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.

Literacy 2021: Book 18: Longitude

Dava Sobel’s account of the efforts to calculate longitude at sea

Book
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel

Synopsis
Up to the 17th and 18th centuries, the problem of accurately determining longitude while at sea was considered so difficult as to be impossible. An unassuming carpenter-turned-clockmaker set out to solve the problem by creating accurate, sea-worthy chronometers, a task which ended up taking decades and pitting him against the fickle establishment of British astronomers.

Pros
Takes what might have been an esoteric piece of history and presents it as a decades-long contest, with eccentric heroes, petty villains, and shocking betrayals. Written with the tone of being invested in human stories instead of just historical details. Empathetic to all of its characters, even the villains. Begins and ends with a more personal take on why the author found the story interesting and inspiring. Contains only the details it needs to get the story across, inviting further research into the parts the reader finds interesting. I’d initially considered it a “con” that the book describes the significance of certain clock or watch components, with no explanation of what they are for laypeople, but soon realized that without diagrams or lengthy digressions not really relevant for the central story of this book, they’d be lost on me anyway.

Cons
Parts of it feel a bit like a long-form article padded out to book length; none of the material feels irrelevant or unnecessary, but it’s simply that some of the more interesting stories and details are repeated multiple times. While the tone is a welcome departure from some of the drier history books I’ve read, some of the passages feel a little bit too flowery. Occasionally too empathetic to its characters; reading a positive account of Captain Cook’s travels in Hawaii feels jarringly like white-washing.

Verdict
An accessible, dramatic, and even inspirational account of a scientific advancement that I’d never thought about. It’s easy to see why it was such a hit on its release.

The Short Version
If you want to see a short recap of the central story of the book, this episode of the YouTube series Map Men inspired me to finally read Longitude.

Literacy 2021: Book 17: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

This horror novel by Grady Hendrix is a lot better than its premise might suggest

Book
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Synopsis
In a small South Carolina city in the late 80s/early 90s, a group of overstressed and under-appreciated housewives form a book club over their shared interest in true crime and suspense stories. Their friendships and families are tested over the next few years, after a strange man moves into the neighborhood and begins working his way into their lives.

Pros
Genuinely horrifying. In retrospect, it might’ve been because I thought I knew exactly what the book was going to be and how it was going to pull its punches, but I was surprised by how quickly and intensely it dove into horror. Fantastic details during the most intense scenes — often involving insects, like fleas and roaches! — that kept the action feeling immediate and personal. Great at pushing my buttons; I was tense when I was supposed to be tense, inadvertently groaning out loud during some of the worst moments, and internally screaming with anger when I was supposed to be frustrated. Good at balancing tone: it avoids becoming maudlin, but also has an unerring morality to it that never devolves into cynicism or nihilism. Uses the setting and time period for effect, not just nostalgia; this is a society of affluent white people only just starting to acknowledge how much they’ve normalized casual racism and misogyny. De-romanticizes vampires, while all of pop culture in the time of the book’s setting was trying to make them sexy and misunderstood. Gives a contemporary take on Dracula-style vampires that splits the difference between realism and the supernatural.

Cons
Depictions of sexual assault that didn’t seem gratuitous, but were still unexpected; I’m not generally a fan of content warnings, but I think the book’s premise and presentation suggest a tone that’s lighter than the actual material. The characters’ tendency to reset back to normal life after horrific events strains credulity, even after you realize it’s part of the theme (see below). I wish the book had gone more into the actual details of the plan for slaying vampires, as the title implies, instead of just telling us that the women did their research. I wish Hendrix had saved his introduction/dedication for the end of the book; it’s wonderful that he insisted on including an essay praising his mother, but it also threatens to overwhelm the start of the book with expectations of Steel Magnolias/Designing Women levels of schmaltz. Although I think the book is an excellent horror story and explanation of the premise, there’s no denying that the premise itself is kind of a mish-mash of cliches. The book constantly reminded me of how much I miss my mother.

One Thing I Like
One thing the book does particularly well throughout is show how repression and suppression worked (and still works!) in societies like the middle-to-upper-class southern white families in the 80s and 90s. The men in this book were so casually cruel and condescending, and all the white characters were so dismissive of the plight of their black neighbors, and all of the characters were so desperate for everything to go back to normal, that at times it seemed too much to believe. Except it also feels like a real, accurate depiction, especially to those of us who grew up in southern towns in the 80s and 90s. So much of the menace from the monster in this book comes from its ability to manipulate everyone’s desperation to keep up appearances and maintain public perception that they’re good, proper, Christian families. They’re so eager for things to be normal that they’ll deny an abundance of evidence of evil. They’re not naive, necessarily, but so wrapped up in creating and maintaining an illusion of perfect suburban whiteness that they’re in denial of anything that threatens or is even critical of it.

The book is direct in its condemnation of casual racism and misogyny, and it makes a deliberate illustration of how easily the monster fits itself into that kind of environment and takes advantage of it. But it’s a little bit more subtle about how much people deny our true selves and our obligations to each other out of a need to be normal.

Verdict
Surprisingly excellent. I’d expected a mash-up of Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Designing Women and the like with Fright Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and True Blood. Instead, it’s an often-intense horror story that seldom pulls any punches, and uses social commentary for good effect. It’s not quite the predictable story of The Irrepressible Resilience of Southern Women, but actually a sincere celebration of the true strength of people who’ve been underestimated and unappreciated.

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.