The books that cowered in fear with me in 2020

from Stoke by Sam Wade
  • Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  • Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
  • Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Chodos-Irvine
  • Anastasia series by Lois Lowry
  • Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
  • Guts by Raina Telgemeier
  • Fiction
  • Comics
  • Children’s books
  • Plays
  • Nonfiction

2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014

We were, collectively, miserable in 2020. But a silver lining was that we were miserable in ways that felt like a shared experience. To twist Tolstoy’s line from Anna Karenina, there were ways that we were unhappy in different ways — I never had to risk my life in my day-to-day job, and everyone I loved who got the coronavirus survived — but there was at least some amount that we were unhappy in the same way. And there were even moments, such as Brooklyn’s march for Black trans lives, when more people were furious in the same way than I’d ever felt before.

Here are the books I used to connect to the world with, across space and time, while huddled under a blanket, or sitting, masked and distant, on a park bench.

Fiction

by Margaret Chodos-Irvine, from the book

Some novels are like snack food.

Some are like a perfectly cooked steak.

And some, like Always Coming Home, are like 17-course tasting menus where the chef tells you about the provenance of each olive, explains how she learned to test olives for ripeness as a child, and plays the music her grandmother used to play for her as you eat the olive. At some point you might want to cut the song short and eat your freaking olives, but you know this is a meal you’ll never forget.

I hesitate to explain Always Coming Home — it’s sort of an artifact as much as it is a book, and discovering what it is is part of the fun. Le Guin is generally called a sci-fi writer; there are no space ships here, but this is the most ambitious work of sci-fi-style world-building I’ve ever read. The total effect of reading it is to commune profoundly with the people of Le Guin’s imagined society.

by Margaret Chodos-Irvine, from the book

There’s sort of a tension in Le Guin’s work, as I read it: a tension between her dissatisfaction with human small-mindedness, and her celebration of human foibles. She both loves to tell of superstition and gossip and foolishness, and isn’t afraid to show the abyss of cruelty and danger that come with them.

In her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, those two pieces of her exploration of humanity are very clear: she genuinely loves the life and vibrance of the community of Omelas, but she also shows that this vibrance is of a piece with community practices that are truly horrific. The ones who walk away are not heroes, they are just doing what is in their nature, not necessarily any better or worse than the ones who perpetuate the cruelty.

This is a very Taoist outlook, at least by my very shaky understanding of Taoism. (Le Guin also wrote/translated a much reinterpreted edition of the Tao te Ching, which I recommend.)

I mention this because it is crucial to the cosmology of Always Coming Home, and keeps it from veering too far into veneration for its central community. In many ways, Le Guin has designed her world as idyllic: the people live in an updated version of Native American communion with nature, or at least a 20th century settler understanding of it, with some California new age philosophy thrown in. When she allows in plenty of flaws and conflict, she isn’t repeating the traditional sci-fi trick of showing that a society’s underside is its true self; the beauty and pain of her vision relate to each other, and are in balance.

Something that strikes me in much of Le Guin’s work is the degree to which she does, or doesn’t, assert feminism and confront gender. She clearly sees a huge range of gender expression as valid, and sees rigid performance of gender roles as potentially confining and toxic. But she also seems to see a place for traditional gender roles, and assigns validity to them; or at least, she doesn’t always see her characters obedience to those roles as a failing. Of all the aspects of life in her imagined future, gender roles seem to have changed the least. If I look at this through the lens of Le Guin’s pseudo-Taoist approach, I wonder if she chose to show these roles in and out of balance, to shine a light on their problems and potential rather than to write them out of existence.

Highest recommendation.

from a cover of Adulthood Rites

Dawn might be the most all-around excellent sci-fi book I’ve ever read. It does everything I love about sci-fi: it shines a light on our familiar world, from an unfamiliar perspective; it upends assumptions and puts me off-balance as a reader, opening new lines of perception; and in setting up morally complex and ambiguous scenarios, it challenges me to define my own values.

It’s also an undeniable argument for why sci-fi needs Black perspectives. Race isn’t the only theme of Dawn, by far; but it is a crucial layer of the story, an element interwoven in both the protagonist’s understanding of herself, and her understanding of the danger lurking inside her fellow humans. I can imagine a scenario like this in the hands of a White man, the traditional authorial voice in sci-fi, and it would simply be missing a crucial part of what makes it so arresting.

The sequels Adulthood Rites and Imago develop the world further and are excellent. But all of the elements are established by Dawn, and as much as I enjoyed spending more time in Butler’s imagination, the second and third books weren’t as necessary or urgent as the first.

Dawn: highest recommendation. Adulthood Rites and Imago: highly recommended.

Full of inspiration and imagination. I appreciate Chiang’s commitment to his stories’ conceits; he trusts them to be able to carry his storytelling, without needing each one to have a twist. Chiang is a high-concept writer, more than a storyteller; his scenarios are often the point of his stories. He doesn’t have Asimov’s penchant to set up a twist; in fact he seems almost anti-twist in his writer’s temperament.

In his previous collection Story of Your Life and others, there were several stories whose conceits were clever, but couldn’t sustain my attention as they played out; I didn’t have that problem with this collection.

I do find my understanding of human psychology clashing with his at times, as when he posits that millions of people would collapse into listlessness if it were proven that free will does not exist; I just don’t think people put that much thought into what they do, and have no problem acting in the face of assertions that they are wrong. (And I’m reminded of Hume’s quip that at a conference of skeptics, the attendees all nonetheless exited through the door, and none chose the window.)

My favorite stories: the expansion on the “Meet death on the road to Baghdad” fable; the novella about digital pets and their caretakers; the exploration of technologies of memory.

Highest recommendation.

Fifty pages into this book, I found it so boring that I wanted to give up. It’s full of character types I’ve read about more times than I care to, who seem to populate the contemporary American novel: the clucking great-aunts who finish each others’ sentences; the dissolute daughter who goes out in the cold without hat, gloves or boots.

When a contemporary American novel is recommended to me these days, I wonder if I should ask, “Is it a lyrical family study about a dissolute daughter longing for connection with an unknowable mother and an absent father, populated by clucking aunties, frozen ponds and stray dogs, against a backdrop of slowly decaying Americana?” I mean, I get that that’s the literature some people keep wanting more and more of, the way I’m always up for another episode of Star Trek. I can’t claim that my tastes are good, just that I’m not especially interested in this genre.

I’m glad I stuck with the book, though, because Robinson is possibly the best writer of sentences I’ve ever read. Once I settled in and stopped fighting against Robinson’s tendency to dwell on minutiae and talk in circles, I noticed the unique rhythms of her prose, and fell in love with it. Some pages, I reread half a dozen times.

Your mileage may vary, but I’d never known writing could be compelling the way Robinson makes it.

Highly recommended.

I love the soul of this book, and the author’s exquisite compassion for the characters. I also loved Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton. Why then, did reading this book feel so much like homework?

It’s not that it is dense. But it is bleak: bleakly accurate about the human condition. If I weren’t a human, this kind of insight into human pain would be a revelation. But since I’ve lived my whole life as a thinking, feeling person, it makes me suffer to wade through this much suffering, and I just can’t find enough enjoyment to sustain me. I know these ways that life disappoints you, leaves you empty and alone; Strout brings them to life superbly, but it’s just not a book I want to read.

Not recommended.

I put down this anti-detective story that aggressively violates the rules of storytelling. It’s translated from the French, and I imagine it’s liked in France for its existentialist purposelessness. I just didn’t find anything to latch onto; I mean, at least in The Stranger he kills a guy!

Not recommended.

Comics

This is the third volume in Raina Telgemeier’s massively successful Smile/Sisters memoir series, which has transformed the comics industry and opened the door for a new generation of comics readers, and for girls in particular.

And it’s masterful. I wept when I finished this, because Raina’s entire journey resonated so vividly with me.

In contrast to the earlier entries in this series, Guts focuses on aspects of Raina’s life that are not obviously visual — anxiety, pain, dread, and preoccupation. Telgemeier uses many familiar comics methods to bring these out of Raina’s head and onto the page, and she also uses some unfamiliar ones, brilliantly.

Highest recommendation.

Twins is a sweet, smart and memorable portrait of a middle schooler’s struggle to leave childhood behind and form her own identity. I’m glad I stuck with this one — it starts out with several pages of awkward pacing and incoherent visual storytelling, before settling into a clearer, less cluttered and more patient style. Ultimately, it gives beautiful sketches of half a dozen characters, around a compelling plot with lots to say about loyalty, generosity, winning and losing. I especially appreciated the ways the central family’s experience is simultaneously affirmatively Black, and absolutely universal.

There’s even a cameo where a character picks up two books which, if you look closely, are Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Babysitters’ Club graphic novels, a sweet shout-out to the influence of Telgemeier’s work.

Highly recommended.

A simple story about growing up, in the vein of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile/Sisters series. The brilliance here is the loose and patient pacing, using variations on dialogue density and panel scope, so that the attention is always on protagonist Jen, as her own perception widens and constricts. As with Vera Brogsol’s Be Prepared, the art is hiding the art — the feel of the book is light and easy, and its expertise is in how Knisley picks her spots and creates characters with a few strokes and lines.

Highly recommended.

A short form graphic novel published through ShortBox, Stoke has a minimalist style evocative of hieroglyphics and Indian tapestries. Wade makes experimental use of word balloons, boundaries and color, always subtly and in service to the book’s tone, which walks a precise line between coldness and warmth. In a way there isn’t much story to sink my teeth into as a reader, but the formal inventiveness is enough to make for a unique and unforgettable experience.

Highly recommended.

Also part of ShortBox, Did You See Me? is a story told partially through Twitter screenshots, partially in realistic scenes, and partially in dreams. As Sam Wade did in Stoke, Foster-Dimino is pushing the comics medium in new directions; here, the variation in each page’s format is itself telling part of the story. The style from page to page varies widely, and the dream sequences are extraordinary at capturing the inner imagination of the protagonist.

Highly recommended.

Barry is a veteran indie comics writer/artist, and a veteran professor of comics creation, and this book distills her teaching methods and materials into a single, delightful volume.

And Barry is a transcendent teacher. She believes firmly in everyone’s ability to make art that is alive and conveys meaning and joy, even if they think they “can’t draw”. And this isn’t just idealism speaking: she has developed and collected dozens of exercises for disarming students’ artistic inhibitions and giving them permission to create. I did a few of these and loved the experience.

Even if you have no interest in making comics, this is a wonderful and thought-provoking read about the nature of creativity and the environment you need to welcome its expression.

Highly recommended.

A set of short horror stories with inventive layouts and mixing of text and image. The character development only goes so far, but the scenarios are fun and lively, and the scariness is perfectly pitched to be gleefully freaky while still being appropriate for young readers.

Highly recommended.

Like the best allegorical fiction, this online comic (published via Instagram) is light on the specifics of the allegory, and rich in the voices of its characters. It’s often hard to tell exactly what a panel or sequence is doing there, and that’s part of the loose beauty of this phenomenal work, along with DeForge’s expressive line and his working of detail into backgrounds. But while I found Leaving Richard’s Valley’s meditative pace and open spirit refreshing, it was hard to keep a sense of momentum as a reader, and my sense of momentum slowed greatly after the first few dozen pages.

Highly recommended.

Freddy, this book’s weak-willed protagonist, knows she should break up with her charismatic but self-absorbed girlfriend, the infamous Laura Dean. But the simple truth is that Freddy is hopelessly in love with her. Can she learn to stand up for herself and demand the respect, and love, she deserves?

I loved the setup here, and I was excited to see how Freddy might change so that she could see Laura’s self-absorption as small, instead of imbuing it with mystique. But while Freddy does eventually confront Laura, this feels arbitrary, and not built from pieces of character experience. Still, it’s a sweet and fun story, and beautifully illustrated, with lightly experimental touches in how events and dialogue are sequenced across panels.

Recommended.

A nicely done bit of magic realist fiction that draws clearly on the South American tradition of Marquez, Borges, and Julio Cortázar.

I wished the philosophical exploration elements had been more clearly fleshed out; they were sometimes hard for me to relate to. The story keeps reinforcing the idea that the protagonist’s fate is out of his hands, but I’ve never felt intrigued by that brand of existentialism; nor am I fascinated by betrayal, as the authors clearly are. I just have different philosophical itches to scratch, I think.

At the same time, there’s a lot of love for the characters here, and the portrayal of falling in love was vivid and irresistible.

Recommended.

An indie comic book about a Han Solo-type space hustler, who is secretly the last surviving monarch of a fallen empire. The scenario and plot have been done before, and the protagonists are inexplicably totally invincible Mary Sues, so the stakes feel low. But it’s good fun, and it’s great to see sci-fi where not everyone is a White man.

Recommended.

This book is an exercise in style, reminiscent in some ways of Frank Miller’s 300 and with art that clearly evokes Moebius and Enki Bilal.

The story is barely coherent, with a half-baked scenario, simplistic politics and cliché character motivations. And the panel-to-panel storytelling could have been clearer; one major character, a reluctant deserter from the evil empire’s army, is introduced so abruptly that I had to reread her introduction several times to piece together what was going on.

But the style is unique, glorious and unforgettable, with an absurd level of detail pouring off of every page.

Recommended.

I’ve enjoyed this series, though at times it’s left me cold with its icy protagonist and dense mythology. I’ve found it best to stop trying to figure out what’s going on, and just go with it.

This volume was less satisfying than the first two; instead of setting up stakes that pay off later, the rules of the game kept being announced on the fly, which made them feel unconvincing and inconsequential.

Still, the art is beautiful and the cat and half-fox sidekicks are delightful.

Recommended.

This book has been compared to Hayao Miyazaki, and it does have a feeling similar to the opening of Spirited Away, where the protagonist is thrown into a disorienting world and finds that her unusual generosity and loyalty are both an asset and a liability.

I am lucky enough to have read parts of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s out of print book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, thanks to my coworker Carl. In it, the authors describe a concept they call “staging”, which is the design work that goes into focusing the viewer’s attention on one small story beat at a time. If, say, a character is going to count their money and realize some is missing, there’s actually quite a lot of tiny pieces of information to communicate, and not to cloud with distracting business. There are dozens of small choices the animators need to make to deliver this: it’s vital to omit distracting details from the frame, and to pose the character at the right angle to center the eye on the key information. This might seem straightforward, but if you compare animation by other studios to Disney’s in the early years, you can see how much more deliberately Disney animators staged their story beats.

All of that is to say: staging matters in comics just as much as in animation, and McClaren’s staging is unclear in nearly every panel of this book. Action happens, but as a reader I can’t tell which bits of a given frame are the important ones, or what’s supposed to be happening, or whether something surprising just happened or not. It makes me appreciate the expert staging in so many other comics I love.

Not recommended.

This comic made a big splash recently, and I was thrilled to check out a new take on a favorite character. It starts with a classic horror comics theme that keeps the Hulk in the shadows. Unfortunately, it quickly reverts to the mean, and the story becomes a conventional superhero-supervillain battle. Worse, the inconsistent page layouts and plotting make the story confusing to follow.

Not recommended.

This was the superhero comic recommended to me by the wonderful staff at Manhattan institution Forbidden Planet before the pandemic hit. The art is spectacular, but I never found myself caring about the characters or feeling invested in the stakes. Am I just over superhero comics? I don’t think so — I just think it’s hard to write fresh stories for these tentpole characters, and the tendency for Marvel’s X-comics these days is to overwhelm you with endless variations on characters (alternate universe Beast! “Dark” Archangel! Everyone becomes Deathlok’ed! Etc.) without taking the time to flesh them out.

Not recommended.

Children’s books

I absolutely loved this book, which is propelled by an urgent plot but makes keen, patient observations along the way. It’s a bit too long, and loses some steam as it goes, but the companionship of the author is worth it.

The star of the book is the deft way Funke weaves poetic imagery into her prose. In the villain’s candlelit lair, the candles “seem to fill the room with shadows, rather than light.”

And when the protagonist is taken captive, she finds herself struck by the incongruities that horror inserts into her perception:

The light behind them turned pink and lemon yellow as the sun sank farther down toward the sea, and dark blue trickled down from the sky like ink flowing into water. It was so beautiful a sight that it almost hurt to look at it. Meggie had thought the place where Capricorn lived would be quite different. Beauty and fear make uneasy companions…

Why could she remember nothing but stories of frightened people when Capricorn looked at her? She usually found it so easy to escape somewhere else, to get right inside the minds of people and animals who existed only on paper, so why not now? Because she was afraid. “Because fear kills everything,” Mo had once told her. “Your mind, your heart, your imagination.”

I found myself frequently rereading passages to savor their richness before moving on. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world here, and for a book intended for young adults, it isn’t afraid to delve into topics of cruelty and abuse. The book’s power and intensity don’t come from shock value, but from its attention to the poetry of daily life, and its acknowledgement of the true wages of violence.

Highest recommendation.

I read these books to my 8 year-old, and we both loved them. I had read the first few years ago and only remembered parts; but since we moved to the Boston area two years ago, I’ve wanted to revisit this series, which starts out with Anastasia living in Cambridge and features the Charles River, Boston Common, and other recognizeable Boston spots.

Lowry’s writing has a looseness, an irreverence and an honesty that’s hard to find matched in other chapter books. Anastasia is constantly pushing misunderstandings, fixations and plans too far; this exaggerated take on childhood felt familiar to my daughter in a way nothing else has, and had us laughing again and again. Anastasia’s parents aren’t omnipotent; they are good parents who take care of her, but they also feel amb; ivalent about parenthood in a way I appreciated deeply. There is a mastery to the writing that allows small points of personal growth to unfold at a human pace and scale, and yet to seem deeply consequential and entertaining.

I should mention that there is quite a bit of dated fat-shaming in Anastasia’s Chosen Career; the quality drops off a bit after the sixth book anyway. And the first book has a Black character who is little more than a stereotype, though I will say I totally knew that guy in real life in Cambridge in the 80s and to me, the portrait seems loving and warm.

First six books: highest recommendation. Last three books: recommended.

I read this classic children’s fantasy book series to my 9 year-old, and I was thrilled to discover how well it holds up.

As with the Harry Potter series, the role of magic is second to personal drama; the supernatural realm matters because of how it interacts with the protagonists’ struggle to grow from childhood to adulthood, both in terms of independence and relational maturity.

The first two books center on Lewis Barnavelt, an orphan who goes to live with his eccentric uncle. Their house is cursed with a mysterious ticking clock sound coming from inside its walls, and as they learn more about the clock, their fear grows of what it means. Meanwhile, Lewis’s use of magic forces him to learn about friendship and betrayal, the power of lies and the power of trust.

Lewis can be a frustratingly passive character, and his palpable yearning for friendship leads him into pain. But I appreciated his uncertainty and immaturity, in contrast to the swashbuckling male leads in Percy Jackson and Fablehaven.

The Figure in the Shadows is less memorable than the first book, but it introduces Lewis’s fabulous friend Rose Rita, who becomes the main character in the third book, The Letter, the Witch and the Ring. Nearly all of the characters in this third book are women, and Rose Rita is a wonderful protagonist: she’s both comically overconfident, and has a lot left to learn. The book also includes one of the most terrifying ghost scenes I’ve ever read, purely by being evocative and not gory.

The fourth book, The Ghost in the Mirror, was started by Bellairs but finished by fellow author Brad Strickland after his death. Unfortunately, whether due to preserving the content of the draft or to Strickland’s style, the prose is much stiffer than in the previous books. This made me appreciate the joyful flow of their prose even more.

Note that these books were mostly written in the 1970s and take place in the 1950s, and they include some dated discussion of gender, physical beauty and body weight. I didn’t find that I needed to edit them as I read aloud like I do with the Narnia series, but I did stop now and then so that we could discuss our reactions to how characters were putting each other down.

House/Clock: highly recommended; Figure: recommended; Letter: highly recommended; Ghost: not recomended.

Fablehaven is a young adult fantasy series clearly indebted to the traditions of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. It isn’t quite at the level of either of those classics, but the plots are dense and entertaining, the characters are memorable, and the prose flows well. I’ve tried quite a few other fantasy books with my daughters after we finished the Harry Potter series, and this is the most successful.

For one thing, Mull gives you a lot of entertainment for your time. Just to summarize the plot of one of the novels would take at least a thousand words. No one can match JK Rowling for the breadth of her cast of characters, but Mull comes close. And the setpieces he conjures are deeply memorable: I’ll never forget the Haunted Grove, the edible inside of the safety bubble, the gravity vault, the Lost Mesa, or the [shudder] Quiet Box.

A few quibbles: sometimes Mull could use a dose of feminism. He sometimes shows a fixation on beauty and thinness when it comes to female characters, like the fairies. There’s a chapter where a major character says something sexist, and we see a female major character grapple with pain and anger in response; I appreciated that, though I would have liked to see other characters confront that sexist attitude and make clear that they’re unacceptable.

Fablehaven is very much a book in the mainstream of chapter book fantasy fiction — not the dystopian end of YA, or the frontier of representation and revisionism, but the more old-fashioned, Spielbergian tradition of children’s fantasy, where the danger is presented as though a soft touch lens, and protagonists careen from one wonder to the next.

But while the premise is nothing new, the prose is refreshingly clear. I’ve tried reading several YA fantasy novels to my eleven year old, but they are often so dense with names and history that they feel more like an encyclopedia entry than a story. Fablehaven is complex in summary, but each page tells a simple story, in lucid prose. My daughter eagerly picked the book up between our evening readings and read ahead.

Highly recommended.

One of the most purely fun chapter books I’ve ever encountered, Who is Bugs Potter? follows two high school musicians on an invitational trip to play with a student orchestra in Toronto. One of them, a flutist, is a nervous rule-follower; the other, the titular Bugs Potter, is a gung-ho drummer who wants to blow off practice, seek out his favorite metal bands, and drum his ass off. Hilarity and awe-inspiring rock glory ensue.

As with many of Korman’s books, it’s a bit dated when it comes to the peripheral role of women. It does pass the Bechdel test, but just barely. Still, this is a forgotten treasure, and my daughters loved reading it just as much as I did.

Highly recommended.

William Sleator’s young adult sci-fi and light horror books are some of my very favorite books. This one is a compelling read and casts a spell, though it is ultimately not as novel or satisfying as his other books.

Recommended.

I’ve read several of this type of young adult, sciencey novel, and I’ve found most of them clunky and simplistic. This book shares some of the common flaws: the protagonist is a once-in-a-generation scientific genius, and the scientific facts feel forced into the story. (For instance, Einstein’s theories of relativity are stretched into some pretty cringy metaphors of relative human perspective on events and feelings.)

That said, this book does have a voice, and the protagonist has more of a political activist edge than other similar books; early on, for example, she cites housing law to an irresponsible cop in order to get him to release a squatter.

It’s nowhere near as overtly political as, say, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, but it’s part of the way there.

Recommended.

Plays

It’s difficult to describe this absurd, over-the-top play; I’m not surprised to learn it had a reading as part of something called the “Problematic Play Festival”. It’s a remarkable document to read, not just to imagine how it might be pulled off in an actual theater, but for all of Gould’s asides and aggressively challenging stage instructions. It’s hard to evaluate the end result, but it’s a theater document that pushes the boundaries of what a written play can be.

Three Fat Sisters is, among other things, an unflinching examination of the madness it takes to comply with our society’s expectations for the body. That compliance, in Gould’s telling, takes women down recursive psychological paths that not only open the door to self-destruction, but require it.

A play that bit off even a small fraction of what Gould attempts might be described as groundbreaking. By going ten times as far as that, the play loops past anything I could adequately describe. Is it a good play? I’m not sure. But it’s unforgettable.

Highly recommended.

Harris takes racial stereotypes and cultural assumptions and turns them up to 11. The result is all over the place, and it doesn’t really hold together as a single piece of theater, but it goes places I’ve never seen another piece of theater or fiction dare to go.

Highly recommended.

Photo by Jeff Busby

Similar in tone and subject to J.T. Rodgers’s Blood and Gifts, which also dealt with international relations and how they play out on a human level. This play features a translator character, and makes creative and clever theatrical use of the role of translator: sometimes the translator is bridging a communication gap, but sometimes they themselves are the the source of a communication gap, and sometimes their role is to comment on our understanding of a communication. I wished these intriguing themes were taken a little deeper and the plot were better crafted; there are a few turns of the story that don’t quite hold up to examination. But it does something with theater I haven’t seen before.

Recommended.

Nonfiction

I love the 60s throwback cover design

I dogeared dozens of pages of this collection of essays about feminism and its intersection with culture and politics. Tolentino has a deep well of reading, reflection and experience at her fingertips, which she weaves nimbly into her narrative breakdowns of complex topics. She moves lightly between personal exploration and societal exploration, and her observations seem both relatable and incisive.

Here she is on women’s self-image, in the era of social media and third-wave feminism:

Even glossy women’s magazines now model skepticism toward top-down narratives about how we should look, who and when we should marry, how we should live. But the psychological parasite of the ideal woman has evolved to survive in an ecosystem that pretends to resist her. If women start to resist an aesthetic, like the overapplication of Photoshop, the aesthetic just changes to suit us; the power of the ideal image never actually wanes. It is now easy enough to engage women’s skepticism toward ads and magazine covers, images produced by professionals. It is harder for us to suspect images produced by our peers, and nearly impossible to get us to suspect the images we produce of ourselves…

Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier. These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image.

This blew my mind, in a terrifying way, and made so much sense of what I see my daughters experiencing. There are dozens of passages like this, which I found myself rereading, finding more to chew on each time. It’s rare to find a thinker this erudite whose writing is so fluent and entertaining.

Highest recommendation.

Bruce Pandolfini

Unusually for an introductory book about chess, this book is written entirely as a conversation between a student and a teacher. The dialogue meanders, spending as much time on game-playing philosophy as on chess tactics. The teacher’s tone is warm and personable, and this makes for an enjoyable and welcoming experience, compared to other introductory books I’ve tried.

Highly recommended.

The Polgár girls with their father László in 1989. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lazlo Polgar is best known as the parent of chess grandmaster Judit Polgár (who became a grandmaster at 15 years old), and this book collects many of the puzzles he used in training his children. I’ve barely gotten 10% of the way in, but this book has already made a difference in my ability to see angles on a chess board. The puzzles are well designed, with the only caveat that it’s hard to distinguish the white queen from the black queen on a Kindle screen.

Highly recommended.

I support Jenny Odell’s project in this book in principle, but I found it unreadable. Odell rails against our culture, our technology, and our constant stimulation. But her prose feels so predictable and aimless that I immediately wanted to go check Twitter, and I kinda think that would’ve been the right move.

This book, which, in honesty, I put down pretty quickly, is a helpful reminder that the opposite of industrial junk food for the mind shouldn’t be tedium; it should be writing that works hard to be rich with provocative ideas, and editing that pares text down so its essence can be tasted.

Not recommended.

I’m not sure who took this photo; source here

Frustrating and incomplete. I’m a fan of Carrie Brownstein’s music and acting, both of which feel like they have a fierce, unabashed truth. So it’s disappointing that this book feels so poised and polite.

Of course in real life, Brownstein is a professional, and not her riot grrl stage persona; the path to music stardom has long involved bourgeois people affecting a howling desperation. But I was at least hoping to encounter a few dark nights of the soul, to see inside the band breakups, or just to commune for a bit with a fellow human condemned to inhabit a body and mind as fucked up as any other.

Instead, we get bland office-speak like “unfortunately, Karen left the band after we decided she wasn’t the right match for us”. Brownstein doesn’t want to draw blood, and I get that; it’s hard, and risky, and can undermine your personal and business relationships. But why did she want to write this book, if not to tell her stories?

Not recommended.

Photo/illustration by Imke Lass/Redux and Marc Yankus

This is a book of essays that don’t have particular urgency, but do come from an active and experienced mind. The most notable essay is one in which Dyson puts forward his contrarian argument about global warming; he thinks that the cost to our economy of reducing our fossil fuel usage is so expensive that any reduction in warming can’t possibly be worth it.

I tried to approach this with an open mind, but found Dyson’s reasoning and thinking shaky and arbitrary. He fixes his analysis on a time centuries in the future, then argues that any present money lost to fighting climate change must be compounded at an estimated interest rate, making these costs impossibly expensive centuries from now.

It’s an argument with gaping holes. First, I concede that compounding an investment or cost into the future is a useful tool; but it’s a tool with many assumptions, which apply less and less reliably as you go from the scale of years to the scale of centuries. “Historically, you can earn 6% on your money in any given year” is a helpful reference to those in stable modern economies, for specific purposes: say, planning your retirement or deciding between long term investments. But over very long periods of time, it’s meaningless. Major disruptions are unlikely in any given year, but they are extremely likely in any given century. And conversely, when measured in terms of actual human value, total wealth does not truly grow exponentially, but rather reverts to a slow, linear mean.

For example, consider an investment in the stock markets of Germany or Japan in the 1920s. Each lost immense wealth in World War II, one was partially forced into the Soviet system for decades, and then both had successful economic rebounds in the last decades of the twentieth century. In the long term, both societies were prosperous. But that doesn’t mean that individual investments were able to carry through their shocks and destitute periods; those investors in the 1920s were largely wiped out.

Now, it might still be a useful technique to apply compound investment formulas across timescales even longer than this; but you must keep in mind that this is an exercise in assumptions about history and the value of irrecoverable aspects of the world, not a neutral application of math. What is the continued existence of whales worth? What would our future society be willing to pay to have averted a world war? Could there be unexpectedly costly dynamics of worldwide migration? Of releasing deadly diseases from the tundra? How much compound interest would it take to make human extinction worthwhile? I don’t mean to overstate the easiness of the answers to these questions, or to suggest I have a more robust calculus than Dyson. But at least I’m recognizing these questions, and not sidestepping them.

Not recommended.

A collection of newspaper columns by the popular science journalist. I appreciate that Cole is trying to bring to life for a lay audience a sense of the poetry of the hard sciences. But I think too often she does that by repeating the wrong metaphors.

For instance, take the often-repeated metaphor of the universe’s cosmic background radiation for some sort of sound — the “background hum of the universe”, as Cole and other science writers have put it.

I don’t object to that metaphor, but in Kohl’s writing and in the writing of others, it seems like they jump straight to the metaphor and never talk about what that radiation actually is. Is it some sort of photon frequency? Is it some other particle? When we are told that it has no discernible direction or source, does that mean that it is coming towards the Earth from far distances in all directions, or that it is somehow ambient and local? Is the idea that it is left over from the Big Bang just a speculation, or is there some reason to believe that is true? How is that different from everything else in the universe, which of course is also left over from the Big Bang?

And these are only the questions I know enough to ask. I get the sense that there might be dozens more interesting things about the cosmic background radiation to explore; just imagine XKCD’s Randall Munroe on the topic. But instead of thought-provoking complexities, we get metaphors intended to prompt us to nothing more than vague awe. It’s sort of the “smooth jazz” of science reporting.

Not recommended.

An interesting but ultimately frustrating polemical book about education. Wexler rejects the common accusation that school involves too much rote learning. Instead, she thinks it’s just the wrong kind of rote learning; if we teach meaty topics and offer students a firm grounding in content knowledge, students will relish their growing expertise.

When school is at its worst, as Wexler sees it, it focuses on mind-numbing academic procedure: demanding that students recite names for all sorts of steps in the learning process, such as breaking article summarization down into many obligatory steps. The right kind of classroom work, instead, is firmly content-based, and allows students’ intuition to lead them in discovering how to organize and present their knowledge. In her theory, and the theory of other educators she profiles, students find content knowledge empowering, they naturally discover techniques because they’re engaged with the ideas, and they’re able to build further knowledge on top of the body of knowledge they build up.

It’s a compelling theory. But instead of focusing on advocating for the theory and figuring out how well it works, Wexler seems to have become certain before she began, and on the basis of fairly scattered evidence, she concludes that not only is her theory correct, but it’s obviously correct, to the point where anyone who disagrees is turning their back on science itself. This book does something that too many other critics of American public education do: it acts as though confidence is a substitute for cogent presentation of evidence.

Ted Dintersmith’s bestseller Most Likely to Succeed did the same thing; its analysis was so scattershot that he didn’t notice that he cited some of the same practices as both the problem and the solution. (One example: it’s both a waste of time for so many foreign language classes to make students perform skits, AND teachers should use engaging and dynamic new classroom techniques like student creation of theater.) The common thread wasn’t a clear set of values or principles that Dintersmith was putting forward; instead, the throughline was Dintersmith’s certainty that, by imagining idyllic classrooms and comparing them to the drab status quo, he had discovered the key to saving education.

Natalie Wexler suffers from the same lazy epistemological affliction. One one page, she warns that teachers much be careful not to overestimate students’ readiness to understand a text; she recounts students struggling though a text about slavery, due to the teacher’s inadequately introducing them to the concept. Fine. But on the previous page, she had complained of students being given only texts at their level, approvingly quoting a reading expert who declares that “Leveled texts lead to level lives.”

These contradictory perspectives both have merit; but Wexler never takes on the difficult work of synthesizing and resolving them. She is happy to be smug about teachers foolishly overwhelming their students with texts that go over their heads, AND smug about teachers foolishly condemning their students to grade-level texts that never disorient and challenge them. Echoing Dintersmith, Wexler doesn’t really compare content-first instruction to technique-first instruction; she compares good content-first instruction to bad technique-first instruction, and points to the goodness and badness itself as evidence.

Not recommended.

This is a “reader” book from the people behind the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Their Core Knowledge project is Natalie Wexler’s (see review above) recommended basis for grade-level curriculum; I have a fourth grader, so I checked out this book to see what it had to say to her.

In the education world, this sort of approach to curriculum is seen as conservative. I think that perception is both right and wrong. It is true that it tends to be pushed hardest by conservatives, and its proponents also have all sorts of critiques of progressive education. At the same time, I think there is nothing inherently conservative about teaching content and grounding students in a wide base of knowledge, and the best progressive teachers do a lot of this.

But while I support this approach in theory, the actual book is pretty bad. There are some sections that distill information wonderfully, such as a rundown on common sayings like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and “lightning never strikes the same place twice”. But many of its selections use language like “Sing ho!”, “And lo!”, and words like “votive”. I’m not afraid to challenge students with terms they might not be familiar with yet, but such obscure and archaic phrases seem to me to be the worst of both worlds: discouraging and useless.

The conservative tendency of the selections also means that they consistently avoid the most engaging aspects of their subjects. One poem about George Washington, for example, focuses on four ways the real George defies simplistic assumptions. But none of these touch on his enslaving Black people. Here’s someone who made history by declining to rule like a monarch over White people; and yet he happily ruled over Black people as an absolute dictator, even hunting down a teenage refugee from his autocratic rule. It’s not only that this whitewashes history; isn’t this contradiction fascinating? Doesn’t it seem watered-down to focus only on his refusing power, and stop there?

Sometimes I wonder if the authors have ever been engaging teachers. The famous hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah, they explain, “proclaims the everlasting glory of God.” That is a phrase I would never use with a child without explanation; it’s the sort of phrase people use without knowing exactly what they themselves mean. Millions of kids learn that phrase in the same way Hirsch at all are teaching it here: devoid of context and meaning.

This reliance on stock phrases and clichés is both a problem of traditionalism, and a failure of imagination. It’s not that the book never mentions that Washington was a “slaveholder”, for example. It’s that the matter is left at that; children’s imagination isn’t sparked on the subject. It wasn’t until late in my life that it occurred to me that the sort of scene I was familiar with from films about the Holocaust, where a parent has to make decisions in terror for the fate of their children, had occurred literally millions of times in my own country, among enslaved families. That, to me, is far more important knowledge than surface knowledge about Handel’s Messiah.

Nowhere is this failure as disappointing as in Core Knowledge’s approach to telling history. The voice of Hirsch’s history writing appears calibrated to keep students from seeing the past with fresh eyes. It makes history seem like everyone involved was going through the paces on an inevitable ride, never unsure or surprised or heartbroken.

Take, for just one example, the Crusades, which Hirsch gives about 500 words. The Crusades should be a thrilling and terrifying subject, and bringing nine year-olds face to face with that should be an ambitious and transformative project.

But Hirsch isn’t up to any of that. What is he after? Well, he explains that caliph Saladin of Egypt was “impressed by the bravery of King Richard”, and that “Saladin had such respect for Richard the Lionhearted that, even though the Muslims won the war, he agreed not to destroy the Christians’ sacred objects and to let Christians make safe pilgrimages to Jerusalem.” This doesn’t make fourth graders wiser. It sets them up to be sheep.

It’s helpful to compare this schoolroom version of history with what you might imagine Dan Carlin, the amateur podcaster/historian, focusing on instead. Imagine the mortal horror of learning that your cousins in a nearby town have been murdered and raped, that the buildings that are sacred and familiar to you burned to the ground, and that the invaders are coming your way. Their grievance, you learn, is that some of their holy sites were destroyed many decades ago, and they see your presence in their holy land as a defilement. You are called to join your town’s militia, and you fight in hand-to-hand combat against the invaders, hacking at them with your blunt sword in ways that will haunt you for the rest of your life, seeing people you know stabbed to death beside you, finding family members missing and never knowing whether they were killed, or kidnapped, or raped. You keep the invaders out, and then weeks later you learn that your ruling class — which long ago took every last right and every last penny it could squeeze from you — has struck a deal with them, promising to take care of their holy buildings and to allow their worshipers safe passage, in return for a promise not to invade again. How difficult might it be to accept that? How much pain might you feel seeing those worshipers pass, in whose name the people you love were cut apart like butchered animals? And, how furious might you be if, centuries later, smug, self-appointed know-it-alls raised their children on a saccharine history whose lies mock the blood your family soaked the earth with?

So many of the invitations to engagement seem poorly thought out. There’s a suggestion to invite students to “compare and contrast the use of light, shadow and sharpness” in two portraits of US founding fathers. These are not especially interesting paintings. I don’t know what students are supposed to do — notice that one painting shows wrinkly fabric that has shadows in it? In another example, there’s a photograph of gargoyles atop Notre Dame Cathedral, with the suggestion that teachers ask kids “why they are looking down?” Um… because they’re high up? I find this perplexing, and I feel like it reflects a misunderstanding of what is compelling and informative in learning. My guess is that the core motivation here is to instill a reverence in kids for America’s founding fathers and for pre-modern European architecture and sculpture; the classroom prompts were probably tacked on as an afterthought.

Here’s what I wish kids were told about cathedrals: they sometimes took hundreds of years to build, which means there were people who saw them incomplete as children, learned to work on them, spent their entire lives working on them and contributed a tiny bit towards completing them, all the while knowing they would die before the work was finished. What kind of faith and devotion and commitment would that have taken? What kinds of work are like that today? What about the experience of the people who had no choice but to work on them, who were worked so hard they died young? Do you think they were ever proud of what they were building? Did they hate it? When you are inside a cathedral, what makes it feel special? Does knowing people suffered unfairly to build it affect the way you feel? Can you feel both things at the same time? Should you?

Not recommended.

Independent programmer, chatterbox. http://techno-social.com

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