Short Book Reviews: June 2021

The year is already half over? And California’s re-opening while vaccination rates are slowing and the Delta variant is spreading and…

breathes

…and I’ve been fully vaccinated for two months now, but I’m still keeping a low profile, wearing a mask in public, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.

Oh, and reading! Mix of essays and horror and, well, horror hesitates tools? Is that a thing? Because I read one.

As always, the books are in reverse reading order, with the most recent one I plowed through first.

Christine, by Stephen King

Definitely the worst of the King re-reads so far (and also the first one to not be set in Maine, make of that what you will).

I almost put this one down, after the rough opening and dialog that seemed broadcast from a 1940s B-movie. I’m glad I kept going, because the story eventually kicks into King-Dread-Gear and becomes compelling. The dialog never really gets better, and the car scare is just plain weird, but the possession bit was goose-bumps-down-my-neck spooky.

Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall

A series of excellently-written, pointed essays that I quickly realized were not aimed at me. Not that everything needs to be, of course!

Still illuminating. Kendall has no trouble stabbing through all the BS we tell ourselves about these issues and calling them out for what they are. Points to a type of feminism concerned less with Leaning In and more with putting food on the table. A critical work on fundamental problems with the way American does and doesn’t work for its people.

Body Trauma, by David W Page

This one was slow going for me. I get squeamish around needles, to the point where I get lightheaded whenever I have blood drawn (I’ve only passed out once, so there). But it was recommended by Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark, and in the book I’m writing (and in short stories I’m working on), I need to be able to portray injuries and recovery accurately. So I pushed through.

And I’m glad I did! I’m sure I’ll need a few re-reads for everything to sink in, but I’ve got a much better sense of how serious certain wounds would be, and how they can be used to raise or lower tension in a story.

wow, no thank you, by Samantha Irby

Went into this one with no idea of what I was getting into, other than the essays were supposed to be funny. And they were, in parts — literally laugh out loud funny, in fact — but above all they’re a master class in writing a revealing, engaging, personal essay. What other writer do you know can make you reflect on your own poverty-filled past while relaying a (funny) story about how they thought their cheap-and-shitty apartment was haunted? Or make you admire them while they constantly put themselves down and refer to themselves as a “trash person”? That’s a magic trick played with words, and Irby pulls it off again and again and again.

Short Book Reviews: May 2021

Took a break from my Stephen King read-a-thon to dive into some non-fiction this month.

As always, these are listed in reverse chronological order. So, the book I just finished is listed first, followed by the one I read before that, and so on.

Let’s dig in!

Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda

Polished, refined prose. Kocienda pulls just shy of a dozen stories from his time at Apple in the early 2000s to illustrate what he sees as the principles behind their back-to-back successes in that period, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad.

Each chapter begins with the story, and then ends with him picking it apart, revealing the particular aspect of the Apple process (really, more like goals or guidelines) that he wants to focus on.

It’s all well-told, and they’re entertaining stories, but I can’t escape the feeling that it could all have been summarized in one word: Demos.

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Ana Partanen

Absolutely fascinating. Partanen is a journalist and a naturalized American citizen, originally from Finland, and she wrote this book in 2015-2016 after living here for several years.

Her goal is definitely not to knock the United States — she bends over backwards, in fact, to insist over and over again how much she loves Americans and was excited to live here — but to point out the widening gap between what we say we value — families, children, individual choice — and what our policies actually value. She uses a “Nordic Theory of Love” as a through-line, connecting how Nordic policies on healthcare, vacation, school, parental leave, etc all enable a greater freedom of choice for the people that live there.

Full confession: My wife and I have been contemplating a move to Northern Europe, and I picked this up as part of some research into what it might be like to live there. While I think many of the policy changes Partanen outlines would be wonderful if adopted in the United States, given our current political climate, I don’t think they’ll be adopted any time soon.

Partanen, apparently, agrees with me; she returned to Finland after getting pregnant with her first child (shortly after this book was published, in fact), and she hasn’t returned.

Needful Things, by Stephen King

More King! A later novel, this one’s a bit of door-stopper. But it’s still King at the top of his game: small-town Maine rendered in exquisite detail, slow-building tension that explodes in gory violence, and a victory so Pyrrhic as to be more like a truce.

I thought I knew the plot of this one, going in, based on parodies and knock-offs. But the real thing is much, much better, both more unsettling and harder to predict. The villain’s motivation was a bit of a letdown, to be honest, but his methods were chef’s kiss perfect.

I also felt a bit of shear between the setting as written and the setting as placed in time. Having read King’s novels from the 70s and 80s, this felt more like that time period than anything else, let alone the early 90s, when the story is supposed to take place. There were some markers laid down — I think one kid’s t-shirt has a 90s band on it — but they felt more like window-dressing. As if King had such deep knowledge of the Maine of 1960-1980 that he had trouble writing about the present. Which is perhaps why he’s returned so often in later books to writing about that exact period?

Short Book Reviews: April 2021

Fewer books read this month. Between turning 42 and getting both doses of the vaccine, I’ve been reading less (but writing more?). I’d hoped to have a fourth book done before the end of the month, but that’s going to have to wait đŸ˜¦

Anyway, here are brief, non-spoilers reviews of the three books I did get through, again in reverse chronological order (so the most recently read book is first).

Carrie, by Stephen King

At this point I should just confess that I’ve decided to read all of the classic King books. Everything I missed growing up (parents!): Carrie, Cujo, Christine, Needful Things, etc.

This was King’s first book, and it’s amazing how much his writing improved between it and his second (Salem’s Lot). Carrie is a lot faster paced than the other book, but as a result I didn’t feel like I really got to know (or care about) a lot of the characters.

Even so, it’s a gut-punch of a book. Would recommend.

Trade in Classical Antiquity, by Neville Morley

A non-fiction palate-cleanser between horror novels. Recommended by the author of acoup.blog, whose insightful and detailed critiques of the “medieval” world represented in the Games of Thrones TV series drew me in.

It’s a short book, more of an extended scholarly essay than anything else. Morley’s goal here seems to be to poke holes in two of the leading schools of thought about trade in the classical Mediterranean: one that holds trade couldn’t possibly have been worth noting because of subsistence farming, and another that basically says globalization arrived thousands of years earlier than we thought.

I’m not familiar enough with those other schools to tell if that’s a straw-person argument or not. But Morley lays out his own case well, arguing for a sort of middle approach, relying on archeological evidence that shows trade in certain goods was in fact massive, while admitting the large gaps in our understanding of the period. Certainly food for thought when designing a classical-like society, or writing a story set in the classical period.

The Dead Zone, by Stephen King

Published the year I was born! King’s fifth book published under his own name.

Again I could see both the commonalities in the way he tells stories (newspaper clippings and interviews sprinkled throughout, a sharp focus on the minutiae of small-town life) and the leveling-up of his skills in the use of those techniques (and exploration of those themes).

Very much a horror-as-dread book, rather than blood-and-guts. Reminded me of his later book 11/22/63, not in the time travel aspect, but in the dilemma the protagonist faces towards the end (no spoilers, it’s worth the read). King’s rendition of the political mood of 1976 jibes with everything I’ve read about that election by recent historians, and his construction of a populist politician with evil in his heart and elections to win felt…let’s say a little prescient, after 2016?

A Note on the Casual Racism in King’s Earlier Books

While I’m reading through King’s oeuvre, and enjoying it, for the most part, there’s a few…problematic things that pop up again and again, like sour notes among an otherwise well-written symphony. And I feel the need to call them out, rather than skip over them.

Most striking, for me, in reading these now, is the way King drops at least one racist bit of imagery in each of the books I’ve read up to this point. Adjectives like “n*ardly”, or describing a character’s grossly misshapen and swollen lips as “African”.

It jerks me out of the book each time, and makes me wonder why he (or the publisher) doesn’t go back and remove it. This isn’t in character dialog, it’s narrative description, and it would be easy — very easy — to remove the short phrase that contains it without really altering the book at all. Why not change it?

More insidious is the way these books have basically no black people. In Needful Things, which I’m reading now, there’s one (one!) black character, and he’s only allowed to be a janitor, and his dialog is written…well, let’s just say King tries to render what he feels is a Black manner of speech, and it comes across as a caricature. I know some of these books were written before I was born, but I swear there were Black people in America back then, even in Maine. Leaving them out altogether feels…strange. Less like oversight, and more like an authorial blindspot.

These elements might change in his later works (and I hope they do!). And I’m certainly not trying to say anything about King the person, especially given how much time has elapsed between when he wrote these books and today. I must hope that whoever he is now, it’s a better version of himself than when he wrote these.

But these racist elements are in the books, and I feel must be called out as such.

Short Book Reviews: March 2021

Ok, I didn’t get this posted in time for the end of March, but better late then never, eh?

Continuing the theme of posting short reviews of the things I read each month, here’s what I’ve consumed since last time, again in reverse order (so, the most recent book first):

Seven-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M Valente

The first book is also one I couldn’t finish. I love the premise of this book: a Western retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. And Valente is one of my favorite authors! Should have been right up my alley.

But the whole thing is written in dialect, which is annoying for me at the best of times. And when it’s an author from the Northeast trying (emphasis on the trying) to write an entire novella in a Southwestern accent, this Texan just can’t take it.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

This one I enjoyed! Very well-crafted fantasy. Hard to say anything without spoiling the plot, but basically it weaves in themes from Frankenstein, the Wizard of Oz, multiverses, and time travel (of a sort…you’ll see) to construct something wholly original. I’ll be studying this one for pointers on style and craft.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

I didn’t think it was possible to make a compelling single-monster horror. But Jones has done it, and done it with characters and traditions (Blackfeet and Crow) you don’t normally find in American literature. This one was so good I read it all in one gulp, in a single day.

Four Lost Cities, by Annalee Newitz

Another one I wanted to like, but couldn’t get through. It’s supposed to be a survey of four historical cities that, for various reasons, were abandoned, even after long periods of growth and popularity. It promised some insights into the debates we’re starting to have about the sustainability of modern cities, and whether climate change will mean their inevitable decline.

Instead, I kept running into mischaracterizations and outright mistakes. One glaring error is in the location of Pompeii, which the author has right in the text but wrong on the maps. One mischaracterization is the author projecting the myth of the noble savage onto the population of an ancient city, even after they relay an exchange with an expert that lays bare the flaws of their assumption!

I can’t read nonfiction that I can’t trust, so I put this one down.

Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

Wrote about this one last week. Recommended for anyone that’s even thinking of writing horror.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

King mentions in the intro to this one that he wrote this book partially because he wanted to see if it was possible to wed a literary story about a small Maine town with a Dracula-inspired vampire tale. That duality runs throughout the book, with passages that wouldn’t be out of place in the New Yorker followed by harrowing chapters filled with dread. So in reading it, I felt like I was watching the evolution of King the writer in real time, with his literary aspirations slowly giving way to his mastery of horror techniques.

Oh, and the story absolutely still works, even after all this time!

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Holy shit, this one. Another book that hooked me from the first page, and held me until I’d swallowed it all in a single day. An absolutely brilliant — and ambiguous — take on Lovecraftian horror. I immediately went and ordered more LaValle after finishing it.

Genghis Kahn by Paul Ratchnevsky

Another book I picked up after it was referenced on acoup.blog. Not as readable as The Mongol Art of War, but covers similar ground. Interesting for insights into how Genghis built up his empire, via political manuevering as shrewd policy as much as through battle.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Is there anything better than opening a book to find the author is speaking directly to you? It’s like discovering an old friend you’ve never met before. Someone you just click with, who warms every cockle of your old heart.

That’s what I felt, reading Bird by Bird.

Lamott’s willing to be vulnerable, to show not only her worries and her fears, but also her jealousies and her anger, her depression and her rage. It makes the book feel more human, to me, than other writing advice books. More humble.

And more realistic. Lamott insists over and over again that writing is wonderful, that when the words come together it’s one of the greatest joys she’s ever known, but that doing the work needs to be enough on its own, because publishing — whether getting rejected repeatedly, or getting accepted and dealing with the disappointment that comes when your work doesn’t get the attention you crave — is not the path to happiness for a writer.

So for her, it’s the triumph of getting in the day’s word count that matters. Or the knowledge that the book you wrote for your dying father was done before they passed, so they got to read it. Or the thought that writing about your own struggles, your own pain, can help someone else who’s going through the same thing.

For me, her book has been like a stay in a remote cabin with a good friend. Relaxing, conversational, but also deep and moving. I’ve already incorporated a lot of the techniques she advocates, from focusing on getting one single thing down to staying in the chair until the words come.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Follow the Tweeting Bot

I have a problem.

No, not my fondness for singing 80s country in a bad twang during karaoke.

I mean a real, nerd-world problem: I have too many books to read.

I can’t leave any bookstore without buying at least one. For a good bookstore, I’ll walk out with half a dozen or more, balancing them in my arms, hoping none of them fall over.

I get them home and try to squeeze them into my bookshelf of “books I have yet to read” (not to be confused with my “books I’ve read and need to donate” or “books I’ve read and will re-read someday when I have the time” shelves). That shelf is full, floor to ceiling.

My list of books to read is already too long for me to remember them all. And that’s not counting the ones I have sitting in ebook format, waiting on my Kobo or iPhone for me to tap their cover art and dive in.

Faced with so much reading material, so many good books waiting to be read, my question is this: What do I read next?

I could pick based on mood. But that usually means me sitting in front of my physical books, picking out the one that grabs me. I could pick based on which ones I’ve bought most recently, which would probably narrow things down to just my ebooks.

But I want to be able to choose from all of my books, physical and virtual, at any time.

So I wrote a bot to help me.

It listens to my twitter stream for instructions. When I give it the right command, it pulls down my to-read shelf from Goodreads (yes, I put all of my books, real and electronic, into Goodreads. yes, it took much longer than I thought it would), ranks them in order of which ones I should read first, and then tweets back to me the top 3.

I’ve been following its recommendations for about a month now, and so far, it’s working. Footsteps in the Sky was great. Data and Goliath was eye-opening. The Aesthetic of Play changed the way I view art and games.

Now, if only I could train it to order books for me automatically…