Literacy 2022: Book 11: Carmilla

A classic gothic horror story that can’t help but be compared to Dracula (but holds its own pretty well!)

Book
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Synopsis
A young woman is stricken with increasingly severe nightmares and an unexplained illness after her father takes in a strange guest, a beautiful, beguiling, and oddly familiar girl named Carmilla.

Pros

  • Lesbian vampires! (Kind of)
  • Predates Dracula by 20 years, and is also much easier and engaging to read.
  • Starts out strong with a moody castle, a lonely narrator, a strange and scary encounter in the night, and then what feels like a queasily uncomfortable romance.
  • Has a very 1800s take on vampires: less powerful than the modern versions, fewer weaknesses, more mysterious and dangerous with a less-defined set of rules. And all with the confidence that they can be dealt with by a bunch of well-educated upper-class men using science.
  • Does a fantastic job of exploring the seductive aspect of vampires, without ever needing to become too lurid or too graphic.
  • It’s pretty short, but is still literary enough to count against my book challenge!

Cons

  • The story kind of peters out, with the climax treated more or less like an afterthought.
  • Still has, long sentences, separated by commas, as does much of the writing of the 1800s, where the point, as it were, of a sentence, can be lost.
  • Lots of intriguing details seeded earlier in the story are left hanging by the end. Who exactly are the various other strangers who were in the company of Carmilla?
  • Difficult to tell how much of the story has lost its power due to over a hundred years of vampire stories following.

Verdict
Very interesting for those of us who were excited by the potential of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but disappointed once we actually read it. It’s probably readable and enjoyable even for contemporary readers (like me) who find Victorian novels to be a slog. But you can also see why Dracula became the definitive vampire novel, as Carmilla has a bunch of components of a great story that doesn’t feel quite complete.

Literacy 2022: Book 10: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Patton Oswalt’s psuedo-memoir in essay format

Book
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

Synopsis
A collection of essays, some purely comedic, others a kind of memoir about Oswalt’s suburban nerd childhood and early career as a stand-up comedian. All are loosely themed to the idea of “Why is Patton Oswalt like that?”

Pros

  • A variety of formats, including a short comic story, change up the tone and prevent it from becoming a repetitive memoir in short-story format.
  • The alternating stories give a more complete idea of Oswalt as a person: here’s a story about me or my family, here’s an example of what I find funny. It’s kind of like a comedy routine with behind-the-scenes segments.
  • If you’re a fan of Patton Oswalt’s style in stand-up comedy — hyper-literate, nerdy, earnest, raunchiness — these essays are like extended segments from one of his performances.
  • The essay giving punch-up notes on a (fictional) wedding comedy script is a highlight.
  • I’ve seen from Oswalt’s work that he has a genuine love of stand-up as an art form, he loves the process of perfecting the wording and delivery of a joke, and he loves seeing how comedians innovate with their performances. This was the first time that I got a real sense of why he likes it so much, without its being too “inside baseball.”

Cons

  • Even when you know 100% without a doubt that a writer is in no way homophobic, it turns out there is a limit to how many times you want to read them ironically using slurs. For me, that was about 2/3 of the way through this book.
  • Being a stand-up comedian still sounds miserable to me, even though I have a slightly better understanding of why people are so passionate about it.
  • I’ve liked Patton Oswalt forever because he’s always seemed to strike the right balance of being earnestly enthusiastic about stuff while still being openly critical of laziness, falseness, and cynicism. But this book did still feel like total immersion in the Generation X mindset and reminded me how grateful I am that the 90s are over.
  • The two appendices, with Oswalt writing in the “voice” of bad writers over-enthusiastic about movie treatments and reviews, came across as distractingly snobby and more rambling than entertaining. I ended up saying “Yes, we get it,” and skimming over them.

Verdict
As funny as one of Patton Oswalt’s comedy albums, but more personal and more introspective. I just read a friend’s review of the book that speculated this would probably work better as an audiobook, where the lines are improved by Patton’s specific delivery, and I agree 1000%.

Literacy 2022: Book 9: The Westing Game

A light children’s mystery novel

Book
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Synopsis
In his last will, an eccentric multi-millionaire summons a group of seemingly unrelated “heirs” to solve a puzzle to find his murderer, the prize being the inheritance of his fortune.

Pros

  • A light-hearted mystery story that seems like it might be well-suited to its target audience of around pre-teens.
  • Fairly progressive for a children’s book written in 1978, with some anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, and pro-feminist ideas taken as a matter of course without being too strident.
  • Doesn’t shy away from presenting the adult characters as real, flawed, people, but also works to provide satisfying endings for everyone that feel earned.
  • Keeps the feel of a murder mystery while staying almost entirely free of actual violence.

Cons

  • Must’ve felt very contemporary at the time, but seems like it would be too dated for kids to relate to now. (Especially all the references to stock market trading).
  • Impossible for me to tell if the two central puzzles were intended to give a flash of recognition to younger readers, but felt frustratingly obvious for me as someone reading it 40 years “too late.”
  • The implications of the puzzles aren’t revealed until long after you’ve figured out the solution, because information is withheld until the last minute.
  • Flirts with some more mature ideas for its adult characters, but they’re still so shallow that it doesn’t feel like there’s a genuine ethical or moral arc for any of them.

Verdict
Feels a bit like a novella-length Encyclopedia Brown mystery, where everything revolves around one or two puzzles. This definitely feels like a children’s book instead of an “all ages” one; it’s difficult to tell if I’d have enjoyed it if I’d read it when I was in the target age range for it.

Literacy 2022: Book 8: How To Be Perfect

Michael Schur’s light and conversational introduction to key ideas in moral philosophy

Book
How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

Synopsis
Michael Schur increases his own personal wealth by writing a book based on the research for which he’d already been compensated by NBC to make The Good Place.

Real Synopsis
A light and conversational introduction to the concepts behind some of the major “schools” of moral philosophy, including virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, consequentialism, ubuntu, and existentialism.

Pros

  • Extremely accessible (almost to a fault). Reads more like a series of blog posts than a book about moral philosophy.
  • Every topic is explained as simply as possible, but still with the sense that the implications are being mentioned. Schur points out where each field is useful and what are its main criticisms and failures.
  • Unlike every other book on philosophy that I’ve read (which is not many), uses concrete examples (although many of them are hypotheticals) and refuses to get bogged down into the types of details that philosophers care about but aren’t suitable for practical use.
  • Opinionated and personal. Schur often describes what he likes or doesn’t like about an idea, and how he has or hasn’t applied it to his own decisions.
  • Describes the topics not as academic, but as tools we can use to make ethical decisions in our own lives.
  • Stresses the idea of our ethical behavior in terms of the things that we owe to other people, which is a really nice way of thinking about it.
  • Schur just seems like a nice person who’s perpetually conscious of trying to do the right thing and bring that sense of optimism and kindness into the real world.

Cons

  • Over-uses footnotes for comedic effect.
  • Can come across as a little try-hard in the beginning until it settles down.
  • Extensively quotes two of my least favorite articles ever posted on the internet, but at least he manages to paraphrase one in a way that gets rid of my main objections to it.
  • Describing his entire career path as, ostensibly, an illustration of how much of our success is based on luck, was fine but just on the edge of being too much talking about himself for me to be entirely comfortable with.

Verdict
Feels like a much less dry and more accessible version of the lessons Chidi probably gave to Eleanor in The Good Place. Carries on the optimistic, kind-hearted secular humanist feeling of that series, always emphasizing that the actual goal is not to be perfect, but to never stop trying to be.

Literacy 2022: Book 7: Fuzz

A series of essays about people’s attempts to live peacefully with wild animals.

Book
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach

Synopsis
Mary Roach travels to various locations around the world with a history of animals coming into conflict with humans. At each place, she talks to local experts about how they’re working to coexist with the wildlife (or in some cases, eradicate it).

Pros

  • Roach’s wry tone throughout the book keeps the subject matter from getting too serious, even as she’s talking about people maimed or killed in bear or tiger attacks, or the people who test humane ways to kill invasive species.
  • Each essay leads into the next, making the book feel like a connected narrative instead of a series of isolated essays. (Even when the transition isn’t that graceful, the forced connection makes it funny).
  • Mostly maintains an attitude of respect towards both the human and the animal subjects — there’s little of the ghoulish mocking of the Darwin Awards, for instance.
  • Especially towards the end of the book, Roach’s style of writing is charming, combining what seems like exhaustive research with the tangential details she finds delightful.
  • Shows real dedication to the stories, combining some traditional research with on-site interviews with experts in India, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, and others.
  • Reminiscent of The Straight Dope in its combination of humor and matter-of-fact, thoroughly factual examinations of sometimes uncomfortable topics

Cons

  • At least early on, the tone can come across as either flippant or trying too hard to be funny1And that’s something, coming from me.
  • Even with a writer walking the tonal tightrope between disrespectful and macabre, some of the topics are just depressing to dwell on. It doesn’t make for light, fun, reading to realize that you’ve got to go through an entire chapter talking about killing stoats and possums and rats with traps or poison, and monitoring their humaneness by observing how long it takes them to die.

Verdict
This is the first book by Mary Roach that I’ve read; as I understand it, the rest of her work is similar: a collection of essays combining research and wry humor, all centered on a specific topic like sex, death, or paranormal encounters. I wouldn’t classify these as humor, since they aren’t laugh-out-loud funny so much as attempting to keep dry or difficult topics readable. I’m looking forward to reading Spook.

  • 1
    And that’s something, coming from me

Literacy 2022: Book 6: Mexican Gothic

Does exactly what it says on the cover, and it does it really well

Book
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Synopsis
Set in the 1950s, young socialite Noemí Taboada is summoned from her home in Mexico City to respond to a desperate letter sent by her recently-married cousin Catalina. She travels to the family home of Catalina’s new husband, an aging gothic mansion next to a silver mine in Hidalgo. There, she’s haunted by increasingly disturbing nightmares as she uncovers secrets about the family’s dark past, and she suspects that Catalina’s illness and apparent mental breakdown might be caused by something more sinister.

Pros

  • Stylistically fascinating. The prose itself is straightforward language that rarely gets too flowery or poetic, but often gives the sense of poetry via rhythm and repetition. Details are withheld to stretch out intrigue and give passages forward momentum. Words and ideas are introduced as innocuous foreshadowing, and then repeated with increasing frequency as the idea grows more urgent.
  • Noemí is an outstanding protagonist. The aspects of her personality that would usually be characterized as “flaws” in a less nuanced (or frankly, more misogynistic) story — her impulsiveness, vanity, stubbornness, youthful arrogance, and manipulative streak — are instead acknowledged as essential parts of who she is, and they even become assets. She’s an extremely intelligent and ambitious character who happens to enjoy the kind of life that shallow people also enjoy.
  • The author deftly presents an extended metaphor for colonialism embedded in a story that explicitly deals with colonialism. Instead of feeling redundant, it feels as if the details of Mexican history pre- and post-Revolution refuse to sit inert as factual history; they’re given more emotional weight and made to feel more present by seeing the manipulation and abuse played out in a more supernatural Gothic horror.
  • Steadfastly anti-racist and anti-sexist without ever feeling stridently so.
  • The author’s notes, along with her essays about the history of gothic romances, and the real Mexican town that inspired the setting of the book, are more interesting and valuable than 99% of novels’ after-words tend to be. They show how much thought went into crafting this book.
  • It doesn’t descend into pastiche, and it isn’t a deconstruction or a re-interpretation of a Gothic Horror or Gothic Romance novel; it is unabashedly and unashamedly a Gothic Horror/Romance novel. All of the standard elements are used to great effect, without feeling like re-tread or parody. Overall, it feels like a novel written by someone who understands the appeal of the format and its tropes, and is able to counteract the genre’s limitations without also losing what makes it appealing in the first place.

Cons

  • One decision in terms of pacing the book was extremely jarring and killed my enthusiasm for getting back into it for a day. I was loving the build-up and ever-increasing sense of dread for the first half of the book… and then, a scene happened right after the halfway point that I still believe should’ve been left closer to the climax. I understand the reasoning behind it: stretching it out for much longer would’ve made Noemí seem like a simpleton, because things had developed long past the point of hiding or overlooking the sinister. Still, it felt jarringly sudden.
  • As a result of the above: an entire chapter is just devoted to exposition, with a character explaining everything that had happened before. I wish that this had been stretched out longer, with Noemí discovering these details and more actively piecing them together, instead of having it all spelled out for her.

Verdict
A truly excellent, compelling horror novel that proves genre fiction can be intelligent, and that familiar tropes can be applied to novel settings. Even with my one big reservation about the climax happening too early, I think it sticks the landing. The resolution had the satisfying feeling of checking off all of the ideas and all of the details that had been set up over the first half of the book. As a white American with little knowledge of Mexico beyond a bunch of random, unsorted facts about its history, I’m really looking forward to reading more by Moreno-Garcia.

Literacy 2022: Book 5: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie’s classic whodunnit is a classic for a reason

Book
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Synopsis
Ten strangers are called to a house on a secluded island, invited by a person they’ve never met. When the first death comes right after dinner, the other guests start to realize they’re all being murdered, one by one.

Pros

  • Stylistically, it’s much more interesting than I remembered from reading it in high school. The narration jumps around freely from person to person, switching between inner monologues and dialogues, so it never feels quite like a novel but not a screenplay, either. It’s more like someone telling a story to you in person, and they can’t wait to get to the next part.
  • It’s been decades since I last read it, and almost a century since it was written, and surprisingly little of it feels dated (now that they’ve changed the awful original title and framing nursery rhyme, two times over).
  • My copy has an author’s note taken from Agatha Christie’s autobiography, in which she essentially says that she wrote And Then There Were None mostly to prove that she could do it. Which is unquestionably a baller move.
  • The setup is so intriguing that it’s easy to see why it inspired countless homages and outright rip-offs.
  • I liked the structure at the end, of having a chapter of recap and then an epilogue laying out the entire mystery. It invites the player to be completely engrossed in the mindset of the characters while the mystery is still happening, and then go back and reconsider the clues after the events have finished.

Cons

  • The epilogue wasn’t strictly necessary, and just felt more like Christie justifying how she’d plotted the whole thing.
  • I kind of call foul on it as a whodunnit, since the clues were pretty weak. I can understand Neil Simon’s frustration when he calls out detective novel writers in Murder By Death for making clues too obtuse or pulling plot developments out of thin air.

Verdict
It’s an intriguing concept, told in a really engaging way. You can totally see why it’s become such a classic. I’m not convinced that it’s that great as a murder mystery, but if you instead read it as a horror story, it almost feels contemporary.

Literacy 2022: Book 4: Star Wars: Brotherhood

A flashback to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s partnership before everything took a bad turn

Book
Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen

Synopsis
Set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, explains what Anakin and Obi-Wan were talking about with “that business on Cato Neimoidia.” Obi-Wan is sent alone to an unfriendly planet to investigate who was behind a catastrophic terrorist attack.

Pros

  • Brisk reading with the right scope and focus, trying to convey a galactic conflict in terms of how it affects a small number of characters
  • New characters like a cynical Cato Neimoidian sniper, and an extremely Force-sensitive Jedi Initiate, are memorable additions among all the familiar characters
  • Sticks to a philosophy that’s somewhat unusual in Star Wars, which is that war is bad, actually, and Obi-Wan is most interested in de-escalation
  • The format of devoting each chapter to the perspective of a single character is a neat structure and is perfect for this story in particular

Cons

  • Some of the characters tend to be two-dimensional, or just illustrate their one identifiable character trait over and over again
  • Lots of words are devoted to describing Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship, and how it’s changing from master-and-apprentice to genuine friendship, but it would’ve been stronger to show that actually happening in action moments, instead of just resorting to internal monologues
  • There’s quite a bit of repetition, making it feel like a short story that had been stretched out to novel length
  • The demands of licensing and continuity make this often feel more like a novelization of an episode of The Clone Wars animated series, rather than a standalone novel

Verdict
The book accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is give the reader more time with some characters they like from the movies and animated series. I wish it had shown a little more insight into the characters’ motivation or a more nuanced or complex characterization, but I don’t think it aspires to be a character study.

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.