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.

Bespoke Dissidence

An essay by Gregory Thompson intelligently and compassionately rejects the lie of far-right manufactured victimization.

One of the best things I’ve read in recent memory is “Return of the Cold Warrior,” an essay/book review written by Gregory Thompson on Comment, an online magazine “rooted in 2000 years of Christian social thought.”

The essay is structured as a review of a book called Live Not By Lies, but I won’t link to it, both because it sounds dreadful, and because the essay is really not so much a review as a foil for Thompson to forcefully repudiate the culture of false victimization that’s become more vocal — and simultaneously more dangerous and more ridiculous — over the past decade or so.

If I’m being honest, the first thing that occurred to me while reading Thompson’s essay is that I need to start reading more grown-up books. I’m still a firm believer in the idea that there’s no such thing as a “guilty pleasure,” that audiences can have unpredictably profound reactions to any work, and I’ve rejected the idea that “challenging” material is inherently more valuable.

But still, after years spent mostly reading social media and watching YouTube videos, my stumbling into such a literate, thoughtful, and compassionate essay as Thompson’s felt like I’d discovered a doorway into Narnia. Are there really parts of the internet where people can freely reference political, social, and theological movements of the past two centuries as freely as references to the 1984 movie Red Dawn? Is it possible to read someone putting the excesses of the last decade of American society into a larger context, with no sense of bland, moral relativist detachment, and also no talk of getting “owned?”

Continue reading “Bespoke Dissidence”

I Don’t Think You’re Ready For This Player

How the book Ready Player Two could be a teachable moment for the internet.

At least Demi Adejuyigbe managed to channel his disappointment into a song.

The sequel to the book Ready Player One has apparently been released, which is news I’ve been told repeatedly for some reason. It’s a book that I’ve now read several passages from, despite having no interest in reading any of it.

Not long after the first book was released, I got a copy of it (and the audiobook!) based on the hype around it. But I realized it was not for me — or more accurately, it was 100,000% “for” me, but I didn’t want it — as soon as I’d read an excerpt from the first chapter. In a correctly-functioning universe, that should’ve been the beginning and end of my awareness of this series and the works of Ernest Cline in general.

But I haven’t been able to escape the new book. Not because of a marketing blitz, but because I can’t turn around on the internet without running into someone eager to dunk on it. And the same people who spend most of their time saying “just let people enjoy things” are now double plus eager to show how funny their snarky comments are.1For all I know, maybe that is part of the marketing blitz? Are publishers cynical enough these days to be investing in hate-reading campaigns?

Don’t we have better things to do? I mean, I recognize the irony in writing a blog post to say how much I don’t care about something, but I’m not convinced that everyone is self-aware enough to really understand the irony. And while it’d be a lot simpler just to say “That’s stupid, stop doing it,” followed immediately by deleting my Twitter account for good, this seems like a perfect opportunity to ask people to just try and be better.

Continue reading “I Don’t Think You’re Ready For This Player”

The October Country

Ray Bradbury’s The October Country is something I should’ve read a long, long time ago.

I finished reading Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The October Country in November 2020, which feels like I was too late by one month and about 30 years.

Some of the stories have a sense of familiarity that suggests I’ve read them in a long-forgotten English course, or maybe reprinted in a magazine. But overall, this book felt like a startling shift in perception. It’s made me reconsider the vague assumptions I’ve always made not just about Ray Bradbury’s work, but pretty much the entire state of popular culture before Stephen King.

Incidentally: for a clear indication of just how long this story collection has been in print (and by inference, how influential it’s been), check out a Google Image Search to see the history of book covers. It’s remarkable for two reasons: first, to see in a grid how many immediately-recognizable eras the book has persisted through. Second, to see how the varying selection of cover images suggests that the stories within transcend (or at least straddle) multiple decades and multiple genres.

Continue reading “The October Country”

Good Bones

Thoughts on pledging to be better, and giving up on the idea that people are basically good, which was kind of a lousy idea anyway.

There’s been an excellent poem going around the internet over the past week: it’s called Good Bones. It was written by Maggie Smith as a response to the disillusionment and despair many of us felt in 2016. It’s really wonderful, easily my favorite poem containing the phrase “a real shithole.”

I can imagine how it would’ve resonated if I’d seen it in 2016 — an acknowledgement that the world can be a hateful place, but with a faint glimmer of indefatigable hope still left at the end. Now in November of 2020, its tone has shifted. Of course we know that “the world is at least fifty percent terrible,” because we’ve been reminded of it multiple times a day, ceaselessly. The end no longer feels like a faint glimmer but a determined resolve to make it beautiful wherever and however we can.

I’m not just writing about it to unnecessarily over-explain it, though: I just wanted to add a personal note to say I’m grateful for it, not just for bringing a bit of light to the despair of the past week, but for reminding me just how hard my parents and brother worked to shield me from that 50% Terrible for as long as they could. I think they did a pretty amazing job, considering that I almost made it to 50 years old before I finally gave up on the idea that people are basically good.

I don’t think it’s naive to believe that; I just think it’s the product of being blessed enough to live most of your life surrounded by good and kind people. And I don’t believe it’s sad or cynical to abandon the idea, either. If you cling to the belief that people are basically good, then you’re unintentionally undermining all of the hard work that good people do every day. It’s much more inspiring to realize that people are basically neutral, so the heroes that manage to radiate kindness and hope aren’t just staying true to their natures, but are putting in the effort to make things better.

It’s aspirational. I’m feeling exhausted from having to hold onto so much anger, suspicion, and resentment all the time. I’d rather work on repaying all the kindnesses and generosity that people have shown me over the years. This has been such a tough year, and some of the things we’ve all lost and that I’ve lost are gone forever. But instead of concentrating on what’s lost, I’d rather try and help make this place beautiful.

The Word Is Murder, or, Write What You Know

Anthony Horowitz’s detective story “The Word Is Murder” is a page-turner, in both directions

Cover of The Word Is Murder via Goodreads

I started reading The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz knowing absolutely nothing about it going in, apart from the fact that I loved reading his book Magpie Murders last year.

I honestly can’t tell whether it was the fact I went it cold that gave me the feeling of surprise, delight, and discovery I had when going through the first half of the book. So I’m reluctant to say too much about it, because I don’t know what could be considered a “spoiler.”

So I’ll start with my summation and just say that I recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written, somewhat “old-fashioned” detective story. For fans of Magpie Murders, it’s a no-brainer. That book felt more ambitious with its central conceit — and honestly, I think it’s a little better — but there’s the same appeal for anyone who wants to get lost in a twisting, turning murder mystery told with cleverness and confidence. For fans of the British TV murder mysteries that Horowitz writes when not doing novels, it’s an easy recommendation.

To talk about why it’s so clever, I’ve got to talk about the main conceit of the book, which doesn’t become completely clear until the second chapter. I won’t mention any details of the mystery itself, but that process of gradually making sense of what was happening was fun, and I’d hate to ruin it for anyone.

Continue reading “The Word Is Murder, or, Write What You Know”

Two Things I Love About Piranesi

Entry for the 7th day of the 10th month in the year everything was relentlessly awful

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is an extraordinary, spectacular, wonderful book. Even among the books I’ve loved, it’s rare for me to find one that makes me feel transformed and transported as I’m reading it, in the distracting, mind-absorbing way that only literature can.

One of those was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Clarke’s gigantic, exhaustive history of magical England. I read it years ago, while I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, and its ability to completely absorb me and surround me in the world she’d created was a blessing of escape from anxiety. I can’t say how much of my love for that book is due to the time in which I read it, but I do know that it wasn’t just “escapism” in the sense of avoiding reality. It was being transported to another place and then returned to reality a little wiser and more perceptive than I’d been before. It’s fitting to be delivered another magical book exactly when I’m most desperately in need of escape.

One of the reasons I started writing “One Thing I Like” was, well, to keep me from rambling on too long about whatever movie or videogame or book I’d just experienced. But mainly, it was to avoid my tendency to be reductive. To stop treating art like an assignment: watch or read or play the work, analyze the narrative (if any), put it in context, pull out the “message” or the one thing that it means. To instead, talk around the experience I had with a work of art or entertainment, drawing out one aspect I particularly like to suggest why it impacted me the way it did.

I especially don’t want to be reductive with Piranesi, because the process of reading it is the source of magic in it. Although the book had a lot of pre-release buzz, apparently, I knew nothing about it other than it was the first book from Clarke in over a decade. (And that it’s surprisingly brief, especially when compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). I only read enough of the synopsis to know that it involves a grand house with infinite rooms. I don’t consider it a plot-driven book; its wonder doesn’t depend entirely on its narrative surprises. But I do believe that that ignorance of what I was getting into was a huge part of the wonder of the book: that sense of intrigue and discovery that fills the first half.

Or in other words: I highly recommend it, and I strongly recommend going in cold.

I feel a little like the book was delivered as a Max Headroom-style blipvert directly into my brain, and my subconscious is still unpacking it. There are tons of things I love about it, with more revealing themselves the more I think about it, but right now two are fighting for dominance.

The first thing I love about Piranesi

First: I love the way that Clarke writes villains. Specifically, she writes villains as if they were merely antagonists.

Comparisons between Piranesi and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are inevitable, so I’m just going to lean into them. Both books are most easily categorized as “magical realism,” largely because they both focus on scientists diligently observing and documenting worlds that are too fantastic to be explained by science. One of the wonderful aspects of Jonathan Strange is how well it captures the tone of arrogant optimism of the 19th century, when there was no doubt that with enough observation, experimentation, documentation, and innovation, the unknowable could become knowable.

The protagonist of Piranesi also describes himself as a scientist, but it’s also immediately apparent that he has an unshakeable faith — he exhaustively studies and documents the wonders of the house not to render it knowable, but to affirm and appreciate all the gifts that the house has given him.

But even more than all of the detailed footnotes and methodical journal entries, the two stories more subtly enforce a realistic tone by presenting their villains as casual, conversational, and more carelessly antagonistic than you might expect from fantasies about magical realms. They don’t indulge in grand monologues, nor in moments of sympathetic introspection. Unlike what most of us expect from fantasy stories, it’s never really presented as a grand battle between equally powerful rivals, each with their own motivations, the fate of reality locked in the balance. The villains are banal, capricious, and needlessly cruel.

There’s been a trend in art and entertainment for a while now, where stories are told from the villains’ perspective. The first I became aware of it was Grendel by John Gardner, although I’m sure it must be much older than that. Wicked is the most obvious example from (fairly) recent pop culture. I believe it’s an offshoot of an earnest attempt to make villains more three-dimensional, with their own motivations and their own justifications, instead of merely obstacles for the heroes to overcome. There’s an idea that’s been repeated so often that it’s become accepted as a rule for actors and writers: good villains don’t see themselves as the villain.

Piranesi rejects this. But instead of making its villains seem shallow or artificial, it makes them all the more menacing. And, I would say, more realistic. At least in my own experience, the people who’ve had the most negative impact on my “story” have almost never been the ones targeting me, but the ones who don’t really give a shit about me one way or the other. More than realism, though, it delivers what I think is a longer-lasting and more transformative catharsis. The heroes’ victories aren’t defined in terms of the villain. They win by being brave, compassionate, and kind.

In these stories, evil isn’t the opposite of good, it’s the absence of good. Their heroes devote much of their passion to explaining the inexplicable, knowing the unknowable, but they will never be able to truly understand evil. They lack the capacity for true selfishness and callous carelessness.

The second thing I love about Piranesi

Second: Piranesi is a wonderfully vivid, extended example of metatext, or how the format of the book conveys a core idea of the book.

I have to admit that while I was reading, I was enjoying the book so much that I reflexively started looking for something to criticize. The flaw that my initial enthusiasm must’ve caused me to overlook, or even the one imperfection that made it perfect. I can’t just ramble on effusively about something without having any criticism of it, right?

I found my criticism at around the halfway point, as the story’s mysteries started to be explained. I could fairly easily guess what the clues were leading to, I could make connections the protagonist wasn’t making, I had a very strong feeling I knew what the backstory was going to turn out to be, even if I didn’t know the specific details yet.

(2.5 thing I love about Piranesi: the protagonist typically discovered things or made conclusions about things no more than one page after I’d figured them out. Any time I started second-guessing the novel, it reminded me that everything was under control, and everything was coming together right on schedule. Such a refreshing change to read something that respects the reader’s intelligence, instead of dragging out “intrigue” for chapters while the reader’s shouting “Yes, I get it!”)

So my one major criticism was that after so many chapters of gloriously intriguing expansion, the story starts to rapidly contract as it gets closer to the ending. Mysteries are explained, MacGuffins are found, plot threads are drawn together, loose ends are tied up. It seemed as if this wondrous book used up all its supply of wonder at the beginning. Instead of building up momentum towards a spectacular climax, it seemed to be politely cleaning up after itself.

To be clear: the plot of the book does come to a spectacular climax, but it was also, literally, predictable. (The protagonist predicts it). For a story that had derived so much energy from exploring the inexplicable, everything seemed to have a clear and immediately apparent explanation.

After reading the last chapter, though, I believe that feeling of expansion and contraction is essential to the tremendous impact the book had on me. Throughout the final chapter, there’s a powerful sense of melancholy. The narration is matter-of-fact, even numb. A loss that seems irreplaceable and inevitable. The protagonist had grown to love his prison, and we realize that we had grown to love it as well, because of its seemingly infinite potential energy. Escape is unquestionably preferable to solitude, especially after we’ve been reminded that people are capable of such unselfish kindness and compassion. But it also means abandoning wonder, mystery, and peaceful simplicity.

Piranesi contains a brief reference to Narnia, and when I encountered it, I thought it was just a clever, self-aware touch that confirmed there was a connection between the world of Piranesi’s house and our own world. But when I reached the end of the book, I was overcome with a feeling that was entirely too familiar: it was exactly how I felt as a kid, reading Aslan telling Susan and Peter that they were being banished from Narnia, essentially punished for growing up. It seemed so cruel and sad and unfair and inevitable and natural. I realized that Piranesi was a 245-page prose poem perfectly expressing that feeling. It took me, a 49-year-old, back to the Narnia I remembered from when I was 13. And it left me with a reminder that I could always come back any time I wanted, and while it would never be the same, I now at least had a deeper and more mature understanding of why I couldn’t stay.