Literacy 2022: Book 3: Death Comes as the End

Lots of Deaths on the Nile

Book
Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Synopsis
Christie translates her “rich people being murdered in a British manor house” formula to ancient Egypt. A wealthy and peaceful-but-dysfunctional family is beset by evil when the head of the household brings home a new concubine.

Pros

  • Christie’s fascination with Egypt and Egyptology is evident throughout, and the references rarely feel forced or “too contemporary.”
  • While there are two all-knowing detective types (in a sense, a less-eccentric Poirot and a meaner Miss Marple), they’re secondary characters. The actual protagonist is a young woman trying to forge an identity for herself.
  • I was vaguely aware that Christie had also written romance novels under a pseudonym, but this is an interesting combination of genres: detective novel, romance novel, and semi-historical fiction.
  • Instead of just laying out the facts of the mystery, much of this story is delivered through the inner thoughts of the protagonist and her love of her home. It gives the sense of a woman implicitly defying an even more patriarchal society than the one in England in 1944, simply by wanting an identity of her own.
  • Has all the comfort-reading qualities you’d expect from an Agatha Christie mystery.

Cons

  • Likely just due to over-familiarity with Christie’s formula, the mystery part of the story isn’t all that compelling. (Although she does allow herself to go further into the supernatural, which is interesting).
  • Since so much of the writing is in the inner mind of a young woman struggling with her own thoughts, it can come across as repetitive and the character as even a bit simple-minded. (Which is itself something that the book mentions).
  • All but a few of the characters are so unlikeable that it’s difficult to feel much of anything as horrible stuff keeps happening to them.

Verdict
The most remarkable thing about this book is that it even exists. It seems like such a big swing for Christie to move so much of the things that made her successful into a genre that’s outside of her comfort zone, and then to have it work so surprisingly well. But once you get past the exotic setting, it feels exactly like what you’d expect from a mid-tier Agatha Christie mystery, for better and for worse.

Literacy 2022: Book 2: Star Wars From a Certain Point of View

An anthology of short stories from people I almost definitely followed on Twitter 10 years ago

Book
Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View by various authors

Synopsis
An anthology of short stories focusing on obscure tertiary characters, or unseen background events involving the major characters, from the first Star Wars movie.

Pros

  • Claudia Gray’s story about Obi-Wan being visited by Qui-Gon Jinn’s ghost was really good, making the implicit story of his exile on Tatooine seem less lonely
  • Glen Weldon’s story about a gay hook-up on the Death Star was a weird swing in Star Wars terms but totally in line with what you’d expect from Weldon’s work, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it
  • A story told from the perspective the dianoga in the trash compactor was another weird idea that shouldn’t have worked but ended up being an interesting take on the Star Wars universe
  • Most of the stories feel as if they were written by fans of Star Wars eager to work within the universe, instead of being from writers just cranking out licensed content
  • The stories involving established characters work pretty well, adding depth to familiar characters instead of trying to invent an inner world for a character that was only on screen for a few seconds

Cons

  • As with many anthologies, the quality of the writing is vary uneven. Here, though, some of the stories varied from over-written to completely insufferable, sometimes from writers whose work I tend to like elsewhere
  • Goes hard on fitting Rogue One into the timeline, which bugs me not just because I’m not a fan of that movie, but because it undercuts the significance of both the destruction of Alderaan and the attack on the Death Star
  • Some of the stories, even though they’re written by talented writers, just reveal the limitations of trying to get too much depth out of characters who are best left as visual designs or archetypes

Verdict
The premise seems like it’d be quad-laser-focused on me and exactly what I’d like, from subject material down to the choice of writers. But the end result has me even more convinced that so much of what made the first Star Wars so impactful wasn’t its exhaustive world-building, but in knowing what to leave implicit, letting the audience infer all the details about people and places we’re only seeing a glimpse of.

Literacy 2022: Book 1: Moonflower Murders

Anthony Horowitz’s sequel to Magpie Murders extends the premise of a murder mystery within a murder mystery

Book
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Series
Book 2 in the Magpie Murders/Susan Ryeland series

Synopsis
Susan Ryeland has left her job as editor of the best-selling Atticus Pünd detective novels, settling into her new life running a hotel on Crete with her fiance. She’s pulled into another adventure when a wealthy couple from England hire her to help investigate the disappearance of their daughter. They believe that clues to her disappearance — and a murder that happened eight years earlier — are hidden in one of the mysteries that Susan edited.

Pros
Cleverly extends the premise of the series, as two separate but inter-related murder mysteries.
The Atticus Pünd story embedded in the book (Atticus Pünd Takes the Case) is a good, well-constructed, and satisfying “old-fashioned” detective novel on its own.
Good at subtly changing voice between the two books, making the “real” characters feel more complex and nuanced, without taking too much away from the characters in the book-within-a-book.
Expands on Susan’s personality as an actual character, instead of just the protagonist of the mystery.
Once again, makes the key break in the case something that Susan as an editor and devotee of murder mysteries was uniquely suited to find.
Avoids many of the elements that were starting to feel a bit formulaic and over-used — especially “hapless amateur detective gets in over their head” — after Magpie Murders and two of the Hawthorne & Horowitz mysteries.

Cons
The Atticus Pünd story is inserted into the middle of the book, after we’ve been introduced to all the players in the framing mystery. It feels like the intent was to invite the reader to draw comparisons between the two, but in practice it just meant returning to a murder mystery after forgetting all of the character names and clues.
Horowitz lampshades the absurdity of detectives in books gathering all of the suspects in one room to recount the events of the murder… but then does it anyway, without doing much to make it seem less absurd.
The denouement recaps everything as a multi-page information dump, when it seems like it would’ve been more satisfying to have Susan piece together most of these details earlier.
Even after that, the book goes on for most of another chapter to point out all of the clues embedded in the novel, which feel less like satisfying a-ha moments, and more like Horowitz wanting to make sure the reader appreciated how clever he’d been.

Verdict
Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries have all been extremely readable and cleverly constructed, even when the pieces don’t all fit together in a completely satisfying way. Like Magpie Murders, Moonflower Murders is another three-books-in-one: an old-fashioned detective story, a modern murder mystery, and a meta-commentary on detective mysteries themselves. It comments on the somewhat ghoulish dichotomy in trying to write “modern” murder mysteries, attempting to create more realistic, complex, and believable characters in stories that demand the reader to treat those characters’ lives and tragedies as nothing more than clues in a fun crossword puzzle. I hope the series continues, since they’re clever, fun takes on the Agatha Christie-style detective story.

Literacy 2021: Recap

Assessing my attempt to rekindle (see what I did there?) my reading habits

My experiment to read more in 2021 was a success, I think. According to this blog, I read 24 books, which is better than my average over the last few years, which was none books.

The idea was both to get into a cadence of reading again, since I’d mostly fallen out of the habit, and to help organize my thoughts after finishing a book. Core to the blog series was stealing my former co-worker Joe Maris’s concise book review format, so I could still have an outlet for my thoughts about what I’d read, without falling into my usual trap of spending hours writing meandering essays as if I were still in school.

Goal
15 books in 2021

Final
24 finished. (Goodreads has a different count since it counted all the Sex Criminals volumes as separate books, and I didn’t include the Eternals collections I read).

Comics
3 of the 24 books were comics collections. I made the self-imposed rule that I’d only include comics if they were collected as a complete volume or storyline. And also if I got something “literary feeling” out of it. I read 2 volumes of a Doctor Strange comic by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo, for instance, and they were excellent, but gave no sense of being self-contained works.

Favorite Book of Literacy 2021
Probably Fahrenheit 451. It was so much more insightful and sophisticated than I’d expected from a work I’d assumed was just a dated, dusty classic.

Best Book of Literacy 2021
Probably Slaughterhouse Five, followed by The Lathe of Heaven. Reading each one felt like my brain was being slightly expanded in different ways.

MVP of Literacy 2021
The Kindle Oasis. My dislike of Amazon as a company is starting to rival Bo Burnham’s, so I hate to come across as a shill. But obviously, getting something that removes the “friction” of reading was key to making me read more. I was actually looking forward to being able to get back into a book, which was a feeling unfamiliar to me since around college. In addition to being overpriced for what it is, though — even at the refurbished cost mine was — I’m annoyed that the Kindle Paperwhite would be perfect for what I need, and at half the cost, if they’d just add physical page turning buttons to it.

Runner-Up MVP of Literacy 2021
The Libby App. It let me get a library card and start checking out books to my Kindle, without ever having to set foot in the Oakland library. That’s helped me be a lot less hung up on the “literary value” of what I read, so not everything has to feel like this epic investment of my time and brain power. Reading “trash” is A-OK!

Goal for Literacy 2022
I’m bumping up my modest goal to 20 books in 2022. Spoiler: the first book is a murder mystery that I’m currently about halfway through. Recommendations are still welcome, even though I haven’t gone through all the ones from my last call for recommendations!

Literacy 2021: Book 24: Eternals

Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr’s 2006 update of Jack Kirby’s The Eternals is exactly that.

Book
Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr

Format
7-Issue limited series collected in one edition

Synopsis
Medical student Mike Curry is approached by a strange man named Ike Harris, who claims they’re both immortal, super-powered beings, left on Earth by ancient, colossal space-gods called Celestials. They have to find the other Eternals and make them aware of their true identities before one of the Celestials buried deep within the Earth re-awakens and destroys all life on the planet.

Pros
Incorporates almost every aspect of Jack Kirby’s original series — minus the Hulk and a few humans who were mostly there to stand around and watch — and presents it as a contemporary, slowly unfolding mystery. Focuses on a few characters and their own “hero’s journey” stories, instead of slamming them together as fully-formed super-heroes with their memories intact. Feels like Gaiman bringing his personal interests to the story, recasting Zuras to be more like his American Gods version of Odin, giving more depth to Druig as a villain discovering his own abilities to manipulate others somewhat like The Sandman‘s version of Doctor Destiny, adding a light early-2000s commentary on the media and fame, and building up to a cosmic (but non-violent) climax. The ominous build-up to the re-awakening of the sleeping Celestial is really well-done, and it feels like it finally achieves the level of awe and doom that Kirby wanted with his originals.

Cons
Inescapably feels like it was written on assignment: we saw what you did with The Sandman and Miracleman, and we want you to do exactly that with these old Jack Kirby characters. The inclusion of Iron Man and frequent mentions of super-hero registration don’t feel organic to the story, but like a mandate from Marvel to tie the story into Civil War. The familiar elements that do make this feel like an original story also make it feel like a retread. Trying to cram all of Kirby’s set-up into characters’ repressed memories, and then piling twists and double-crosses onto that, make for an awful lot of inert exposition. Character arcs and conflicts don’t feel sufficiently worked out; Mikkari and Sersi keep holding onto their skepticism and denial long after it feels justified.

Verdict
Expertly checks off all the requirements of an early-2000s reinterpretation of Kirby’s original comics, fitting it into the Marvel universe at the time. But it never manages to hide the fact that it’s checking off a list of requirements.

Literacy 2021: Book 23: The Eternals

A collection of Jack Kirby’s last attempt at creating a comic book pantheon

Book
The Eternals by Jack Kirby

Format
Collects issues #1-19 of the Eternals comic series, along with Annual #1

Synopsis
Colossal aliens called Celestials visited Earth in ancient times, spurring the evolution of apes into not just humans, but two other species: the immortal Eternals, and the unstable Deviants. Now, the Celestials are back for a 50-year judgment of all life on the planet.

Pros
Full of the bombastic and action-packed stories of Marvel in the 1970s. Ambitious in its scope — it’s unclear whether Kirby actually believed in Chariots of the Gods-style theories about ancient astronauts, but he definitely recognized its potential for an epic story. Some clever takes on how the Eternals influenced human mythology over the centuries. A showcase of Jack Kirby’s cosmic-themed art, with tons of Kirby dots, and absurdly detailed drawings of Incan temples and Celestial machinery.

Cons
Full of the clunky dialogue and meandering storylines of Marvel in the 1970s. The story is all build-up and no resolution; of course Kirby had little control over the series’s cancellation, but to be honest, it’s evident pretty early on — even before the Incredible Hulk makes a guest appearance — that he’d run out of ideas for the story’s direction. Knowing that the book is almost entirely the work of one man is impressive, but also led to a couple of jarringly sloppy mistakes, like calling one of the main characters by a different name.

Verdict
Enjoy it as a showcase of Jack Kirby’s artwork and his imagination, but the concept itself is kind of a let-down.

Literacy 2021: Book 22: Artificial Condition

Second in the series of books about a rogue Murderbot that’s indestructible yet socially awkward

Book
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Series
Book 2 in “The Murderbot Diaries”

Synopsis
A rogue SecUnit — a semi-organic robotic construct that refers to itself as a “murderbot” — sets out on a mission to learn why it went rogue and killed all the humans it was assigned to protect. To gain access to the planet where the incident happened, it takes on a contract to protect three naive humans trying to get their property back from an unscrupulous mine operator.

Pros
Smart, clever, and efficient writing; the first two books in the series are more like novellas in length, but are so confident in their voice that they don’t feel too short. Writing the stories from the perspective of Murderbot, which is impervious to violence but dreads social interaction with humans, is an effective, implicit analogy for being on the autism spectrum, or just social anxiety. Its inability to interpret social conventions is treated as part of its character, and sometimes even a liability, but never a weakness; the character is still practically a super-hero. The future that the Murderbot lives in is unforgiving and in a lot of ways, dystopian, but the stories and the characters never devolve into cynicism or nihilism: characters often do the right thing, simply because it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise. I was really impressed with the concept of an AI that can only process fiction by experiencing someone else’s reaction to it. A clever throughline through the books so far is how AIs and robots need to escape to entertainment media to relieve stress.

Cons
World-building usually takes the form of corporate NewSpeak style terms, and it makes it difficult to tell what exactly the book is talking about: is that the name of a robot, a device, a company, or an entire planet? Character interaction works a lot better than action sequences; few of the descriptions of locations were vivid enough for me to get a clear picture of what the place looked like, and descriptions of action tended to jumble together into a bunch of words waiting for a resolution. One of the characters was of a fourth gender with its own set of pronouns, which was somehow just as annoying in fiction as it is when people try to do it in real life.

Verdict
A clever, contemporary, and unassuming science fiction series in which the analogies are apparent but never feel ham-fisted. Structured like sci-fi action episodes, they remind us to have empathy for neurodivergence.

Literacy 2021: Book 21: Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s unstuck-in-genre masterpiece about the bombing of Dresden and also about human lifespans and our own perception of them

Book
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Synopsis
Vonnegut tries to recount his experiences as an American POW in Germany during the fire-bombing of Dresden by instead telling the story of Billy Pilgrim, a fellow POW and alien abductee who had become unstuck in time.

Pros
Filled with the kind of writing that turns ordinary people into fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Its description of watching a documentary about bombers in reverse is so poignant and wonderfully written, it should come pre-highlighted in every copy of the book. The first chapter is like a magician explaining exactly how he’s about to perform a trick, but then the trick still feels like magic. Its explanation of the seven people it takes to make a human baby was a wonderfully absurd surprise. Its description of PTSD in the form of a barbershop quartet is in a lot of ways a fantastic encapsulation of the entire book: comical and horrific at once, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.

Cons
Vonnegut’s descriptions of Billy’s wife Valencia are the only ones in the book that struck me as cruel. So much of this book is familiar that I have the sinking suspicion I read it in college and forgot about it.

So It Goes
As a teenage insomniac, I was a huge fan of NBC News Overnight, the sardonic news show hosted by Linda Ellerbee that was later replaced by Late Night With David Letterman. Ellerbee always signed off with “And so it goes,” I’m assuming inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five (I haven’t read her memoir). At the time, I interpreted it as merely a cynical kind of self-awareness, a refusal to adopt the gravitas of other journalists who lent a sense of legitimacy to stories that were so often mired in nonsensical, repetitive, bullshit. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that Ellerbee’s presentation of the news, along with Letterman’s take on celebrity and the media, helped define my entire mindset up to and including my thirties. Now, though, I wish I had read Slaughterhouse-Five to fully understand the context of “so it goes” as Vonnegut actually used it: on the surface, it does read as an expression of cynical futility, but via its repetition — invoking it after every single mention of death — it also takes on a tone of reverence. No life is more or less important than any other, each one deserves to be noted and memorialized, instead of abstracted into an unimaginable number and especially not brushed aside as acceptable loss. It acknowledges that yes, death is inevitable, and constant, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

Verdict
A masterpiece of 20th century literature, any attempt to encapsulate it as simply “satire” or “anti-war” would diminish it. Its format — which could at first seem too flippant for the subject matter — is exactly what makes it perfect. Its mundane details stand out too vividly to be abstracted away or compartmentalized as they would be in a more traditional narrative that wants the reader to understand the deaths of over 140,000 humans in one night. It hops around memories of horror and the trauma of its aftermath, events that keep happening always, all at the same time. And which would seem fated to keep happening forever, much like events of World War II recounted by someone in the midst of the Vietnam War, read by someone during the end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan.

Literacy 2021: Book 20: Circe

or, “Defying Odyssey,” Madeline Miller’s wicked re-interpretation of the story of literature’s first witch

Book
Circe by Madeline Miller

Synopsis
An autobiography of the goddess Circe, known as the first witch in literature because of her role in The Odyssey, tracing her life from her time in the halls of the Titans, through her encounters with mortals, and the aftermath of her time with Odysseus.

Pros
Extraordinarily engaging, pulling together various “guest appearances” from Greek mythology into a compelling narrative that feels immediate, contemporary, and personal. Gives believable motivations to characters that have always seemed capricious, arbitrary, or intended to function only as allegory. The writing is so direct and accessible that I could finish an entire passage and only realize afterwards how insightful or beautifully phrased it had been. Does such a good job of making classical stories feel contemporary and relevant that I’d assumed several elements were Miller’s invention, until I found out that they were ancient. Layers its various themes throughout, instead of relying on just one or two direct metaphors: feminism, obviously, but also self-determination, agency, fame, self-awareness and self-deception, and the role of heroes. Illustrates the differences and divisions not just between men and women, but immortals and mortals, Titans and Olympians, nobility and commoners, and divine power vs craftsmanship, as a kind of intersectional examination of power and self-determination in all its various forms. Circe is brilliantly realized, coming across as wise and brave even as she’s describing her own foolishness, naivete, or lack of confidence. Some of the descriptions of the relationship between mothers and sons hit me like a punch to the gut.

Cons
I hated the ending, partly for being a bit too neatly tied up, but mostly for feeling queasily inappropriate even by the incestuous standards of Greek myth. The description of the final spell in the book undermines much of the character development that came before it: she goes back to describing plants as having innate powers that had already been revealed to be the result of her will. Slow to get started; the first few chapters do an excellent job of describing life in the court of the Titans, and it’s essential background for everything that comes afterwards, but it gives a bad impression that the story will be far more tedious than it turns out being. I wish there had been more of the clever gimmick in which Circe the storyteller interjects an observation that was unknown to Circe the protagonist at the time; it added a bit of intrigue and foreshadowing for what was to come next.

Verdict
A fantastic book that is undermined a bit by its last few chapters. Not just a feminist work but a humanist one, taking pity on the beautiful, perfect, and divinely gifted while praising instead the value of hard work and self-actualization.

Literacy 2021: Book 19: Goldenrod

An excellent poetry collection by Maggie Smith

Book
Goldenrod by Maggie Smith

Synopsis
A collection of poems about motherhood, divorce, identity, and the anxieties of the present, from the poet who wrote the inspirational Good Bones.

Standout
The usual “pros/cons” format for these posts doesn’t really work for a collection of poetry, so I’ll just name the one that had the most impact on me:

“Airplanes” made me gasp from the shock of sudden empathy, even though it’s a poem about being one level removed from horror, and as a white, childless man, I’m two levels removed. It made me realize just how much we abstract away the idea of violence as something horrible that happens to other people. It’s selfish but I don’t think it’s pure selfishness; it’s a wall the brain throws up in self-defense.

One Thing I Like
Reading a collection like Goldenrod versus individual poems made me appreciate how much Smith works within the literary art form most devoted to formalism, structure, and timelessness, but uses it in a way that makes it feel direct, personal, and immediate. The ideas in Smith’s poems are so relatable, and the language often so informal, that they hide so much of the work that goes into them, finding exactly the perfect word or phrase or format to give an idea exactly the right impact. The end result feels conversational, but if the other speaker in the conversation had just casually dropped an observation that was so profound that you didn’t understand it so much as felt it.

Verdict
I’m ignorant of poetry, so I can only comment on the number of times this book left me blindsided by an observation, or simply left feeling the exact sense of tension or calm that the poet felt when she conceived the poem. Smith doesn’t seem to go for grandiose wordplay so much as the perfectly direct expression of a feeling. She’s become one of my favorite poets.