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.

Literacy 2021: Call for suggestions

Back in 2008, I resolved to read 26 books by the end of the year. I didn’t even make it halfway. (It looks like I made an abortive attempt to try again in 2010, but stopped after one book. I suspect that was the year of a family emergency that threw off all my plans).

Goodreads has its own reading challenges, and I’ve managed to meet my less-ambitious goals of the last two years, partly because I’ve included graphic novels in the list, but also because I’ve stopped working at jobs with a horrible work/life balance.

Looking back, I think that I developed this attitude about reading as far back as middle school, and that’s what’s kept me from ever developing a good cadence of reading. It’s a kind of vicious cycle of lazy snobbery that means I’m perpetually losing patience while still being frustrated with myself for not reading more.

My reaction to The Guest List last year shows how baffled I am by the very concept of reading for entertainment. It was so engaging that I read the whole thing over two nights, but I still couldn’t get past the idea that it was somehow “beneath” me — which, to be clear, was 100% snobbery on my part, and entirely unfair.

At the same time, usually when I try reading Literary Fiction™️, I’ll hit a particularly pretentious chapter or dour passage that kills any momentum I have. Since I’m so hyper-critical of anything that’s too under-written or too over-written, it just takes one less-than-stellar book to turn me off reading altogether.

I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman a few years ago, and I realized I’d forgotten how much I missed being completely engrossed in a book, looking for spare moments to get back into it, and being excited about going to bed and getting some uninterrupted reading time. Just recently, I read an Anthony Horowitz murder mystery over three nights, and I wish I had an infinite supply of them, even though the formula’s already made itself apparent after just two entries.

I’m five books into 2021, and I feel like I’ve got a stronger incentive to get back into reading than I have in the past: I want to ween myself off of Twitter. I’m constantly complaining about it, it never fails to make me feel sad or angry, and it’s an absurd time sink. But it’s always sitting there as something new and easy to read. Anytime I get a free second, especially when I’m procrastinating, it’s easy to just open it up, lose 15-20 minutes, and end up more pissed off than I was when I started. It seems so much healthier to replace that with a book.

There are over 200 books on my “Want to Read” list, but I’d still like to get some suggestions for books — or better yet, series — that I can get engrossed in. Previous hits for me:

  • Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series
  • Anthony Horowitz’s murder mysteries
  • Most things Neil Gaiman
  • Most of Douglas Adams
  • As a teenager, Stephen King, but I feel like his 21st-century stuff is too dark for me

I’m also going to go back to stealing my friend Joe Maris’s format for book recaps on here.

The Shape of The Sentence Is Death (Literacy 2021: Book 5)

Thoughts on the second book in Anthony Horowitz’s self-referential murder mystery series (mild spoilers)

There’s a bit near the climax of Anthony Horowitz’s The Sentence Is Death in which the unlikable detective Hawthorne reminds Horowitz to take an idea from Sherlock Holmes and take a look at “the shape of the crime.”

The shape of this particular mystery is that Horowitz has cast himself as the Dr Watson to a fictional Holmes-like detective named Hawthorne, with real people and events in the author’s life spread throughout a fictional murder mystery. This story is heavy on Holmes references, both because the author’s a fan, and because he’d written an official Holmes mystery, called The House of Silk, which gets referenced in The Sentence is Death.

Reading the first book in the series, The Word is Murder, the effect was bewildering — I was constantly having to step out of the book to see if the people or TV series Horowitz kept referencing were real, or his own invention. But the confusion added a kind of electricity to the book that you don’t get from a standard murder mystery.

It’s turned into a formula that’s become clear across the two books, but it’s a fun one, so that’s not entirely a bad thing. The whole premise feels kind of like an author’s stunt or a dare, like writing a children’s book made up entirely of words from the Beginning Reader’s list; or figuring out a way to make a children’s book about a zoo full of imaginary animals that is still somehow racist. In The Sentence Is Death, however, it’s much easier to tell what’s fact and what’s fiction, making the book feel a little less innovative but also infinitely more readable.

It’s also threatening to fall apart midway through the second book in the series; I don’t think anything breaks, but it’s certainly fraying at the seams. He acknowledges early on that he’s had to change the name of a major character (for reasons that become obvious by the end of the chapter), but then later there’s a clue involving wordplay with the pseudonym, and it doesn’t really make sense. Not a huge complaint, but anything that breaks the feeling of straight-faced fictionalized true-crime novel is a little bit of a disappointment.

My complaints about The Word is Murder still apply here: I don’t think Hawthorne is a likable character, and his abrasiveness isn’t endearing or intriguing. Horowitz sets up more character developments for the detective, which I assume will be addressed in the third book — he mentions that he’s only writing this one because it’s a three-book series, which I think is a brazenly clever piece of self-referential self-promotion — but the character is so uninteresting that I’m still not completely sure whether it’s intentional.

Regardless, Horowitz is even more clearly the self-referential, self-deprecating star of this book than of the last one, which is saying something. The books are really extended humblebrags, with long passages about how it’s not as glamorous as people think, being a semi-famous, wealthy author and television writer in London. It would quickly overwhelm the charm of the book if Horowitz weren’t such an undeniably talented writer. He can promote his television and book projects just to the point of being insufferable, but seems to have an innate sense of exactly when to pull back and either put the attention somewhere else, or to make himself the butt of the joke.

He seems to be having a lot of fun, putting himself in embarrassing positions, having characters be rude or disrespectful to him, showing himself jump to inaccurate conclusions, or making himself repeatedly blunder into danger. He gets to be both the devious mastermind pulling all the strings, as well as the hapless fool the audience can’t help but sympathize with.

It’s far from an airtight mystery, and the boundaries of the formula are already becoming apparent, but I still absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining murder mystery. With this series, and the Magpie Murders series, he’s taking fun, readable, traditional murder mysteries and floating a layer of 21st-century metatext on top of it, and I’m 100% here for it.