Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor; or, the Official Worldbuilding Committee

The original subtitle of this post was “Laini Taylor should build all the worlds,” but I reconsidered. I guess I don’t want Laini Taylor to build all the worlds, but she should at least be on the official worldbuilding committee. It would be her, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Susanna Clarke, and NK Jemisin. And some other people. TBD. You’ll notice I left George R.R. Martin off this list. I did that on purpose. My official worldbuilding committee will consist of authors whose worlds ARE NOT SUPER RAPEY SO THERE. (On that subject see also this and this.)

What I thought Daughter of Smoke and Bone was about: Some sort of magic with blue feathers. No, I don’t know what I thought it was about. Something with disguises.

What it’s about: Actually a quite cool premise! The premise is that there’s this girl, Karou, who has been raised by magical monsters (chimera). They have raised her and cared for her and given her small wishes now and again (she gets a language for each birthday; she wished her hair blue); and in exchange she runs errands for them where she procures teeth. This is necessary for their magic. The rest of the time she lives a fairly normal life in Prague, attending art school, spending time with her friends. And then a stranger comes to town and starts leaving blackened handprints on all the magic doors that lead to the place where the chimera live; and a little while after that, everything changes.

I love it when writers are brave enough to shake up the status quo in a really fundamental way, especially when it would be easy to take an “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach. And I was already in for Daughter of Smoke and Bone before the major change occurred. I would have kept reading regardless. But now I will really really keep reading, all the way to the sequel and most likely into a third book which I assume there will be one of because everything’s a damn trilogy these days. Ballsy plot twists are kinda my jam. I almost wrote a post welcoming Vampire Diaries back to its former glory of ballsy plot twists after the two back-to-back episodes before February sweeps, but I didn’t because I was afraid Season 4 was going to go right back to being boring.

Aspects of the second half of the book were actually less interesting to me, because I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I was in the premise — Memory says this will change in the second book! — and the second half was more character-driven with romances and backstories and things. I…could live without the romance. I do not like books with angels in them. The very mention of an angel in a book is enough to put me off of it, which is why I didn’t mention angels in my above synopsis. Luckily these angels’ righteousness is not clear-cut at all, nor is it a straightforward God-is-the-dictator situation. This book pays more attention to the world of the chimeras, and I’m looking forward to the second half dealing more with the world of the angels. I think there’s good stuff there.

My other criticism is, like, did there need to be a romance? And if yes couldn’t it have been fleshed out a little more? I’m hoping the second book gets me more interested in this aspect of the story. At the moment I keep thinking how it would have been a perfect book if the two characters and their Forbidden Love ™ had been platonic (at least to start with!). That would have been cool, right? If they just thought each other were fun and interesting and cool? I ha-a-ate this thing where the people have one moment and now they’re in deathly sacrifice-everything-for-each-other love. Not a thing, writers of fiction! Not at all a thing.

But the ending of this book left me very excited for the sequel. It’s the kind of sequel set-up where the author has put all the pieces on the board in a manner that promises many permutations of conflict both external and internal. The two main characters are on opposite sides of a war they’re both ambivalent about at best. Woooooo, can’t wait for the sequel. Except I hope the blazing eyes and physical perfection talk will be kept to a minimum. I get what’s happening, I just think it’s boring. Let’s focus on their prickly damaged imperfections instead, shall we?

I will now accept nominations to the Official Worldbuilding Committee. Unrapey worlds will be favored because I just have had enough of that nonsense.

Review: World War Z, Max Brooks; plus, ARGH GENDER STUFF

It’s fitting to have this post publishing on April Fool’s Day because it seems like nonsense that I am writing this glowing review of a zombie novel. That’s weird. I hate zombies. I’ve never liked a zombie book a day in my life. Nor a zombie movie. Nor a zombie song probably. I hate zombies. I can’t wait for them to be all the way played out so I can get back to the life I had before we were all so weirdly obsessed with zombies.

World War Z, is is the processest dystopia in the history of process dystopias. Brooks presents it as an oral history of the war against the zombies, with something like forty narrators weighing to tell their stories. It’s awfully good. Max Brooks details the impact of the zombie apocalypse on the entire world (a bit light on South America, but mostly the book is great about discussing what goes on in a lot of different countries), starting from the very first awareness that something horrific is going on and proceeding to the first battles with the zombies, the early defeats, the different challenges each country faces, and the strategies they come up with for facing the threat.

I don’t know how to review this book without getting into very spoilery details! Just, it’s really amazingly cool to see Brooks shade in this war-ridden world. He constructs some absolutely spectacular set pieces, and while I’m not sure what to expect from the move adaptation, I can definitely see some parts of it being really, really cool to see on film. The scene in — I believe — India, where thousands of people are trying to get themselves and their families onto boats, and there aren’t enough boats, and people are getting dragged into the water — SO COOL AND SCARY.

What’s great, I think, and what makes the book so chilling to me, is the combination of denial, lack of preparation, and general incompetence that lets the zombie outbreak spread as far and as fast as it does. The disaster isn’t just zombies. It’s national pride and it’s greed and it’s reliance on tradition in situations where tradition has become meaningless. It’s believing that you are somehow exempt from what’s happening to the rest of the world. It’s short-term thinking and fear and and miscommunication and failing supply chains and major, major psychological damage. These are all aspects of disasters, and I loved that Max Brooks dealt with all of them in scary, interesting, insightful ways.

Again I would like to emphasize how cool the international stuff was. I can’t imagine how much research this book must have required, but it really, really paid off. I can’t remember all the things that came up, but basically it’s made clear that every country has different political, geographical, and cultural strengths and weaknesses in the battle against the zombies. Once specific weapons are developed for fighting them, for example, the US is kind of in clover; whereas countries with no standing army and less capacity for building fancy weapons and body armor face enormous struggles. Zombies freeze in the cold (but thaw when the weather warms up) and eventually rot to pieces in the heat, and each of these outcomes has its benefits and drawbacks. It was just a lot of cool things to think about. Way to go Max Brooks!

However, I did have one fairly major complaint, and I cannot believe nobody in the entire editing process said, “Hey Max Brooks, shape up about this.” There are no damn women. And I just don’t buy it. I just don’t. It’s fine for a bunch of the soldiers to be men, because those are the people who would overwhelmingly have the training and whatnot if a world war started today (which is the book’s premise). I can accept that. But in a book with something like forty narrators (I’m estimating), there are (and here I’m not estimating) five women. Five. One of them is a beautiful feral teenager and that’s all she does. One of them is part of the group of civilians that is deliberately abandoned by the government to distract the zombies.

And, like, fine? That’s fine? I have no special problem with either of those things except insofar as those two passive victims make up forty percent of the women who get to narrate sections of this book. So many of the characters could have been women. The blind Japanese guy could have been a woman. The guy from the canine unit could have been a woman. The Brazilian doctor who did the organ transplants, the guy who came up with the pretend zombie vaccine, the Chinese doctor who we hear from first about the outbreak, the British historian, the disabled neighborhood watch guy, the guy who talks about the lack of skilled tradesmen in America, the space station guy, the guy who tells about the Indian beaches, the dirigible pilot–

Seriously, so many of these characters could have been women. It really started to piss me off that none of them were. Even in the stories where all that’s happening is the person is describing one of the cool set pieces — not a combat thing at all because blah blah more men in the military blah which would only work as an excuse if everyone in the book were soldiers — the narrators are almost all guys.

It made me sad. I really did love this book. I’ve never read a work of dystopian fiction that had such an international focus, and as you can imagine, it made the story just fascinating. I only wish Max Brooks had brought the same creativity and thoughtfulness to gender diversity as he did to national diversity. That is what I wish had happened. Then this would have been a very close to perfect book.

Review: Children of the Waters, Carleen Brice; or, A nearly unified theory of everything (that makes me enjoy a book)

Two things:

One, I really really liked this book.

Two, I love the Wish List feature on Overdrive. Overdrive is a flawed and buggy system that forces you to use a very buggy program to access its content (Adobe Digital Editions you are the worst), but it is awesome to be able to add things to my TBR pile with just a click and access them anywhere with an internet connection. I know this sounds slightly like I am doing a commercial for OverDrive, but I’m not. It is my genuine opinion. If OverDrive were paying me to say nice things about them, they’d probably want me to be nicer about their interface. The Wish List feature is why I finally finally read this book after having it on my TBR list for a hundred years.

Children of the Waters is about two half-sisters, one white and one biracial, who grow up unaware of each other’s existence. Trish, the white sister, was raised by her mother’s parents; she’s now divorced from her (black) husband and raising her teenage son Will, who is encountering blatant racism for the first time in Trish’s consciousness (though not, of course, for the first time in Will’s life). Billie, the biracial sister, was adopted by a black family (she doesn’t know she’s adopted), and she’s now fallen pregnant unexpectedly and is struggling with her boyfriend’s unwillingness to be a father. Trish discovers from a neighbor that the half-sister she never met, whom she believed died in a car accident, has been alive all along. She’s at a place in her life where she feels the lack of a sister; Billie, with her close and loving family, is not.

There’s a lot in this book, and I’ve read some reviews that say it’s too many things: Billie has a chronic illness, Will freaks Trish out by discovering religion, Trish is thinking about opening her own vet clinic, there’s a ton of stuff about race and prejudice and traditional religions and fertility and masculinity and parenting. It’s a lot, but I don’t think it’s too many things. It’s all things that people’s lives hold. You don’t get to stop dealing with prejudice for a few weeks while you figure out your problematic pregnancy, you know?

The initial premise of Children of the Waters is a teeny bit soapy, although not particularly improbable (an opinion of mine confirmed by an interview I read with Carleen Brice in which she says that something quite similar to this happened to her sister-in-law). What I really loved was that all the problems, and all the characters’ reactions to them, felt incredibly recognizable to me. Yes, these are things that happen to people; these are stupid, careless things that get said; these are the feelings you would have if you already had a large loving family and some stranger showed up suddenly and said, Now you are my sister, let’s be sisters now. I liked it that the characters are all trying to be good and having a hard time figuring out how. And I liked it that they thought and talked to each other about the actions they were taking, and I loved it that when they became able to see that they had done a wrong, they apologized and tried to make it right. Nothing was easy but everyone tried to do the right thing.

I also loved it so much that Carleen Brice doesn’t stack the deck against any of her characters. Trish and Billie are very, very different people with different ideas about what the world is or should be, and it would be easy for Brice to hint that one of them is doing it righter than the other one. But she really doesn’t. When they — or any of the other characters — are arguing or disagreeing with each other, I sometimes agreed with one of them more than the other (like really, you should just know what Juneteenth is, that is just a thing people should know), but often I thought both sides were making good points. Or at least that both sides had good reasons for holding the positions they held and thinking the thoughts they thought.

And, just, why isn’t more fiction like that? (I’ll get to my unified theory of everything in a second.) Why do people have to be mysterious and brooding about aqueducts all the time? I like books in which decent characters are forced by circumstance to take long, hard looks at their values and figure out how they apply to real life in situations that are not terribly clear-cut. That is my ABSOLUTE DAMN FAVORITE.

So the closest I think I shall ever come to a unified theory of my own reading taste is this: I like books in which principles and values are challenged by a changing reality in interesting ways and the holders of those values have to figure out what to do about it. This is a pretty broad scope of things. But looking at my “About” page, which man, I have not updated in years, where I list some of my favorite books, they pretty much all fall into this rubric. And all the books I’ve given one or two stars to in the past few years have been books that appeared like they would have interesting values/reality conflicts, but did not. It’s also why I do not enjoy books about how stifling the status quo is and the search for meaning within a routine world. Boring! Boring! Boring! Have some new situation for your characters to confront and then we can talk.

What do y’all think of my theory? Too obvious? Too broad? Doesn’t encompass Shirley Jackson and Beau Geste enough? Not useful in finding books because I won’t know until you try the books whether they’ve done the values/reality conflict in an interesting way? Do you have a unified theory of what interests you in books?

Review: The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker; plus, a new term I coined and feel good about

I stealth-borrowed The Age of Miracles from my friend the Enthusiast on a day when he wasn’t at work and I forgot my Nook at home. The subway ride with nothing to read was so unbearably boring I wanted to rip all of my hair out of my head just to have something to do. The Enthusiast has one and a half shelves full of readable books at his cubicle, but I didn’t want most of them. I almost borrowed Coetzee’s Disgrace, but luckily Lil Liv Tyler, who sits at the desk across from the Enthusiast, warned me that (spoilers, but the kind you want to know about if you are like me and hate reading about sexual violence) the daughter gets gang-raped! What! I did not know about this. So I borrowed The Age of Miracles instead, although I think the title and cover are boring.

I don’t know, y’all. I know that authors make up their own titles, but I wish someone at Random House had proposed an alternate title, and I wish the cover design team had designed a different cover. The Age of Miracles is sort of chilling, and the title and cover make it look like it’s going to be kind of heartwarming, but then you’re like, No, it’s probably too literary to be heartwarming, so maybe it’s one of those sort of very sad suburban desperation novels.

If that’s what you’ve been thinking, good news: FALSE! It’s much more like the adult version of Susan Beth Pfefffer’s Life as We Knew It. Except not obviously more adult. And not as scary. Look, I don’t even know what the distinctions are. Why is this not young adult and the Pfeffer series is? What is happening in this world?

Here’s what happening in the world of The Age of Miracles: The earth’s rotation has slowed down. Suddenly the days are forty-five minutes longer. Then ninety minutes. After a while, each day lasts for 72 hours. Nobody knows why this is happening or how to make it stop. Birds fall from the sky. Gravity weighs more heavily on everybody, so sports don’t function the same way they used to. Some people — it’s not clear why those people and not others — come down with a mysterious collection of symptoms they call, for lack of a better term, gravity sickness. With no idea of what to do, the government institutes “clock time”, which means that everyone will keep living on the same schedules they’ve always kept, no matter what the sun is doing in the sky. As all of this is happening, thirteen-year-old Julia is growing up, nursing a crush on a boy at her school, going to piano lessons, watching her parents argue.

I loved about The Age of Miracles that the world was perpetually on the verge of unlivable disaster, and it never quite came. The changes to the world are ominous because they seem to portend disaster, and as that degree of catastrophe fails and fails to materialize, the situation becomes more tense, not less. The characters adapt and carry on with their lives, but the reader knows that worse must be coming. Sometimes the characters seem to know this too — the protagonist’s mother stocks up on canned foods and stores them in the back against the day that groceries are no longer available — and sometimes they are too occupied trying to find some semblance of normalcy to pay attention to what’s coming.

I shall now coin the term process dystopia, which I doubt I’ll ever need to use again because it’s such a rare category of dystopian book. Ordinarily — I said this when I was reviewing The Uninvited — the dystopian novel begins long after the Events. You hear about them in narration, or else sometimes in flashback, and that’s your glimpse into how the world shifted from our normal to the protagonist’s. The Age of Miracles gives it to you piece by piece, every step of the process of building the new normal: First they don’t notice, then nobody knows what the hell to do, then it’s clock time, then people who won’t keep clock time are treated with suspicion, then birds are dropping dead on your porch every day. And so forth.

So I like this. I like a process dystopia. I like watching people inspect their circumstances and figure out how to behave in ever-changing circumstances so that they can have some semblance of routine and normalcy. I like this because I am a person to whom routine is stupendously important. In particular, I liked how the world’s testing of its new rules — clock time? let’s give it a try! — paralleled the process you go through in adolescence of testing the rules of adulthood, figuring out where you fit into it, establishing what is normal and right for yourself. Julia is navigating both of these things simultaneously, and it makes for fascinating reading.

Disregard the title and cover of this book! It’s all bad marketing. Embrace the process dystopia! If you are still reluctant, I’ll add that this is a very very quick read. I read the whole thing on two subway rides: home from work after borrowing this from the Enthusiast, and back to work the following morning.

Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright

I am pleased with myself in re: this book because I placed an e-hold on it before my library actually acquired an e-copy, which means I got to check it out as soon as their e-copy arrived. I don’t know how long I’d really have had to wait for it if I hadn’t done this, but I choose to believe it would have been, like, months. And that I am a genius for placing an early hold and getting my greedy paws on it early. But you are not reading this post because you want to know what process I went through to acquire it. You are reading it to hear about crazy things. So, onward!

“He wouldn’t [believe you],” Matilda said. “And the reason is obvious. Your story would sound too ridiculous to be believed. And that is the Trunchbull’s great secret.”

“What is?” Lavender asked.

Matilda said, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.”

This passage from Roald Dahl’s Matilda sums up how I feel about scientology after reading this book. If Lawrence Wright had been less meticulous in citing his sources, or if he had done fewer interviews, or if he hadn’t backed up some of his craziest stories with, like, FBI evidence, I would have disbelieved a lot of the claims he makes about scientology in this book. For instance: L. Ron Hubbard orchestrated a large-scale espionage operation (he called it Operation Snow White) in which scientologists under his direction infiltrated various government and press organizations perceived as being hostile to scientology, then made secret copies of a bunch of their files (!) and brought them back to scientology headquarters for perusal. I guess this is a real thing that people know about, because it has this huge Wikipedia page, but I did not know, and you have to admit it sounds pretend. But no. It is real.

Another thing that sounds false but is true: When the FBI raided Scientology headquarters and found all these Operation Snow White documents, they also found documents indicating that the church had launched a massive crusade against a journalist who wrote unfavorably about them, with the end goal of having her jailed or placed in a mental institution. They phoned in fake bomb threats under her name! Seriously! That’s a thing that happened.

Those two things? Are by far not the craziest things that Lawrence Wright reports in this book. Like, by far. There were all the different categories of crazy things. There were crazy paranoid things, like L. Ron Hubbard being convinced the Swiss government was after him. There were crazy scary things, like the allegations by former church members of physical abuse and incarceration (including of children). There were crazy grudgey things, like L. Ron Hubbard turning against psychology forever because the APA said Dianetics was silly. There were even crazy things in the category of “Wait, huh?” like this:

The detainees [in the totally prisony part of this one scientology compound] developed a particular expression whenever Miscavige came in, which he took note of. He called them “Pie Faces.” To illustrate what he meant, Miscavige drew a circle with two dots for eyes and a straight line for a mouth. He had T-shirts made up with the pie face on it. Rinder was “the Father of Pie Faces.” People didn’t know how to react. They didn’t want to call attention to themselves, but they also didn’t want to be a Pie Face.

I just…what? Pie Face? What?

I talked recently about trusting nonfiction authors, and Eva said in a comment that she much prefers reading nonfiction by researchers rather than journalists. I mostly agree with this. I like that journalists place a premium on making their subject accessible to readers, and I like that researchers cite their sources. For a book like Going Clear, which deals with subject matter that is insane and hotly disputed as well as poorly researched over the past years (due to the secretiveness and litigiousness of the church, among other things), it becomes even more important to me to know that the writer took pains about his sources. By all accounts, Lawrence Wright is just the right person to write this book, a Pulitzer Prize winner who is known for his meticulous sourcing and fact-checking.

On top of that, his book takes care to note the sources for all of his quotations and claims. Some of these are better sources than others (scientology is, of course, imperfectly documented), but Wright provides the reader with that information for just about everything he says throughout the book. He’s also clearly aware of the areas where his sources are slightly weaker, and he takes pains to note the ways in which he tried to fact-check and find confirmation of what he was told, especially when it was crazy. I also listened to and read some interviews with Wright and with representatives from the church, and I came away feeling that the church really lacked credibility on these issues.

To give one example, Wright calls L. Ron Hubbard’s war record into doubt. It is central to scientology’s belief system (evidently) that Hubbard was wounded in World War II and healed himself using the techniques described in Dianetics. Wright has been able to find no evidence that Hubbard was ever injured in the war, and the response of the church has been to say that they have an expert, whom they won’t produce but who (they say) can assure them Hubbard was injured in the war. That’s just not a viable alternate narrative. If they could produce the person and I could inspect his credentials, then that would be another issue. But, Lawrence Wright gives you the church’s argument as well as yours, so you know what the choices are.

I thought Going Clear was an admirably well-sourced, engagingly-written history of scientology, and if you have a spare minute, you should listen to some radio interviews with Lawrence Wright. It made me think how cool he would be as a grandfather.

(He’s not old enough to be my grandfather. But you can have loads of grandfathers and you can only have one father, and my father is already the coolest and best one there is or has ever been.)

Near the very end of the book, Wright includes the following statement, which I thought was just — when you set it against how maddening it must have been to be perpetually denied access to key figures in the book you’re working on — about as restrained and gracious a reproof as there could be:

I was never allowed to talk to David Miscavige or any of the upper-tier executives I requested. (As I would learn, many of them were sequestered and not available in any case.) A reporter can only talk to people who are willing to talk to him; whatever complaints the church may have about my reporting, many limitations can be attributed to its decision to restrict my interactions with people who might have provided more favorable testimony.

Please imagine me doing a slow clap right now. That is what is happening inside my head. Lawrence Wright, you are a cool and classy fellow.

So now I am off to read Janet Reitman’s book about scientology! Apparently she had a lot of good access to practicing scientologists in the course of her researchings, and perhaps that will provide another, less insanely abusive view of the church and its history. But I rather suspect not. Oh how I love reading about religions.

Review: Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011, edited by Mary Roach

To be clear — because I got confused about this — this is not Best American Science Writing 2011, which is a whole other thing. It also does not feature the best of American science and nature writing published in 2011. The book is from 2011, the writing is all from 2010. I think that could be made clearer, but whatever, I am not the boss of this series. I got this because, please don’t judge me, I did a search on OverDrive for “science” and this is one of the things that came up. I just felt like some science! Sometimes a girl feels like some science!

I thought Mary Roach did a smashing job of curating these essays, and I’m not just saying that because I have always thought I would like her but I’ve never read one of her books and I feel a bit guilty about that. Repeatedly over the course of reading these essays, I found myself thinking, Damn! This really is very good science and nature writing indeed! Allowing for my individual areas of interest/disinterest, I have to say I don’t think there was a loser in the bunch. Except that Malcolm Gladwell had an essay in here. I cannot even deal with Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is on my shit list forever.

If you don’t feel like going through and reading my remarks about all the essays in this book, I will just recommend a few of my favorites, and you can scroll down and click the links to read them. This pretty clearly reflects my own personal interests, but that was always going to happen. I reiterate that all the essays were quite good. I’m just highlighting the ones that made me go OH DAMN when I was reading them. “The Brain that Changed Everything” and “Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science” were very good. “Letting Go” if you can handle the sadness. “Could Time End?” made me think many thoughts and feel anxious that I wasn’t understanding what was happening. And “Face-Blind” was, of course, very very good. I need to get off my ass and read some Oliver Sacks!

Here’s a list of the best thing I learned from each of the essays:

The Organ Dealer,” Yudhijit Bhattacharjee – Hm, nothing big, I guess. That’s not a reflection on this essay about the illegal organ trade in India. I just already knew illegal organ trade was a thing. I was thinking, while I was reading this, about how your real-life morality can go by the wayside in a hot second when somebody you love hangs in the balance. I wouldn’t get an illegal kidney for anybody in my family! Of course! It’s just interesting how you can contemplate much more horrific moral acts for someone else, than you would ever contemplate to benefit your own self.

Nature’s Spoils,” Burkhard Bilger – I find “opportunivores” extremely irritating. That’s not an uplifting thing to learn from an essay but there it is. I know we as a society throw away much more food than we should, and I try really hard not to do this myself.

The Chemist’s War,” Deborah Blum – Oh yeah, because the American government poisoned people during Prohibition. That is a thing that happened. I already knew this, and I think in fact I already read this essay. I read Slate.

Fertility Rites,” Jon Cohen – Chimps hardly ever lose an embryo/fetus, and humans very frequently do. This is an essay about trying to figure out why that should be. They do this by getting a lot of sperm samples from chimps. That would be a strange job to talk about at a dinner party.

The Brain that Changed Everything,” Luke Dittrich – Like everyone (right?) I am fascinated by brains. Luke Dittrich’s grandfather was a neurosurgeon who performed some irresponsible brain surgeries in the days before we really knew how to do responsible brain surgeries. One of these was on a guy called Henry, who became unable to form new memories, and was hence the subject of a living shit-ton of brain research, all the days of his life. Except, twist, “became unable to form new memories” doesn’t tell the whole story. When he tried the same task repeatedly, a complicated task, he got better and better at it each successive day, even though he did not remember ever having attempted it before. So that brain function, skill acquisition, must reside somewhere at least somewhat different from memory forming. BRAINS ARE FASCINATING.

Emptying the Skies,” Jonathan Franzen – I cannot be bothered with Jonathan Franzen. And his bird essays. This is a baseless prejudice. I have never read anything by Jonathan Franzen. I also, as I think I’ve said before, conflate him in my head with a bunch of other authors whose names begin with “J”. If one of them does a wicked deed, all of them get blamed for it in my head.

Fish out of Water,” Ian Frazier – There is an invasive species of carp that leaps up out of the water when it gets scared. This sounds charming but is actually super gross for fisherman, because the carp smack into them, and they get all covered in fish slime, fish blood, and fish poop. These carp are also ruining everything for all the other fish, and drastic action is required.

(Sidebar: Do y’all know about nutria? I have discovered that a lot of people don’t, and I want to spread the word. Nutria are an invasive species introduced by fur trappers. They are like gross, obnoxious, verminous capybaras. They have nasty fur. They do not taste good. They will eat your house and your car tires. If you kill one in Louisiana and bring its tail to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, they will give you five dollars.)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman – Reeeeeally good essay about how scientific studies have very flawed methodology. The current system of research funding incentivizes shocking findings and de-incentivizes replication of earlier studies, with the result that a lot of studies come out crap. (And don’t even get David Freedman started on economists’ studies, because those guys are m.f. ridiculous). Even the shiniest of all the types of studies, the randomized enormous studies, are garbage 10% of the time. This was maybe my favorite of the essays? I am very interested in research methodology.

Letting Go,” Atul Gawande – Spending thirty minutes having a serious discussion with a doctor about your end-of-life wishes cuts your end-of-life medical costs, like, a lot. It is also, and this part I already knew, just a good idea all around. Talk to your family about what kind of projected quality of life would make it worth it to keep you around. Have this talk early and often. This essay was incredibly sad. God damn it was sad. Do not read it if you have recently lost someone to illness, because it was crazy sad.

“The Treatment,” Malcolm Gladwell – Please. I don’t trust anything Malcolm Gladwell says. I skipped this essay and snarled at it.

The (Elusive) Theory of Everything,” Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow – Stephen Hawking is not just coasting on his reputation. The dude is interesting and smart. Highly highly recommended. I can’t talk about this one without repeating everything in it, but basically, there is no “theory of everything” that works in all circumstances. You have to accept that you’re going to need different theories of everything for different circumstances. Sometimes you’ll need Einstein and sometimes you’ll need string theory. DEAL WITH IT (says Stephen Hawking).

Spectral Light,” Amy Irvine – Animal attacks are on the rise. Apparently human interference in animal habitats are forcing them to evolve three hundred times faster than they ordinarily would. So, like, watch out for bears. Those dudes are stone killers.

The Spill Seekers,” Rowan Jacobsen – I skipped this. I get sad and anxious when I read about environmental disaster in my home state. I’m not an ostrich. I know it’s happening. I know our coast is eroding. I don’t need to read about it all the time to know that is going on.

New Dog in Town,” Christopher Ketcham – Nothing much learned, but this was still very interesting. Urban coyotes are a thing you should know about. They are in the cities eatin ur cats. One time when I was driving from my university to my parents’ house, I saw a coyote. Right in the street.

(Sidebar: One time we had this orange cat called Lara, but we already had a cat and Daddy didn’t want another cat, so we sent her to live on a farm where she’d be happier. That’s not a euphemism. We actually sent her to an actual farm. But once she was there she got eaten by a coyote.)

Taking a Fall,” Dan Koeppel – A rather charming guide on what to do if you fall out of an airplane and you don’t have a parachute.

The First Church of Robotics,” Jaron Lanier – If I were going to write a jokey romance novel pitch, I would call the hero “Jaron”. It just seems like that kind of name. But I am not ultimately that interested in AI.

The Love that Dare not Squawk Its Name,” Jon Mooallem – I have lingering annoyance with Jonathan Franzen’s bird essay that makes me not want to read this essay about birds either. I was reading it during dinner the other night and I went “GOD! Why are there so many essays about birds in this book?” and my roommate wanted to know what I had against birds. Nothing! I like birds. I don’t know, y’all.

Could Time End?“, George Musser – I’m still fascinated by the end of the world. I love reading and thinking about the end of the world. Except you can’t really say that in polite company without sounding like a douchebag. I know because I said it out loud to my roommates, and I immediately noticed that it sounded douchey. However, it is interesting! All of everything could turn into basically a massive black hole, and then it would be curtains for you, as my father used to say. And in this case “curtains” means “existential apocalypse”.

Sign Here if You Exist,” Jill Sisson Quinn – Hm, I don’t know. This was a very well-written, well-structured essay, but the content didn’t wow me. It’s about the afterlife. And God and evolution and whatnot.

Face-Blind,” Oliver Sacks – I already knew most of this, because my mother and sister are interested in face-blindness. Mumsy posits that she, Daddy, and indeed all the sisters, might be mildly face-blind. I do have a hard time recognizing people on second through, say, tenth meetings. And encountering someone out of context throws me for a total loop, especially if they have added or subtracted anything from their face (earrings, hairdos, facial hair, etc.). Before reading this essay, I was wondering if it would be fair for me to claim mild prosopagnosia when meeting people; while reading it, I was perpetually shrieking “YES THAT IS ME!”; and after reading it, I feel that claiming mild prosopagnosia is completely fair.

Apparently, people who are face-blind are also really terrible at identifying places, even places they’ve been before, even places they’ve been to a lot. I get very lost when coming out of a store in the mall, because everything is all turned around. I go to the same coffee shop every weekend morning, and every time I feel a little anxious and unsure as I’m getting close to it, like I might miss it. Face-blind people are also bad at cars. I was so excited when I read that. I love having things named and settled. I am awful at cars. In 2010 I got picked up in the same car every weekday for a month and a half, and numerous times since for visits, and I still couldn’t pick that car out of a lineup.

Waste MGMT,” Evan I. Schwartz – There is too much stuff in the space near the earth. Unless we do something to take care of it, like throw enormous nets around it and drag it into the earth’s atmosphere to let it change into ash, all the satellites and things will start (they have already started!) bashing into each other and breaking apart. And that will just create more space junk. And eventually there will be just a layer of orbiting space junk. Did you know about this? A little debris halo! Gross! Come on, humanity!

The Whole Fracking Enchilada,” Sandra Steingraber – Hydrofracking is awful for the environment. Natural gas only seems like an awesome energy source because we aren’t taking into account the total biological cost of acquiring it. Noted.

The New King of the Sea,” Abigail Tucker – This essay was so alarming to me that I started an entire new blog feature to process my feelings about it. I led off with the thing about quinoa, but the real reason I established Stuff to Worry About was this jellyfish thing. Stand by for horrifying details.

The Killer in the Pool,” Tim Zimmermann – The whale that killed that woman a couple of years ago? Remember when that happened? That whale had previously killed two other people. I don’t know why I’m so shocked about this. I know that orcas should not be pool pets. I know they only kill people in captivity. I know Sea World isn’t that great at observing best safety practices. But still, I was shocked. Zimmermann points out, which I thought was interesting, that although it’s clearly bad to have orcas in captivity, we have been able learn and observe a lot of things about them that we hadn’t been able to learn by observing them in the wild.

Also, I like this song by Neko Case (not sure what’s going on with the video). I listened to an interview with Neko Case where she said people are constantly asking her what this song is about, and she’s like, “It’s about killer animals,” and they’re like, “No but what’s it about?” and she’s like, “No seriously. It’s about killer animals. And how you shouldn’t fuck with them because they’ll kill you.” Heeheehee.

PHEW. That was a lot of essays to get through. I highly, highly recommend this collection. I wish my digital library had more essay collections like this! They were the perfect thing to have on my Nook for short subway rides or like, while I was brushing my teeth or waiting in line at the post office. And, just, they were so interesting and good! MOAR PLEASE.

Revisiting Harry Potter: Not your most flattering side

I was not disappointed in Chamber of Secrets when I read it, but that’s only because I didn’t know the glory that was awaiting me in Prisoner of Azkaban. I remember finishing up the first Harry Potter book and feeling like someone had bashed me over the head with an awesome stick, and I demanded my mother take me to Books-a-Million so I could buy the second book the next day. I called ahead to reserve a copy, which made me feel very adult, and when I got to the help desk at the store, the guy was like, “Huh? I think we’re sold out of that, I don’t see any back here,” and I died a thousand deaths until he managed to find my copy. And once I had it, I embraced it rapturously and sang a little song that was like, “My book my book my brand new book!”

I bought it in hardcover with my own money, which was sort of a big deal back then. That’s sort of a big deal now, to be honest. Because I am poor. The copy I bought at the time now has a severely cracked spine and is sort of difficult to read because I’m always afraid I’ll break it worse, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Which should tell you something about my true level of affection for this book, despite the gripes I am about to gripe.

This is my least favorite book in the series by like, a lot. As I started writing this post, I realized that the reason for my dislike is that nobody shows to best advantage in it. All these characters I love with my whole heart — and y’all have to know I all the way love these people — kind of act like morons. Let’s do a rundown, shall we?

Ron – Come on. Not cool to make fun of Squibs. Also, what the hell with the car? And the slugs thing is gross, although it’s nice of you to defend Hermione’s honor, and very brave to go into the Forbidden Forest looking for spiders.

Harry – WHAT THE HELL WITH THE CAR HARRY. YOU HAVE AN OWL. Other than this I guess I have no complaints. God knows I like it when Harry’s so m.f. cool with Tom Riddle and he’s totally about to die but he’s still all,

“[You’re] not the greatest sorcerer in the world,” said Harry, breathing fast. “Sorry to disappoint you and all that, but the greatest wizard in the world is Albus Dumbledore. Everyone says so. Even when you were strong, you didn’t dare try and take over at Hogwarts.”

That is pretty great. Not as great as when Harry defends Dumbledore in the sixth book, but pretty great. Good job, Harry.

Hermione – I don’t like to see my girl Hermione with a crush on Gilderoy Lockhart. (Please infuse my saying of his name with as much disdain as you are able to hold in your head at one time.) I don’t need Hermione to be nonstop perfect and brave (for an example of Hermione being teenagery in a way that I like, see the time Snape makes fun of her teeth OH I WILL HAVE THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THAT in book four), but I have been a smart twelve-year-old without having a crush on someone dopey. Hermione could have done that too. She’s the total MVP of this book in terms of getting shit done when Harry and Ron are dithering, and I want to gag every time she’s doing her crush-on-Lockhart moves.

(Facts: When I was twelve and everyone else had a crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I had a crush on Carl Anderson, the guy who plays Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. He was my first love. God he’s so hot. Whenever I try to make light of my crush on Carl Anderson, I watch part of Jesus Christ Superstar and am swamped anew with teenagery crush love.)

Hagrid – I don’t know why I continue to love Hagrid, y’all. He is nearly always part of the subplot I hate the most in any given book. Yet whenever things would look grim for Hagrid throughout the series, I’ll be right there screaming NOOOOO at the top of my lungs. Anyway, this is not a good book for Hagrid. I hate that he goes to Azkaban, and Cornelius Fudge is a jackass, and this marks the moment at which I decided to loathe Cornelius Fudge for all of eternity because no way did Hagrid deserve to go to Azkaban. However, it was very not cool of Hagrid to raise a huge deadly spider in the school (also WHOA I just realized Hagrid never talks about knowing Tom Riddle in school, which like, wouldn’t it make sense for Harry to ask him at some point? Hagrid’s right there and knew Tom Riddle in school). It was even not cooler for him to send Harry and Ron to hang out with Aragog. They’re twelve. Hagrid, they are twelve. Twelve years old. They do not even know the Stunning spell yet. Come on.

Dobby – Just. I just don’t. This book is the reason I hated Dobby. He is the worst at helping Harry. Until he becomes free, and then he is suddenly awesome at helping Harry, which obviously I’m in favor of. But he is so aggravating in this book, and I mean aggravating in its etymologically accurate sense, of adding weight and turmoil to Harry’s already tumultuous life.

Colin Creevey – See everything I said before about Dobby. Except that Colin Creevey never becomes lovable. He’s basically a low-rent version of two characters — Dobby and Neville — who between them can do pretty much anything Colin Creevey does, but are much more fleshed-out, awesome, and lovable over the course of the series. The books would have been fine without Colin Creevey. He adds nothing to anything. He just irritates me.

Gilderoy m.f. Lockhart – This man. Is the worst. (Not the actual worst. That is still Snape.) Everything about him is awful, and I wish he had died in the cave-in. I am not sure I even want to get started on Gilderoy Lockhart because of how relentlessly awful he is. The only reason I do not shriek that J.K. Rowling should have left him out of the series is that without him we wouldn’t have had that wrenching moment in the fifth book where the kids run into Neville at St. Mungo’s. As a hardcore Neville fan I am willing to make some compromises to have that moment. But Gilderoy Lockhart is awful, and in addition to being awful, he’s not quite as funny (except when he’s Kenneth Branagh) as J.K. Rowling thinks he is. Too one-note. I get bored of him very quickly.

Ginny – GINNY. GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER WOMAN. I have saved Ginny for last because Ginny was a very, very hard sell for me, and there was no real reason it had to be that way. I spent the whole of the first four books complaining about the inevitability of a Harry-Ginny pairing. Ginny spends way too long in this series being overawed by Harry, and that’s even more frustrating to me in retrospect because I now know that Ginny is tough and brave and awesome, and because this is J.K. Rowling and J.K. Rowling always knew everything about everyone, Ginny always was tough and brave and awesome. And I’m cross we didn’t get to see her being tough and brave and awesome all along. I’m not mad at her for getting fooled by Voldemort, but I’m mad at her for sending Harry that valentine. Ginny, you are better than this.

Just basically there are a lot of characters I love who act a fool in this book, and some characters I never love taking up too much book space. I actually think this is one of the better mysteries in the series, from a purely plot perspective. The monster is quite frightening, and the diary is a cool way to let Harry defeat Voldemort again without its being a rerun of the first book’s climax. I love that the whole plot hinges on something as petty as defeating a bill in the Ministry. The red herrings with Hagrid and Percy are elegantly executed. The stakes are high and Rowling keeps escalating them. The confrontation at the end is chilling, that moment when Harry realizes that something isn’t right with Riddle? Eeeeeek.

It’s all nicely set up, and if I read this by itself, I probably wouldn’t have any complaints. It’s only by comparison with how great almost all of these characters are capable of being that I mind how lame they are.  The problem is that the third book features an even better mystery in which all the characters are displaying to absolute best advantage.

Oh, also, to the question of the books’ increasing darkness over the course of the series: The first three books are supposedly lighter than the later ones, which I guess is because nobody dies in them and things turn out okay for everyone in the end. But there are definitely hints at how dark things can get. When Tom Riddle kidnaps Ginny and writes “Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever,” that’s the first moment in the series, for me, that was legitimately high-stakes scary. Hermione was always going to get un-Petrified because mandrakes, and Harry was always going to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, and yeah, I was pretty sure Ginny was going to get rescued, but this is the first point in the series where I could see matters playing out a whole other way.

These are the scariest moments to me in the books, all the times where J.K. Rowling makes you pay attention to how little control the good characters really have over the fates of their loved ones. They are vulnerable from so many directions, you know? Ron and Harry are completely on the case with Hermione being Petrified and then BAM just when you think all the jeopardy has been jeoparded on the best friend flank, here’s an attack on the baby sister flank! You weren’t expecting that, were you? Were you? And seriously. She could have died. That’s a thing that could have happened. Voldemort doesn’t even care.