Spice is a drug whose many useful properties include the induction of a kind of enhanced space-time perception in pilots of interstellar spacecraft. Without it, the entire communication and transport system of the Imperium will collapse. It is highly addictive, and has the side effect of turning the eye of the user a deep blue. Spice mining is dangerous, not just because of sandstorms and nomad attacks, but because the noise attracts giant sandworms, behemoths many hundreds of metres in length that travel through the dunes like whales through the ocean.

Have the Harkonnens really given up Dune, this source of fabulous riches? Of course not. Treachery and tragedy duly ensue, and young Paul survives a general bloodbath to go on the run in the hostile open desert, accompanied, unusually for an adventure story, by his mum. Paul is already showing signs of a kind of cosmic precociousness, and people suspect that he may even be the messiah figure foretold in ancient prophecies.

Pirate spaceship. Artwork by Chris Foss for Jodorowsky’s Dune.

Read the piece by Hari Kunzru.

Seveneves is so good, we put off watching Magic Mike XXL to finish it.

July 08, 2015 By: jessicazafra Category: Books 4 Comments →


Because two straight nights of reading until 4am were not enough for this long, dense, thrilling book.

It’s so good, the choice was down to wants vs needs: Hot guys dancing in state of near-undress Vs the survival of the human race. To be exact, how the survival of the human race depends on Nerds.

Neal Stephenson’s latest doorstop opens with the moon breaking up, not with a bang but with a “Holy crap, where’d the moon go?” At first life goes on as usual except with more people looking at the sky, and then scientists realize that the Earth is doomed. (No, it’s not the tides or gravity.) There must be a mass evacuation of the planet using existing technology and resources. Seveneves is not so much science-fiction as a what-if scenario.

The first third of the book goes into the logistics of putting people into orbit and keeping them alive in the 5,000 to 10,000 years that Earth will be uninhabitable. This must be done in two months, which means that everyone must work together and there is no time for argument or democratic consultation. Step aside, politicians, this doomsday scenario calls for Nerds. (This is why national leaders should be intelligent people who will consider public opinion but will make their own decisions.)

Read our column at

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A couple of things the proofreaders missed:

On p629 of the William Morrow edition, “Moira” should be “Kath Two” or “the Moiran.” On p778, “Julia” should be “Ariane” or “the Julian”. There are other instances in which characters are confused with their ancestor.