Literacy 2023: Book 1: Ghost Story

Peter Straub’s great big take on a Salem’s Lot-style small-town novel works best when it’s sticking to the stuff promised by its title

Book
Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Synopsis
Four elderly men, long-time friends from a small town in New York, have a tradition of meeting regularly to tell ghost stories. After the death of one of their club’s founding members, they begin to have shared nightmares, foreshadowing the arrival of an evil entity that wants to destroy the entire town.

Pros

  • Much of the book is masterfully written, with scenes that, like the best ghost stories, are filled with inescapable dread from just a sighting or a fleeting thought.
  • Adept at changing tone and voice as the story is told from the perspective of different characters and an omniscient narrator. The effect is subtle, but you can absolutely sense the different characterizations coming through.
  • Stella Hawthorne is a charming and interesting character.
  • Comes to a satisfying conclusion that’s far less bleak than you’d expect from the dismal prologue.
  • Particularly good at foreshadowing: the narration will matter-of-factly tell you about something tragic that will happen soon, letting the idea hang in your mind until you read how it actually happens.

Cons

  • Overlong. While individual passages are well-written, the book as a whole has too many of them. I respect the desire to have a story that impacts an entire town of characters, but Ghost Story stays on the surface of all of its side characters, never giving enough detail to make their appearances feel like more than wasting pages.
  • There’s a feeling of repetition as we hear what is essentially the same story happen to different characters. It’s especially frustrating because the characters seem oblivious to clues which have been mentioned over and over again.
  • The supernatural aspects of the story are either insufficiently described, or inconsistent; the villains have powers that would seem to make them omnipotent, but much like Roger Rabbit, can only do it when it would be spooky.
  • Dated. The book feels very much of the late 1970s, not just in the technology but in the attitudes. There’s a seeming fascination with adultery, and a tinge of causal misogyny that seems to linger behind everything. It’s difficult to just say “it’s a product of its times” because so much of the book seems to need to feel contemporary, contrasting the modern world with that of the old men in the Chowder Society.

Verdict
I’ve wanted to read Ghost Story since I was in high school, and I’m glad I finally finished it. It made for some excellently creepy reading at bedtime, and it made for some late-night marathon reading sessions where I wanted to find out what happened next. But ultimately, it felt like it was lacking something at its core, the core thematic idea and statement-of-purpose that was present in most of Stephen King’s novels around the same time. Ghost Story was strongest when it stayed true to its title, but ended up a bit of a disappointment for me when it turned into something else.

Literacy 2022: Recap

A failed reading challenge that’s encouraged me to pick up the habit again in 2023

Thanks largely to a day job that’s consumed most of my free time over the year, I didn’t meet my reading goal for 2022. However, I didn’t read any real duds over the course of the year, which is a first. And trying to cram in a few over the Christmas-to-New Years break has reminded me of how much fun it is to get completely lost in an entertaining book. That’s a nicer takeaway than my usual, which is just, “I don’t read enough and am a bad person because of it.”

Goal
20 books in 2022

Final
15* read. (My Kindle ran out of power, forcing my to finish up the last book on New Year’s Day instead of Eve)

Favorite Book of Literacy 2022
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It’s got such an interesting main character, and is so stylistically clever at re-interpreting and re-contextualizing time-worn elements from gothic horror, that I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

MVP of Literacy 2022
Anthony Horowitz. I’ve only read two of his novels this year, but in addition to being unfailingly entertaining and engaging, they’ve also spun off into recommendations for other mystery authors, as well as renewing my interest in reading Agatha Christie books I haven’t read before, or re-reading some of the classics from a new perspective.

Goal for Literacy 2023
Sticking with my modest goal of 20 books for the new year, and cautiously optimistic that I’ll have more time to exceed it. Two books a month might be a little too ambitious for my pacing.

Sub-Goal for Literacy 2023
To finally finish The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I started this one back in 2021, I think, and probably had unreasonably high expectations since The Night Circus is one of my favorite books of the past decade. But it’s been a slog that never holds my interest. I’ve just read a glowing review from a friend, so I’m hoping I can power through it.

Call to Action
I’ve already got a huge list of books in my Want-to-Read section, more than I’ll be able to read in my lifetime, but I’m always looking for more suggestions!

Literacy 2022: Book 15: By the Pricking of My Thumbs

A short, pleasant Agatha Christie mystery to finish off the year

Book
By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Series
Book 4 in the Tommy & Tuppence mysteries

Synopsis
While visiting an irascible aunt in a retirement home, Tuppence Beresford has an odd conversation with one of the residents, suggesting that something sinister is going on, and the other residents’ deaths might not be of natural causes after all.

Pros

  • Charming and extremely British, exactly what you’d expect from Christie’s stories of upper-middle-class English people solving murders with curious detachment
  • The now-middle-aged married duo of Tommy & Tuppence, who I thought were extremely dull when I first read Christie’s books, now seem genuinely endearing, a kind of lower-energy Nick & Nora Charles without all the alcohol
  • The idea of solving a cold case with literally no information apart from a painting, a vague memory, and a railway map, is an intriguing one
  • Resolutely middle-aged, hinting at scandal and adventure without straining plausibility
  • Short but not too slight, has the feel of the hour-long televised mystery stories that somehow Christie might’ve predicted would be made from her works

Cons

  • Meandering and roundabout, and unlikely to be palatable to anyone who isn’t charmed by Tommy & Tuppence’s married-couple banter
  • Not really much of a detective story, since there are a few interesting bits of actual deduction, but most of the case is solved by the protagonists just asking various people to provide exposition

Verdict
Charming and comfortable, if you’re in the mood for a more languid and lackadaisical detective story. I believe that this is one of the few Agatha Christie books I didn’t read in middle and high school, and I only picked it up because it was mentioned in one of Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries, as an example of a detective story that accomplished a lot in a brief space (227 pages). Very well-suited to cramming in last-minute entries for a reading challenge.

Literacy 2022: Book 14: A Line to Kill

Anthony Horowitz’s third book casting himself as Dr. Watson to a brilliant but abrasive fictional detective

Book
A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz

Series
Book 3 in the “Hawthorne and Horowitz Investigate” series

Synopsis
To promote the first book in the series, The Word is Murder, the author and former detective Hawthorne are invited to a literary festival on a small English island. As tends to happen, they’re pulled into a murder investigation, in which the other writers and the island’s close-knit community are all prime suspects.

Pros

  • Horowitz has proven himself to be a master craftsman when it comes to old-fashioned murder mysteries, and this one might be the most accessible and satisfying of his that I’ve read so far.
  • The meta-gimmick of this series — in which Horowitz casts himself as Watson to a fictional detective Holmes — isn’t as overpowering and distracting as in the previous books, being used instead to establish the premise and then mostly fade to the background.
  • None of the clues are artificially obscured or dropped onto the reader at the last minute, there’s a satisfying sense that observant readers had everything they needed to solve the mystery.
  • Breaks free of the template of the first book, which had already started to wear thin in the second: there’s no need to artificially introduce an action-packed climax into every detective story.
  • I was able to guess the identity of the murderer, but it was neither too obscured nor too obvious, and I felt like if I’d been reading more slowly and carefully, I would’ve been able to piece together the relevance of all the clues.
  • Very cleverly uses the format, and the idea that Horowitz is thinking in terms of writing a murder mystery as the mystery is playing out, as a way to sum up information and throw in red herrings.

Cons

  • Hawthorne is still an abrasive and unlikable character by design, but I still haven’t reached the point where he’s more fascinating than just plain annoying.
  • Horowitz’s self-deprecating comments are still in full effect here, as he casts himself as the eternally disrespected and under-appreciated second fiddle to a brilliant detective. The charm is wearing a little thin. It invariably comes across either as a humblebrag, or as someone who’s not hapless so much as spineless.
  • I welcomed the fact that the metatextual gimmickry was played down in this book, but it did have the side effect of making it seem more like a traditional murder mystery without the novelty in The Word is Murder.

Verdict
Another satisfying, old-fashioned murder mystery that’s a lot of fun to read. It does feel less experimental and innovative than the first two books in the series, but avoids feeling like a repetitive formula while still using its clever premise to its advantage.

Literacy 2022: Book 13: Spook

Mary Roach applies her accessible and funny style of non-fiction writing to the topic of ghosts, reincarnation, and the afterlife.

Book
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Synopsis
Roach looks into the history (and present) of varying attempts to prove the existence of the afterlife around the world, including researches attempting to document and verify cases of reincarnation in India, the history of Spiritualism and mediums in the UK and US, and recent research into electromagnetic fields and ultrasound to explain ghost sightings.

Pros

  • Roach’s introduction establishes herself as a skeptic who needs verifiable proof, but still intends to approach the subject with a fair an open mind instead of dismissing people outright.
  • Very funny throughout, Roach is on-point with her asides and tangential observations about the details she finds delightful.
  • Extensively researched but never dry, Roach includes a complete bibliography, acknowledges when the more scientific material made no sense to her, and interviews people directly involved wherever possible.
  • Roach’s template for these books — magazine article-length essays on various topics with segues leading into the next topic — works perfectly here, giving full accounts of her time “in the field” drilling down on a single subject, while still feeling more like a unified work than a collection of loosely-related essays.
  • Extremely accessible and fun to read

Cons

  • The mission statement of the book is in the introduction: find some verifiable, repeatable evidence. As a result, it feels entertaining if not particularly deep. This is not likely to be a book that will change anyone’s perception of life or the afterlife, because it’s not necessarily intended to.

Verdict
Excellent, and it’s solidified me as a fan of Mary Roach. (Even though I might be a bit too sensitive/squeamish for her other topics, like Stiff and Bonk). In my opinion, this is exactly the right way to combine humor with science/nonfiction writing.

Literacy 2022: Book 12: Raising Steam

The last “grown-up” Discworld novel affectionately leaves its characters with comfortable lives in a world that’s changing for the better

Book
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Series
Book 40 in the Discworld series

Synopsis
The invention of the steam engine brings irreversible change to the Discworld, and also proves to be the one thing that might stop a faction of technology-hating dwarfs from being able to stop progress.

Pros

  • All the spirit of a Discworld novel, with its no-nonsense celebration of common sense, hard work, and integrity, and rejection of arrogance and selfishness
  • Cleverly uses the train as both a metaphor for progress and the physical embodiment of progress and the magic of invention
  • Checks in on many of the beloved characters from throughout the books, reassuring us of their happy endings
  • Combines ideas of technological progress with social progress, giving us an ultimately optimistic vision of what we can accomplish when we work together

Cons

  • The pacing seemed a little off; there are long stretches where not much seems to be happening, and then moments of key action that seemed a bit rushed

Verdict
There’s no such thing as a bad Discworld book, since you always want more time with these characters and Pratchett’s no-nonsense worldview. I haven’t yet read any of the Tiffany Aching books, and there are a few more in the series that I haven’t gotten to yet, so I’m not “done” with Discworld. Still, this felt like a satisfying conclusion, with an optimistic vision of a potential future for the world that we’ve spent decades growing to love.

Literacy 2022: Book 11: Carmilla

A classic gothic horror story that can’t help but be compared to Dracula (but holds its own pretty well!)

Book
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Synopsis
A young woman is stricken with increasingly severe nightmares and an unexplained illness after her father takes in a strange guest, a beautiful, beguiling, and oddly familiar girl named Carmilla.

Pros

  • Lesbian vampires! (Kind of)
  • Predates Dracula by 20 years, and is also much easier and engaging to read.
  • Starts out strong with a moody castle, a lonely narrator, a strange and scary encounter in the night, and then what feels like a queasily uncomfortable romance.
  • Has a very 1800s take on vampires: less powerful than the modern versions, fewer weaknesses, more mysterious and dangerous with a less-defined set of rules. And all with the confidence that they can be dealt with by a bunch of well-educated upper-class men using science.
  • Does a fantastic job of exploring the seductive aspect of vampires, without ever needing to become too lurid or too graphic.
  • It’s pretty short, but is still literary enough to count against my book challenge!

Cons

  • The story kind of peters out, with the climax treated more or less like an afterthought.
  • Still has, long sentences, separated by commas, as does much of the writing of the 1800s, where the point, as it were, of a sentence, can be lost.
  • Lots of intriguing details seeded earlier in the story are left hanging by the end. Who exactly are the various other strangers who were in the company of Carmilla?
  • Difficult to tell how much of the story has lost its power due to over a hundred years of vampire stories following.

Verdict
Very interesting for those of us who were excited by the potential of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but disappointed once we actually read it. It’s probably readable and enjoyable even for contemporary readers (like me) who find Victorian novels to be a slog. But you can also see why Dracula became the definitive vampire novel, as Carmilla has a bunch of components of a great story that doesn’t feel quite complete.

Department of Pettiness, Young Adult Literature Division

I demand retroactive credit for biting my tongue for so many years.

It has been extensively documented how the author JK Rowling has decided to make sure her legacy is not “obscenely wealthy writer of a much-beloved series of books for young adults,” and is instead “obscenely bigoted whackadoo actively using her platform to make young-adult and adult-adult lives completely unnecessarily miserable.”

I’m not even a fan of Rowling’s, and I still spent far too long trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, and to see things from her perspective. Even when it was clear that she’d crossed the line into irredeemable, I tsk-tsked at the tragedy of someone who could’ve been such a strong force for good, instead being radicalized by opportunists exploiting her feminism to use her as a high-profile mouthpiece for their anti-trans bigotry. Such a shame, I thought, that she’s so attached to a simplistic idea of feminism, and so thin-skinned that she decided to run from criticism into the open arms of the most dangerously hateful and disingenuous people in the United Kingdom. I was too attached to the idea of her being easily-manipulated that I ignored all the evidence that she was actually an egomaniac with a dangerously large megaphone she could use to broadcast a hateful message to millions and millions of people.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is how I’ve always thought the Harry Potter books were pretty bad, but I was always too polite to say anything.

See, now it’s fashionable to point out that they’re not very good. Or to point out all the depictions of races and species and sexual orientations1More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess that are “problematic,” arguments which have varying levels of believability but which all ignore the larger point, which is that the books aren’t very good.

The first few are pretty readable, which is different. I went to a Borders on the release day for one of them2The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them., and it was exciting to see so many kids waiting in line, excited to read something new. It reminded me of the days in elementary school when the Scholastic Book Fair orders came in. I happily bought a copy and took it home, and my intention to “just check out the first chapter” quickly turned into my reading the first 100 pages or so without even realizing it. I have, in fact, read all of the books, and although the later ones turned into absurdly over-long and poorly-plotted slogs that were actively unpleasant to read, the first few were paced pretty well.3Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.

They’re also very savvy at marketing, devoting pages to describing things in the wizarding world that kids and adult fans both would be dying to buy. That’s a compliment, by the way: I think planting the ideas for stuff like chocolate frogs and gross jelly beans is a genuinely clever case of listening to and adapting the kinds of things that kids really want, instead of just crassly building a fiction around a toy line.

But it’s become a pet peeve of mine when people say that the books have been ruined by the author’s revealing herself to be kind of an a-hole, since I can assure you that they all came pre-ruined. They made little sense even before the ripped-straight-from-a-mediocre-videogame reveal of the “horcruxes.” Any mystery elements were insultingly shallow, depending on big twists based on ludicrous anagrams, or over-complicated backstories revealed at the last minute.

Quidditch is a dumb game that makes no sense, by any measure, unless you acknowledge that it’s designed only to give the main character a heroic moment where he can win the game all by himself. But that applies to the plotting of every single one of the books, too: they don’t make any real sense, but are just collections of scenes intended to make the main character a hero without ever doing much that’s particularly heroic.

Also, there’s an awful lot of ALL-CAPS YELLING! in both internal monologues and external dialogue, of the kind you’d expect from fan fiction but not from international best sellers. Just pages and page of it. I feel like even when I was an over-emotional teen with highly unique problems and ideas that nobody else in the world was even capable of understanding, I would’ve reacted with, “Jeez, take it down a notch.”

But I always figured that it’d be really churlish of me to mention any of this stuff, considering so many people seemed to be enjoying it. And it would seem to be deeply hypocritical, considering how much time I’ve spent trying to defend “low art” or art “for kids” as having just as much merit as anything else someone might choose to engage with.

To take two things that I’ve enjoyed a lot as examples: it would be pointless snobbery to say that if someone found something impactful and personally meaningful in, say, WandaVision; that that’s shallower or less valid than someone having a meaningful connection with Piranesi. That doesn’t mean that the TV series is as deep or as nuanced as the book, which would be a pretty indefensible argument. It just means that the connection is what’s important. We should be encouraging people to be finding these moments of connection and inspiration wherever they can, instead of telling them that they’re doing it wrong. Or worse, acting like something that is “higher art” is going to connect with everyone the same way that it does with us. Reading The Catcher in the Rye had me sobbing at my desk in high school, but I know plenty of people who didn’t like it at all, and it would be stupid to claim that they’re somehow “wrong.”

So I’m not here to be dismissive of anybody’s personal connection to the Harry Potter books, because there are obviously many, many readers who consider them formative.4Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection. But I would like people to back off on the claims that they’re objectively good or innovative books, instead of just objectively popular. Some of us recognized all along that they’re not very good, even for books aimed at juveniles. And we’re just juvenile and petty enough to want retroactive credit for not being joyless chodes about it when so many seemed to be having fun and enjoying themselves.

  • 1
    More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess
  • 2
    The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them.
  • 3
    Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.
  • 4
    Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection.

Literacy 2022: Book 10: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Patton Oswalt’s psuedo-memoir in essay format

Book
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

Synopsis
A collection of essays, some purely comedic, others a kind of memoir about Oswalt’s suburban nerd childhood and early career as a stand-up comedian. All are loosely themed to the idea of “Why is Patton Oswalt like that?”

Pros

  • A variety of formats, including a short comic story, change up the tone and prevent it from becoming a repetitive memoir in short-story format.
  • The alternating stories give a more complete idea of Oswalt as a person: here’s a story about me or my family, here’s an example of what I find funny. It’s kind of like a comedy routine with behind-the-scenes segments.
  • If you’re a fan of Patton Oswalt’s style in stand-up comedy — hyper-literate, nerdy, earnest, raunchiness — these essays are like extended segments from one of his performances.
  • The essay giving punch-up notes on a (fictional) wedding comedy script is a highlight.
  • I’ve seen from Oswalt’s work that he has a genuine love of stand-up as an art form, he loves the process of perfecting the wording and delivery of a joke, and he loves seeing how comedians innovate with their performances. This was the first time that I got a real sense of why he likes it so much, without its being too “inside baseball.”

Cons

  • Even when you know 100% without a doubt that a writer is in no way homophobic, it turns out there is a limit to how many times you want to read them ironically using slurs. For me, that was about 2/3 of the way through this book.
  • Being a stand-up comedian still sounds miserable to me, even though I have a slightly better understanding of why people are so passionate about it.
  • I’ve liked Patton Oswalt forever because he’s always seemed to strike the right balance of being earnestly enthusiastic about stuff while still being openly critical of laziness, falseness, and cynicism. But this book did still feel like total immersion in the Generation X mindset and reminded me how grateful I am that the 90s are over.
  • The two appendices, with Oswalt writing in the “voice” of bad writers over-enthusiastic about movie treatments and reviews, came across as distractingly snobby and more rambling than entertaining. I ended up saying “Yes, we get it,” and skimming over them.

Verdict
As funny as one of Patton Oswalt’s comedy albums, but more personal and more introspective. I just read a friend’s review of the book that speculated this would probably work better as an audiobook, where the lines are improved by Patton’s specific delivery, and I agree 1000%.

Literacy 2022: Book 9: The Westing Game

A light children’s mystery novel

Book
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Synopsis
In his last will, an eccentric multi-millionaire summons a group of seemingly unrelated “heirs” to solve a puzzle to find his murderer, the prize being the inheritance of his fortune.

Pros

  • A light-hearted mystery story that seems like it might be well-suited to its target audience of around pre-teens.
  • Fairly progressive for a children’s book written in 1978, with some anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, and pro-feminist ideas taken as a matter of course without being too strident.
  • Doesn’t shy away from presenting the adult characters as real, flawed, people, but also works to provide satisfying endings for everyone that feel earned.
  • Keeps the feel of a murder mystery while staying almost entirely free of actual violence.

Cons

  • Must’ve felt very contemporary at the time, but seems like it would be too dated for kids to relate to now. (Especially all the references to stock market trading).
  • Impossible for me to tell if the two central puzzles were intended to give a flash of recognition to younger readers, but felt frustratingly obvious for me as someone reading it 40 years “too late.”
  • The implications of the puzzles aren’t revealed until long after you’ve figured out the solution, because information is withheld until the last minute.
  • Flirts with some more mature ideas for its adult characters, but they’re still so shallow that it doesn’t feel like there’s a genuine ethical or moral arc for any of them.

Verdict
Feels a bit like a novella-length Encyclopedia Brown mystery, where everything revolves around one or two puzzles. This definitely feels like a children’s book instead of an “all ages” one; it’s difficult to tell if I’d have enjoyed it if I’d read it when I was in the target age range for it.