Posts for Category Books

Heads in jars in the news

A new book tells the stories behind a closet full of brains in jars
Nov 142014
Brains in a jar
Photo by Adam Voorhes via Amazon

Recently I opened my morning newspaper and found this picture, which looked so familiar I had to get up immediately from breakfast to go find Bill’s Head’s jar (which currently houses the remains of a terrarium; sorry if you’re disappointed to learn that it does not actually contain my floating head) and see if it’s the same one. Not quite, but close enough to give me a little tingle.

The picture is from the forthcoming book Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, by photographer Adam Voorhes and journalist Alex Hannaford. The book documents some of the “extremely rare, malformed, or damaged human brains”* that Voorhes discovered packed away in hundreds of jars in a storage closet at the University of Texas State Mental Hospital, including the stories of their former owners and the collection itself.

If you’re looking for something to get me for my birthday or for Secular Winter Gift-Giving Holiday and Bad Music Extravaganza, the book will be published on December 2.


So says the book’s blurb on Amazon. You can also read more at the Washington Post.

Hunting for treasure in the sewers of London

Toshers made a living digging through the sewers of 19th-century London for items of value
Oct 022012

Some years ago I read Charles Palliser’s novel The Quincunx. Though I don’t remember much about the book at this point, it stands out in my mind as one of my favorites. Perhaps one day I will reread it and see if it holds up.

One thing I do remember from the book is that it introduced me to toshers (I have mentioned them before)–the people who made their living scrounging through the sewers of 19th-century London looking for items of value. I was therefore quite excited when I came across Mike Dash’s post about toshers in Smithsonian magazine’s Past Imperfect blog. Dash describes

the men who made their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.

The work was dirty and dangerous (“what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats”) but apparently surprisingly lucrative, earning toshers enough “to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class.”

After you’ve read up on toshers, learn more about what was going on beneath London in the 19th century in Dash’s post about the first attempt to build a tunnel under the Thames.

You could also read The Quincunx and let me know what you think.

Music review: The Turpentine Ray; Book review: Prague

In which Bill posts two Prague-themed reviews to reassure you that Bill's Head is still in business
Feb 112012

An acquaintance of mine plays in a band in Prague called The Turpentine Ray, and they’ve just released their first album, “The First TV Dinner.” They describe their style as “turbine room folk music,” and I’d say that’s as good a description as any.

My review of the album: I like it. And I’m not just saying that because I know the guy. That’s not a particularly insightful review, I know, but you can just go listen for free and decide for yourself if you like it. Be sure to buy it if you do.

A picture from Prague 

While we’re on the subject of Prague: I recently read Arthur Phillips’s novel Prague, which is set in Budapest and hasn’t much to do with Prague at all. Or perhaps everything to do with Prague. I had read a later novel by Phillips, The Egyptologist, a few years ago, or tried to, anyway–I think I got bored and quit before the end. So I was a bit skeptical when I received Prague as a gift, but it sounded like something I should like, and in fact was. I quite liked it, and now perhaps will have to give The Egyptologist another try.

Prague follows five 20-something American and Canadian expats living in Budapest, all of them longing for other places and people. The related ideas of nostalgia, longing, and discontent recur throughout the book–one of the characters is even a scholar of nostalgia. I’ve never been to Budapest but I have been to (and enjoyed) Prague and have heard that the two cities are similar–river down the middle, famous bridge, castle on a hill, funicular, etc. As I read descriptions of Budapest in Prague the mental images I formed were all based on Prague, so the book might as well have been set there as far as I was concerned. Perhaps it was my nostalgia for Prague and my occasional fantasy of life as an expat that made me like Prague.

If you’ve read the book (or any of his others) let me know what you thought.

Colds, collops, and meldrops: Bill’s Head snivels

Bill catches a cold and discusses some cold-related words
Oct 032011
Photo by Jen Waller

Though I don’t read a lot of detective fiction, I seem to be drawn to Scandinavian and Icelandic detective fiction, and I’ve been working my way through the Swedish Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell.* Last week I started the seventh book in that series, One Step Behind, and within the first two paragraphs read this passage:

…the dampness had nonetheless seeped through his clothing. He felt a sudden flash of anger. He didn’t want to catch a cold. Not now, not in the middle of summer.

Come on: it’s the 21st century (well, it was still the late 20th when the book was written, but still). Don’t we all know that viruses cause colds, not damp weather? In typical Bill fashion I was getting all annoyed at Henning Mankell for propagating an old wives’ tale–I even highlighted the passage and added a cranky annotation (yay, Kindle!)–but then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he as the author knows better even if his character does not.
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Read any book you want on Kindle for free*

Bill shows you how to turn dead-tree books into e-books to make them more fun to read.
Jul 152011

So you got yourself a Kindle, and that’s awesome. No more page-turning hassle or looking like an unhip person when you read on the subway. No more squinting at tiny print if you are an old person. No more carrying around War and Peace in your bag all the time just in case you finish the latest Twilight installment while reading in the park and need to start a new book immediately.

But of course there’s a catch: reading dead-tree books just isn’t exciting any more, and it makes you look like a Luddite anyway. So how are you ever going to get through the dozens of “legacy” books sitting on the bookshelf waiting to be read, if you can’t afford to re-buy them in Kindle edition? How will you read that exciting new book that isn’t available on Kindle because the publisher thinks it’s still 2008?

Fortunately there’s an easy solution, and it’s free*. Here’s how.

What you will need:

  • The box your Kindle came in.
  • A sharp cutting instrument, like a scalpel or X-ACTO knife. A potato peeler can be used in a pinch.
  • A straightedge, if you want to be really precise.
  • Maybe some scissors for the corners. You could use the scissors for the straight parts, too, instead of a potato peeler, if you’re careful.

First, look at your Kindle box. Notice that the front of the box has a full-size picture of a Kindle. Now look more closely. The picture is strangely lifelike. Run your fingers over it. It’s embossed! The buttons really feel like buttons! Do you see where this is going?

Using your cutting instrument (and, optionally, straightedge), cut out the rectangular shape of the Kindle from the box. Do the same thing to cut out the fake “screen” from the fake Kindle, leaving a hole.

Round off the corners of your cutout (this is easier with scissors) so it’s curvy like a real Kindle.

If you’ve done everything correctly and carefully you should now have something like this:


Now you can Kindlify any book:

201105246 201105248

Look! You’re reading on a Kindle! War and Peace is much more fun this way! And notice that you have a color Kindle way before anyone else does, which is great for picture books and glossy magazines. Also you can have awesome color screen savers that will put everyone else’s hacked screensavers to shame:


This Kindlification technique works best, obviously, if the book is roughly Kindle-sized. If it’s too big, you might need to trim it a little bit to fit more convincingly, but that should be easy since you already have your scissors out.

Happy reading!


Free if you already own the book.
If you have thrown the box away, ask your friends if they still have theirs. If you don’t own a Kindle you can still use the technique described in this article to create a faux Kindle from someone else’s box so that you will fit in and not be embarrassed by your primitive reading techniques.