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What I read last month.  Some very gloomy fiction, beautiful sci-fi and fantasy, and ancient philosophy. The selection of most significant political interest today is I.F. Stone analyzing the trial of Socrates, which turns out to have a good deal of relevance to Teahad America.

A Dish Served Cold: Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen
Hank and Lana Wheeler lived in Elko, Nevada, where they owned a prosperous casino resort that featured a Russian dancing bear act. The bears were raised and trained by a semi-retired dominatrix who billed herself as Ursa Major.
Over time the Wheelers had become fond of Ursa and treated her as kin. When one of her star performers, a 425 pound neutered Asiatic named Boris, developed an impacted bicuspid, the Wheelers generously chartered a Gulfstream jet to transport the animal to a renowned periodontic veterinarian at Lake Tahoe. Hank and Lana went along for moral support, and also to sneak in some spring skiing.
On the return flight something went sour and the plane nosedived into the Cortez Mountains. Federal investigators later determined that, for reasons unknown, the convalescing bear had been seated in the copilot’s position at the time of the crash. Film recovered from a 35-mm camera owned by the Wheelers revealed several snapshots of Boris squeezed upright behind the steering yoke. In one frame, Ursa Major was curled laughingly on the beast’s lap, tipping a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream to its unfurled lips. In a subsequent photo, Boris had been posed in headphones and aviator glasses.
Taped communications between the Gulfstream and control towers en route confirmed a highly festive, and possibly distracting, atmosphere aboard the Wheelers’ jet.  Why it had suddenly gone down remained a mystery, though Ursa’s assistant surmised that the bear’s sunny humor had evaporated dramatically once the Xylocaine wore off. During the aircraft’s fatal corkscrew plummet, controllers attempting to radio the cockpit received only bestial snorts and grunts in reply.

This amazing story, with its bizarre character/caricatures and madcap “only in Florida” plot, makes me think of Elmore Leonard at his best. The violent crime and occasional forays into environmental degradation and elder abuse are sobering in spite of the overall tone; otherwise, it counts as a Delightful Romp.

The heroine is Joey Perrone, thrown overboard off a cruise ship by her dirty rotten husband. She survives, joins forces with the retired police officer who rescues her....and sets about getting her revenge.  Comic mayhem ensues.  And that’s all I can tell you about the plot without spoiling the wonderful twists and turns this story takes. In fact, don’t even read the dust jacket. My edition blabbed about the husband’s motive, which in the book unfolds over the first ten or so chapters.

Skinny Dip is maybe the most satisfying revenge story I’ve found since John D. MacDonald’s Pale Gray for Guilt.  Chaz Perrone and his associates are the most over the top assholes ever to get comeuppance, and watching it happen is a joy.  Very high recommendations.

Jagged Little Pills: Short Cuts, and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver
He starts to eat again, then throws the napkin onto his plate. “Goddamn it, why can’t people mind their own business? Tell me what I did wrong and I’ll listen! It’s not fair. She was dead, wasn’t she? There were other men there besides me. We talked it over and we all decided. We’d only just got there. We’d walked for hours. We couldn’t just turn around, we were five miles from the car. It was opening day. What the hell, I don’t see anything wrong. No, I don’t. And don’t look at me that way, do you hear? I won’t have you passing judgment on me. Not you.”
“You know”, I say, and shake my head.
“What do I know, Claire?” Tell me. Tell me what I know. I don’t know anything except one thing: you hadn’t better get worked up over this.” He gives me what he thinks is a
meaningful look. “She was dead, dead, dead, do you hear?” he says after a minute. “It’s a dman shame, I agree. She was a young girl and it’s a shame, and I’m sorry, as sorry as anyone else, but she was dead, Claire, dead. Now let’s leave it alone. Please, Claire. Let’s leave it alone now.”
“That’s the point,” I say. She was dead. But don’t you see? She needed help.”

I may be the only person there is who was fascinated by Robert Altman’s movie Short Cuts, based on several Raymond Carver stories that interlock in thematically fascinating ways.  Almost everyone I’ve talked to, most of whom I respect and admire, found it long and pointless or found certain scenes of sex or violence nasty and/or gratuitous. In fact, if you see the main theme of “masks” and “exposure” and all the ways in which people figuratively and literally disguise and reveal themselves (one character is a clown, another a stage makeup artist, another a pilot with tinted glasses, etc.), then that nude scene, in which the character is figuratively baring her heart while literally baring other parts, makes complete literary sense.  And then there are plays on words: “exposure” can also mean photographs, or a criminal caught in the act.  A hint that a lesser theme of “jeopardy” weaves through some of the stories involves a cameo by Alex Trebek, as himself.

Carver’s stories, on paper, are also full of little monkey tricks like that.  In one story, a baker’s apron is tied with the string going a certain way; in another, a photographer’s camera strap is described as tied in the exact same way; if you notice it, you might think about what the baker and the photographer have in common, and the mental hang-ups that tie them in knots on the inside.  Other people in different stories have the same pattern on their mattress, and they too may have a common pattern in their character as well.

Most of the plots have to do with people in bad marriages, or whose long term relationships have already ended but are still boiling beneath the surface.  One three-page story in particular, reminiscent of Roald Dahl at his darkest and thankfully not dramatized in the Altman movie, is the single nastiest piece of domestic horror ever likely to be put on paper

If finding and analyzing little literary tricks intrigues you, you’ve probably already read and loved Carver’s story collections. If it doesn’t, you might get bored or offended, and judging by my friends and family, you’d be in good company.  I’m part of the strange minority that loves it, and I hope you’ll at least give Carver a try.

What the ** do we know? Theatetus, Parmenides and Statesman, by Plato
My art of midwifery is in most respects like theirs; but the difference lies in this--that I attend men and not women, and I practice on their souls when they are in labor, and not on their bodies; and the triumph of my art is in examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man is bringing to the birth is a false idol or a noble and true creation. And like the midwives, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself, is very just; the reason is, that the god compels me to be a midwife, but forbids me to bring forth.  And therefore I am not myself wise, nor have I anything which is the invention or offspring of my own soul, but the way is this: Some of those who converse with me, at first appear to be absolutely dull, yet afterwards, as our acquaintance ripens, if the god is gracious to them, they all of them make astonishing progress; and this is not only in their own opinion but in that of others. There is clear proof that they have never learned anything from me, but they have acquired and discovered many noble things in themselves, although the god and I help to deliver them. And the proof is, that many of them in their ignorance, attributing all to themselves and despising me, either of their own accord or at the instigation of others, have gone away sooner than they ought, and the result has been that they have produced abortions by reason of their evil communications, or lost the children of which I have delivered them by an ill bringing up, deeming lies and shadows of more value than the truth; and they have at last ended by seeing themselves, as others see them, to be great fools.

Theatetus and Parmenides are related dialogues about epistemology. They touch on Plato’s theory of ideas as things that exist in form independently of their manifestation in the world, such that all the chicken coops of the world derive their identity as chicken coops from a single composite perfect chicken coop on another plane, complete with perfect boards and perfect nails, perfect chickens, and perfect chicken poop.  No offense meant (not much anyway) to one of the main founders of philosophy, but it’s hard to see how this kind of navel gazing helps the reader to understand the world, the good life, the best system of government, life, the universe or anything.

Theatetus is one of those dialogues where Socrates asks someone to define a philosophical concept and then trashes everything his victim has to say until the poor guy doesn’t know his own name any more. Usually there’s a point to it all, such as that you cannot truly be courageous or just or temperate without first having the wisdom to properly apply those values. In this case, the question is “What is knowledge”, and what happens is that the participants consider and reject the idea that knowledge is the same thing as perception (which I believe it is not, but their reasoning comes down to proving that observation is useless because things are always changing and the object you perceive today may be different tomorrow.  Whatever.) or “true opinion” (because it begs the question; you need to “know” in order to determine which opinion is the true one). The dialogue ends without anybody coming to any conclusion at all, and Socrates lamely saying that all is for the best because, knowing that you know nothing, you will be humble.  Parmenides is even worse; it consists entirely of what seems to me like pointless and nonsensical argument about the paradox of “the one and the many”, where if one exists then it cannot be many, and if it is not many it can neither be a whole nor have parts, because that would make it many, and the one cannot be the same as or different from itself, or equal or unequal to itself, or the same age as or younger than or older than itself or anything else and it therefore cannot exist, but the premise was that one did exist! Oh noes! And the whole dialogue goes downhill from there.  Plato fans: I admit that I understand it not; please come and explain to me why this dialogue is worth studying, and I will question you about it to appreciate the extent of your wisdom...

Statesman is more interesting, at least in the second half when they finally get past the need to explain how a king is different from a farmer or shepherd (and further, to explain how various animals that are herded or farmed are different from each other. Go ahead and skip this part; you won't have missed anything important) and get down to discussing what is the best form of government.  Bottom line: according to Plato, in descending order of possibilities, a wise monarchy is best, followed by meritocracy, enlightened democracy, lawless democracy, oligarchy, and dictatorship, so it makes a big difference whether the one ruler is a philosopher or just an asshole (sophist, in Greece) pretending to be wise to scam support. Unlike in The Republic, the main arguer (who is not Socrates in this one) admits that all kings believe themselves to be wise enough to be above the law, either because they really are or more likely because they're too foolish to see that they are not, and so we are better off settling for government by laws and not by rulers.  In fact, what Plato really does, intentionally or not, is clarify the ancient dilemma that rigid, no-exceptions application of written rules leads to stupid, even monstrous results in circumstances that would warrant making exceptions (think of those zero-tolerance policies that result in fifth graders being expelled from school for bringing a plastic knife in their lunchbox), while allowing discretion by lawmakers and judges can result in corruption and Star-bellied Sneetches getting more lenient treatment than the minorities.  Plato doesn't give real answers, but does get you thinking about the problem.

It’s All in your Head:  On the Soul, by Aristotle
Of the psychic powers above enumerated, some kinds of living things, as we have said, possess all, some less than all, others one only. Those we have mentioned are the nutritive, the appetitive, the sensory, the locomotive and the power of thinking. Plants have none but the first, the nutritive, while another order of living things has this plus the sensory. If any order of living things has the sensory, it must also have the appetitive; for appetite is the genus of which desire, passion, and wish are the species; now, all animals have one sense at least, viz. touch, and whatever has a sense has the capacity for pleasure and pain and therefore has pleasant and painful objects present to it, and wherever these are present, there is desire, for desire is just appetition of what is pleasant. Further, all animals have the sense for food (for touch is the sense for food); the food of all living things consists of what is dry, moist, hot, cold, and these are the qualities apprehended by touch; all other sensible qualities are apprehended by touch only indirectly. Sounds, colours, and odours contribute nothing to nutriment; flavours fall within the field of tangible qualities. Hunger and thirst are forms of desire, hunger a desire for what is dry and hot, thirst a desire for what is cold and moist; flavour is a sort of seasoning added to both. We must later clear up these points, but at present it may be enough to say that all animals that possess the sense of touch also have appetition.

Such a dilemma.  Plato reads like a novel, and all but two of his dialogues can be read in under two hours, but he's irritatingly wrong and even has supporting characters admit to fallacies while you're helpless to interrupt.  Aristotle is much more right and useful, but his thick, dense prose requires intense concentration to get through. I suppose that's how it is withe anything worthwhile. You have to pay the price.

On the Soul is one of Aristotle's shorter tracts, and it took me two weeks of slogging, putting it down and picking it up, and having to go back because I realized my eyes were passing over great swaths of text without actually absorbing what he was saying.  And the further rub is, I'm still not sure if I got anything useful out of it (Aristotle isn't exactly cutting edge any more). Even so, it's much more worth while than the Parmenides.

It's hard to even talk about it as a book, other than giving a Reader's Digest summary of the philosophy, because there is literally nothing extraneous in the text. I might as well try to write a review of Euclid. The book has nothing to do with "the soul" in the religious sense of the word; On the Soul is really a book on cognitive psychology that predates William James by over 2000 years. There's a lot about whether the "soul" (the mind) is divisible into parts, as in the part of the mind that senses external stimuli, the part that analyzes information, the part that moves, the part responsible for the life of its organism, etc. Lots of classification and pigeonholing, lots of refutation of his predecessors on grounds people mostly no longer consider relevant. Dry and scholarly, but it's valuable to the mind the way a workout (going running even though you don't really need to transport yourself someplace) is valuable to the body.

Unrequited Marriage: A Ghost at Noon, by Alberto Moravia
During the first two years of our married life my relations with my wife were, I can now assert, perfect. By which I mean to say that, in those two years, a complete, profound harmony of the senses was accompanied by a kind of numbness—or should I say, silence?—of the mind which, in such circumstances, causes an entire suspension of judgment and looks only to love for any estimate of the beloved person.  Emilia, in fact, seemed to me wholly without defects, and so, also, I believe, I appeared to her. Or perhaps I saw her defects and she saw mine, but through some mysterious transformation produced by the feeling of love, such defects appeared to us both not merely forgivable but even lovable, as though instead of defects they had been positive qualities, if of a rather special kind. Anyhow, we did not judge: we loved each other. This story sets out to relate how, while I continued to love her and not to judge her, Emilia on the other hand, discovered, or thought she discovered, certain defects in me, and judged me and in consequence ceased to love me.

If the above paragraph fills you with eager anticipation to read the story of a man watching his true love slip inexorably into an emotional galaxy many light years from his own, leaving him to eat cold angst with alienation sauce, then A Ghost at Noon is for you. If you read to find positive reflections of humanity and celebrations of the joy of living, you may be better off looking elsewhere. This book, you might have guessed, is gloomy.

Moravia was apparently one of the most recognized writers of post-Mussolini Italy, and I suspect A Ghost at Noon was not his very best. His time period, however, would explain the gloominess and alienation.

The husband assures us that the first couple of years of marriage were an idyll of wedded bliss. Too bad we don’t get to see any of that.  By page 20, the wife is cold and indifferent, and not much longer after that she’s behaving like a life-sucking bitch to him, making you wonder why either of them signed up for the 50-year plan to begin with.  The husband, on the other hand, rather than actually doing anything to rekindle the romance, throws a pity party for himself and spends the duration of the story complaining that his wife no longer loves him, and nagging her to get her in the mood. It doesn’t work.  Because he’s working on a film script for The Odyssey, he likes to compare his relationship unfavorably to that of Ulysses and Penelope.

A Ghost at Noon is a depressing miasma of miserable people. Moravia is very good at what he does, and if you read it, he will make you miserable right along with his characters. If that’s what you like in a book, have at it.

It may seem odd that I was turned off by this book while loving the equally dysfunctional stories of Raymond Carver’s world. The differences, it seems to me, are that Moravia didn’t play any word games; that Carver’s stories are set in my time, location and culture, and therefore don’t have to shout across gaps to be heard, and that Carver’s stories are short enough that any given tale is over before you’re tired of fighting the urge to slap sense into someone.

Jane Austen, Crack Addict: A House and its Head, by Ivy Compton Burnett
”A sound on the stairs! A remarkable thing to hear at this time in the morning!”
“It is Nance; I know her step. I am glad that one of them is down.”
“Glad? Why?”
Ellen gave no reason.
“It is a natural thing for a young woman to come downstairs in the morning to have her breakfast,” said Duncan, seeming to disclaim any less tangible purpose in his daughter. “Well, Nance, you have condescended to join us?”
“If that is the word you would use, Father. I felt simply that I was joining you.” Nance embraced her mother and went to her seat, obeying the unrecognized family law that the father should not receive a morning salute. “I have never taken my place before such a pile of gifts. Do I fall upon them, or wait for those who delay longer than I?”
“Have we waited for you?”
“I observed you had, Father, was indeed struck by it. But was the process congenial enough to be emulated?”

Sometimes I come across horrific stories of real-world dysfunctional families given to affairs, domestic violence, gross financial irresponsibility, alcoholism and other drug abuse, every kind of bad behavior there is.  And when I tell The Redhead about it, we look at each other and say, “Let’s not be like that”.   A House and its Head is a big “Let’s not be like that.”  Just about every bad thing that can happen in a soap opera nuclear family happens here.

There’s a dark humor to it all, in that the story of the Edgeworths, the late Victorian-era antagonists, is told primarily through their own thickly mannered, Austenian conversations, avoiding the herds of metaphorical elephants in the room to the extent that sometimes you have to pay careful attention to figure out what has happened since the last chapter and whether the newest “transgression” or “faux pas” being faintly alluded to involves passing the claret to the left or incest, adultery and murder, such things being considered of equal importance and equally worthy of being avoided, as they might get one talked about.  And the Edgeworths are talked about in peculiar ways. Both the family and the Greek Chorus of gossipy, backbiting neighbors that surround them greet the kind of bad behavior that destroys many modern homes, with mere raised eyebrows and hushed stoicism, to the point where they seem like puppets being moved around by a bitter, cynical Ivy Compton Burnett, who doesn’t like her characters and who believes that sometimes one has to be kind to be cruel.

In what’s turning out to be quite a bitter domestic literary month at the Admiral’s Bookpost, A House and Its Head earns more forgiveness than Moravia or Carver, because Compton Burnett has an impressive style all her own, with more of a point than Moravia and less cryptic play than Carver.  It’s like watching a slow, inexorable train wreck at times, but if you can stand it, I recommend it highly.  

By Oberon’s Chocolate Salty Balls!: Late Eclipses, by Seanan McGuire  
”Any idea what this is?” asked Danny.
“Not yet, but I’m really wishing I wasn’t unarmed right now,” I muttered. I was giving some serious thought to grabbing May and heading for the door when Marcia—the quarter-blood changeling who served as a handmaid in the Tea Gardens—shoved her way through, followed by a Tylwyth Teg man in conservative, incongruously modern clothes. He looked exhausted.
“Toby!” Marcia wailed, almost knocking Tybalt over as she lunged to grab my arm. Her eyes were wide and glassy within their rings of faerie ointment. A necessary cosmetic, at least for Marcia; her blood’s too thin to let her see most of Faerie without it.
“Marcia?” I put my hand over hers. “What’s wrong?”
“You have to come,” she babbled. “You have to come
right now, please---“

This is the brand new fourth episode in McGuire’s series about October Daye, faerie detective and avenger of wrongs.  I read it out loud to The Redhead, from start to finish, during a very long car trip.  It’s amazing the things you can pick up when reading aloud, such as the difference between what a narrator thinks and says to the reader and what she says out loud to other characters.  I had never quite let it sink in how fundamentally grumpy Daye is.  I also found endless new dimensions to the characters, that may or may not have more than a passing acquaintance with what the author intended, as I settled into doing their voices:  Duke Sylvester Torquill is a hybrid of Rupert Giles and Captain Picard; Danny the troll taxi driver speaks with Tom Waites gravel;   Rayseline the Mad Daughter is Glory from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Tybalt the King of Cats is the clothes maven from Queer Eye, and The Luidaeg resembles Leslie Fish in appearance and disposition.

McGuire’s third book in the series, An Artificial Night (bookpost, August 2010) is so over the top Awesome that my expectations may have been a tad high. Late Eclipses isn’t a home run but it is a solid single.  Many Bad Things happen (this is one of those plots I can barely mention without risking spoilers, as various twists and developments happen throughout the story), and for a time it is believed that Toby is responsible. It stretched belief, for me, to think that so many who had known Toby all her life would go along with that and be suspicious of her.  And then there’s the part where Toby all but pulls out her White Wolf character sheet and uses her Experience Points from the earlier three adventures to up her stats in preparation for the next big confrontation with Evil.  On the other hand, starting out as a beginner and growing formidable over the course of a long series is what great long running characters are supposed to do.

Bottom line:  you’re going to need to read it before any future books in the series, because the events are crucial, and you’re going to have a pretty thrilling time doing so.

Let's do the Time Plot Again! FOOP!, by Chris Genoa
The experience of time travel is a peculiar one...did I mention that it goes through your privates? It does. A girl once said that I made her feel like that, saying that I produced a wave of pins and needles throughout her body, and for six days I walked the earth as a god, but on the seventh day, just as I was about to engage in the act with the same girl, I found out that I had misunderstood her. The feeling I had evoked was apparently one of numbness, as if her whole body had fallen asleep, hence the pins and needles. Language really is the root of all my troubles.
As for wormholes, the further back into the past you travel, themore intense the wave of white noise is, and the more it will continue bouncing back and forth in your body until dying out. The formula for this is roughly one bounce for every fifty years traveled. On my last trip, the trip to my present location, I had a wave bouncing around my body for about a week. With a wave taking ten seconds to travel from toe to skull, the mathematicians in the audience can take the time to compute when I am. I tried to work out how many seconds there are in a day, let alone a week, the whole thing requiring a level of concentration impossible to attain while in a forest full of shrieking monkeys.
There's something sexy about the ordeal. Wormholes, that is. And that something is an erection, which is standard for men going through wormholes, and sometimes, if one is either lucky or particularly desperate, an orgasm will result. We should have charged extra for that. Of course, more than a few tourists have pissed themselves on the way through, the same sensation causing urination in some and climax in others, which gives you an idea of how difficult it is to name anything as a universal truth.

This is the kind of book I might have written myself, if I had been foolish enough to try to copy the style of Tom Robbins or Christopher Moore. They write comic masterpieces that blend the strange, the insane, the hilarious and the serious into feasts of words; Genoa's first effort is just strange.

The nebbishy protagonist works for a company that takes tourists to view historical events via time travel, with the usual clean-up crew to handle all the mishaps involving people who tread on butterflies and try to kill Booth before he kills Lincoln. Except that it doesn't matter whether Booth gets killed or not because no matter what happens, the temporal laws of this book cause everything in your own time to stay exactly as it was. Except when it doesn't.

Then his boss relieves Joe the protagonist of his duties and sends him on a secret mission to find out who is causing photographs to appear of the boss in younger years and various compromising positions that never happened. Joe is stalked by two villains named (I am not making this up) Boogedy and Nibbles, whose evil powers apparently consist of incessant staring at Joe.  There is also a cult religion sweeping the area, led by a charismatic named Ba Hubba Tree Bob. And then it gets strange.

The narrative is interspersed with several angsty Woody Allen reflections that have little to do with what's going on in the book, and the characters are cardboard cut outs.  I tried to read it out loud over the course of a couple of long car trips, and had to stop in the middle when we came to the long chapter consisting of the diary of a deadpan Forrest Gump-ish character whose light-witted meandering came closer to putting the driver to sleep than no stimulation at all.  I got around to finishing the book this month, but you don't have to start it. Really you don't.

Queer Eye Crying: Borrowed Time, by Paul Monette  
Roger must have mentioned to his brother that he’d lost some weight, because I recall Sheldon telling him one night to eat the fattening stuff, rattling off a merry list: potatoes, avocados, sour cream. Was it all dismissed like a joke because we were still in the age of lean-is-in? After all, there were body-mad men at The Sports Connection who would have paid equal weight in gold to lose three pounds. Not for very much longer, though. Within six months, lean—let alone thin—would become synonymous with the flashing amber of AIDS. In Africa they call AIDS the “slim disease”. And even the compulsions of vanity don’t hold up to fear. Thus in a year you would start seeing men at the gym whao had chiseled themselves like Phidias now suddenly running to fat, the empty pounds accumulating in the waist and buttocks, evidence of the late night binges on Oreos and Ring Dings that had replaced the faster food of bathhouse sex.

It says something about my reading choices when an AIDS memoir doesn’t even come close to being the most depressing book of the month.  Paul Monette  was a poet and scriptwriter, and he writes with the clear intent of capturing a moment in history for whatever help, comfort and education it can give to the next generation to cope with the horror that just began to unfold in his lifetime. The ways the first wave of victims coped, the ways they obtained untested possible cures, the psychological and social traps that awaited, and what to do when they appeared.

There’s a lot of emotion here (how could there not be? He’s talking about the slow death of his partner in a nation filled with Republican assholes cheering the disease on), but there is also an air of detached scholarship and the kind of defensive humor one uses at times when laughter is the only alternative to tears. He’s cultured and gentle, and presents culture shock not only about gay subculture, but California subculture, Hollywood subculture and 1980s subculture in a way that shows you many sides of a world and lets you leave with the understanding that some of those subcultures may be unfamiliar to you, but that the people within them are more like you than you may have imagined. It’s a lesson some need more than others, but that everyone should study.

Socrates, Scumbucket: The Trial of Socrates, by I. F. Stone  
”All inhabitants above the age of ten,” Socrates replies, “they will send out into the fields, and they will take over the children, remove them from the manners and habits of their parents, and bring them up in their own customs and laws which will be much as we have described.”
Socrates terms this the speediest and easiest way such a city could be established “and bring the most benefit to the people.” His compliant interlocutor readily agrees that this is indeed “much the easiest way.” No hard questions are raised. It is amazing how little dialectic there is at such crucial moments in Plato.
An easy method? How would a handful of philosophers nurse-maid a small army of children? Only a bachelor like Plato who never diapered a baby could possibly envisage this as a serious prospect. How to prevent anguished and enraged parents from coming back at night from “the fields”—as Plato delicately phrases it—to kill these philosophic loonies, and recover the children and their city? How could Plato’s Socrates speak in one breath of justice as “the chief and the one indispensible thing” and then propose to overturn a whole city and condemn a whole generation to such suffering, without their consent and against their will?
Was Plato grossly misrepresenting the real views of his teacher? Or was there an umbilical link between it and the Socratic disdain for democracy? Did Plato feel it developed logically from the Socratic view of the human community as a herd, to be “thinned out” for its own improvement by its wise shepherd and natural king, “the one who knows”?

I.F. Stone was an amazing writer and historian, who learned Greek to enable himself to research ancient texts in the original language, trying to find out why the ancient world’s most civilized bastion of Democracy and free speech put its wisest citizen to death for his ideas, at age 70.  Stone’s answer is that, viewed up close, Socrates was more of a wise guy than a wise man, and that his vocal contempt for Athenian values and support for Sparta, at a time when Athenian Democracy had fallen to oligarchs in 411 BC and 404 BC, with a third attempt foiled in 401 BC, had strained the tolerance of a city under attack; further, that Socrates deliberately avoided the arguments that would have secured his acquittal, because to bring them forward would have undermined his own philosophy of government.  Athens, in condemning Socrates, was acting more like Socrates’s ideal Republic than it had ever acted before, and Socrates, in appealing to the free exchange of ideas, was acting more Democratic than he ever had before.

Stone supports his arguments with cites, not just from Plato and Xenophon, but from Herodotus and Thucydides, Homer, the tragic and comic playwrights, Plutarch, and many other timeless sources.  His research into the meaning of words is significant, as in when he points out that a word usually translated to mean “high and grand rhetoric” actually means something closer to “blustering”.  A good part of the work goes to reveal Socrates, as set forth in Plato, as deeply antidemocratic, a man who, though he was himself poor, had contempt for the poor and urged a rigid, militaristic caste system that would use myths and cultural indoctrination to make citizens subservient to “their betters”.  He was the first Tea Party Conservative!  His ideal state was realized much later, in the centuries from the Dark Ages into the Inquisition, when churches ruled as philosopher-kings. How well did that work out?

None of what Stone has to say justified the killing of Socrates, any more than the killing of someone like Limbaugh or Palin would be justified simply for their hateful ideas and contempt for their own country. Stone, though he discovers the case for the prosecution, does not support it. He merely understands it.  This is historical interpretation as it should be.

The Hot Equations: The Number, by Lee Eisenberg
I came across a piece in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times. The writer, I'm convinced, is really Freddy Krueger, cleverly concealed under the byline of Ben Stein. The details are too gory to get into. Let's just leave it that Freddy comes out slashing, wielding a calculator instead of his customary butcher knife. He offers a couple of bloodcurdling case studies--a woman who needs a Number over $4 million to replicate how she was accustomed to living when she made a salary of $185,000; a lawyer who needs over $12 million to keep up the life he's gotten used to. Freddy moves in for the kill, saying there is "the bore of a gun pointed right between the eyes of baby boomers. [What] on earth are we going to do about retirement?"
Although Freddy's math might check out, he leaves too many puncture wounds in his victims' stories. That woman who needed over $4 million? How was her health (before Freddy got through with her)? How many dependents did she have? Did she own her apartment outright, and if so, what if she drew down its equity? Wouldn't that make a huge difference? More important, just who is this woman? As a human being, I mean? What exactly will make her happy, and what would that cost? Freddy paints his victims by the numbers, ignoring dreams and emotions. Nevertheless, all innocent readers remember from his horror flick is that people like them need $4.6 million to live sort of OK in Manhattan. That could be true. It could also be a gross exaggeration. Or hopelessly underestimated.

“The Number” is the amount of money you need to have before you can safely retire, and the title is misleading. Eisenberg’s book is NOT about helping you to figure out what your Number is, so much as philosophizing about what it is, what it means, and why people either hide from it or obsess about it. It’s not about how much you need to spend; it’s about what you want to do.

Eisenberg divides the world (or Americans, anyhow) into four groups: the ones who don’t think about The Number at all and do little or nothing to prepare; the ones who pick a number at random, like $1 million, and figure that’s good enough; the ones who use every available financial planning tool to figure their life down to the penny, and who in fact do little else; and the ones who dream about what they’re going to do when they don’t have to work for a living—who think about the things that the third type ignores (happily, I found my approach to encompass parts of all of the last three types; mine is the Path of the Frosted Mini-Wheat).

Further, Eisenberg advocates a holistic approach to retirement planning; one that attends to the money details, but that also includes knowing where you want to live; taking care of your health and planning for senior medical issues; and satisfaction and fulfillment at the top of the Maslow pyramid. You probably won’t enjoy your last years if you run out of money, but you also probably won’t if you’re sitting on a pile of money, too bored or too feeble to enjoy it.  Finally, there’s an amusing look at America’s growth industry of financial and lifestyle retirement planners and later life coaches, worthy of comparison to Barbara Ehrenreich’s funny/scary skewering of the self-improvement industry in Bright Sided.  If you’re old, or plan to be, this is a good book to get you to stop panicking and start thinking and dreaming.  Highly recommended.

Vattagirl!: Marque and Reprisal, Engaging the Enemy, and Command Decision, by Elizabeth Moon
"You're a killer, Captain. I'll wager anything you like that you didn't know it until it happened. That you thought you were the way Stella described you to me years ago--a nice girl, a conscientious, earnest, dull, hardworking, respectable member of your family." He cocked his head. "I'm right, and you know it. Good Ky, the straight-arrow counter to foolish Stella." He paused; Ky said nothing. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. "And then you killed for the first time. And, deep down, somewhere inside, you felt something you had never felt before. You liked it."
"I--" Ky clamped her jaw shut again. He was right; he had seen it. Did everyone see it?
"I saw you, you know, when you came from killing Osman. Up to then, all that glee, all that determination to mix it up yourself with the invaders--that could've been the military training you had, or the bravado of ignorance. I wasn't sure. But after that--I knew. You didn't just kill him; you enjoyed killing him."
The images flooded her mind. The whirling chaos of that fight...the final moments, when she had, indeed, taken great pleasure. Shame flooded her; she felt her face going hot with it even as Rafe's voice went on.
"The thing is, Captain, when a good person like you discovers a bad pleasure--a guilty pleasure--there's things you must do to survive. You're not an Osman. You don't want to be like him--"
"Maybe--" Ky choked, but forced the words out. "Maybe I am like him; maybe this is how he started."
"No," Rafe's voice held no doubt. "No, you're not. You're a good person--a decent person--who happens to take pleasure in killing bad people."

With Moon's "Vatta" series, I've finally figured out why I don't normally read multiple books in one series all at once.  It's impossible to review them separately in one bookpost. I tried writing three separate bits for these, the three middle novels in a five book series, and it was pointless, so I'm mentioning them all in one blow.

First of all, Book Two opens with a game-changing event that's spoilerish if you haven't read Trading in Danger (Bookpost, February 2011), and everything else follows from that, so I won't really talk about the plot here, except to mention that, as you may have guessed, it involves a lot of space opera where plots and counterplots are developed, goods get traded, councils of war and tactics are held, and a lot of spaceships get blow'd up. Also, in addition to the heroine Kylandra Vatta, you get to meet her beautiful cousin Stella, whose trading rivals assume she is a bimbo at their peril; the mysterious and resourceful rogue Rafe, who would give Captain Mal of the Firefly a serious run for his money in any contest of rogue attributes, and the family matriarch Aunt Gracie, who makes Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax look like a senile old biddy.  In a battle with the four of them and their motley collection of crew members and contacts who may or may not be trustworthy (to say nothing of the dog) against the Universe, they really ought to double the Universe to give it a sporting chance.

Part of the secret to the greatness of this series is the humanity of Ky Vatta, an everywoman hero instead of a super-soldier like Honor Harrington.  If the series has a weakness, it's that Moon almost overdoes it. The books have just a bit too many of the passages like the one I quoted, where Vatta either agonizes about her aptitude for mowing down villains who desperately need it, or is reassured again and again that she is not a monster for having an ability that saves her and her ship from being destroyed. It's as if Moon was writing specifically to argue with some specific reader who thinks that killing is never ever justified, and it gets preachy. Also, almost all of the villains are so contemptibly lacking in courage, smarts or any humanity at all that it's hard to see them as worthy adversaries. You wonder how they ever came to have so much manpower and weaponry without getting killed on day one.  Then again, you'll notice that I've been gobbling the books down faster than most other things I've gotten my hands on, so you know it's a very well-told story, each volume of which leaves you wanting to start the next one.  Very highly recommended.

Originally posted to AdmiralNaismith on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 06:14 PM PDT.

Also republished by oo, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Readers and Book Lovers.

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