Saturday, January 24, 2009

the dumbest things you've never heard of

Title: Stupid History
Author: Leland Gregory
Other stuff on cover: Tales of stupidity, strangeness, and mythconceptions throughout the ages

Remember Weird Al? Remember his song "Everything You Know Is Wrong"?

This is like the book version. Every single page contains one or two snippets of history, culture, and occasional science that made me want to start looking up alternate sources to verify them. It's a little difficult because Gregory includes no bibliography, but for the amount of stuff in this little book, the bibliography would add another forty or fifty pages. Sadly, I already knew a handful of the stories, which was enough to convince me that at least an overwhelming majority of these stories are true.

Most are about events or people you've never heard of before (The War of the Stray Dog, p.255; The War of the Oaken Bucket, p.133), but a few tell the truth (Lizzie Borden, p.5; Emancipation Proclamation, p. 8), or posit suppositions (were Julius Caesar, p. 206, and James Buchanan, p. 244, gay?), about far more well-known historical figures. Most are true stories in history so incredibly stupid that I chafed my forehead rubbing it with disbelief. There were two separate cases of insects being successfully prosecuted (p.19, p. 74). The United States once had two presidents at the same time (p.43), almost thirty years after David Rice Atchison was president for a single day--though he didn't know it until years later(p. 29).

Some stories are about stupid situations or ideas, some about stupid people, and a few are about smart people that history has completely forgotten. They're entertaining on their own, though Gregory likes to tuck his own one-liners in at the end of almost every anecdote. Those jokes range from decent to abysmal, but I still have to have some respect for the guy's research. The book spans centuries, with at least a couple stories taking place in the past decade, and touches on topics as diverse as religion and the price of salt. To give you a taste, here's one of my favorites, from page 260:

After a lengthy court battle, the Missouri Ku Klux Klan was granted permission, in March 2000, to participate in the state's Adopt-a-Highway program. This victory would force the state to use taxpayer money to place Adopt-a-Highway road signs on a one-mile stretch of road advertising the KKK. The Klan's victory was crossed out the following month when their organization was removed from the program. The reason? The state legislature decided to name the Klan's designated portion of road I-55 south of St. Louis) after civil rights activist Rosa Parks--and the Klan never showed up to clean.

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posted by reyn at 3:09 PM


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dangerously Dull Dexter

Title: Darkly Dreaming Dexter
Author: Jeff Lindsay
Bookmark: hold slip from the library

It's nice to think that as writers write more, they get better. They must, because the second Dexter book was a lot better than this one. If I'd read this first, I probably wouldn't have bothered with that one. As it is, I think I'm done with the series anyway.

It's a nice enough gimmick: the serial killer crime solver, the serial killer as a good guy. Lindsay likes playing with the idea of how a serial killer thinks, but he only has one idea for that; every single one of his crazies has the same voice in their head, the same driving impulses, the same triggers setting off their violent urges. They all recognize each other on the street by the look in their eyes, and they all seem to know about the creepy Dark Passenger concept of psychotic killer mindset. Frankly, it gets dull and boring.

The inconsistencies in this book are worse, too. One moment Dex is bragging about needing very little sleep, the next he's bitching about getting only 9 hours of it a night. He flops back and forth between a ruthless calculating mind and screaming-meemies schoolgirl. Finally, it pisses me off that in two books about a forensic scientist axe murderer, he hasn't performed a single scientific act. He gets his insights on the killer in this book, I shit you not, through weird dreams.

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posted by reyn at 11:57 AM


Saturday, January 17, 2009

I Kant stand it.

Title: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar...
Subtitle: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
Authors: Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein
Bookmark: the wrapper from a cookie offered to me as Airport Emergency Rations

This was a Christmas gift from someone whose misguided love of philosophy nearly equals my own love of jokes. Upon receiving it, I was told that the goal was to bridge the gap: bringing me into the philosophy-loving fold using humor as the leash and choke chain. I later found out that an ulterior motive was "to annoy (me)." Guess which one won?

There are two links in my life to philosophy. One is a friend from college, who double majored in philosophy and physics. He claimed that this kept him from ever having to answer any questions, as almost any subject falls into (or near) one of those two camps. Asked a physics-related question, he could reply, "I don't know--I'm a philosophy major." Asked philosophy-related question, he could reply, "I don't know--I'm a physics major." I think I liked him because despite his interest in philosophy, he was willing to admit that a major in it was worthless. The other connection is my cousin, an idiot who serves no use whatsoever, except as a possible source of protein should you survive a plane crash with him in the Andes. Even then, I'd rather starve than pollute my constitution with such flabby, slack-jawed fare. He serves only to remind me how pointless a philosophy major is, and his occasional letters (to other members of the family) proudly illustrate how highly he holds himself in his own esteem, despite lacking the ability to provide anyone, anywhere, with any useful skill or service.

Philosophy may be interesting to some, but I don't see the point in churning out people who specialize in it. Everybody is a philosopher in some measure; we all think about life, death, greater meanings, etc. But the one thing that even most philosophers agree upon is that nobody really knows the answer to any of these questions--the only fun is in asking them. Which kind of eliminates the need for books on philosophy. I read to find answers. I already know the questions.

If your question is, "Can anyone explain philosophy to me, perhaps with the use of some light humor and fun new jokes?" the answer is, "probably, but not with this book." Sadly, it's the question I had in mind when I started reading it in the Columbus airport.

Both authors clearly have a deep love for both subjects, and neither author has any grasp of how to convey those subjects to someone else. I suspect that if I already knew a lot of philosophy, this could have been a fun, entertaining read. Knowing basically nothing going in, I had to settle for the jokes.

Lots of philosophical concepts are named or mentioned, but none are properly introduced. An entire sentence explaining some obscure new term is generous here; an entire paragraph rare, and a chapter unheard of. Even worse, the jokes peppered throughout to illustrate these obscure ideas are a little haphazard, and while they are usually introduced with a line like "In the following story, Marvin really comes to appreciate his ding an sich," the reader is given no clues as to what the hell that means, how Marvin comes to appreciate said ding an sich, or or even how the casual observer is supposed to come to such an absurd conclusion. It may help that Marvin is Jewish, because nearly every joke in the book is about Jewish people. Maybe they understand philosophy better.

Mark Twain, or maybe E. B. White (sources disagree), said that "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: you understand it better, but the frog dies in the process." Very true, but this book still needs a lot more explanation. The title itself promises a clearer understanding of one field via another, and despite my lifelong fluency with all manner of jokes, I still don't have any better a grasp on philosophy. Explain something to me, guys. Anything. Pick any damn concept anywhere in this book, and lay it out for me as though I'm not already an adept student of philosophy, because otherwise, those are the only people who will really enjoy your work. For the rest of us, dump the philosophical crap, cut about a third of the pointless, tired, or unfunny jokes (there are a few--most of the jokes are pretty good, but there are a few that don't deserve a place in a book of humor OR philosphy), and print it in a pamphlet, because by then, that's all you'll have left.

Oh, and get a freaking proofreader to fix your punctuation and make sure your sentences don't have leftover words from before you reworded them. Makes me crazy.

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posted by reyn at 4:05 PM


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Big Bad Cuckoo Daddy

Title: Dearly Devoted Dexter
Author: Jeff Lindsay
Bookmark: Two-dollar bill; a return on my investment in someone else's stake in a poker game

After chasing away banner ads on IMDB for Showtime's series, I found out that it was based on the first Dexter novel, but that one didn't get to my library (at my request) until this morning. Over the weekend, I placated myself with the second.

It took me a little bit (maybe two or three chapters) to get into it, but I eventually did, as I will with almost any well-written crime story. Besides, it was published by Black Lizard, which has a cool logo and also printed the six-pound behemoth I've been reading for several months now.

Dexter Morgan is a serial killer, but his adoptive cop father Harry saw what Dex would become very early in life and carefully molded him to follow what Dexter comes to call The Harry Code. Kill only serial killers; kill only those who escape justice by standard, legal means. Get proof. Be certain. Harry taught his homicidal honor student to be extremely careful, cautious, and patient. Dexter's "Dark Passenger," a semi-buried alter ego, drives him to kill. His sister is a cop who apparently knows what her adopted brother does in his free time. Oh, and he's a forensic blood-spatter expert for the Miami police.

Dearly Devoted Dexter shows us a monster well aware of his monstrosity, stalked by a cop whose partner was killed (not by Dexter, but he was there observing) at the end of the previous novel. His hounding keeps our mega-anti-hero from a "playdate" with a pedophile's accomplice and forces Dexter to bore the officer (Doakes) into submission by settling into a dull routine of visiting his girlfriend, whom he internally refers to as a disguise. Dexter doesn't experience emotions, so all emotional displays are carefully practiced charades picked up from movies and observing humans. His monotony is interrupted by entry in Miami of a horrifying new criminal.

A man is found, grossly dismembered, but still alive. A mirror suspended above him guarantees that he can see what he ahas become, and that any trace of sanity he might have once had is lost and gone forever, my darling Clementine. Dexter must team up with his sister and Doakes to find the fiend when his sister's new boyfriend is taken by the madman.

It's entertaining to read Dexter's completely detached observations and completely inappropriate remarks, but the symptoms of his madness--even the ones he himself constantly reminds us he has--are a little inconsistent, and for someone as smart as he's supposed to be, he does a few really stupid things. I didn't really buy the whole show, but I needed some dark candy, and this fit the bill. Plus, there's a constant theme of alliteration in Dexter's nicknames for himself and his observations that I enjoyed, and above all, it's still entertaining. And I asked the library to go find the first book, so now I have to read it.

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posted by reyn at 1:11 PM


Monday, January 05, 2009

The Magical Radioactive Smurf

Title: The Watchmen
Author: Alan Moore
Bookmark: the official 50% recycled bookmark of the Union Pacific railroad

Masked vigilantes (not "superheroes") have been outlawed by the federal government. Most of them are along the lines of Batman; highly trained physically, often with shiny gadgets, but no actual powers. Except for Doctor Manhattan. He was a normal particle physicist and watch fancier until the typical comic book Radioactive Incident made him into a glowing blue god-like being who can duplicate himself, change his size, teleport, alter matter at a subatomic level, and tends to walk around naked an awful lot.

The plot revolves around an impending nuclear war with Russia, and a huge convoluted plot to... well, that's actually part of the plot. Moore doles out tiny clues, red herrings, and details along the way, and although it's possible to guess who's responsible, there's no way in hell you'd ever be able to guess what the whole plan is because it's too damn far out there.

There's a really big deal over Watchmen right now because of the movie, and all the comic geeks are slavering over it, there's a lot of hype about people who don't like comics love it, and it even made Time Magazine's list of the 100 best novels...

and I'm just not sure why. The story telling has lots of little tricks, with extended flashbacks, side stories and archival documents to fill out the world Moore creates, but I never really cared for the story itself, or any of the characters. I mean, every character, even comic book heroes, should have some flaws or shortcomings to make them vulnerable and interesting, but every character in the entire massive work is a dickhead of some kind. Most are mainly concerned with themselves, or with nothing at all, and apparently got into vigilantism for the glory or potential lucrative modeling deals. The one character who fights crime solely for the purpose of fighting crime is a violent psychotic who raises himself above the criminals he hunts only by limiting his violence to criminals. The god-like Manhattan, who exists in all times and turn a bullet to vapor after it's fired, could care less about the welfare of people, including his girlfriend, and spends most of his time trying to discover subatomic particles (that bothered me mainly because someone with his level of power should have no trouble at all with such an endeavor). One of the violent psychopathic vigilantes is even a rapist. How am I supposed to care about the welfare of characters that I don't like at all in a plot line that is convoluted and bizarre even for a comic book?

Moore makes most of the world very believable: his masked vigilantes have no superpowers, and their escapades are made illegal to protect the populace. Then he launches far past believability with the Big Underlying Plot. It's all or nothing with the guy. It almost seems like he's trying to make a very human drama of people who in his world are seen as above humanity, while simultaneously threatening all of human existence, and I just don't buy any of it. I'm not even sure I want to see the movie anymore, and the only reason I read the book was to find out more about the movie and whether I wanted to see it. I guess that backfired a little.

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posted by reyn at 1:27 PM