Monday, January 12

Read a book, ya idjits

I'm going to guess there aren't too many places outside fan fiction where you'll find Supernatural mentioned in the same breath or sentence as Hamlet. Let alone Aristotle, Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant (who's a real pissant), or Thomas Aquinas. Or Simone du Bouvoir. Or many other philosophers.

Just so we're clear: yes. I mean *that* Supernatural.

Not the idea of the supernatural, or defining the supernatural, though I think a great many philosophers have covered that ground.

For that one person who is reading this review and now scratching their head, I present to you Supernatural and Philosophy: Metaphysics and Monsters...for Idjits. Which isn't that bad an introduction to certain basic concepts in philosophy. 

I'm really not kidding.

The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series keeps drawing me back, and they're pretty much my only experience with philosophy at all (I'm familiar with literary criticism, so I got some from that context). Partly because the subtitles keep amusing me. Partly because I want to know how the authors are going to convert the apparently ridiculous to the oddly sublime. And because there are far worse ways to learn a thing or two.

Metaphysics and Monsters...for Idjits is broken down into four sections, each with several chapters; there's "Of Monsters and Morals", which begins with what a "moral monster" might look like (Sam Winchester without a soul does *not* meet the criteria), and ends with an exploration of the value -- and plausibility -- of Team Free Will.

And then there's "Life, Liberty and the Apocalypse", which provides several philosophical looks at both Hell and Crowley -- according to Chapter 6, Hell is a Democracy, as opposed to Heaven's dictatorship.

Other essays in this section examine the Winchester boys and Hunters in general from a chivalry/masculinity perspective (unsurprisingly, for those who know anything about chivalry, both boys represent that chivalric ideal to greater and lesser degrees), and compares the Supernatural episode "Jus in Bello" with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

"Evil by Design" comes next, which...mostly covers God, including a very rational discussion of how angels in the Supernatural universe can legitimately (like Uriel), be atheists.

And, naturally (I suppose), the text ends with a section titled "It's Supernatural"; the nature of what is "supernatural", and Love, Supernatural-style.

Speaking just for myself, I would have liked to see a few more feminist readings or colonialist readings addressing some of the more problematic aspects of Supernatural, but I suppose that would be a book titled "Supernatural and Literary Criticism." And, I can admit it: the show's writing probably won't hold up well to that kind of scrutiny.

Overall, though, what I liked best about the book -- in addition to the opportunity to go digging through Supernatural .gifs -- is the careful, sober way the authors look in-depth at a TV show that's been called "Scooby Doo for adults." Whether you like, love, hate, or are utterly indifferent to Supernatural, if you're interested in the intersection of pop culture and philosophy, I recommend this series in general, and this book in particular. Go on, learn something.

If you're interested, please jump over to Cannonball Read to buy, and raise a little money for cancer while you're at it.

A New Year, Same old Crazy

Book cover: Crazy Like a Fox(Several words of warning: There are very mild spoilers for the book down toward the end, but nothing an astute reader couldn't figure out from the description and the genre.)

I figured that, as it's a whole new year and all, that it was time to pay a third visit to Lil Littlepage-Eller, Boris, and the rest of the free-form asylum also known as Crazy, VA. So far, the Lil & Boris series has been a nice series of comfort nibbles with inhabitants I've always described as well-characterized, from Sheriff Lil herself right down to the local drunk. I've now read three of these books, and Crazy's and her cast of characters are starting to feel like the sort of familiar faces that make me, at least, want to sink right down into the book and lose myself for a few hours.
Most days, I think my life can’t be much more difficult than it is just because I’m me. I hate it when I’m wrong. --Lil, at location 30 in the Kindle version
This trip was engaging, entertaining, amusing, a little heartbreaking. But, at the same time, the read wasn't quite what I expected.

Saturday, January 3

Chaos, Confusion, Twain and Tesla

The Five Fists of Science, by Matt Fraction (Art by Steven Sanders) is one of those books. I really wanted to like it, and it has a promising premise, but in the end it's more a fun concept than a good story.

Is it a graphic novelette? Yes. Is it steampunk? Sort of. Is it a superhero comic? Maybe? Lovecraftian? Yes, that. Is it an Alternate History with Famous Personages? Yes, also that. Plus, I think there was some influence from Godzilla and also possibly that really awful remake of Lost in Space.

Or: it's a graphic novel wherein Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, Baroness Von Suttner, the wholly fictional Tim, and, ultimately, Marconi (the father of radio) join up to...

...well, to use a mech and fight the Axis of Evil represented by Edison, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie. Who I think were intent on raising Chthulhu. I'm still really not sure and I read it through twice (it's a quick read). Though, honestly, I'm not sure it matters what the plot was. The author (and the artist) had my interest at "Twain and Tesla Fight Evil." 

Speaking of the art, although the characters and backgrounds are well-drawn, there were a handful of times I was a bit confused about some of the characters in-panel. And, the style itself isn't my favorite.

Overall, though, the story is a ridiculous romp that I suspect was trying to include a point about the causes of War and Peace in humanity. That gets lost, however, in the spectacle that is Mark Twain and Nicola Tesla sniping at each other, The Baroness sniping at both (with one -extremely- awkward moment between her and Tesla), and a giant steam-and-electric robot giving the smack down to a series of increasingly unlikely and mostly projected spectral monsters.

(This was a gift from El Cicco, my lovely partner in the 2014 Book Exchange. I am so grateful to have had my sense of delight in the ridiculous indulged in this way. There will be a review of "The Great Mortality," my other gift, once I've read it. And the chocolate, for the record, was intriguing and delicious.)

Read as part of Cannonball Read 7. Please use their links to purchase this or any other book I might review, as the whole point of this (other than reading is FUNdamental) is to raise money for cancer research.

Friday, June 20

Ticking Like a Time Bomb, Baby

Cover of "Gone Crazy" by Shannon Hill

Crazy kept on ticking. Just like a time bomb, was what I was thinking that night.

(p. 167, Loc. 1873)
Lil Littlepage Eller and Boris (he of the sharp claws and teeth) are back in action in Gone Crazy, the second of Shannon Hill's "Lil and Boris" series. This time, Lil's not only dealing with trying to find a place to live in Crazy that isn't with her Aunt Marge and Marge's beau, a new resident in Crazy named Raj who's both in love with her best friend Bobbi and making the local "whites only" crowd more than a little upset, various holidays (or, rather, local excuses to get drunk and disorderly). Not to mention a rash of nude teenagers.

"Do me a favor," I said. "When you talk to your son? Explain clothes." (p. 136, Loc. 1534)

Just to top matters off, she's also investigating the murder of Vera Collier, matriarch of the Collier clan. In Lil's own words:

"[The federal government] could go around the Colliers and Paint Hollow, or through them. It took them about half a minute to decide it was easier to go around.
And that's how everyone feels about the Colliers." (p. 7, Loc. 87)

I've realized, and I may have mentioned this in my previous review of Crazy, VA, that I really enjoy murder mysteries as a "comfort food" sort of reading. And two books into the series, I can definitely say that Lil and Boris hit that spot just perfectly for me. I picked up Crazy, VA because it was a free Kindle offering, but I enjoyed it enough that I bought Gone Crazy and am probably going to pick up the next one in the series before I head off on a plane trip. 

Crazy is, well, crazy. It also has the small-town dynamic I'm familiar with from places I've lived and worked. Lil remains real and relatable, even if Boris isn't, entirely (Boris is far smarter than any cat I've ever encountered, and my sister's and cousins' cats are pretty darn clever).

Boris didn't approve. He has a hate-hate relationship with the vet, ever since Dr. Mitchell neutered him and he bit Dr. Mitchell so hard the man needed stitches and antibiotics. (p. 15, Loc. 169)
Fair enough. I've got enough stories of Animals Behaving Badly at the vet that maybe Boris is quite real and a lot of what comes across as unreal is Lil's habit of anthropomorphizing him. After all, once upon a time my roommate's iguana bit our vet so hard he had to get stitches and antibiotics.

In the end, though, it's the relationship of Lil with the other humans around her that mean Crazy's a place I want to keep coming back to. Especially in the summer when I'm looking for comfort fiction like a good ice cream cone.

 ...I had Crazy to look forward to. It wasn't what you'd call a good end to a good day.

It got a lot worse when someone tried to kill me.

On second thought, I'm happy to read about Crazy. But not so sure I'd want to live there.

Wednesday, April 30

Come for the Druid, Stay for the Pop-culture Quoting Ageless Hound (re-read)

"Toto didn't deserve that kind of trauma. He was so tiny."

Hounded Book CoverKevin Hearne's Hounded (Book 1 of the Iron Druid Chronicles) was yet another discovery I made through John Scalzi's Whatever; the short version of the Big Idea is that Atticus O’Sullivan is older than Jesus (sorry, them's the shakes) and being hunted by an angry Irish god. Well, in the first book. Eventually, he ends up being chased by a Loki who's convinced Ragnarok is just around the corner -- and Atticus' fault. Which it kind of is.

But that comes later.

I read the Big Idea and thought the basic story sounded intriguing. And, okay, I've got a soft squishy spot for shapeshifting and ancient magic in the modern world. And the novel (and its sequels) do provide that, and a well-thought-out mythology that does, in point of fact, include Jesus. And Coyote. And I know at this point I'm starting to make it sound much like American Gods. Which...there are a few similarities. Only the gods in Hearne's universe aren't dying. And O'Sullivan has pissed a fair number of them off (as opposed to Shadow who does end up pissing off the gods but it's more...situational...than intentional).

So that's what drew me in. What won me over was downloading the Kindle Preview and reading the following opening paragraph:
There are many perks to living for twenty-one centuries, and foremost among them is bearing witness to the rare birth of genius. It invariably goes like this: Someone shrugs off the weight of his cultural traditions, ignores the baleful stares of authority, and does something his countrymen think to be completely batshit insane. Of those, Galileo was my personal favorite. Van Gogh comes in second, but he really was batshit insane. (Page 1)
There is something about O'Sullivan's "voice" that I find very appealing and easy to read. And in fact I chewed through this book: swordfights, Gods and Goddesses and vampires and werewolves and...

...and I've left the best for last. O'Sullivan has a "pet", friend, familiar named Oberon, who is an Irish (naturally) Wolfhound. Due to O'Sullivan's Druidic skills, he can speak with Oberon mind-to-mind, and where I know it's been done, rarely does one see the following sort of exchange (O'Sullivan in italics):
I thought you said never to attack humans.
She hasn't been human for a very long time.
I do not think she will attack, though. She is a very nice inhuman.
You mean nonhuman. Inhuman is an adjective.[...]
Hey, I'm not a native speaker. Give me a break. (Page 28)
Oberon isn't particularly divine, isn't a guiding spirit. He's a dog who likes to hunt and to be told stories: 
Will you tell me about Genghis Khan's whores while I'm in the bath?
Hordes, not whores. He had both, though, now that you mention it. 
Sounds like he was a busy guy.
You have no idea.(Page 60)
Between Atticus' at once sardonic and justifiably world-weary voice and Oberon's strange combination of naivete and doggy-ness -- and I haven't even mentioned the lawyer Werewolf or the barmaid-turned-apprentice -- I'm fond of the characters. And since these books are an easy enough read that I can chew through one in an afternoon, I keep coming back when I'm looking for something that'll amuse me.
We don't need to play her witch's games. They always want to get you and your little dog, too. 
I knew I never should have let you watch The Wizard of Oz. 
Toto didn't deserve that kind of trauma. He was so tiny.(Page 87)
I recommend giving Hounded a try. O'Sullivan's universe provides a nice little twist on the 'urban fantasy' genre.

Thursday, January 30

A visit to M.C. Escher Park: The Relativity of Dogs, Cats, and Bunnies

"Wait, you have a 3m leash fitting under a 1.3m bridge? What is this, M.C. Escher Park?"  – Emmy the Dog (Loc 1291)

The point of the example confusing Emmy the dog (and me on the first read-through, if I'm being perfectly honest) is that "When trying to understand the effects of relativity, it's critical to keep track of which observers make which measurements at which times." One of the things I adore about How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog is the choice of examples, often from Emmy's point of view (or Nero the cat's -- but, as Emmy says, "'...cats aren't to be trusted. Particularly not cats named after insane Romans.'") that Orzel uses to explain various aspects of Einstein's principles of Relativity; from defining motion to the initial realization that maybe the universe didn't work quite as expected to the 1905 publication of Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, "Time Slows When you're Chasing Bunnies" (time dilation), "Honey, I shrank the Bunnies" (length contraction, including the paradoxes caused by misapprehension of who is perceiving what when) and on to spacetime and through the search for a Unified Theory of Everything. Orzel takes a conversational tone both with the reader and in his asides with Emmy, and if his teaching style is anything like his writing style I'd love to take one of his classes one day.

There are also charts and graphs (often representing the aforementioned Emmy and Nero, as well as a handful of other canine, feline, and inanimate friends), and Emmy is forever trying to use relativistic physics in her neverending quest to get her teeth on the tasty bunnies and squirrels who are forever out of her reach. Emmy, brilliant as she is, cannot under her own propulsion get up to near-light speeds.

"It'd be way more fun to measure a relativistic bunny than to do boring logical inference from experiments with atomic clocks."  – Emmy
"I'll keep that in mind in case I ever end up with the billions of dollars it would take to build a bunny accelerator."
  – Orzel (Loc 1349)

I picked up both How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Physics to your Dog after the latter was the subject of a "The Big Idea" post on John Scalzi's Whatever blog. And while I suppose it might seem insulting: Dogs, after all, are not on the same level of comprehension as people for most things. But the conceit amused me far more than "The Idiot's Guide To..." or "...for Dummies", and then the writing style engaged me, and before I quite knew what hit me I was more than halfway through the book and -- though I wouldn't say my understanding is remotely complete -- found myself more than halfway through the book and reluctant to put it down to go to work.

"'It's all freaky and makes my head hurt. All the stuff I thought was fixed and unchanging is all different.'" (Loc 1394)

In his "Big Idea" piece, Orzel sums up what he wants the text to do thusly: "To a dog, the world is an endless source of surprise and wonder. [...] If you can put aside human preconceptions about what ought to happen, and work through the consequences[...], you can better appreciate the power and beauty of the theory." Keeping that in mind, I consider his work a success, and absolutely recommend both How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Physics to your Dog as primers for anyone interested in physics or relativity – and anyone who understands the underlying concepts. Emmy's humorous stabs at using misunderstood portions of the concepts are the icing on the proverbial cake.

(Side note; links to from this blog will also raise money for ACS, just like the main Cannonball Read blog. Links from Whatever will not.)