21 May 2014

Uncomfortable cozy

This year I have read a gut-wrenching mystery set in Kenya, a tale of rogue bankers and child molesters in Iceland, a bait and switch mystery in Norway, a narrative about recycling and reuse, essays about the universe, a rather pleasant story about a village in Alaska, and an imagining of Plato in the 21st century USA. Except for Cold Storage, Alaska, it seemed pretty steep for me in my spare time. So, I figured I could pick up a "cozy" and just read through the mystery.

A cozy is a rather demeaning lable given to a mystery that keeps the awfulest stuff and sex in the background. Most "locked room" mysteries are cozies. (Some become horror stories, but that's a cinematic detour.) The locked room mysteries were a European invention where murders happened in isolated, old manor houses or castles and all the people involved were suspects and were confined to the house or the dining room or the parlor until the murder was solved, the storm abated, or help arrived from far away.

To me the term cozy descirbed all those murder mysteries that took place in TV's Cabot Cove, Maine. So I was in the mood for something entertaining and undemanding.

I picked up Louise Penny's How the Light Gets In. Penny's books that I'd read before (Still Life and A Fatal Grace) were pretty cozy, and I expected something similar. That's not what I read.

Well, it's my fault for not reading all of the Inspector Gamache novels. One of the earlier books hinted at nefarious plots in the Quebec police department. But it sounded like office politics. How interesting could office politics be?

Well, it wasn't just office politics and How the Light Gets In isn't just a mystery and isn't quite a cozy.

A lot of the story is set in Penny's village of Three Pines (her version of Cabot Cove), but the narrative extends to Montreal and northern Quebec. One part of the story was about the death of the last of the Ouellet Quintuplets (Penny's version of Ontario's Dionne quintuplets). [The Dionne quints were a big deal for my mother who was 11 years old when the 5 little girls became popular celebrities.] If Penny had stopped with that story, the book would have been a real cozy.

But the other huge story is about political and police corruption and has its roots in Inspector Gamache's first big case thirty years earlier. Some of it is told in explanations offered by the author. But there's a LOT that's not told and that makes the ending pretty lame. Hey, Louise Penny, do you like the Improbability Prize I offer this plot?

That ending aside, Penny creates great characters and tells good stories. And the action scenes near the end of the book were good enough to convince me to finish the book early in the evening so they wouldn't keep me awake at midnight. I enjoyed this. And Inspector Gemache is likely to make a reappearance even if he's retired from the Quebec police. I'll look for another (its publication date is August 26), but I won't automatically assume it's a cozy.

Have you read How the Light Gets In? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Okay, okay, last minute discovery. The CBC has produced a two-hour television movie of Penny's first book, Still Life. Check out the promo.

07 May 2014

I used my free will to read philosophy?

My daughter gets part of the blame for this. Back when she was a senior in high school, she and some friends convinced a colleague to teach a little philosophy course for them. My colleague was a philosopher at heart and jumped at the chance, even though it added to his teaching load.

Skip ahead a decade and my colleague retired. I inherited teaching the course (but as part of my regular teaching load).

As an undergrad, I'd been intimidated by higher math and by my mathlete friends who were fans of the philosophy department's logic courses. I avoided both disciplines as much as possible.

Walter Cronkite in '53
Somewhere along the way I read Plato's Apology. My understanding of it benefited from a 1953 CBS episode of You Are There in which actual CBS reporters "showed up" at the prison where the Socrates was orating and interviewed observers. Some of the actors in the scene were Robert Culp as Xenophon and E. G. Marshall as Aristophanes. Paul Newman and John Cassavetes are both given credit for playing Plato at IMDB.com. Walter Cronkite was the anchor at the studio desk and interacted with the reporters at the scene. Oh, and Sidney Lumet directed this episode. The TV production was based on a 1948 radio script.
Cassavetes as Plato; Culp as Xenophon

That's how shallow my understanding was. (Go ahead. Ask me if I get sidetracked sometimes.)

Luckily, my colleague left behind lots of great teaching ideas. I got interested. Since I couldn't ad lib about anything philosophical, I had to read a lot on my own and come up with teaching ideas too. And I think I created some good ones.

All that is prologue to reading Anthony Gottlieb's review of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's book, Plato at the Googleplex, Why Philosophy Won't Go Away. A couple people later panned the review, but it persuaded me to buy (yes, buy) a copy of the book and dig into it. (That digging took awhile. That's why I haven't written anything here for six weeks.)

There are two kinds of chapters in the book. One set of chapters are essays on Platonic and Socratic ideas and the culture in which they were created. The one I latched on to best primarily addressed the question of why the 4th century BCE in Greece was different from the centuries that preceded it in other places. Other chapters describe the culture of Athens, explain Socrates' decision to die, and analyze Plato's famous cave.

Alternating with those chapters are episodes in which Plato appears in the present-day United States. He visits a philosophy class. He goes on a book tour to promote his work that includes a stop at the Googleplex, the corporate headquarters of Google, Inc. to discuss crowdsourced ethics, a debate at the 92nd Street Y about child rearing, a session with Dear Margo, helping her answer questions from readers, an interview with a dismissive, right-wing radio host, and a session with a neuroscientist and a cognitive scientist about free will. That debate ends as the scientists are about to observe the operation of Plato's brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In each of these chapters about the 2400-year-old philosopher visitng the USA, there's a dialogue. Maybe they're modeled on dialogues Plato wrote. (Someone more knowledgeable will have to tell us.) But for the first time I sort of understood what was being debated. I reveled in those chapters. In his review, Gottlieb suggested that the philosophical essays were more valuable and the imaginary dialogues could have been omitted. I think the opposite is true. I read the words of the essays, but I didn't struggle to understand them. I did concentrate on the dialogues. The book is over 400 pages. I'd be okay with losing the essays.

So now it's up to you to read Plato at the Googleplex (I think it's worth the time) and tell us what you thought of it. Write and tell this little bit of the world.

Or, if you've read something else you would like to recommend or advise avoiding, you can write too.