Literacy 2008: Book 9: More Information Than You Require

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More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman

Synopsis
John Hodgman got famous from “The Daily Show” and those Apple ads and also he’s friends with Jonathan Coulton. (Actually: a continuation of his almanac of made-up facts, begun in The Areas of My Expertise).

Dismaying Fact Discovered
Hodgman is only 24 days older than I am.

Pros
Plenty of inspired bits of surreal comedy that reminded me of Woody Allen and Steve Martin’s comedy-sketch books. Reading random passages made me laugh out loud, several times (and that’s rare). Has a made-up children’s rhyme about the Jonestown Massacre that is pure genius. Has a well-written and genuinely sweet love letter to his wife that is disguised as an essay about alien abduction. Contains the phrase “also, a poop tube.”

Cons
When reading it in order, the set-up/surreal punchline IN ALL CAPS schtick can start to seem a little tedious and forced. Feels more disposable and contains more celebrity name-dropping than I’d expected. The 700 mole-men aren’t as funny as the 700 hoboes, somehow.

Verdict
Hodgman is all about the delivery, both in person and in print, but he’s also managed to distinguish himself as an earnest and surprisingly sincere writer as surprised by his own fame as anyone else. If you’re a fan of the previous book, you’ve already gotten this one. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, start with The Areas of My Expertise, even though this one is funnier.

A Personal Note
Obviously, I didn’t make it even halfway to my goal of reading 26 books in 2008. For those who are math-deficient, I didn’t even read a book a month, and some, like this one, were short comedy books that technically shouldn’t count. As with so many other things, I blame Strong Bad.

BUT, I have learned a valuable lesson: don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. Or at least, don’t write about them on the internet.

Literacy 2008: Book 8: The Graveyard Book

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Synopsis
The Jungle Book for goth kids.

No, the Real Synopsis
After his family is killed, a toddler wanders into the neighboring graveyard. He’s taken in by the residents, raised as one of their own, and taught the ways of the dead.

Pros
Genius concept, interesting and endearing characters, great pacing. Crammed full of clever touches and imagination. Occasional passages that are just perfect, such as a stranger describing the boy: “He smelled like a shed. His hair was long and shaggy, and he seemed extremely grave.”

Cons
Occasionally reminds the reader that this is a young adult book — the villain revealing the entire back story at the climax, deus ex machinas coming right after the young hero has proven himself and learned a valuable lesson, etc. A climactic point in one of the stories is the hero re-enacting the oldest adventure game puzzle there is, which kind of ruined the story. The ending is tough to take if you’re feeling childless or if you’re separated from your family, and especially tough if you’re both.

Verdict
My favorite non-Sandman Neil Gaiman story; I think he might be at his best when he’s reinventing.

Literacy 2008: Exhibition Round 2: Yokai Attack!

yokaiattackcover.jpgThere’s no way I’m going to finish my resolution to read 26 books by the end of 2008, but even out of desperation I can’t in good conscience include this book to pad out the list. But it’s still neat enough to be worth an exhibition round.

Book
Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda, Matt Alt, and Tatsuya Morino

Synopsis
Like the excellent book The Field Guide to North American Monsters, but with yokai. Contains entries for several monsters of Japanese folklore, with information on their origins, habitat, and what to do in the event of an encounter.

Pros
Great introduction to yokai, making absolutely no assumptions about the reader’s familiarity with Japanese folklore, language, or pop culture. Includes the kanji name for each monster, a translation of the name into English, and notes on the etymology of the names and their use in idioms, which are great for people trying to learn the Japanese language. Each entry includes a full-page illustration of the creature done in the style of Shigeru Mizuki and the original source. Images from the original source material are also included wherever possible. Has an excellent bibliography and reference section, recommending plenty of related books and films. Mentions each creature’s “relevance,” indicating which creatures are the best-known and which are more obscure, or are only part of the folklore of certain regions.

Cons
Because the book is intended as an introduction, it’s pretty shallow. Each entry is limited to 2 and a half pages at the longest, the bulk of it dedicated to the height/weight/habitat information which keeps the “field guide” gag running. The descriptions keep a light “isn’t all this stuff wacky?” attitude, which can deflate the coolness of it all somewhat.

Synopsis
Although I personally prefer SHMorgan’s Obakemono Project website, both for the art style and for the number and depth of the entries, Yokai Attack! is a better general introduction. The book’s format and its use of popular expressions, idioms, and the monsters’ appearance in popular culture give a better sense of how this aspect of Japanese folklore fits into the country as a whole, and how many of them came about. It’s a fun book, highly recommended for anyone interested in this stuff. You should also check out the book’s official website.

Literacy 2008: Book 7: Salt

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Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Synopsis
The history of “the only rock we eat,” and how finding, producing, and transporting it has shaped economies and governments from pre-history to the modern day.

Pros
Extremely well-organized, with short chapters presented in chronological order describing how a particular region and a particular group of people were affected by salt during that time. Keeps the subject interesting by using personal stories wherever possible. Exhaustively researched, throwing together travelogues, personal accounts, recipes, and descriptions of scientific breakthroughs and production techniques, along with the geography and descriptions of economics, governments and trade routes you’d expect from a history book.

Satisfied my trivia requirement in the first few chapters — e.g. the words “soldier,” “salary,” and calling the Celts “Gauls” all derived from words for salt. Answered a question I’ve been wondering for years, but was always too lazy to look up: what are those weird geometric pink and brown pools in the south San Francisco Bay? (They’re salt ponds). Manages to follow tangents like the development of tabasco and the creation of Israeli resorts on the Dead Sea, without straying too far from the main story.

Cons
It’s still a book about salt. The book spends so much time talking about salted cod and Basque salt producers, that you can’t help but feel like the author cribbed a lot of the material from his earlier books. Reading the book kept making me crave weird food and games of Civilization. The subject inspires a ton of terrible cliches and puns in book reviews.

Verdict
The highest compliment I can give to any documentary or history work is that it reminds me of James Burke’s Connections series. Despite the quote from Anthony Bourdain on its cover, Salt is more than just a food history book; it really does feel like an extended episode of Connections with a fixation on one particular topic. You get a real sense of the epic history of salt, and you can understand how something that is now so common could have once been scarce enough to influence the outcome of wars and the success of entire civilizations.

Literacy 2008: Book 6: The Screwtape Letters

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The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Synopsis
A collection of letters sent from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, advising the younger demon on the best ways to tempt a human soul away from Christianity to become food for Hell.

Pros
Brilliant concept, with a ton of potential for satire. Has one moment where Lewis really takes advantage of the concept, and the effect is both darkly comic and shocking. Several passages have real insight into the human condition, in particular our capacity for self delusion, and our pointless fixation on novelty. Gives a good description of how The Seven Virtues interrelate, and how easily and subtly they can be corrupted into one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

And despite its fantastic concept, it ultimately conveys a very mature and modern conception of corruption and Hell: not just as a cataclysmic turn to evil, but as the gradual and almost imperceptible decay of the soul. Where the final punishment isn’t just torment, but being cut off from light, robbed of potential, and ultimately consumed.

Cons
Doesn’t really work as satire, since it’s clearly Lewis’ voice throughout — the end result doesn’t feel like an author inhabiting an evil character, but just as if he’d taken Mere Christianity and done a simple search-and-replace and negated most of the verbs. As a result, you don’t get a real sense of what Lewis is saying for much of it; you’re too preoccupied trying to do multiple reverse-translations in your head to get at the real message.

Has the same worldview as Mere Christianity: that of the conservative, white man living in the UK during World War II. Constantly takes a dismissive view of women, overvalues patriotism and automatically equates it with “courage,” and is repeatedly scornful of non-traditional values or really anything “modern.” (With frequent warnings that his views will be dismissed as “puritanical” or prudish, which come across more as being defensive than genuinely self-aware).

An additional piece, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” is included with this edition of the book. It was written long after the letters, it has its own introduction by Lewis, and it’s just awful. While the Letters read like the work of a clever and imaginative man who’s got genuine, universal insight combined with some quaintly outdated values, the last section just reads like an embittered crank writing a letter to the editor of the local paper. It’s a conservative, almost libertarian, political rant disguised as having spiritual relevance.

Verdict
I’d thought that this would be a companion for Mere Christianity, but it turned out to be more a rewording of that book, with more specific examples. It’s more imaginative and clever than Mere Christianity, but also more difficult to read because of its attempt to be “satire.” And it’s a shame that “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” is included, because it leaves you with a negative impression of the whole book.

Literacy 2008: Book 5: Mere Christianity

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Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Synopsis
Originally presented as a series of lectures on BBC Radio during World War II, this book is Lewis’s attempt to describe and defend the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, regardless of any particular church or denomination. It’s presented from the perspective of a former atheist who converted to Christianity, speaking as a layman instead of a theologist, and using informal and conversational language throughout.

Pros
Sees science and intellect as supplements to religious belief, not opponents of it. Describes the path from atheism to Christianity as a philosophical and ethical question, not as one of dogma or simply faith. Provides contemporary (for the 1940s) examples of the Seven Virtues and other ideals, instead of just quoting parables or passages from scripture. Encourages the reader to reject parts of the book if they don’t provide any illumination for him. Gives the clearest explanation of the Trinity that I’ve ever heard; for the first time, I feel like I understand the concept.

Cons
Although the book is marketed as “timeless,” it is very much the product of a man born in the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century and coming of age during WWI. His views on patriotism and war, feminism, sexuality, homosexuality, race relations, and non-Christian belief systems are almost comically dated and so conservative as to be offensive. (For example: men should be in charge of the household, because somebody’s got to be in charge, and women don’t have the temperament for it).

Although he doesn’t use the word “faith” when describing the transition from atheism to theism, his arguments still frequently reduce to faith. His position is logical but not airtight, and at some points he still ends up in a circular or empty argument: God must exist because otherwise we wouldn’t want Him to exist; and Jesus must be the son of God because He said He was, and only a lunatic would claim that if he weren’t.

And although Lewis describes himself as a former atheist, he really comes across as a formerly lapsed Christian. When he refers to his old beliefs, they sound like a man raised Christian who’s had a crisis of faith, but is struggling to believe again. As a result, the book doesn’t seem to offer much to “modern” atheists (those not brought up in a religious household), or people of non-Christian beliefs. He’s very dismissive of atheism and other religions, calling them “childish” or “simple” when he deigns to mention them at all.

And he has an irritating tendency to trivialize the Nazis, lumping them in with nuisances like the guy who steals your seat on the bus.

Verdict
The book is conversational and for the most part pleasant to read; even the “offensive” bits aren’t anywhere near as spiteful and judgmental as modern-day evangelists tend to be, but more a jarring reminder of when and where the book was written. But I can’t really see who would benefit from it apart from people who are already Christians and have never truly tested their faith, or Christians who are having a crisis of faith and want to get back into the fold. Non-Christians will likely be turned off in the early chapters. As it was, I started out the book mostly on Lewis’s side, and I still objected to it more often than I agreed with it.

Literacy 2008: Book 4: Baltimore

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Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden

Synopsis
On a battlefield late in World War I, allied soldier Lord Baltimore is attacked by a strange bat-like creature. Now, the war is over, but a mysterious plague has spread through all of Europe. Three of Baltimore’s friends are summoned to a tavern in a dying city, swapping stories of their own encounters with the supernatural while they wait for his arrival and an explanation of what’s causing the plague (spoiler: it’s vampires).

Pros
Inspired combination of Lovecraftian apocalyptic dread, old folk tales, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and even Blade, which feels like it’s creating a new mythology from its disparate sources. Mignola’s illustrations are perfectly chosen and placed throughout the book, conveying a sense of portent and doom as well in prose as they do in his Hellboy comics. Uses the antiquated story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure to set the time period and mood, but still manages to incorporate a killer fight scene. Makes vampires scary again: tells a vampire story without gimmicks or attempts to make them unnecessarily contemporary.

Cons
Because it’s literally humorless, it feels like a Hellboy story arc with a layer stripped away; there’s the action, and the sense of dread, and the exhaustively-researched set of source material, but nothing to ground it or make it feel “real.” Some passages suffer from overly affected writing. Despite being short and full of illustrations, it still feels ponderous and self-important.

Verdict
A deliberately old-school vampire story that manages to be genuinely scary (and gave me several nights of weird nightmares). But I doubt I would’ve been interested were I not already a fan of Hellboy — it’s got all the same components as a Hellboy story arc told in prose, but without that spark of humor that makes it come alive.

Literacy 2008: Book 3: Jingo

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Jingo by Terry Pratchett

In a series
21st in the series of Discworld books.

Synopsis
The lost island of Leshp suddenly rises in the middle of the ocean, sparking a war between the nations of Ankh-Morpork and Klatch over ownership of the new land. Sam Vimes and the rest of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch get pulled into the war via a murder mystery surrounding the Klatchian Prince.

Pros
It’s a Discworld book: clever, funny, cynical-but-lighthearted, and astoundingly readable and entertaining, while still having enough “meat” in its social commentary and satire that it doesn’t feel like empty, disposable entertainment.

Cons
The Discworld books are so consistently entertaining, it feels like cheating to include one in a New Year’s resolution list. Has occasional, brief passages that suffer from the Impenetrable Wall of Cleverness syndrome: where the story gets pushed to the background in favor of an extended gag or pun. Very much a middle book in the series; gives enough introduction to the characters so you can follow what’s going on, but leaves it to the other books to establish their depth.

Verdict
Terry Pratchett is simply one of the best living writers, and it’s a shame that the Discworld books’ origins as fantasy parodies keeps them just shy of being recognized as “Great Literature.” Jingo would be a bad choice for your first Discworld book (I’d recommend either Mort, Small Gods, or my favorite, Night Watch), but it’s a very solid entry in the series.

Edit: I forgot to mention my favorite thing about this book. Instead of just relying on the valid but obvious statement “racism, prejudice, and jingoism are bad,” Pratchett is careful to show both sides of the brewing war, and makes a profound statement about our potential to over-compensate. We can get so locked into the idea of “Them” as innocent victims of the failings of “Us,” that we forget that “They” have just as much capacity for both evil and goodness as “We” do. No matter how well-intentioned it may be, seeing any group of people as nothing more than “the good guys” or “the victims” does as much to rob them of their humanity as overt racism does.

Literacy 2008: Book 2: Old Man’s War

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Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Recommended by
Wil Wheaton, plus dozens of commenters on half the blogs I read (including John Scalzi’s own blog).

Disclaimer
I have read very little science fiction (Douglas Adams and Star Wars novelizations don’t count). I’ve read none of Robert Heinlein, who is mentioned in almost every review of this book, and in the author’s own acknowledgements. So I might be missing out on a lot of context, homage, invention, deconstruction and/or re-invention here.

Synopsis
Humanity has begun colonizing planets outside our solar system, but the technology to do so is kept under tight control by the Colonial Defense Force. Anyone at the age of 75 can enlist in the CDF, where he’ll be restored to fighting condition and given a chance at a second life, in return for a few years of service in a war that no one on Earth knows anything about.

Highs
Clear, straightforward writing throughout; the book reads less like hard science fiction and more like a series of well-written blog posts from the future. Various “hard” science fiction concepts are introduced and quickly given a rational, plausible explanation. Good pacing, where the next key moment is always just over the horizon, and you want to keep reading past the chapter breaks.

Lows
The book reads less like science fiction and more like a series of blog posts. The “and then that happened” style and the quick explanations of concepts do keep the book straightforward, but also rob it of any real suspense or sense of wonder. Has frequent passages of Michael Crichton-esque exposition, where a squad of people from each relevant school of expertise happens to be on-hand to give a short speech explaining the next topic. Frequently feels like fan fiction, where the author hasn’t created characters so much as inserted himself and people he knows into the book; anyone with any real distinguishable personality becomes a “villain” of sorts, and is quickly dealt with.

Verdict
Does exactly what (I imagine) it sets out to do: tell a military science fiction story that’s rational, plausible, personal, relatable, and above all, readable. It’s opinionated without being overbearing, light without being silly, intelligent without being tedious, and understandable without being too condescending. Unfortunately, it’s also engaging without being fascinating. I can imagine it’d be welcome to science fiction fans who’ve been overrun with fantastic space operas and ponderous analyses of theoretical physics, and want something in the middle. I’m not a big fan of the genre, and I was ultimately underwhelmed by this book, but I can still see myself giving the other two books in the series a try.

Literacy 2008: Book 1: The Road

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Selling Points
Oprah liked it! (And it won a Pulitzer Prize, too.) But look! Oprah!

Disclaimer
I tried to be open-minded and objective while I was reading this book, but I was definitely prejudiced against it from the start, because of all the hype and because of how much I disliked the No Country for Old Men movie. Also, I don’t like post-apocalyptic stories in general.

Synopsis
Ash cold gray ashes the man the boy dark scared okay fire. Repeat for 300 pages.

Highs
Quick and pretty easy to read. Excellent pacing, conveying long stretches of unchanging tedium punctuated by unexpected terror. Dialogue between the boy and his father seems genuine. Aggressively literate, with occasional descriptions that are surprisingly vivid. Subtly flows between gray reality and the dreams and memories of the main character using stylistic changes from terse and straightforward to nightmarish and verbose.

Lows
By “verbose” I mean it’s often self-consciously over-written. Sometimes feels sabotaged by passages of vapid nihilism, or a wordy but empty description. As a result, it often feels like someone writing with a thesaurus open, as if the author didn’t trust his honest, genuine message not to come across as trite or maudlin unless it were padded with “edge” or “literary merit.” As much as I liked the book’s ending, it was like a stunt pilot pulling out of a 270-page nose dive right before the moment of impact. I still can’t tell if the sections that struck me as pointlessly cynical were momentary lapses of the narrator’s character, or if they’re the author’s genuine attempts to make a point.

Verdict
Ultimately a masterfully written, honest story of fatherhood and allegory about morality. It creates a powerful image of “goodness” as a force that simply exists — independent of religion, society, privilege, or even sustenance — and survives, despite any attempts to extinguish it. I just wish it didn’t keep making me think, “So this is what it would be like if Larry McMurtry had grown up as a goth kid.”