A sinner’s guide to eternal torment
Reprinted Winter 2019. First edition sold out.
Now under option for television.

Hell and Damnation takes readers on a journey into the strange richness of the human imaginings of hell, deep into time and across many faiths, back into early Egypt and the 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh. This “urbane, funny and deeply researched guide,” as an early assessment put it, “ventures well beyond the Nine Circles of Dante’s Hell and the many medieval Christian visions into the hellish descriptions in Islam, Buddhism, Jewish legend, Japanese traditions and more.”

Thus, Hell and Damnation is more than a peek into the wormhole of the medieval imagination, more than a guidebook to cruelty, though it is both those things. It is, in essence, a commentary on the nature of faith, for the decline of hell (if, indeed, it is declining) has consequences for heaven too. This book is for those with an interest in the picaresque, but also for those who look on the human religious project with a certain skepticism, and are keeping a wary eye on the continuing overlap between faith and politics. It is less polemical (and more forgiving, and certainly more fun) than Dawkins and Harris, but with a similar point of view: it belongs on the shelves alongside those skeptics (and also alongside that curiously burgeoning publishing sub-genre, books that seek to “prove” that heaven is real).

On the other hand … you could place it in the Travel section.


Recently I had the pleasure of contributing a piece to The title is The Best Books Illustrating The Richness And Complexity Of African Cultures. Please click the link to check it out!

Coming soon:

The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin

Forest to wood to war to commerce to art

Whether we, homo sap, could have emerged to become masters of our cozy little universe without wood is of course moot. The fact is, emerge we did, as toolmakers and tool users, as flint-knappers and stone cutters, as smelters and smiths, as artisans and artists. It was wood (and the brainy creatures that understood it and wrought it and used it) that made humans competitive with beings far stronger and more deadly than us; it was wood that allowed our ancestors to kill, to build, to travel – and to make art.

This book is an idiosyncratic history of man and wood. There are extended essays on the three iconic artifacts of the title, with many diversions and digressions on forests, trees, and wood itself. All the three artifacts are caught at the absolute pinnacle of their craft. Projectile weapons have been speculatively dated back to 64,000 BCE, but none surpassed the Welsh and English longbow in terms of accuracy, speed of fire and deadliness. Wooden vessels date to the earliest coracles, but none showed the combination of versatility, brute utility and elegance of the schooner and the schooner’s apotheosis, that rakish beauty the clipper ship. Stringed musical instruments are as old as human culture but the “modern” violin of post-medieval Europe easily surpasses those that came before.

As presented here, the diversions are similarly grouped in three (forest, and tree, and wood). They are not intended to be sequential, but they are cumulative, each aimed at adding to the store of knowledge that has gone before. In execution, a mix of exposition, narrative and … oddities. In length, each diversion several thousands of words to a few paragraphs.