Literacy 2021: Book 15: Devolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literacy 2021: Book 14: The Caledonian Gambit

A cold-war sci-fi novel by Dan Moren

Book
The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren

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

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

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

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

Literacy 2021, Book 13: The Lathe of Heaven

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

Book
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literacy 2021: Book 10: Moonwalking With Einstein

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

Book
Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

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

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

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

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

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.