Thursday, January 25, 2007

School's in: A murder mystery that features Immanuel Kant, detective


"Inside the ample glass jar, the severed head lolled in a swirling sea of cloudy preserving alcohol. Tangled gray-red sinews, clots of blood and gore shifted gently in the straw-colored liquid like the trailing tendrils of a jellyfish."

Something fiendish had happened to the victim; his head preserved a secret only the finest mind might discern.

It is February, 1804. Hanno Stiffeniis, a magistrate in Lotingen, Prussia, is summoned by King Frederick Wilhelm III to Königsberg. "Our beloved Königsberg (is) in a grip of terror," the King writes. The summons takes Stiffeniis completely by surprise.

Stiffeniis sets up headquarters at the Fortress of Königsberg. The basement, where prisoners are herded to an uncertain fate, reminds Stiffeniis of Hades; "the upper floors were as confusing as the maze of Crete. Gloomy, ill-lit passages shot off left and right of the main corridor, no feature distinguishing one way from any of the others."

That seems to describe the investigation into the strange murders in Königsberg. Which way to turn? Some believed Napoleon was planning to invade Prussia and was leaving a calling card of terror. Others proposed not a political but a spiritual cause. All of the victims (just a handful, but unsettling in the extreme) were killed as they were kneeling; the cause of death was unknown but rumor was spreading that the Devil's Claw had done them in.

Stiffeniis tells the tale, and what a tale it is, involving not-soon-forgotten characters such as an albino prostitute; Dr. Vigilantius, a necromancer and follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg; and Immanuel Kant himself, now retired and sickly, who is collecting the heads of the victims.
Heady stuff, indeed, this "Critique of Criminal Reason" ($25.95 in hardcover from Thomas Dunne Books) by Michael Gregorio, a philosophy professor who lives in Italy. Gregorio draws on the new authoritative biography of Kant by Manfred Kuehn and interweaves invented characters and real personages into the lives of Kant and Stiffeniis.

Immanuel Kant is one of the giants of philosophy, an exponent of pure reason who famously wrote that all rational beings would wish to do away with emotion since it leads right thinking astray. According to the Kuehn biography, Kant wrote a little-known work, "Dreams of a Spirit-Seer," in which he seemed to mock Swedenborgian spirituality; in "Critique of Criminal Reason" Kant tells Stiffeniis that it's "the only book of mine for which I have ever apologized."

In the story, Kant himself has called Dr. Vigilantius to "listen" to the corpse of one of the victims and Kant who sets up a clandestine laboratory in which he collects the heads-in-jars. This is a side of Kant that seems very much out of character with the little man of Königsberg whose daily walks were so carefully timed residents could set their clocks. But Kuehn confirms that the elderly Kant was working on a manuscript at the time of his death that attempted to unite his metaphysics with physics, the natural world. Gregorio deftly uses this device to deepen the mystery surrounding the last days of Kant, who, in the story, becomes obsessed with the idea writing about "murder without motive," "cold-blooded murder."

The revelation of the murderer is satisfying but not surprising; in a way the story is more about the secret side of Kant and of Stiffeniis when faced with the mesmerizing aspect of Death, and the central importance of love. This "Critique" is engaging and thought-provoking. I'm assigning it as homework.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Chico-based husband and wife team put whimsical words to outlandish animals


Michael Agliolo of Chico is a professional photographer, someone who creates images for ad agencies and stock photo companies and who teaches digital photography at Butte College. After years of picture taking, he discovered the computer and "what I was capable of creating within the unlimited resources of a keyboard and a mouse. So was born a long-lasting affair of the heart, inspired by my love of photography and a new found ability to manipulate the ten of thousands of images I'd collected over the years."

His wife, Nancy, began to look through the images, especially the ones of animals, and "started writing prose to some of the more amusing pictures." Well, more like poetry: What might a bear or cow or bird say given the oddball situations created by Michael? The answers started to appear on Christmas cards the couple sent to family and friends, and often they'd hear "you two should do a book." And so, Nancy writes, they have.

"Animals Thinking Out Loud," by Mike and Nancy Agliolo, is a full-color, shiny-page gift-paperback available in selected downtown Chico stores and also from the authors. Interested readers can write Mike Agliolo Productions, 2196 Oak Park Ave., Chico, CA 95928,, or call 891-5100 for pricing information. (Ron Sanford, Kirk Yarnell and Marty Snyderman have also contributed images.)

The cow with binoculars on the cover is typical of the animal pictures inside. Each full-page image, beautifully rendered in sharp focus and colorful detail, is joined by some bouncy text by Nancy which begs to be read aloud (especially with kids). Take the piece called "COWard."

In a pasture not so far away,
Standing firmly in the mud,
I spy my fair Fernando
Chewing quietly on his cud.
I view him from afar because
I'm just a shy bovine.
I dream about that fateful day
I hope to make him mine.
I wish I were a braver cow
And looked more like my mother.
Then I'd go and talk to him ...
He moooves me like no udder!

Such "thoughts" accompany pictures of bears in a forest (one of them reading a newspaper on the loo), a hummingbird frustrated at a garden on a computer screen, and a turtle with a jet pack: "Some may say that it's absurd, / And some may wonder why. / But he knows that it's assured / Ol' pokey's gonna fly! // With this thing, he'll catch some air. / Two turbos are a must. / Now he can race that crazy hare / And leave him eating dust."

Computers play a role in four of the images (there are three ancient Macintoshes and one nondescript Windows laptop), a nod to how the composite pictures were produced in the first place. In one, a big old polar bear gazes lovingly into a monitor that shows a tropical sunset. "I see me walking on the beach, / A scene that's very pleasing. / But then I wake and realize, / My toes are next to freezing!"

Mike Agliolo has created a beautiful image of Pegasus, eagle wings flapping ("I live only in your dreams") and, on another page, a large cow with a rather peculiar birthmark (a bar code): "Never once did it occur to me, / That others were appalled. / They'd whisper to each other / That I'd be better off born bald!"

For Nancy and Mike, this project is more than just puppy love.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Granddaughter remembers Red Bluff cattleman Charles F. Stover


Cheryl Conard Haase lives with her husband, Bill, on some 11 acres near Red Bluff. Though plagued by medical difficulties, and no longer able to ride, her love for the ranch life, and for her grandfather, "Charley" Stover, whom she called Papa, are unabated. For two years, Haase (pronounced "hoss") worked on compiling pictures, documents and memories surrounding Stover, who in 1944 was instrumental in organizing the now world-famous Red Bluff Bull Sale.
Stover was honored in 1960, when he was 81, as California Cattleman of the Year and honorary president of the Red Bluff Roundup Association. The Sacramento Bee reported Stover owned 35,000 acres of ranch land in Tehama County, raised "2,500 head of purebred Herefords" and held the yearly Chester Rodeo on his Big Meadows Ranch from 1920-1939.

Stover died in 1961 but left a rich family heritage beautifully captured in "Too Many Irons in the Fire: The Life and Times of Charles F. Stover and the History of the Ranching Families of Tehama, Lassen and Plumas counties, 1850-2006." (The book's cover pictures brands registered to family and friends.) The large, 300-page paperback is available for $34.98 at Shasta Western Shop in Cottonwood. You can also visit B & B Booksellers in Chester, Facts & Fictions in Red Bluff and The Bookworm in Oroville or write Canyon Vista Ranch, 12561 Wilder Road, Red Bluff, CA 96080.

In the introduction, Haase writes that she and her brother Dean "learned to ride before we could walk. ..." "It was Papa," she says, "who gave me the opportunity to live my life in a way that made me happy and feel worthy of the legacy that he left me." Dean, she continues, "was the apple of his eye, and the grandson he always wanted. We never knew our biological grandfather and did not realize Papa was our step-grandfather until we were teenagers. He was our Papa always."

Cheryl was not exactly an angel. She remembers taking her older sister's collection of Shirley Temple dolls for a bath in a house trough. And "during my first grade year at Lassen View School, in Dairyville, I was relegated to stay in the classroom every recess and lunch hour for cussing. My poor mother came to school chagrined and apologetic to my teacher ... explaining I'd been raised in a corral around the cowboys. As a rule the cowboys never swore in front of women, but hiding behind the corral, where they didn't think I could hear, I learned it all!"

Every page of the book is full of black and white family pictures, newspaper clippings, or large photocopies of various documents, from grocery lists to an invoice for Charley's 1917 Cadillac ($2,250 for the car plus $95 for "extras"). A page from his diary, dated Sept. 26, 1917, lists steers branded from eight owners; Haase notes that "when branding calves, each owner needed to bring at least two of his irons, so that there would always be a hot one when the time was right. When several owners were present, there were a lot of irons in the fire! The cowboys had to be wide awake, paying close attention to remember which one was 'ripe' and ready to grab, and which iron belonged to whom. ... In cowboy lingo, 'too many irons in the fire' means that a person has too many things going on at the same time."

It's a nostalgic read, and that's no bull.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Schott in the dark - A high caliber almanac


Slide-rule companies pretty much went out of business with the advent of computer age. Though in the Internet age the printed page is far from endangered, traditional reference works are. All the words of the massive bound volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for which I paid $1,500 back in 1974, now come on DVDs thrown in for free with the purchase of some other computer program. The fabulously popular Wikipedia online is even beginning to rival Britannica in accuracy. And with data of every kind freely available on the Web, whither the yearly printed almanac? The "World Almanac and Book of Facts" or the "Information Please Almanac" now have a quaintness to them, almost as if someone published them year after year but had forgotten why.

So London-based Ben Schott decided to reinvent the yearly almanac. The result is "Schott's Almanac: 2007" ($25.95 in hardcover from Bloomsbury USA), designed especially for American readers (there are also British and German versions). In the brief introduction, the author writes, " 'Schott's Almanac' reflects the age in which it has been written: an age when information is plentiful, but selection and analysis are more elusive. ... 'Schott's Almanac' aspires to provide an informative, selective and entertaining analysis of the year. 'Schott's' is an almanac written to be read."

Superficially resembling the more traditional almanac, with familiar section titles like "books and arts" and "the States," "Schott's" is shorter (368 pages) and its content far quirkier. It's unlikely that years from now we will be driven to look up "street names, unusual" to find the "7 'wackiest' street names, according to a 2006 poll by Car Connection Web site." (A few of the selections, for the record: Psycho Path, in Traverse City, Mich.; Divorce Court, in Heather Highlands, Pa.; and, in Story, Alaska, Farfrompoopen Road, "the only road leading to Constipation Ridge.")

Oldsters beware, too. The print is minuscule and the overall tone decidedly hip. There are lots of fun lists (the "Hacker, Cracker, & Geek Speak" lexicon distinguishes among geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks) but lots of serious talk as well, especially in the survey of the year that leads off the book. You'll find an official definition of genocide, a biography of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a short article on Holocaust denial. Some of the sections (sports, the nation) are more prosaic than others (such as media and celebrity, which leads off with a comparison of the cover stars pictured on issues of People and US Weekly) but all in all Schott's lives up to its claim to be readable.

Odd corners abound. Here's a poem from Thomas Hood (1799-1845): "Dirty days hath September, / April, June and November, / From January up to May / The rain it raineth every day. / February hath 28 alone, / And all the rest have 31. / If any of them had two and 30 / They'd be just as wet and dirty."

Then there are the Ig Nobel prizes, for real research that seems pointless, with the 2005 winners in chemistry: "Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger (University of Minnesota) for their tireless investigation into whether people swim faster in syrup or in water."
The "Oddest Book Title of the Year" award for 2005 goes to author Gary Leon Hill for "People Who Don't know They Are Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It."

Don't look for a review anytime soon.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission. Posted by Picasa