Literacy 2021: Book 16: Sex Criminals

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s comic series about people whose orgasms stop time.

Book
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Format
30 issue comic series (with a finale issue 69) collected in 6 compilations (or, recently, 3 larger editions).

Synopsis
A woman whose orgasms have the power to stop time happens to meet a man with the same ability. They decide to use their power to rob banks.

Pros
Smart, mature, and respectful, while still frequently being laugh-out-loud funny. Pretty good balance between high-brow and low-brow, and often jumps seamlessly between the two. Frequently resists the story’s natural inclination to go towards action or violence, instead having characters resolve conflicts by talking to each other. Casually breaks the fourth wall from start to finish, and it somehow works more often than you’d expect. Great sound effects throughout. Does a good job of capturing what the honeymoon/infatuation stage of a relationship feels like, without being overly twee. Suzie and Jon are genuinely charming, and it’s easy to get invested in their relationship. One extended fourth-wall-breaking sequence could’ve been insufferable if not for increasingly over-the-top jokes depicting Zdarsky as a comics superstar. The alternate cover with Fraction & Zdarsky in a family portrait is an all-time classic.

Cons
Extremely pleased with itself. A little too much of the fourth-wall breaking is clever enough to work (e.g. speech balloons so full of text that they’re crowding out all the people in the panel), but still comes across as annoyingly defensive. The supposedly “highbrow” stuff feels really over-written, and lampshading it doesn’t help much. Gets weaker the longer it goes on — it’d be unfair to expect a series that ran for seven years to keep up the potential energy of its first issues, but man, reading it all at once really makes it feel as if it’s crawling up its own ass. Resolution felt extremely anti-climactic (ironically). Has extended parodies of other comics that could’ve worked as gags, but feel obtuse when stretched out over a full page or even an entire issue. Even as someone who likes Queen, I don’t see the point in spending an entire half of a comic just devoted to a character singing a song.

A Bigger Con
Every one of the male/female relationships has a weird dynamic: the women are generally treated as blameless, and everything that goes wrong with the relationship is treated as the man’s fault. There’s no sense of partnership; when there’s any conflict, the woman is free to be as caustic as she wants, and it’s up to the man to recognize and acknowledge what he’s done wrong. Suzie doesn’t appreciably change over the course of the series; she learns more about herself, but I get no sense that she’s felt any obligation to change her behavior at all.

Verdict
Smart, clever, genuinely funny, and deservedly one of the classic comic series of the 2010s. I just think its defensiveness about being too “on the nose,” its weird relationship dynamics, and its somewhat lackluster conclusion kept me from being completely satisfied.

Libby, Get Your Ebooks Here

I’m late to the party on checking out ebooks from the local library.

Likely old news to everyone, but since I didn’t hear about it until a week or so ago, maybe it’ll benefit someone out there:

The Libby app for iOS, Android, and web browsers lets you use your library card to download ebooks and audiobooks. I always had a vague idea that this was possible, but I assumed that it would involve going to a local branch to set everything up, or at best going to an archaic website and using QR codes or something to get books locked to a proprietary, inferior e-reader.

After a week, here’s what’s impressed me most about using Libby:

  • They start by helping you get set up with a library card, if you don’t already have one. Here in Oakland, I did the whole process on my phone and got a digital card within 24 hours, on a weekend.
  • The app is really good-looking and pleasant to use, completely unlike the outdated experience I’d been dreading. It’s odd to see such a polished app not being used to sell stuff or make me angry.
  • The app has an interesting design not quite like anything I’ve seen before. It seems to combine a library-style interface with the AI messenger fad that blew up a couple of years ago, but in a way that actually works.
  • You can choose the format you want to borrow the book, including Kindle, the app’s built-in e-reader, or in some cases downloading as an e-pub. This is the main draw for me, since reading on the Kindle has honestly gotten me to read more.
  • I haven’t yet used the in-app reader, since I’ve gone all-in on Kindle, but from what I’ve seen on the website, it looks professional. (Compared to less-than-great experiences I’ve had with other readers, or badly-formatted books on the Kindle).
  • Once delivered to the Kindle, a book borrowed from the library is treated identically to ones that I’d bought. Synced across devices, readable from multiple versions of the Kindle app, integrated with Goodreads, and so on.
  • Placing a book on hold, when it’s not immediately available, is very easy. You’re given an estimate of how long it’ll take for the book to become available, and how many other readers are waiting for how many available “copies.” In my case, a book became available weeks before the estimate, and it was easy for me to reschedule it for later.

I’ve been living in Oakland for years, but I just have never been able to drag my ass to the library to get a library card. (I never got one for San Francisco, either, come to think of it). I don’t usually read enough to warrant one, plus I’m spoiled and don’t have the patience to wait if a book I want isn’t immediately available. I worry that my years of laziness and eagerness to take the path of least resistance has ended up paying for Jeff Bezos’s in-flight magazine on his peen rocket or something.

Maybe reading library books delivered online isn’t as novel (sorry) for everyone else as it is for me, but I can’t help feeling as if I’d unlocked a hidden secret I haven’t been taking advantage of for decades. This system isn’t perfect, of course; it’s got artificial scarcity built in, to mimic borrowing a physical book. And there are going to be plenty of titles that aren’t available at all.

But in just over a week, I’ve already finished one book and am a quarter of the way through another one. Both were books that I was curious about, but hesitant to commit to if it meant buying them outright. It seems dumb and obvious written out, but having to pay publisher prices for everything imposed this bar on anything I read: it had to be good enough that I’d be willing to “own” it. And that was lurking in the back of my mind while I read everything, making me a little more subconsciously hyper-critical.

If I’m just borrowing from the library, though, I can go back to reading trash without guilt or remorse!

Literacy 2021: Book 15: Devolution

Max Brooks applies his World War Z style to Sasquatches instead of zombies

Book
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

Synopsis
After an eruption from Mount Rainier wreaks havoc on the Seattle and Tacoma area, residents of an experimental village of self-sufficient homes find themselves completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Their story is recounted via interviews with people familiar with the incident, and the found journal entries written by one of the residents.

Origin
According to the acknowledgements, Brooks had conceived of and pitched this as a movie, but then reacquired the rights and released it as a novel. That’s evident, since this is 100% plotted and paced as an action horror movie, but delivered in the more introspective oral history style.

Pros
Smart and confident in its tone and its level of research. Has a strong message about human arrogance and hubris, and the folly of seeing ourselves as set apart from nature. Also has a strong message about over-reliance on, and confidence in, technology. Captures how 21st century tech culture combines a lot of societal failures: over-reliance on convenience, lack of understanding of the supply chain and its consequences, the cult-like worship of prominent figures in technology, and the arrogance of businessmen who act as if they’re saving the planet. Exhaustively planned and plotted, with convincing explanations for almost every single detail and event.

Brilliantly paced in the build-up to the point at which the action first breaks. I had to stop reading before bed and finish the book in the daylight, but even at mid-day, I felt my heart racing and my palms getting sweaty, even though I knew pretty much exactly what was going to happen. It’s so good at reproducing that feeling of terror and vulnerability that came from watching the In Search Of… episode about Bigfoot in the 1970s, that I knew instantly that Brooks must be the same age as me. (He’s one year younger than me, as it turns out).

Cons
The oral history format just doesn’t work for this story; instead of adding a sense of verisimilitude, it just draws attention to how false the format is. The protagonist’s long passages quickly start feeling less like journal entries and more like a novel, both in tone and in level of detail and memory. And that would’ve been fine, except by repeatedly mentioning that this was a journal, it just drew more attention to the fact that it’s clearly not. One of the characters, whose “interviews” make up a significant chunk of the books, is written in an affected trying-too-hard-to-sound-casual voice that comes across as jarringly clumsy compared to the other voices. None of the characters are likable, which is probably to be expected in a horror movie in which most of the characters will die, but frustrating when it seems that the book wants me to like some of these characters a lot. Needlessly and excessively fat-shaming of a character who we’re supposed to despise for being weak, selfish, and gluttonous. Two characters’ descent into insanity is bizarrely over-the-top and unbelievable in a story that’s otherwise so grounded.

My biggest gripe is actually the tone of arrogance and nastiness that’s always lurking in the middle of a well-paced and well-researched story. It often feels like a doomsday prepper pitching a monster movie to you. It’s weird, because it’s too intelligent, well-written, and inclusive to be lumped in with other testosterone-heavy B-movie action stories. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that if it had the option, the book would sneer at me and call me a pussy.

Verdict
One of the most well-crafted books I’ve read this year, perfectly capturing the feeling of a well-made horror/action/monster movie. But I’m also glad it’s over, because I can’t shake the creepy sense that if I spent more time with it, it’d start trying to sell me on crypto-currency or libertarianism, or drag me into an argument over the failings of electric vehicles.

Literacy 2021: Book 14: The Caledonian Gambit

A cold-war sci-fi novel by Dan Moren

Book
The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren

Synopsis
In the midst of a galactic cold war, a janitor from a remote outpost on a frozen, secluded planet is enlisted to return to his homeworld to investigate a secret weapon being developed by the oppressive Illyrican Empire.

Pros
Moren’s years of experience as a tech journalist are evident here, as the craft of writing throughout is smart and accessible. Embraces most of the elements of the capital-ships-and-dogfights-in-outer-space school of current popular science fiction, but puts most of its focus on cold war-style espionage. Having a planet that’s a colony of Earth founded by Scotsmen is a novel twist I haven’t seen before. Pretty well paced, with a balance of fight scenes, dialogue, and espionage that all builds towards a climax that bumps up the scope without losing focus. It’s evident that the world-building has been mapped out beforehand, and we’re only seeing a piece of a larger story. Sensitive to its main character and treats PTSD as an obstacle instead of a weakness. Feels very much like a years-long passion project, and I’m just happy to see someone have his dream of having a novel published come true.

Cons
Feels very much like a first novel. Relies far too heavily on cliches, from settings to events to dialogue to character backgrounds to character descriptions and even character mannerisms. Dialogue isn’t very strong and often feels forced or stilted; one of the main characters’ constant “wisecracks” are particularly grating. Emotional moments often don’t feel earned, or the “heat” of a scene suddenly escalates for no other reason than to generate drama, and it sometimes feels as if it would’ve felt more resonant had there been simply more action. One of the main characters’ key relationships, that’s built up throughout the book, is left jarringly unresolved, as a death happens “off screen.”

Verdict
Feels like a novelization of the pilot episode of an obscure series on the SyFy channel. Which I imagine was the goal.

Literacy 2021, Book 13: The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic about an average man whose dreams transform reality

Book
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Synopsis
Seemingly average man George Orr is tortured by the knowledge that his dreams alter the past to become reality in the present. He’s sent to an arrogant psychiatrist who wants to use Orr’s power to rebuild the world into a better version.

Pros
The language flows smoothly between dream logic, dystopian science fiction, poetry, and Taoist philosophy, treating them all as parts of the same thing. Manages to be stridently moralistic without lapsing into dogma or a naive story of good vs evil. Has the same aspect that I like so much in Susanna Clarke’s writing, in which the protagonists and antagonists aren’t treated as equal and opposite rivals, but instead as operating with completely incompatible viewpoints. Feels surprisingly modern for a 50-year-old science fiction novel. Takes what could’ve been a sprawling and clumsy story about altering the fabric of reality, but keeps it focused on a few characters and dense with observations from their own viewpoints. Descriptions of an “effective dream” gone wrong, from the point of view of people on the outside, are fantastic.

Cons
That density makes it kind of a slow read; although it’s less than 200 pages, it took me forever to make it through. As with any story of oppressive dystopian futures, much of it isn’t a fun and breezy read. Because LeGuin is so effective at writing the inner viewpoints of the characters, the dialogue comes across as a bit stilted and unnatural in comparison. The few but significant pop culture references come across as corny.

Verdict
It’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a classic; it feels timeless and if anything, more relevant now than in 1971. It takes us through an increasingly wild story to show us the power of inner strength, simplicity, kindness, and companionship, without seeming naive or simple.

Literacy 2021: Book 12: Zen in the Art of Writing

A collection of essays combining Bradbury’s philosophy of writing along with some victory laps for his best work

Book
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Synopsis
A collection of essays and poems from throughout Bradbury’s career, with a common theme of Bradbury’s philosophy about and process towards writing.

Pros
Offers more insight into the ideas that led to books like Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and the novel and screenplay of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Gives a better picture of Bradbury as a man, beyond his often bombastic prose, who seems to have been blessed with a lack of self-doubt without being arrogant. Describes flow state without using the phrase “flow state,” years before the concept became common enough for me to hear about it. Includes accounts of writing for different media, such as plays and screenplays. Repeats his assertion that the value of writing is entirely in the writer’s unique voice, an invaluable reminder for those of us filled with self-doubt or imposter syndrome, paralyzed into inaction for fear that we have nothing original to contribute. Has an interesting description of his working with Disney on the Spaceship Earth attraction, which I got to read from poolside, right before riding it.

Cons
Heavier on the memoir side than the guide-to-writing side. Not much in the way of practical advice, apart from the most practical advice there is: put in the time and effort, write a lot, and don’t overthink it. Contradicts some of his earlier assertions, as he muses on the idea of revising the novel Fahrenheit 451 with some of the revelations he had while making a stage adaptation of it. Unclear whether Bradbury felt that the actual craft of writing is innate, or just beyond the scope of these essays. Repeats some of the claims from his other essays, forewords, and afterwords — such as his assertion that he could remember being born — which are inevitable for an author as prolific and long-lived as Bradbury, but which make his work seem smaller and more finite.

Verdict
Good supplemental material for fans of Ray Bradbury, but as a guide to aspiring writers, the content can be summed up simply as “keep writing, and your unique voice will manifest itself.”

Literacy 2021: Book 11: Secret Stories of Extinct Walt Disney World

I wanted a light book about Disney World history, and I chose poorly.

Book
Secret Stories of Extinct Walt Disney World: The World That Disappeared by Jim Korkis

Pros
Mentioned a couple of things that I’d either forgotten about, or had never known about on account of my “missing” teen years not going to Florida. Includes some snippets from first-hand interviews.

Cons
Badly written and sloppily edited to the point of distraction. Typos and run-on sentences which are worse because of lack of punctuation and misspellings or the infamous misused words or outright made-up words that I tried to ignore until each one dug directly into the base of my spine like an irritant. Just copies lists from somewhere; a lot of it reads like marketing material and park maps (which Korkis might have written or helped write?) Jumps between hand-waving descriptions and then weirdly specific details, as if the author were copy/pasting from a news article. Weird omissions, like If You Had Wings and Dreamflight. No photos or, in many cases, even a synopsis of the show or attraction, so people who never saw the original will be unable to get a clear picture of it, and people who did see the original will find little of nostalgic value in such a cursory description.

Why Bother Reviewing It?
After a couple dozen pages, I thought I’d just finish this one quietly and move on without comment. What could possibly be gained by trashing a low-cost, small-press, light book that in Kindle form, isn’t even that expensive? But the more I read, the more it annoyed me, because I felt like I’d paid to grade a high school paper from a student who’d written the whole thing the night before. There are lots of people who’ve been doing diligent work collecting documentation, interviews, and ephemera from the history of the parks, and you can tell it’s done as a labor of love. This just felt opportunistic, like the tourist trap shops selling knock-off Mickey Mouse T-shirts along International Drive.

Summary
Even if, like me, you’re desperate to read anything about Walt Disney World, pass on this one.

Literacy 2021: Book 10: Moonwalking With Einstein

I’ve already forgotten what this one was about, yuk yuk!

Book
Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Synopsis
After covering the World Memory Championships as a journalist, Foer spends a year learning about the history of memory-training techniques, our understanding of how memory works, and training with some of the other competitors, before competing in the championships himself.

Pros
It’s difficult to imagine being more committed to a story about memory competitions. Does a good job of balancing personal memoir, coverage of the events and their competitors, and deep dives into the history of mnemonics and the current neurological and psychological studies. Gives an overview of techniques like memory palaces and mnemonic systems, along with explanations of why the location- and imagery-based techniques are more effective than rote memorization. Includes interviews with people with remarkable memories — either positive or negative — that are conducted with as much compassion as objective interest. Maintains an appropriate level of skepticism about his interview subjects and the entire endeavor as a whole.

Cons
Reads more like a collection of magazine articles than a cohesive book, which is great for spending time with a topic but not so great for pacing. Little practical information for learning the techniques yourself. Hints at larger practical benefits for all of the exercises that keep them from being just a stunt, but those passages are a little more vaguely hand-waving than the rest. Reading the book has made me less encouraged to try out any of the systems, since the thought of having to think of elaborate imagery to remember the name of a person I’ve just met, while they’re still talking to me and expecting me to respond, sounds more stressful than just admitting I’ve already forgotten their name.

Verdict
Emphasizes some interesting ideas: that memory is more about indexing information than simply storing it, and the ways in which memory and intelligence are interconnected. (Remembering isn’t the same as learning, but it helps learning because it gives us more frames of reference to make incoming information more “sticky.”) But I was left feeling a little disappointed that none of it seems to have much real-world practical benefit.

Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die

Re-thinking some of my own condescending opinions about Ray Bradbury’s work

I’ve been thinking a lot about Fahrenheit 451 and its surprisingly nuanced take on censorship. The kerosene-filled salamander trucks are the most dramatic, but not the most unsettlingly relevant image in the book. Instead, it’s the society that slowly and gradually gives in to our own fears and assumptions to the point where we think the firemen are a good idea in the first place.

I already wrote about Ray Bradbury’s Coda, which was included as an afterword to a 1979 edition of the book. Searching for the full text of his essay online, I could only find the occasional personal blog post, and then a full copy of it included in an obituary of Bradbury on the Cato Institute’s website. Which I won’t link to, because F the Cato Institute.

I don’t know what Bradbury’s specific and personal politics were, because I get the impression he was adamant about letting his work speak for itself. (An idea that seems forcefully underlined by his Coda). I only just started reading Bradbury’s work for the first time in the past couple of years — going roughly in order of “famousness” — and I’ve been struck by how he has a clear and undeniably specific voice, which he uses to describe concepts that are universal.

It’s that combination of universal concepts plus early-to-mid-20th-century-American mindset which initially left me with the overall impression that his works are “brilliant, but dated.” To me, they’ve seemed to communicate ideas that are immediately and crucially relevant to 21st century liberal progressives, despite their being shaped by the mindset of a period in American history that so many of us are now recognizing needs to be dismantled and un-learned.

I imagine it’s that same universality that lets people at a well-funded libertarian “think tank” interpret it as a “got ’em!” dismissal of social progressivism and inclusivity as assaults on free speech driven by frivolous special interests.

Bradbury’s Coda to Fahrenheit 451 suggests — insists, really — that neither of those takes is the right one. Except I’m a little bit more right than they are, and here’s why.

Continue reading “Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die”

Literacy 2021: Book 9: Trigger Mortis

Book
Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz

Series
A contemporary continuation of the James Bond series from authors chosen by Ian Fleming’s estate

Synopsis
Set just a couple of weeks after the events of Goldfinger, Bond is assigned to compete in a deadly Grand Prix to counter a Russian assassination plot, eventually leading to a diabolical plot from SMERSH and the mysterious multimillionaire Jason Sin, to disrupt America’s space program!

Pros
Nails the voice of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. It’s been decades since I’ve read any of them, but this is exactly how I remember them. Contains previously unpublished material by Fleming, written for a Bond TV series that never happened, and even after reading Horowitz’s afterword, I’m still not able to figure out exactly which parts are his and which are Fleming’s. Like everything else I’ve read by Horowitz, it’s engaging and fun to read throughout; he can somehow make the slower moments as compelling as the exciting ones and make the whole thing flow. Steadfastly and apologetically set in the 1950s, but still brings contemporary sensibilities to the plotting, without feeling like a parody or a modernized adaptation. Goes to locations and puts Bond in situations that I haven’t seen before. Good character resolution for Pussy Galore. Has a character named Harry Johnson, which is hilarious. Great title for a Bond novel, although it ends up being used in the book just a couple times too often.

Cons
Nails the voice of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. There’s a reason that it’s been decades since I’ve read any of them. If you’re turned off by casual misogyny and xenophobia, you’ve come to the wrong place reading a Bond novel, but what I’d forgotten were the run-on sentences, and Fleming’s bizarre, almost Kardashian-like obsession with brands. The “supervillain reveals his entire plot” monologue is a staple of Bond stories, so it’s not the inclusion that feels off here, but that it actually makes the villain more sympathetic, not less. Feels pretty low-stakes for a Bond adventure, and the action set pieces were on the smaller side; I kept wondering whether Horowitz were subconsciously bringing his TV-screenwriter frugality to a Bond novel.

Verdict
I doubt this would convert anyone over to the James Bond franchise, but it feels to me like a solid continuation of the series. Makes me even more convinced that the movies should’ve set Daniel Craig’s version of Bond in the 50s instead of trying to keep them current. I think the stories are so much more interesting when they can embrace the idea that Bond has a very specific sensibility from a very fictionalized version of a very specific time period, instead of trying to keep the “women want him, men want to be him” idea going for decades past its prime.