Book – In ancient Athens, one of the pupils of Plato’s Academy is found dead. His teacher Diagoras is convinced the pupil’s death is not as accidental as it appears, and asks the famous Heracles Pontor, the “Decipherer of Enigmas,” to investigate. As the death toll rises, the two men find themselves drawn into the dangerous underworld of the Athenian aristocracy, risking their own lives to solve the riddle of these young men’s deaths.
The Athenian Murders is more a game than a novel. It’s a novel, too – if it weren’t it would be intolerably tedious, like the Greek fiction it’s pretending to be – but the point of it is the game, not the fiction. While Heracles Pontor and his employer are getting into trouble with the Academy and the families of the murdered youths and eventually a rather ominous cult, the really interesting stuff is happening in the footnotes. You see, the novel we are reading is being translated by an unnamed Translator from a transcription by an earlier scholar. And the Translator is sure that this is an eidetic text, in which the original author has hidden images that combine to form a second, hidden meaning. His colleagues tell him he’s going crazy with this obsession, and he starts to believe them – until he’s kidnapped and forced to finish translating both the manuscript and the eidesis.
To tell any more would be to give away the twist, and to do that would be to spoil the whole book. Just know that the mystery, while serviceable, is not really the point here. If you’re as intrigued by the sound of eidesis and mysterious translators as I was, though, give it a try – this is a book that rewards intellectual curiosity.
Book – Jon Ronson started out investigating a hoax being played on a group of neurologists, but ends up exploring the depths of what he calls the “madness industry.” A top psychologist teaches him how to recognize the signs of psychopathy in others, and he sets out to explore his new knowledge in the corridors of power.
This a was fun, funny, casual read. And therein lies the problem: I felt that the fun, funny parts of the book were distracting severely from the actual serious parts of the book. While the implications of psychopathy as a category (that is, deciding it’s a real thing and treating psychopaths as people different from the rest of humanity) range from interesting to downright scary, Ronson kind of mentions this in passing and then goes on to spend quite a lot of time with the weirdest people possible, from the criminal who insists he can’t be a psychopath to the psychiatrist who insists that that insistence proves that he is. (Confused yet?)
Maybe I’m just weird in not liking nonfiction that doesn’t seem to teach you anything. But Ronson seems to me to have caught the “objective journalism” disease – he doesn’t give away any opinions on anything. No opinions other than “these guys are weird,” that is, which is pretty much the only opinion I don’t like my authors to have. Okay, they’re weird, but nobody ever thinks of themselves as irredeemably weird, so what else is going on here? Ronson never gets to the what else.
Book – Bridget used to work as a lawyer; now she stays at home with baby Julia while her computer-programmer husband Mark supports their little family. Bridget and Julia aren’t alone in the house while he’s gone, though. There’s a shadowy figure, a ghost that creeps through the rooms. Mark can’t see the ghost, but Bridget is all too sure it’s real.
A hundred years ago, Rebecca is the daughter of a doctor, and although she’s unsure she chooses to marry a farmer, an old friend, and become a farm wife. She struggles with her new life and fights with her husband almost constantly. Their life together may be interesting, but it’s anything but happy.
While alternating between the stories of Bridget and Rebecca gives some hints about the nature of the ghost that haunts Bridget, it remains a little unclear just what the connection between the two women really is. I found I enjoyed that; I like a little mystery with my scariness. I also liked that neither of the two main characters were really, well, nice. Rebecca is profoundly selfish, while Bridget can’t stop herself from looking down on her friends. That doesn’t mean they aren’t likeable, though – Bridget’s devotion to her daughter is extremely moving, and Rebecca is caught in an impossible situation that’s hard not to empathize with. I was enthralled by both of their stories, and I only wish I could have learned a little bit more about them.
Book – What do Sokrates, the god Apollo, a nineteenth-century spinster, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a ninth-century Libyan slave, Giovanni Mirandola, and an array of twenty-first century robots have in common? They’re all inhabitants of The Just City, Plato’s thought experiment made manifest. Oh, and less than half of them are there of their own free will.
After being spurned by Daphne, Apollo decides to spend some time as a human in an attempt to understand “volition and equal significance,” and his sister Athene suggests that the best place to do so would be in her city. She’s creating Plato’s Republic and filling it with people who prayed to her and wished to live there. Like any utopia, the problems start piling up quickly. Plato thought you could build a civilization starting with ten-year-old children, so they buy more than ten thousand of them out of slavery, even though some of the Masters of the City worry that buying from slavers will make their city unjust before it even begins. Their hard labor is done by robots brought by Athene out of the future, but when Sokrates strikes up a conversation with one it begins to look as though the City has been relying on slavery after all. And of course everyone comes with the flaws of their own histories as well, because Plato was wrong, and a ten-year-old child is not a blank slate.
Fair warning: this book is in large part about consent, and there are several scenes depicting consent and its absence in sexual contexts. But it’s a careful, detailed exploration, tying together many different ideas about free will, virtue, and good intentions. Anyone who’s ever wished for a life dedicated to the pursuit of excellence should find this book fascinating.
Graphic Novel – Agatha Clay is a favorite student of Professor Beetle, the Spark (or Mad Scientist) who runs Beetleburg on behalf of the Baron Klaus Wolfenbach. Agatha is pretty sure she’s no Spark herself – until the day Professor Beetle is accidentally killed when he throws a bomb at the Baron’s son Gilgamesh. Agatha’s life is thrown into chaos when she’s held captive on the Baron’s airship Castle Wolfenbach, a hostage against the good behavior of Moloch von Zinzer, who everyone but Gil believes is the Spark behind the devices Agatha has been building in her sleep. And then there’s the infectious Slaver Wasps, the odd behavior of the Jägermonsters, Gilgamesh’s inconvenient crush, and the bossy and imperious Emperor of All Cats…
Girl Genius is a long-running webcomic, also available in print volumes, whose tagline is “Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!” And there’s certainly plenty of all three. Agatha is the best kind of adventure hero – she always runs toward the sound of gunfire. She’s smarter and more capable than she thinks she is, but she gains confidence as the series goes on. My favorite characters, though, are the Jägermonsters, half-human monsters with ridiculous German accents who like fighting, pretty girls, and hats. (“You know how dose plans alvays end. The dirigible is in flames, everybody’s dead, an’ you’ve lost your hat.”) It’s a never-ending series of wacky fun, not to be taken too seriously at all. The Library owns the first ten volumes in print – start with Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank.
Book – No one quite knows what happens in Area X. Cameras don’t work, modern technology breaks down, and all remnants of human civilization are slowly disappearing into the local biosphere. The first expedition reported a pristine Eden; the members of the second expedition all killed themselves; the members of the third expedition all killed each other. The members of the eleventh expedition all died of cancer. One of those was the biologist’s husband, and she’s going to go into Area X as part of the twelfth expedition. Maybe they’ll find some answers.
If you ever watched Lost and thought that the island just wasn’t creepy and weird enough, Annihilation, book one of VanderMeer’s award-winning Southern Reach Trilogy, is for you. The narrator never gives her name, only a biologist’s fascination with the flora and fauna of Area X and a scientist’s dispassionate narration of some extremely weird events. Later books in the trilogy offer some answers, but rest assured – there’s no disappointing explanation lurking in the back of this series.
Music - Dessa is a 33-year-old rapper and writer from Minneapolis, a part of the cerebral indie hip-hop collective Doomtree. Her style is much more musical than most rappers, but her skill with words is outstanding. (And fair enough – she graduated from the University of Minnesota with a philosophy degree at age 20.) She and the rest of Doomtree appear regularly on “most-underrated” lists of modern artists, but despite all this critical acclaim, she hasn’t yet made it big. It’ll happen one of these days, because Dessa is just too fantastic to ignore.
Castor, the Twin is a remix album of many of her more highly-produced tracks from earlier albums, False Hopes and A Badly Broken Code. What that means is that this is a hip-hop album with a singer-songwriter feel. If Joni Mitchell did hip-hop beats, she might sound like Dessa. There’s not a bad track on the album, but my favorites are “Dixon’s Girl,” a sympathetic shout-out to under-appreciated and abused women in the music industry, and “The Crow,” which borrows the symbol of Edgar Allan Poe’s avian nemesis for a soul-baring song about loss and survival.
Book – Henghis Hapthorn is a creature of logic. He uses his skills and talents to solve puzzles for the elite of the Archonate, the vast empire of human colonies spread throughout known space. Recently, though, he’s suffered a few setbacks. A dangerous encounter with a rogue magician – rare in this age of science and reason – has transformed Hapthorn’s computer assistant into an animal familiar, which now needs to sleep and eat, and has developed a personality of its own. Worse, the intuitive part of his mind has become its own person, and Hapthorn finds himself having increasingly bitter disagreements with himself. And now the Archon himself has hired Hapthorn to investigate a mystery that goes back to the origins of the Archonate, deep within the last age of magic, which may cause the foundations of the world to turn, leaving Hapthorn’s valued logic entirely useless.
Hughes’s prose is elaborate and ornate, making this relatively short book a somewhat denser read than I was planning on, but I loved it anyway. Hapthorn is a Sherlock Holmes type, but with problems Holmes never had (Watson never passed out in the middle of the action, or refused to work without regular deliveries of exotic fruit). The mystery is well-constructed, but the real joy is in exploring the universe Hughes has created, one based on science but where magic is real and increasingly important in the most important events of the universe.
Book – King’s most recent novel has been hailed as a return to classic form, closer to a real horror novel than he’s written in a while. If you go into it looking for that, you might be disappointed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. The story follows two men, narrator Jamie Morton and the man he refers to as his “fifth business,” the catalyst to all the really important events of his life, Reverend Charles Jacobs. Charlie (as he prefers to be called) is fascinated by “special electricity” all his life, but his interest takes a darker turn when his wife and son are killed in a car crash. After that – well, a horror novel called Revival with a lightning bolt on the cover does evoke a certain famous Doctor F., after all.
Revival isn’t as focused as the classic King novel it most evokes, Pet Sematary, and dealing as it does with similar themes and ideas, it suffers by the comparison. Where the plot meanders, though, the characters pick up the slack, and a few genuinely creepy moments (Jamie’s birthday-party nightmare sticks in the mind) carry you through rapidly to the end. The ending is, at least, classic Stephen King – sprawling, grotesque, and a little out of left field.
Book – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.
Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.
I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.