by Sukey HowardMay, 2008
Managing political minefields
Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, the clever philogag guys who made Western philosophy miraculously understandable in Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar, now take on the timely topic of political doublespeak. Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington, delivered by Johnny Heller with a stand-up comic's perfect timing, is exactly what you need to decode what is actually being said by the pols in office, the pols who want to be in office, their defenders, keepers and camp followers, the pundits, the talking heads and the reporters. Guided by the principles of logic, epistemology, a heady helping of Aristotelian rhetoric, a soupcon of psychology and a repertory of right-on jokes, Cathcart and Klein delve deep into the mechanics of fallacious arguments and Orwellian disinformation that lie in wait for the unprepared. In other words, they provide you with what you need to make it through this election year: an indestructible, all-purpose BS detector.
A ROGUE SOCIOLOGIST
It's hard to imagine a book about the sociology of urban poverty as a gripping, engrossing page-turner (or its audio equivalent). Sudhir Venkatesh's eye-opening study of the economics of crack selling and sellers first grabbed the public's attention in Freakonomics, the super-popular bestseller that's still on the list. That was only a fascinating snippet compared to Gang Leader for a Day, the detailed account of his in-depth involvement with a notorious Chicago gang that controlled one of the grimmest, irretrievably neglected housing projects in the country. In 1989, Venkatesh, nerdy and naive, from the comfortable suburbs of Southern California and now a first-year graduate student at the University of Chicago, walked into the midst of a group of young drug dealers in the project lobby. Clipboard in hand, putting himself in harm's way without hesitation, he intended to ask them how it felt to be black and poor. Not a great idea, but one that led him into a unique, seven-year relationship with J.T., the local gang leader who allowed this outsider in as a participant observer of the morally ambiguous gang activities, the lives of its members and the lives of the people in the project. Venkatesh does a lot more than "put a face on poverty," he makes these people real and affecting and their daily problems palpable. Convincingly narrated by Reg Rogers, this audio version includes an interview with the author.
John Grisham's The Appeal, adeptly performed by Michael Beck, is a winner about losers. Grisham-paced, intrigue-laced, it makes the murky mix of big business and vicious partisan politics all too real and all too worrisome.
Elegant and elegiac are not words often used to describe the prose in a whodunit, but author Benjamin Black isn't the usual perpetrator of whodunits. If you remember Christine Falls, his first atmospheric foray into the genre, you'll remember that Black is the nom de crime of Booker Prize-winner John Banville. In The Silver Swan, Dublin pathologist Garret Quirke returns, now sober, but still discontented, still controlled by his insatiable curiosity. And it's this curiosity that leads Quirke into the maelstrom of lies that swirl around the death, perhaps by suicide, of the young, pretty proprietor of a beauty salon. When her husband, someone Quirke hadn't heard from in years, asks him not to do a postmortem on his wife, the pathologist knows something is very much amiss, but he doesn't realized how personally involved he'll become. Black casts a slick of despair over his carefully plotted narrative, the characters all seeming to yearn for a note of grace to enter their bleak lives. As before, Timothy Dalton's brilliant performance is as nuanced as the story, his voice a mirror of its moods.