Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Beware The Octoploids!

Fruit facts.

Prufrock Humor

A joke for English majors (or just people who remember that one American Literature course they had to take).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

God Save The Queen (Of Crime)!

As a huge fan of both her books and the television adaptations of her work, I give a hearty "Hear, hear!" to this defense of Agatha Christie. She may not have been the best writer, but she's sharp and clear and knew how to give cracking good story. If her characters aren't fully rounded and rich, she was extremely deft at quickly sketching out a fully recognizable type in just a few sentences, and one can't say her most famous creations (Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, naturally) aren't wholly vivid and unique. There is also the schadenfreude of seeing murder and deception in even the most genteel of spaces, along with the catharsis of seeing justice done, the wicked punished, and the innocent freed. We also all love a little puzzle, which is what most of her work is.

She is both quintessentially English in her milieu and universal in her incisive portrait of humanity, so she's both exotic and relatable at once. I think her work as a social historian is overlooked. Her long career allowed her to chart England's upper and middle classes from just after WWI, through the Roaring '20s, the rise of fascism, WWII, the postwar era, and into the social upheavals of the 1960s. It's fascinating to read about how radically Britain changed over those decades and how people dealt with those changes. Even in Britain, I bet at least part of her appeal is the insight she gives into a vanished world.

So here's to Dame Agatha: a jolly good author!

(Via Bookslut)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Yes, this octopus is adorable, but is it psychic like Otto is?!? If yes, then all I have to say is "Ia, Ia, Cthulu f'taghn!"

(Via Raincoaster)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bourgeois Book Club

The Bourgeois Nerd Summer 2010 Book Club continues with three more non-fiction works.

God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero

Books about religion that aren't "inspirational" or doctrinal tend to divide into two camps: the polemics of believers (and non-believers) and the earnest exhortations of ecumenicists. A professor of religion, Stephen Prothero wrote this book specifically as a counter to the latter, the hippy-dippy "all religions are one" writers, such as Joseph Campbell or Karen Armstrong. No, he argues, in fact all religions are not the same, and to insist that they are isn't helping to alleviate the interreligious strife rife in the world or leading to greater understanding of other faiths.

Exhortations of religious unity make us feel good, like all the religious conflicts and arguments that have so long plagued us can be brushed aside and all of us join together in amity and harmony. That's very nice, but it's dangerous and naive. Religions are incredibly powerful, and we need to actually understand them, their differences and similarities, their good and their evil. Therefore, Prothero examines what he considers the eight great, most influential world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Yoruba religion, with a brief coda on atheism. Prothero posits that each religion has a unique take on the central problem of life with a concomitant method of solving that problem. For instance, for Christianity the problem is sin and the answer is salvation through Jesus Christ. Much misunderstanding is engendered by using the framework of one religion when talking about another.

One of Prothero's strengths is he's not afraid to talk about his own thoughts and feelings regarding religion. He's also short and concise. His goal was the promote basic religious literary, to give us some idea of what the big world religions are about, not to put a whole semester's worth of a religious studies course into print. It's a reasonable length, with each religion getting its due without overloading.

Religions are all the same and religions are all different, just as humans are. Religions are about humanity, about becoming human and living with other humans. Being human is a problem for most of us, and the religions are some of the most powerful and diverse programs we've devised to solve this problem. It behooves us to know, then, what they are, and God Is Not One is a good primer.

The Bucolic Plague
by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

Two successful, well-off gay white men in New York City move to the country and learn Valuable Life Lessons after a series of hilarious misadventures adjusting to country living. That's what the cover jacket would have you think, and it isn't wrong, but it's much more than that. Basically, an ex-drag queen, ex-alcoholic ad exec and his anal-retentive, overachieving doctor/MBA who works for Martha Stewart partner have a mid-life crisis and buy a mansion/farm in upstate New York. They parlay a barn full of goats, chickens, turkeys, and five barn cats led by Bubby the Bionic Cat, a garden full of tomatoes, cucumbers, and other produce, the crafts and skills of their neighbors, and their own journey into making Beekman1802 a success, with a kick in the ass from Oprah and a benediction from Martha Stewart.

Yes, it's a bit of the "the problems of rich white people" genre. But it's funny, and honest, and you half-know that they know how cliche it is. It quickly loses its romantic luster as their relationship turns into one long bitchfest at all the work it takes to keep the farm up, plus their high-powered NYC jobs. As the economy implodes, the business suffers and they lose those high-powered jobs. Financial hardship and the pressure of Perfection(TM) slowly implodes their relationship. They learn that farming isn't The Simple Life, but a vanishing one and two gay buys ain't gonna save it. But, at least for now, there's a happy ending. A New York Times story revives the soap business and brings a reality show, and they realize that Beekman really does make them happy, and if they have to sacrifice a bit and their life isn't Perfect, then so be it. It's a lesson we all could use.

How The Universe Got Its Spots by Jenna Levin

As I believe I've mentioned before, I have collected rather a large and extensive considering my relative poverty and lack of shelf space library on popular science books, particularly those concerning cosmology, astronomy, the history of science, and modern theoretical physics. How The Universe Got Its Spots, published in 2002, is an old favorite in this genre and a long-time component of my library. It's been several years since I've read it, so I thought it might be time to take it down off the shelf.

It's an unusual example of the genre, for several reasons. For one, it is epistolary, consisting of about a year or two's worth of unsent letters from cosmologist Janna Levin to her mother Sandy in which she tries to explain her work. It's also intensely personal, not just in its recounting of her work, but in its discussion of her loneliness, her fears, the dissolution of her relationship, and the peripatetic life of an academic.

The main thrust of the book is her defense of her belief that the universe is actually finite, not infinite as most scientists believe. To get there, she first takes us through the basics of Newtonian, Einsteinian, and quantum physics and their relation to astronomy in preparation of discussing her work: finding the topology of the universe and if that topology means the universe is finite.

Geometry is the way a surface curves, while topology is the way the shape connects to itself. A cylinder and a torus have the same geometry, but a different topology. There are donuts and handles and stuff, too. I admit, a lot of this all goes over my head. It's not Levins' fault, I don't think, it's just tough to think about, especially for someone who often has difficulty with high-level math (though I do seem to keep reading and enjoying books that involve said math).

Levin has, since this book, gone on to write a very well-reviewed novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, and it's not at all surprising. The prose in How The Universe Got Its Spots is wonderfully lyrical. And, really, the thing that makes the book interesting for someone like me who has read a lot in the genre and thus pretty much knows all the basic information is her personal story. Her fascination with the mental illnesses and deaths of famous mathematicians and physicists. Her worries about free will and determinism. Her obsession with the fragility and utility of memory. As you're well aware from previous posts, I have many of the same concerns, so naturally I love it. Her interests are wide: art and music, literature. She's a bit of a bookworm. What's not to love?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

How About Some Bamboo Ice Cream?

In case you haven't heard, it's wee bit warm outside. To this panda, therefore, all I can say is I hear ya, brother!

(Via Tom Scocca)

Why Intelligent People Fail

If I checked off all the points that apply to me, I'd have to add "total depression for being such a loser" to the end of the list.

(Via Elizabeth Spiers)

Sunday, July 04, 2010