24 March 2008

Funny thing about philosophy

Last fall I noticed a little ad for a book in The New Yorker. The title caught my eye: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar... The subtitle, Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, convinced me to buy it for David for Christmas. The book is by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein [below].

David and I have enjoyed listening to Garrison Keillor's joke shows, reading political humor, and reading and talking about philosophy. (Sophie's World was one of his favorite books a few years ago.) So, I bought the book.

David read it in the days after Christmas. When he went back to Beloit, I asked him if I could read it.

There are some good jokes, but the title is just about the best thing about the book. The punchline is at the end of the book.

The jokes are illustrative of the topics in chapters on metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, existentialism, et al. But I was really lazy when I read the book. I often wanted more explanation for the connections between topics and jokes. In other words, I didn't always get the philosophy.

If I were still teaching philosophy, I would probably "borrow" some of these jokes to use in class. Well, maybe. I'm not one of those people who readily remembers jokes and tells them spontaneously. The jokes would have to be in the lesson plans and I'd have to rehearse them.

Well, what, you ask, are some of the jokes?

Here's an epistemological joke: "A scientist and his wife are out for a drive in the country. The wife says, 'Oh, look! Those sheep have been shorn.'

"'Yes,' says the scientist. 'On this side.'"

How about an existential joke?

"Norman began to hyperventilate when he saw the doctor. 'I'm sure I've got liver disease.'

"'That's ridiculous,' said the doctor. 'You'd never know if you had liver disease. There's no discomfort of any kind.'

"'Exactly!' said Norman. 'Those are my precise symptoms.'"

There's this from the chapter on the philosophy of language: "As the poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her partner, Alice B. Toklas, leaned over and whispered, 'What is the answer, Gertrude?'

"Replied Stein, 'What's the question?'"

Finally, there's a meta-philosophy joke: "A blind man, a lesbian, and a frog walk into a bar. The barkeep looks up at them and says, 'What is this — a joke?'"

Okay, my reaction is definitely mine. Your reactions will vary. If you're curious check it out.

04 March 2008

Characters and island suspense

Here's another set of comments I wrote about a Laurie R. King book. It's dated February 2004, but that can't be right. I wouldn't have been at Sidetrack in February and Kris wouldn't have been bringing guests at that time of year. Reading the entry carefully, I find I wrote this in July '03 and only got around to posting it at ReadingOnTheWeb in February.

Here's another of my favorite King books.

I was at Sidetrack for the purpose of cleaning and preparing the place for Kris and her friends from Madison who would arrive the next week. I was also dealing with the death of a cell phone thanks to the misfeasance of somebody at Amery's Radio Shack store. Oh, and there was a free range cat that kept hanging out on the deck between hunting trips. I thought it was the neighbor's cat. But the neighbor hadn't been around for two days.

I didn't get as much cleaning done as I'd intended. I was trapped by a book: Folly by Laurie R. King.

King first came to my attention as the author of a series of books about Mary Russell, a young woman who becomes a partner of Sherlock Holmes. Those were quite enjoyable. King also wrote four mystery novels about Kate Martinelli, a San Francisco detective. She's also written a couple other novels about interesting characters.

None of them prepared me for Folly. There are portrayals here of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome that set my teeth on edge. There's also the story of the brave and intelligent woman at the center of the book who struggles mightily with her feelings and her madness. There are enough real threats to add to the imagined ones to make the suspense palpable. Rae Newborn, the woman at the center of the stories, is living alone on one of the San Juan islands (i.e. no other island residents). The suspense in the story telling was enough to keep me from reading it after dark while I was alone at Sidetrack, even when there were neighbors here.

But it wasn't just the very well-told story that kept me reading that July afternoon when I should have been washing and vacuuming. It was the characters. King has always populated her novels with interesting people: the young woman at Oxford who seeks out a retired beekeeper as a mentor, a "retired" adventurous detective who keeps accepting commissions from highly-placed friends, a cop whose life away from the office is more important to her than the professional dedication she gives to law enforcement, and the quiet deprogrammer who infiltrated a dangerous sect for example.

Folly focuses on four generations of a family and the representatives of these generations are wonderfully drawn. The resilient main character is most complete, but the others appear as real people as well. It's not that I'd like to spend a lot of time with these people, but before I was very far into the book, I cared about them. Even the characters around the edges of the story are bright and clear.

So what makes this a wonderfully excellent book are the characterizations, the portrayals of imperfect people finding ways of coping, the carefully-told suspenseful tale, and the way it drew me into the world created by Laurie R. King. But that's just my opinion.

I finished the book only an hour ago, and I can already pick out some gimmicks and plot devices that I might criticize. But this book doesn't deserve nit picking. It deserves to be read and enjoyed.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the Pulitizer-winning book I wrote about in the last issue was not, to my mind, a great American novel. This may not be either, but it's better. And the tensions between sanity and insanity, struggle and acceptance, and love and resentment are as profound and universal as the themes of Chabon's book. If he can win a Pulitzer, Laurie R. King deserves one too.

What do you think?

Improbable upstart

In my continuing effort to bring reviews from the old ReadingOnTheWeb site to the new-fangled blog, I'm concentrating on my favorites.

Laurie R. King is one of my favorites. I wrote this after reading The Beekeeper's Apprentice back in August 2001.

When I read a review recently of a new mystery featuring Sherlock Holmes set in St. Paul, Minnesota and involving railroad magnate (Empire Builder) James J. Hill, I figured this Holmes stuff must be a trend. I had just finished a new post-Conan Doyle Holmes mystery myself and enjoyed it very much, thank you.

It's been a long time since I've read any Sherlock Holmes -- about 40 years.

When I was about 12 years old, I stayed at my great-uncle Clarence's home for a couple days. (He was a World War I veteran who belonged to the Fraternal Order of the Cooties, Minneapolis Pup Tent, in memory of those awful months in France.) He'd finished off an attic room and decorated it with books. One of them was Sherlock Holmes Detective Stories, which I devoured while a quiet guest. Uncle Clarence gave it to me when I went home. It's on my shelf right now.

The new Holmes mystery I read seemed to very much in the spirit of Conan Doyle's work. Maybe. Because all my Holmesian memories seem to come from Basil Rathbone movies, and the book is dead-on accurate to those images, phrases and accents. The book is one Nancy recommended, The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King [at left].

If you've ever wished that Holmes would get a gentle comeuppance, here's the book for you. And who better to chastise that old know-it-all than Miss Mary Russell, a 15-year-old American orphan "whose mental acuity is equaled only by her audacity, tenacity, and penchant for trousers and cloth caps." (quoting the book jacket flack)

The plot revolves around the kidnapping of the daughter of a US Senator who was visiting London. Holmes is lured out of retirement and persuaded to take on a teen-aged, female assistant to help Scotland Yard solve the case. Of course, the kidnapping was only a ruse to get Holmes out of retirement and into the world, so he could be killed.

It's a fine story of Mary Russell's discoveries about her new life as a ward in England and Holmes' world of treachery and detection. By the end of the book, Mary Russell is a student at Oxford and ready to take a term off to help Holmes solve another case. That must be what King's next book featuring Russell and Holmes, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, is about.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice is great fun -- just keep imagining Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes sputtering in the face of a brilliant young woman. And then imagine what Dr. Watson is doing!

02 March 2008

Good people, bad cops

Okay, I "know" I don't like violent, bloody, conflict-filled mysteries. I avoid reading them and I stop reading them when I start.

So, why did I like C. J. Box's latest violent, bloody, conflict-filled mystery? It's titled Blue Heaven. And I really liked this book.

In the opening scene, two kids witness a cold-blooded murder and become prey in a deadly chase. Those kids witness more murder and mayhem later, and nearly every character in the story is threatened by the bad guys.

There are lots of bad guys and lots of good guys (almost every character is a guy). There are few if any hints about how things are going to be resolved. Deadly threats hang over nearly every event in the story.

Box [left] does a masterful job of laying out the story. The action is nearly non-stop, but there's enough explanation for things to make sense. And nearly everything does make sense. I'm put off by unbelievable actions by characters in these stories, but incredulity only hit me once. I would have welcomed a little more explanation in the climax, but I'm a pretty literal reader.

Box's other books have been limited by some stock characters and some geography. This one is not, and I think it helped.

Joe Hartlaub, in his review at Book Reporter (see below), calls the book a "visual feast." I agree. Box does such a good job of painting word pictures of the people, events, and settings that it was almost like looking at story boards for a movie while someone described what was going on.

If any of you read this or any of Box's books, write and tell a little bit of the world what you think.

See also: