Because Internet: 4/5 Stars
A book whose title and public relations/previews made me really not want to read, this ended up being a) much different from what I thought it was going to be and b) a lot better as well. This is not an amateur at language in a way that may very well be accurate enough, but would also be facile or shallow. Instead, Gretchen McCulloch writes an interesting analysis of language for amateurs, but using the tools of her work as a linguist. So while the referents in the book were really familiar to me (and likely to you, depending on exactly where you fall in her four eras of internet adoption that she uses later in the text), the lenses through which she looked at the language was novel to me.
So the book is structured by both history and category with some overlap at times and some looping as necessary. She tells us about the early internet users and the ways in which they used language (as in spoken and written language) as way capable and exigent for the technology and usage in the early internet (and for our purposes we’re talking about late 1970s-1990s) which included the specific ways chats online work, how text was formed on screens, typography, tone, and style. All of these wrapped in with light to medium levels of analysis. As we get closer to today’s era, there’s more breakdown of specific forms of communication like memes, emojis and emoticons, and chat programs. The result is that she covers a lot of the different forms of communication we see happening online.
The tone of the book is enthusiastic and humorous, with the backing of knowledge and experience. Because of her work as a linguist, her work as a language blogger, and the almost certainly her ability to use the classroom as a laboratory for her ideas, this book covers a lot, in a little space. Her approach is to look at what we have now, and help to frame it for those would come later.
I think about a recent picture I saw in which a woman is on the street wearing a masking, taking a selfie, while drinking through a metal straw and someone makes the joke about how you might explain this to someone in 1995. The more interesting question, now that we’re living through this period, is how we’ll explain in oral narrative form what this time period was like to live through. This book works a similar way. There’s a kind of oral history aspect to this book wherein when she talks about a given era, it matches us (or doesn’t) with my memories of the time. This means that if someone were to come upon this book in 15 years who is 20, so wouldn’t really recall life right now, they might be able to understand the experiences of this era, and previous eras, not simply the facts of those eras.
To Marry Medua: 3/5 Stars
This is a 1958 science fiction novel by Theodore Strurgeon. We begin with a bar fight that leads a man ejected from the bar to eat a hamburger he finds. We learn from a higher order of narration that the hamburger is actually horsemeat, and that the horse in question had eaten a single pellet that comprised an extra-terrestrial intelligence that rejected the horse being and found its way into our protagonist, a kind of violent lug. The novel then goes on to show the ways in which this intelligence interweaves with the consciousness of the man and begins mining the primordial, genetic history of humanity learning about us. One thing that confuses the being is that human culture has been built into a mass of huge complexity, but by a group of distinct, heterogenous entities, as opposed to a hive mind. The intelligence then begins using the man to construct “projectors” to tie together humanity into a hive mind. The novel then splits into several concurrent narratives that show other, sympathetic humans that are also brought into the collective. The novel goes from there dealing with notions of collectivity versus individuality.
Come Closer: 4/5 Stars
This is Sara Gran’s first novel, and I really enjoyed it. It’s not very much like her other novels except in tone (with some connection with the supernatural? elements of the Claire DeWitt mysteries). Our story begins with a architecture project manager putting a report on her boss’s desk, and when he calls her in to read it it’s full of insults and disparaging remarks that she swears she didn’t put in. She starts having other weird occurrences: a stray dog she’s befriended gets aggressive, she is blacking out, she feels antagonistic to her husband, there’s a weird tapping noise, she’s hearing voices. She stumbles upon a demon possession book and takes an informal quiz. As the novel progress, she inches her way up the scale of the quiz. Well, it goes from there.
The novel would be a great small (especially independent) movie because of how tiny in scope it all is. It focuses so much on her interiority, on the ways in which she looks to both normalize her pain and abnormal/paranormal behavior, and how much she tries to hide or deny it. It also delves into a history of demons, and well, that’s always fun.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey: 3/5 Stars
I think this is based on or became a novel too, but I don’t feel like looking it up. This was an Audible original at some point in the past and it was released free widely at the start of quarantine. The cover is the lead actor brightly looking at the camera, but the story is very sad and darkly violent.
So I was surprised when the opening monologue of the audioplay involves an NYPD cop delivering a thickly accented “NOW I DON’T NORMALLY BELIEVE IN MIRACLES” kind of speech. We learn that he’s been investigating first the disappearance of, then the murder of a small teenage boy who was picked on and tormented in school, until someone murdered him one day. This story, already sad enough, involves the additional vulnerability and sadness of Leonard being gay and not only being tormented for this fact about himself, but for his own gayness being used to excuse his murder through a gay panic defense. The play is sad and poignant, if a little melodramatic or maudlin.
Coming Out Party: 3/5 Stars
This is a great series of coming out stories by famous and not so famous people, wrapped up in a not funny or particularly great package. There’s a “show” quality about this Audible original that involve the hosts emceeing, but not being very funny that has a weird contrast the very great, funny, earnest, touching, and sometimes hilarious coming out stories of the storytellers.
Interior Chinatown: 3/5 Stars
This is the most recent novel by Charles Yu, most well known for his previous novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe. I haven’t read that novel, but I did enjoy this one (for it being a little limited structurally). The novel is structured as a screenplay, which makes it’s already short 200 pages even shorter by nature of the blank spaces on the page. The novel tackles Asian American male identity through the lens of how its portrayed on film and television (television explicitly, with film by implication). Our protagonist is “Generic Asian Male” and like his name, he begins the story with little in ways of particular features and characteristics. In his attempts to fit in better with the world around him (in this case as a character on a police procedural that seems to be written with a Black/White dynamic with no room in the storytelling for Asian faces and voices), he ends up becoming self-effacing.
He starts to explore his own identity through the film script, through his own story and history, through the story of his family and neighborhood (Chinatown) and begins to understand that he’s played a role in his own erasure (this is a common theme in all literature, but especially American literature in which one feels the oppression of the outside being replicated by one’s own actions and feelings).
While the novel is really interesting, and it is, the structure itself is a little alienating. Again, like the formatting itself, I think this could be a really interesting film in the right hands.
An Act of God: 2/5 Stars
Another Audible Original this time written as a one-man show by God, well, specifically a very Eurocentric, white Christian god played by Sean Hayes. This one is….not good. Sean Hayes is perfectly good, as he’s a talented actor, and there are a few funny lines in this one. But there’s nothing here that hasn’t been said a million times before, and given the parodic nature of this work, it’s been done better by originals. This is pretty much The Kid Stays in the Picture, but less good.
Unexpected Stories: 3/5 Stars
Not a great, but also not a terrible entry point into Octavia Butler novels. Octavia Butler is an interesting novelist (well, duh) but specifically I mean this because so many people’s entry into her work is through Kindred, which is a wonderful novel, but is entirely singular amongst her other ten-eleven novels. Whether it’s the two Parable novels that take place in a post-apocalyptic of resource scarcity and scripture, her Patternmaster series that focus on a kind of Xmen like race of psionic humans, her Xengenesis novels that involves transhuman/alien morphing and cross-breeding, or super scary, body horror, but also sexy? vampire novel Fledgling, her work is more concerned with body horror and psychic abilities than the time-travel reckoning with America’s racism in Kindred. So while that is the book that gets people in, this is not the entirety of her work by a wide margin. So this collection (called two novellas) but is really just a long story and a short story splits the difference: a psionic story and a alien race/thinking on different species story). The long one is more realized individually, but if you’ve read the Patternmaster books, the psionic is a dip back into that world.
Ripley’s Game: 2/5 Stars
There’s a novel I read once, it’s pretty popular, that previews a big conspiracy and big reveal for hundreds of pages. I won’t spoiler which novel it is, but when it’s all revealed…it’s just the mob. And it’s so disappointing! I guess for a few decades (and I know, still is) the concept of the mafia just had people in thrall. It’s sort of like when Arthur Conan Doyle was so fascinated by the Ku Klux Klan and evil Mormons but they seemed so utterly weird and silly in his stories. Well, in those cases it just really felt like a solid piece of writing is brought low by the weird adherence to mob tropes, and the same thing happens here.
I liked the first Ripley novel a lot, and did not the second one nearly as much. I really was pretty disappointed by this one. It’s still solid and it’s still Patricia Highsmith, which is a good thing, but it turns into a Tom Ripley versus the Mob novel like a Scooby Doo mystery show and well, blah.
Henrietta and Eleanor: 1/5 Stars
A truly bad Audible original which takes Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and recasts it in modern London, gender flips it, and has nothing much to do or say with the changes. The gender-flipping is fine and interesting, and could be really good in the right hands (cough cough Jeanette Winterson?), but if you take a hugely well-known thriller story and make the thriller still the main part of your remix, then it doesn’t work. What I mean by this is that you can’t just retell the same story that everyone already knows, that is set up as a mystery and a thriller with particular effective mystery beats (we don’t know that Jeckyll and Hyde are the same!) and expected it to do much. Here the issue is that we wouldn’t even be listening if we didn’t know the story so structurally it’s a waste of time. Doing something different with it, say, having a competent writer think through the ways in which gender would change the dynamics of the story (other than saying, wow women getting drunk on the weekends is kind of taboo), you might have something.
The biggest issue with this is that it’s boring. And that’s an issue because we don’t have the built patience of the work being from the 1890s in the original form. Even that story is not even boring; it’s quite readable. But this version transplants some of the same language and ways of speaking into the contemporary context and it obviously doesn’t work because people don’t speak this way any more!
Love that Dog: 3/5 Stars and Hate that Cat: 3/5 Stars
Two books I will write about at the same time. These two books are successive journals written by an elementary school student who is forced to read poetry and questions its purpose. The books are written in the forms of poetry themselves, especially as the boy tries to make sense of the boys being places in front of him by a well-meaning teacher (who does not select good poems for kids to read). My philosophy of picking texts for kids is that if the work gets in the way of understanding, we can pick a different text. Eventually the boy finds the right text, a poem by Walter Dean Myers, and that poem becomes the model for the dog and cat poems. And of course there’s a satisfying part in which the boy gets to meet Walter Dean Myers. This books feels modeled on Dear Mr Henshaw, in which a young boy writes letters to a beloved author. I think this book is good for kids, and I know lots of teachers probably enjoy it too. I think authors have the same issues a lot of teachers having, universalizing their own perspicacity as young people in terms of reading. But it doesn’t hurt anyone.
Break Shot: 3/5 Stars
My wife and I disagree about James Taylor. I know, I know he seems so harmless, and he more or less is. I love the album Sweet Baby James, and this little Audible Original biography taught me that the album and song are named for his nephew and namesake. He also tells the story of “Fire and Rain” and you can imagine, if you don’t already know it, it’s really sad. Anyway, this is a little oral history/autobiography of James Taylor’s first 21 years. He hit it big when he was 20 so this does cover some fertile ground. His young adulthood saw him writing songs, working with the Beatles on his first record (he also tells the story of how he ran into Mark David Chapman the day before John Lennon was killed and actually heard the shots that killed him). So all of that is great.
What is even more interesting and rewarding is hearing his own family history. This includes his great grandfather (an old country doctor) accidentally killing his grandmother (botching the birth) as she gave birth to his father and then killing himself. It includes his father helping to set up McMurdoo Station, and being a doctor, holding the keys to the liquor cabinet, and becoming an alcoholic. It also involves James Taylor being institutionalized as a teen in the same hospital in New England as Susan Keysen, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace and others.
It’s a solid hour and half. He’s not a wordsmith or great storyteller, but he’s got a lot to say. Oh my wife read a book about Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King and thought the young James Taylor gave off some major….vibes.