Category Archives: Books

A Philosopher’s Take on New Year’s

The editors at the Blog of the American Philosophical Association have been kind enough to publish my piece on Hans Blumenberg’s 1954 essay about New Year’s Eve.

photo of fireworks

Review of “A Rocky Divorce”

photo of book coverAs “a trained seal of the critical fraternity” – Raymond Chandler’s words –, I suppose my job is no more than to say whether Matt Coleman’s A Rocky Divorce (2019) is a good piece of fiction. It is, and if Chandler had his way, this review might stop there. However, we have some complications.

The first complication is that I had already read Juggling Kittens. That novel set a standard that A Rocky Divorce does not equal. A defense might be that I’m comparing apples and kittens. True enough, which brings me to the second complication. A Rocky Divorce is the start of a series, while Juggling Kittens is what the people in the book biz now call a Standalone. A Rocky Divorce has some burdens attendant with a series that Juggling Kittens did not have to haul.

Before laying out all the details of my relatively minor hesitations, it seems fitting the holiday spirit (December) that the virtues of A Rocky Divorce receive their due. Rocky, Coleman’s detective (Raquel “Rocky” Champagnolle), brings Texarkana to life, often against the place’s will. In general, the characters in Rocky’s orbit are settled in their ways, wanting to lie low, but receptive to wild pitches, sometimes even willing to supplement Rocky’s bold ideas with their own improvisations. Everyone can shine when the brassy dame is around. Rocky, as a character type, is at least as old as Mae West, with the let’s-save-the-day-by-putting-on-a-show mentality of Ethel Merman. Rural routines don’t stand a chance with Rocky in the picture. The characters in Rocky’s scenes either raise their game, verbally and otherwise, or they’re reduced to bit parts in someone else’s drama.

In Texarkana, as in most rural areas, a Rocky might not last long as an outsider. Rocky has roots in the community, and other people in Texarkana know her family, and some are indebted to Rocky’s father. In part, Rocky succeeds because she is part of the community. She doesn’t aim to transcend the venue. Rocky isn’t unhappy with Texarkana, wishing it were more like Austin or New York City. That rapport with her surroundings generates some advantages for Rocky. The shared history is a foundation from which Rocky can launch some schemes.

It’s difficult to tell whether Juggling Kittens and A Rocky Divorce had the same editor. Juggling Kittens seems to have been properly trimmed, whereas A Rocky Divorce doesn’t hit the page running. The pacing isn’t as sharp as in Juggling Kittens, though when A Rocky Divorce hits high gear, it gives its reader an enjoyable ride.

Since it’s meant to be the first in a series of novels, A Rocky Divorce has to conclude with some open-ended items that will be the bread crumbs readers will follow to the next book. No issue there. My main hesitation is with A Rocky Divorce’s hyperactivity when it comes to trendy snark. “I prefer Miss Marple, but with an ass that won’t quit. More like a mix between Olivia Benson, Veronica Mars, and Kim Kardashian. Like if Rizzoli and Isles raised the love child of Peter Dinklage and Jennifer Lopez.” It’s as if the novel works too hard to give itself a tone of Leslie-Jones-comes-to-Texarkana. Doubtless more than one woman in Texarkana has called another woman “girl” over the years. Yet, too many instances of “girl” feel as if they’re accompanied by a flamboyant snap of the fingers, a firming of the spine, and a rapid twist of the neck, e.g., “Girl, I heard you’re a regular Nancy Drew.”

To confirm the problem with the trendy snark, consider a rewriting of the passage from the novel above using 1970s TV-speak: “I prefer Barbara Bain, but with Lucille Ball’s luscious lips. More like a mix between Peggy Lipton, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Jo Anne Worley. Like if Columbo and McCloud were a gay couple raising the love child of Tom Jones and Shirley Jones.” The best job of mapping the 70s on to the passage from A Rocky Divorce reveals the built-in obsolescence of the approach. Now imagine a rewriting of Coleman’s passage using references from 70s Canadian TV. Coleman is much better off when he makes use of less unstable elements: “Jen, we can spend all our time stomping out flying monkeys. Or we can go straight for the wicked witch.” You can put those sentences in an oak barrel for smooth aging.

Matt Coleman has the writerly goods. That’s why this reader prefers less trendy snark and more of “I like my tea like I like my men. Transparent, bitter, and disappointing.” The trendy snark, more often than not, disappoints, like having Stephen King write “boo!” It’s Stephen bloody King, and you know he can boo better. Texas already has its Joe Bob Briggs. Coleman has the talent to shine far brighter than Joe Bob, and he demonstrates that he isn’t always tempted by low-hanging fruit. For example, one of the characters in A Rocky Divorce attempts to convince Rocky that Rocky’s imagined narrative about the kind of case that interests her is over the top. Rocky has proposed a situation in which the person Rocky is helping has a grandmother with a lesbian lover. Jen, Rocky’s friend, responds, “There is no lesbian lover.”

If Coleman can refrain from indulging Rocky’s weakness for lesbian lovers when it comes to storytelling, we can expect the Rocky series could make Coleman the Molly Ivins of detective fiction.

photo of poster of film about Molly Ivins

The Naughty or Nice List

Reading Josh Gondelman’s Nice Try, came across this quotation:

“Being nice isn’t just insufficient; it’s sometimes the straight-up wrong thing to do.”

photo of book cover

Nietzsche’s Notebooks

photo of Nietzsche book cover

The editors of the Cleveland Review of Books have been kind enough to publish my review of the latest translation of Nietzsche’s notebooks from Stanford University Press.

Unfortunate Categorization

Surprised to see this at a university bookstore.

photo of book display

National Sacrifice

In a recent review of Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement, Andrew Roberts provides the telling quotation about the lengths to which leaders intended to go to keep Hitler happy.

The truth was, as Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, admitted later, that Chamberlain “believed that by the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia they could achieve permanent peace and that Hitler would be satisfied.”

One Tiny Act of Resistance – South Park

impressionist painting with South Park figures

The verisimilitude of the tale aside, it does highlight certain aspects of Fascism that are undoubtedly true. Foremost is its phenomenal pettiness. That one of the most senior officials of what was supposed to be a Thousand-Year Reich, destined to stretch across continents and radically change human society forever, decided to take time out of his day to fuss over the cosmetics of a music hall is astonishing. It is one of the reasons Fascist figures, from Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” to South Park’s Eric Cartman, have consistently been considered so bathetic. It is hard not to laugh at the banality of it all. And yet that banality is, as Hannah Arendt so famously pointed out, one of the most chilling things about the totalitarian ideology. To fuss over the identities of a set of sixty-year-old statues is ludicrous, but to do it and then calmly order the slaughter of thousands of human beings is deeply disturbing. It is a tendency that has outlasted the particular incarnation of totalitarianism described above — from the arcane and complex ranks of the Ku Klux Klan to the propensity of dictators to pursue personal vendettas against people of proportionately little importance. Given this focus on minutiae, by equal measures amusing and appalling, it is not surprising that much resistance to Fascism consists of small acts of defiance — the smuggled loaf of bread, the individual refusal to salute, the one life saved. One tiny act of resistance is enough to prove that the totalitarian’s victory is not, in fact, total, that they will never conquer everything.

— Fergus Butler-Gallie, “Priests de la Resistance!: The Loose Canons Who Fought Fascism in the Twentieth Century”



Make This Quotation True Again

People nowadays have such hopes of America and the political conditions obtaining there….
— Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, 1799

Urban Renewal

Part of the answer, from Erik Lyle, to the question: What has happened to San Francisco?

selection from Erik Lyle book

Children and Philosophy

The editors of the Blog of the American Philosophical Association have been kind enough to publish my essay “Kant for Kids.”

Screenshot of Kant for Kids essay in APA blog