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.

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.

Literacy 2021: Book 8: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion

Book
The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion by Jeff Baham

Synopsis
A history of the early concept and lengthy, tumultuous design of the Haunted Mansion attraction in Disneyland, along with a tour of the ride, and an overview of its associated collectibles and promotional events.

Pros
Fairly exhaustive but accessible, with enough details that many theme park nerds might not have already known about, but still broad enough an overview for normal people. Baham seems to have consulted or interviewed anyone who might know anything about the Mansion, including interviews with Imagineers conducted by himself and compiled from various other park historians like the E-Ticket magazine. Includes several photos I’ve never seen before, contributed by fans and researchers, from the opening of the attraction and many rare collectibles. Rigorously updated, containing sections about the recent Ghost Post subscription box, the restoration of the Hatbox Ghost to Disneyland, and the somewhat new Escher room in Walt Disney World’s version. Baham’s description of the ride itself doesn’t feel like a dry, detailed overview, but captures the fun of actually being on the attraction.

Cons
I wish there’d been more focus on the Walt Disney World version (and the Tokyo Disneyland one, which is almost identical), since as it is they’re mentioned more or less in passing, and the differences between them are interesting. I didn’t see any mention of the recent-ish interactive queue addition to the Walt Disney World version, the family crypt. The pictures included are fantastic, but I wish the book included more, to give context for what was being described. The downside to its being rigorously updated is that it feels a little less cohesive — some minor typos and repetition are a little distracting.

Verdict
The first book to read by anyone who’s interested at all in the Haunted Mansion; even if you think you know it all, you’ll probably learn at least one piece of new information here.

One Thing I Learned
The phrase “Grim Grinning Ghost” is originally from the Shakespeare poem Venus and Adonis.

Related Resources
Baham is the creator of the excellent site Doombuggies.com, probably the best — or at least most exhaustive — place on the web for deep dives into the history of the attraction.


Literacy 2021: Book 7: Fahrenheit 451

Book
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Synopsis
In a version of the United States where teams of firemen are sent to homes to burn the books contained inside, one fireman meets a young woman walking alone at night. Their friendship makes him question everything about his career and the society he’s grown accustomed to.

Pros
265 pages of Ray Bradbury writing angrily and with righteous conviction. Wonderful passages with all the qualities of Bradbury’s best writing: that combination of sci-fi, horror, and elegy for middle America, simultaneously prose, poem, dialogue, and sermon. Explicitly not about the supremacy of books, as I’d always assumed, but about the supremacy of ideas. Eerily prescient about social media — Montag’s impression of the incessantly clamoring TV walls is exactly my reaction to opening TikTok — and the parasocial relationships that result from them. The edition I read has a fantastic introduction by Neil Gaiman, which provides context for the elements that contemporary readers would find baffling.

Cons
Feels like an unsettling assault, as it should. As an AirPod-wearing defender of popular media who spends a lot of time watching YouTube, I can’t help thinking “I’m in this book and I don’t like it.” With its depiction of flighty, gossipy housewives, and seeming preoccupation with teenagers driving too dang fast, it sometimes threatens to go from “Universal Truth” to “Old Man Yells At Cloud.”

Verdict
An essential masterpiece. It’s profoundly ironic that I never made a point to read this, assuming that “I got it” from the over-simplified popular conception of it, instead of what’s actually contained within. Yes, it is about censorship, but more than that, it’s about the kind of laziness, incuriousness, and aversion to challenge or even inconvenience that makes us choose censorship. It implicates us and explicitly refuses to place the blame entirely on an oppressive government, instead showing how we’re eager to embrace the things that governments use to divide us and keep us stupid and docile.

Literacy 2021: Book 6: Light of the Jedi

Book
Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule

Series
Book 1 of Star Wars: The High Republic

Synopsis
Set 200 years before the prequel trilogy of movies, this is the introduction to an era of the Star Wars galaxy when the Republic and Jedi were still at their peak. A devastating crisis in the hyperspace lanes leads to a blockade of much of the Outer Rim, and the introduction of a new enemy in the form of marauders and pirates known as the Nihil.

Pros
Accessible and better-written than most Star Wars novels. Feels like it could stand as a popular sci-fi novel even without its Star Wars license. Felt like a new story set in the Star Wars galaxy, instead of just a rehash/repetition of things we’ve already seen, as so much of the tie-in fiction — Soules’s Star Wars comics in particular, in my opinion — tends to be. Pretty good at plotting and pacing, jumping between vantage points of heroes and villains in multiple parallel storylines without being confusing. Based on some of the Goodreads comments, it managed to piss off a lot of long-winded nerds who are now complaining about “diversity,” and it is always a delight to see them angry.

Cons
Too many characters and storylines. Kept stopping just short of establishing real depth or complexity to any of its characters, clearly because they were intended to have their own spin-off stories in comics or other novels. Seems very much like setting up a franchise, as opposed to telling its own story. Guilty of the “crisis inflation” that The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker used to ratchet up the tension; I think the total death toll of this novel is something like a billion? There’s a weird lack of genuine tension throughout — one particularly dramatic scene involves figuring out how to cool an overheating computer network. Finally, “feels like Star Wars” is extremely subjective, but to me at least, the Nihil felt too much like Mad Max, and other semi-spoilery plot elements felt too much like Dune.

Verdict
I love Star Wars but have a very low tolerance for Star Wars novels, so it says a lot that I found this one was so engaging, and it never had me wanting to throw it across the room. Still, I wish it had been less of a franchise launch and more of a novel, a smaller, much more focused story that hinted at a larger Galaxy. There’s so much potential here, and it could’ve benefitted from more restraint, hinting at the stories yet to come (like the first movie’s “You fought in the Clone Wars?”) instead of giving us the entire outline.

Literacy 2021: Book 4: Boundless Realm

Book
Boundless Realm: Deep Explorations Inside Disney’s Haunted Mansion by Foxx Nolte

Synopsis
A deep dive into various details of Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion attraction, written by a former cast member and author of the excellent Passport To Dreams Old and New blog.

So, a Making of The Haunted Mansion book, then?
Absolutely not. The author goes out of her way to make clear that this is about the Magic Kingdom version only, and that the book won’t repeat material found elsewhere.

Pros
Like having a long conversation with a knowledgeable theme park obsessive. The tone is about 60% academic, 40% personal accounts and opinions. Goes through each part of the ride from queue to exit, putting it in context of the overall attraction, and explaining how certain effects work (and sometimes, speculation about how the effects were intended to work). Puts the ride in context of the rest of the park, the history of haunted house rides, and to some degree the history of themed entertainment. This is an unabashed love letter to the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion.

Cons
Like having a long conversation with a knowledgeable theme park obsessive. The sections about the history of dark rides and haunted houses had a lot of information I hadn’t known before, but I had trouble seeing how all of it was directly applicable to the Haunted Mansion itself. Makes a lengthy, adamant, and convincing case that WDW’s mansion is a seaside house instead of its commonly-assumed Hudson River Valley setting, which is a detail that I stopped caring about halfway through. Often seemed overwritten, which reminded me uncomfortably of when I’ve gone on at obsessive length about an insignificant detail of a movie, song, or theme park attraction.

Verdict
You can’t fault the level of research and knowledge in this book, although you have to be at least as big a fan of the attraction as I am to really enjoy reading it. This by nerds, for nerds, unreservedly and unashamedly.

Other Recommendations
I kept feeling like much of this material might be better suited to blog posts. Again, I’ll recommend the author’s Passport to Dreams blog. The most recent entry, “The Mall as Disney; Disney as the Mall” is particularly excellent.

Literacy 2021: Book 3: The Secret History of Mac Gaming

Book
The Secret History of Mac Gaming by Richard Moss

Am I Mentioned In This Book?
Yes (as one of the hundreds who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign)

Synopsis
The history of video games for the Apple Macintosh from the first Mac to the Intel era. (None of the material was a secret).

Pros
Contains lots of artwork from the games, which for me was intensely, almost painfully, nostalgic. Hits all the significant highlights you’d expect, broken down by developer/studio, and an account of each from concept, to reception, to “Where are they now?” Extensive mention of the shareware scene, which was hugely important to Mac gaming in the pre-OS X days. Had lots of info I didn’t know about the creation of some of my favorites, like Dark Castle, Uninvited, and the pre-Myst games from Cyan.

Cons
Writing was uneven and seemed to change voice quite a bit. Each account includes some oddly specific details but then glosses over huge stretches of time, making it very clear which parts came directly from interviews with the developers, even though none of it is presented as an interview. Turns two entire chapters over to a guest writer who was an Apple evangelist and one of the people behind the game Spectre, and the change in voice was jarring. Feels a lot like a crowd-funded book, in that it could’ve probably used another editorial pass.

Verdict
Probably most interesting to people like me, who want a jolt of nostalgia for the Mac of the early-to-late 1980s. It seemed like anyone looking for their first introduction to that period of computer history won’t have enough context for any of it to feel relevant.

Literacy 2021: Book 2: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You

I’m going back through the books I’ve read in 2021, so I have all my synopses in one place that’s not Goodreads.

Book
You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane

Synopsis
The author of the hilarious AI Weirdness blog delivers an overview of machine learning, what it’s capable of, and in particular, where it fails

Pros
Assumes no prior knowledge of machine learning, but doesn’t over-explain things like many popular science books are guilty of doing. Gives a realistic assessment of the limitations of machine learning algorithms, instead of the often hyperbolic descriptions that talk as if we’re already living in a sci-fi future. Has a few passages with the same types of lists as the AI Weirdness blog, with hilarious failures based on weird prompts. Simple cartoons of over-eager ML algorithms are throughout the book and never fail to be charming. I wasn’t aware how much image recognition algorithms want to see giraffes.

Cons
If you’re expecting a compilation of the blog, as I was, you’ll be disappointed, since there are only a few of the hilarious lists. On the other hand, if you were expecting a thorough description of how ML works, you’ll be disappointed, since it never quite went into enough depth for me. Although I’ve got a CS degree and several years of experience as a programmer, I’ve only got the barest understanding of the specifics of how ML is implemented. So when Shane casually mentions simulated robots teaching themselves how to hop on one leg or jump into the air, I can’t picture how that would actually work.

Verdict
Great, charming, topical overview of the current state of machine learning and realistic expectations we should have for and concerns about this nebulous idea of “The Algorithm.”

Literacy 2021: Book 1: The House in the Cerulean Sea

I’m going back through the books I’ve read in 2021, so I have all my synopses in one place that’s not Goodreads.

Book
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Genre
Magical realist gay romance, possibly young adult?

Synopsis
A downtrodden case worker charged with inspecting orphanages for magical children is assigned to a special house that changes his life.

Pros
Earnest, compassionate, and for lack of a better word, “wholesome.” Adult gay romance that’s treated matter-of-factly instead of as the source for all the conflict. The parallels between prejudice against magical youth and prejudice against homosexuals is left implicit. The book is good at establishing mood, and its ending feels deserved.

Cons
Everything is turned up a bit higher than I’d like, and everything is a bit too broad for my taste. The main character’s life is miserable, his workplace and bosses are horrible, the good guys are near flawless. Characters meant to be endearing are often really grating. The ending feels deserved, but is also entirely predictable.

Verdict
I hate being down on this book since it’s so well-intentioned, but it just didn’t work for me. It took me forever to get through it. Reading it felt like developing a dislike for someone who’s perfectly fine, but is just a little too nice and not very funny.