January 25, 2010

Book 5: Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

There isn't too much to be said for this book, which basically lives up to its title and provides readers with a fun, quick glossary of major philosophical terms as the authors liven up an esoteric and thought-based discipline. Divided into sections covering everything from metaphysics to metaphilosophy, Cathcart and Klein construct a sort of narrative, traveling through the most important philosophical questions in an order that makes sense and with astounding clarity. Jokes aside, it is clear that the authors know their philosophy and bring a genuine desire to help readers gain an understanding of the field, difficult as it may be. The jokes, of course, do not hurt and in fact the authors are able to deftly pull off the whole conceit: philosophy may in fact be at its best and most accessible when revealed through these jokes, all of which sufficiently illustrate a principle as intended and many of which deserve audible chuckling or re-telling. Recurring characters Dimitri and Tasso introduce and conclude each chapter with a bit of weak shtick, but they do provide a way for readers to see how the philosophy to follow (or preceding) can arise from questions puzzling real (or are we?) people living in the real (or is it?) world. Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar will provide a basic philosophical background to newcomers but, more importantly, has great value as a reference book as well, ready to clarify with solid examples. While its authors can exude a bit too much comedic bravado in their passages introducing philosophical principles and the jokes that (always brilliantly) illustrate them, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar is a quick, entertaining, and accessible guide to philosophy, which after all may well deserve to be approached with tongue firmly in cheek.

Grade: A

January 24, 2010

Book 4: The Truth of Buffy

The Truth of Buffy: Essays on Fiction Illuminating Reality
Edited by Emily Dial-Driver, Sally Emmons-Featherston, Jim Ford, and Carolyn Anne Taylor

Pop culture is often maligned for being throwaway entertainment, and it may therefore seem somewhat strange to see a minor network's show about a teenage girl battling various demons praised with the critical acclaim and academic study afforded to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy does, however, probe deep and complex philosophical and moral issues throughout its seven-season run, the variety of which is reflected in the essays of The Truth of Buffy. Tackling issues raised in and developed by Buffy, various academics explore the academic side of popular culture and universally defend the ability of a genre-bending cult phenomenon to be both popular and smart. While some essays, such as baffling show-off "Is It Art," which wastes its pages showcasing the author's knowledge of classical art while almost completely ignoring "Hush," perhaps the series's best episode, fall into typical academic pitfalls, the quality of the essays is generally passable. "Not Just Another Love Song" and "The Ants Go Marching" tackle the particular uses of music in the series, providing interesting insights into some of the art of television as displayed in Buffy. Other essays, such as "What Shall Cordelia Say?," "Witchy Women," and "Is That Stereotype Dead" get a bit off track but adequately work to put Buffy in a greater artistic context, exploring the way that the show plays off of predecessors like Shakespeare or within the context of modern Native American stereotypes.

The most successful and, therefore, interesting essays are, however, the pieces that examine the content of Buffy over several of its seasons and examine the way in which the series illuminates life. "Lord Acton Is Alive and Well in Sunnydale" provides an interesting, if somewhat stunted, look at power politics in the Buffyverse and would form an excellent basis for a further probe. Likewise, "Willow's Electric Arcs," which examines the power of interpersonal connections to affect our actions, seems like a specific case-study in what could well become a larger examination of human psychology and moral choice. Several essays, in fact, tackle the peculiarly deep moral questions offered by Buffy and the Scoobies as they discover that simple good/bad distinctions do not function in the real world or, in fact, in Sunnydale. "I'm Cookie Dough" offers a post-feminist reading of Buffy, thoughtfully and intelligently engaging questions of Buffy's status as a feminist icon, coming to a reasonable conclusion by avoiding the shrillest voices on either side of the debate.

Overall, the essays in The Truth of Buffy may falter at points, with none seeming to be a piece of standout scholarship, but taken together they provide a strong starting point from which fans of the show can begin a more academic exploration of the many merits of the show, as a work of art, an intellectual playpen, or as a product of the context in which it was created and viewed. Essays such as "Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs" even have resonance beyond the series, placing it in an artistic context as a teleplay and providing long-time viewers with an explanation of why the series hangs so many lampshades and how this practice affects the show and its viewers. Most delightful to Buffy fans, however, will be a study of the myriad allusions that make the show a witty viewer's delight. "Texting Buffy: Allusions of Many Kinds" only begins to scratch the surface regarding the show's beloved tactic of dropping as many references as possible. Dealing only with outside references (ignoring inter-episode allusions and inside jokes), the authors statistically study the pop-culture name-dropping that makes Buffy so intelligent, probing the reasons why Xander, for example, makes the most and why Andrew, present for only two seasons, makes 3% of the show's references. The essay is, like the others, loving and appreciative of the depth and artistry of Buffy. The Truth of Buffy may not meet the highest of academic standards and may not contain the most well-written material, but it should please Buffy fans as a jumping-off point to explore the richness provided by, yes, a show about a teenage girl killing vampires.

Grade: B+

January 17, 2010

Book 3: In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood
Truman Capote

I have long been skeptical of true crime, but this book may have single-handedly changed my mind about the genre, evoking a perfectly executed sense of mystery in a known historical situation and demonstrating the power of good writing and plotting in creating a compelling narrative. In Cold Blood follows the true story of a multiple homicide in rural Kansas in 1959; with the book being released in 1965, the public already had the means to discover the ending, which is given away by modern back copy. The appeal of In Cold Blood is not in discovering who committed the murders, but in tracing their steps, reconstructed realistically from their own words and admissions, and meticulously examining the psychological impact of the crimes on the people of tiny Holcomb, Kansas and on the murderers themselves. Capote possesses a brilliant, esoteric gift for evoking suspense; his language draws readers in immediately, spares no details, and makes one want to keep reading. This is no small achievement given that readers already know how the narrative ends; the quality of the suspense and characterization in this book are a testament to Capote's supreme talent and narrative eye. He knows just how to construct his story, knows just which details to reveal at just the right moments, to construct a narrative that rivals the best novels for its sheer appeal.

Despite the grisly subject matter, and the fact that Capote ultimately spares readers no details, much of the writing within the book is beautiful. Descriptions of rural Kansas and its changing weather patterns rank among some of the most evocative writing I have read and Capote's ability to explore the psychology of hunters and hunted achieves the impossible: readers get to know the murderers intimately and may actually come to feel for them. Capote possesses a keen awareness of the human psyche, and his characterizations are remarkable and, more importantly, easily believed. Throughout the book, Capote aims to depict the events as truthfully as possible, offering embellishments on embedded pieces of the historical record to weave his own observations and conclusions seamlessly in with related primary sources while resisting, for the most part, the trend of modern nonfiction authors to expound on tangentially related subjects at length, often to the detriment of the narrative. The few brief sojourns taken by Capote are relevant and build on the narrative without allowing readers to escape from it completely. In fact, the only time the book falls flat is toward the end where large blocks of testimony are reproduced without interruption or embellishment; the reader here longs for the rich prose of the chase, for the depth with which Capote probes the reaction of the event's major players. Though its final chapter may leave a bit to be desired, it is no wonder that In Cold Blood is upheld as the seminal work of true crime, one that transcends its genre and which is, throughout, a profound look at human nature and the psychology within us we may prefer to ignore.

Grade: A

January 13, 2010

Book 2: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell

Some books are obviously, painfully meant for critics, and are often as a consequence difficult for the ordinary reader to slog through with any enjoyment at all. Others, however, are so brilliant and well-executed that serious readers and critics alike can enjoy and appreciate them; Cloud Atlas is, to my mind, a fine example of the latter species. With a structure difficult to pull off and remarkably original given its inherent simplicity, Cloud Atlas not only delivers six enthralling stories but, in doing so, forces readers to think about the effects of stories and storytelling. The book is set up as a series of nested narratives, with the beginning story's second half as the very last part of the book; the sixth (and perhaps the most compelling) is presented in the unbroken middle. The structure can get a bit clumsy at times, especially as readers descend from the strongest stories to the weakest, but its fiction-within-fiction-within-fiction conceit serves its overall storyline and narrative thrust instead of imposing an impressive structure on mediocre narratives. True, few of the stories are exemplars of their genres ("Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" is a fairly standard, though fun, thoughtless mystery and "An Orison of Sonmi~451", despite being well-executed and touching, riffs on dystopian themes heard time and again), but each is more than sufficient and each lends its own particular voice and rhythm to Mitchell's larger examination of the role that storytelling has in our society.

Each story stands on its own but, more cleverly, appears in the stories around it as well, creating a nested effect greater than the physical layout of the book may at first imply. Mitchell weaves his stories together carefully on the way to the middle story, with characters finding the first half of the preceding story cut off, much as the reader has. This creates a nice layered effect but unfortunately loses some steam as the interconnectedness of the stories becomes connected; this becomes particularly wearisome as the stories descend to the first and the discovery of the second half of the story, introduced with profoundly moving simplicity at the end of the middle piece, thereafter is accomplished with decreasingly successful plot devices. Cloud Atlas does, however, carefully and remarkably reveal subtle plot details as the stories move chronologically forward; we find out, for example, that "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is experienced as a movie by the protagonist of "An Orison of Sonmi~451", and the concluding half of his narrative includes side notes to a projected future director, lovingly nicknamed Lars. Similar clever bits allow those in the chronological future to dwell on the fates of those whose stories precede and inform their own without revealing too much of the plot.

There are times, however, that the whole conceit wears a little thin, as Mitchell allows his characters to discusses their reactions to his own stories. It is almost insufferable to hear Luisa Rey gush about the poignancy inherent in the "Letters from Zedelghem", as it is obvious that Mitchell is in the business of congratulating himself instead of allowing the stories to speak for themselves, which they do in many other varied and interesting ways. The evolution of language, for example, to include future adoption of brand names as generic nouns (nikes are shoes, disneys are movies and, most intriguingly, to judas is to betray) is introspective and well-executed. There is no question that, though Mitchell may only truly master the forms of the modern comedy and apocalyptic oral history, his ability to operate in numerous utterly distinct genres is absolutely incredible. "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" would certainly not deserve critical praise but it may, in fact, find itself selling moderately well as a middle-of-the-road newspaper thriller, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" is a well-equipped post-apocalyptic tale, and Somni does, though treading familiar ground, make interesting points about corporate culture and a possible future trajectory. Most enjoyable, however, is probably Timothy Cavendish's ghastly ordeal, whose second half far eclipses its first and provides the last truly great moment of the novel.

Cloud Atlas
aims to demonstrate, with its interlocked stories and its unique narrative structure, that stories and language are essential building blocks with which we construct a coherent and shared view of the world. Even "Half-Lives", the only story presented in the third person, fundamentally revolves around communication and has a newspaper reporter as its protagonist. Each of the stories is serviceable on its own, though it is tough to know that "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" is the final chord struck in the symphony. Its very final notes are effective but the novel's best moments are peppered throughout its rich middle sections, but this is the only major failure of the book's gutsy structure. Cloud Atlas is a rich and rewarding reading experience that manages a tricky dance of crescendos and diminuendos among clumsy tangos and midnight rendezvous. The book is a joy to read both for its enthralling contents and in the way it employs an unique structure to speak to the importance of stories to all of us and, perhaps, to underline the tenuous threads connecting us to the past and the future.

Grade: A

January 4, 2010

Book 1: Erewhon

Samuel Butler

How better to begin a new year and new decade than with a healthy dose of sarcastic, biting satire wrapped in a nice conceit? I figured so, at least, and began the year with Samuel Butler's biting yet dated Erewhon. Beginning as so many Victorian samples do with a nested conceit assuring the reader that the fllowing astonishing account is, in fact, absolutely true. This sets up an evocative, but somewhat boring, account of the man's overland journey to Erewhon, an expansive human-controlled kingdom as yet undiscovered and possessing a rich cultural heritage of its own. The form and plot, such as it is, are serviceable though small semblances of plot often go missing for several pages during Butler's own intense intellectual journeys into satirical jabs at Victorian society. These are well-constructed and sufficiently thought out to apply even to our own time; Butler's vision of mechanical evolution and the rights of animals and plants, ostensibly penned by Erewhonian philosophers, are at once scathing and intriguing, particularly in an age when computer sentience seems to be on the horizon.

Though much of the satirical elements in Erewhon are dated and lost among the large patches of dull prose, some of it cuts through and is quite hilarious in its send-up of Victorian manners and, indeed, our own continuing follies. I am sure there is a relevant and witty satire of the institutions of religion in the Musical Banks and the peculiar Erewhonian treatment of crime as a disease and disease as a crime has gained new relevance in our age of never-ending mental disorders and chemical advances in neuroscience. Most biting is the criticism of institutions of higher learning; indeed, they do seem like Colleges of Unreason and though Latin is undeniably important to a select group of scholars, I am with Butler in thinking that teaching hypothetical languages to every student may not be the most effective use of higher education and skyrocketing tuition bills. The conceit, while obviously a thin narrative framework constructed to support the satire, does come to a hilarious end when the narrator begins to embody those characteristics he seemed to despise in the Erewhonians, displaying equal or greater foolishness than the misguided future converts. Even better, however, is his growing desperation amidst fears that his plan to profit off of Erewhon will be usurped by a pretender. Here the conceit works, for the first time, perfectly, proving that good satire can coexist with such rarities as plot and character. Erewhon is well worth reading for its jabs at Victorian culture, but will be best appreciated by those with a background in that culture or with accompanying introductions to ground the time-tied cultural criticism that makes the bulk of the book.

Grade: B