Into the Drowning Deep

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Cover of Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan Maguire, writing as Mira Grant.
Image courtesy Orbit Books

So I won’t be saying anything at all about Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, except that the quality of writing on display in this book makes her childish Twitter tirade in 2017 about the awful (“awful”) job her copy editor did even more cringe-inducing.

Shoutout to Storygraph, now my preferred choice over GoodReads, for allowing me to give a full-on 0-star review.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

The cover of the UK edition of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, featuring a blue box of tissues and a glass of water against a bright yellow background.
Image courtesy Scribe

Most years I participate in an online card and gift exchange community. Starting in November or so, people post their wishlists and people send whatever cards and gifts they have the means to send. I received Maybe You Should Talk to Someone as part of this exchange (they saw it was on my GoodReads “to read” shelf), and there’s no faster way for a book to climb to the top of my reading agenda than to be either a library book or a gift. It turned out to be the kind of lighthearted easy read that works well in the post holiday blahs. Maybe it says something about me that a book about people in therapy, including parents who lose a child in car crashes and a dying cancer patient in her early 30s, feels like a “lighthearted easy read.” Gottlieb does an excellent job of conveying other people’s stories with respect and kindness, balancing the very serious and heartbreaking parts of life with the ones filled with beauty and joy.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone focuses on three areas: a few of Gottlieb’s patients, Gottlieb’s own biography, and Gottlieb’s experience as a patient when she starts seeing a therapist after a difficult breakup. Everyone will get something different out of it, of course, but for me the most interesting parts were the behind-the-scenes looks at Actually Being A Therapist, like the philosophy behind how offices are set up and how other people approach and treat their therapists.

I say “other people” because I also see a therapist, so the natural inclination is to compare how they interact with their therapist to how I interact with mine. Lots of people, it turns out, leave voicemails for their therapist between sessions? Or send emails with random “hey this is cool” links? Even Gottlieb does this with her own therapist at one point so I assume she doesn’t think this is weird.  But I find it incredibly weird—my therapist is obviously supposed to be compassionate and supportive and all of that, but it’s not her job to be a friend—but maybe I only find it weird because I’ve had exactly three sessions in as many years. (Thanks Covid!)

My only complaint about the book is that I feel like Gottlieb (or maybe more specifically, the publisher, since I don’t think authors control the marketing or the back-of-the-book blurbs) hypes up how unconventional her therapist, Wendell, is. In practice it just seems to be that he has his furniture arranged slightly differently, whereas I was expecting a therapist version of, like, Patch Adams or Dead Poets Society. But that’s not really the point of the book so it’s minor complaint that I’m willing to put aside at the end of the day. The more important thing is that this is the book that gently nudged me towards booking a long-overdue appointment with my therapist, and that will hopefully help normalize and destigmatize therapy.

Caged

I didn’t intentionally set about to read Caged for Black History Month, but I suppose that’s kind of what happened.

Cover of the play Caged by the New Jersey Prison Theater Cooperative
Image courtesy Haymarket Books

I read it in two sittings over the course of a single weekend. The play is distilled from scenes and dialogue written by 28 members of a literature course at a maximum-security prison in Newark, New Jersey. They then sifted through that material and refined it, working together to bring to the fore the story and struggles of protagonist Omar Moore, trying to protect his little brother Quan and provide for his son Zaire, until he gets put away for 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

The thing that comes to mind while organizing my thoughts about this was the small dust-up eight years ago over Cuts Through Bone, an award-winning new detective novel that caused a minor dust-up over the fact that the author, Alaric Hunt, was incarcerated, serving a life sentence for murder—in a bid to distract the police from a jewelry robbery, he set a fire that took the life of a young grad student.

Another thing that comes to mind is Annie Dookhan, the lab tech who falsified untold mountains of evidence in drug cases. The astonishing thing in all of that is the sheer volume of her fraud—how many lives have gone down a similar track as the New Jersey Prison Collective, or Omar, or any of the other characters in Caged, because of her actions?

And the final thing that comes to mind is the absolutely worthless hew and cry being raised over the ludicrous idea that people want to censor Joe Rogan. Here’s the thing: Joe Rogan gets to be a media figure and have a show and be a “voice” in “the conversation.” Even if Spotify took him off their platform he’d turn up somewhere else, like a bad fucking penny, and we’d still be stuck talking about him. He’d get to live his life as a free man (how much weed has he smoked in his life that was up until very recently not legally obtained?) and, I don’t know, write a book or go on speaking tours or whatever else. None of that is censorship.

Contrast that with how we (in the US, anyway) treat and talk about the incarcerated. I’m not trying to imply that there is a conspiracy to keep their voices out of the conversation; my point, rather, is that cultural norms mean there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. It happens of its own accord. Because most of us operate under a “just world” fallacy and because the lives of middle-class suburban Americans aren’t usually touched by the kinds of crimes, life circumstances, or bad luck that send someone to prison (and when they are, they do their best to hide it), the unexamined belief we carry for most of our lives is “people who commit crimes obviously choose to commit them, so prison is what they deserve, and as a whole they’re a subset of the population that’s not worth thinking about and that doesn’t have anything worth saying.” That’s the most powerful censorship of all—not banning someone’s ideas or burning their books, but structuring society so that everyone else forgets that some 2.2 million Americans even exist.

We’ve always been at war with Oceania.

Caged was a good play. I would love to see it performed because I would love to see the set direction as it’s described in the text. But I think the most important thing about it is how it has found a way around that internalized censor and put the voices of the incarcerated out there for public consumption, to speak directly about their experiences and life in a system that has tried to erase them.

 

The Best Books of 2021, According to GoodReads

I could have sworn that I did one of these posts for 2019 and 2020, but apparently not? I usually enjoy looking at the “My Year in Books” feature on GoodReads, but they seem to have revamped it and made it uglier so I won’t even bother including it here.

During the fiery hellscape that was 2021, I read 59 books. The most popular book I read was The Art of War and the least popular was a re-read of a Swedish civics textbook that I can assure you is very rough going.  The five-star books of the year were:

I’m excluding from the list books in an extremely selective niche that are of huge personal importance to me and are not a “public” or “objectively” 5-star book the way that these are. (Would everyone benefit from reading The Human Condition? Yes. Would everyone benefit from reading a collection of ghost stories from my hometown? Probably not, no.) I’ve included links to blog posts for books that I wrote about during the year and will provide brief nutshell reviews of the remaining six books here.

Literature

The Deep

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I didn’t care for my first tango with Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, but The Deep was as polished and needle sharp as Unkindness should have been. Genre fiction doesn’t have to use fantastical conventions as a way to externalize complex psychological elements of our lives to justify its existence as a genre qua genre, but it certainly is uniquely equipped for doing so.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

This one’s a bit of an easy title to knock out. It’s not really purely text, or available in any kind of dead tree form—my encounter with it was in a 15? 25? minute YouTube clip, captured footage of the original program being run in an emulator. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I don’t know that I can remember any concrete lines or images from Gibson’s poetry (I do recall the rather fuzzy, janky sound effect of a single gunshot), but I remember the overall effect and I appreciate the novel approach with form and media. It all felt inherently tied to the content rather than just a cheap gimmick.

A Memory Called Empire

Another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick, this time a more traditional galactic empire intrigues and high-tech tale. I think this one would pair really well with Ancillary Justice as two examinations of empire: one from relatively deep within the beating heart of empire and one from the outside.

Philosophy and Current Issues

Människans villkor

Who am I to review a Hannah Arendt book? Who is anyone to review a Hannah Arendt book? All I can say is: as the years go by, I get angrier and angrier over the fact that we never covered any of her work in my philosophy undergrad career.

Project Censored’s State of the Free Press

This collection is a nice round-up of important but overlooked journalism, sourced from university journalism programs and advised, filtered and vetted by a board of professional journalists. I consider this collection an essential part of my yearly reading.

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Another collection, this time of essays on policing and police violence. Sitting here doing my annual write up, I can remember that it was a compelling read full of new information but none of that new information specifically. This is not criticism of the collection, but rather a reflection of the fact that 1) I read it on Kindle, which doesn’t seem to ever stick in my memory, 2) much of it was (probably) grimmer information that I realized so I think my brain is kind of choosing to forget, and 3) 2021 was, as mentioned, a fiery hellscape, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was experiencing some kind of stress-induced brain fog.

Black God’s Kiss

One of the last books I finished in 2021 (a record reading year for me, though maybe not for entirely good reasons) was Black God’s Kiss, a selection for the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s January meeting.

Cover the 2007 edition of Black God's Kiss by C. L. Moore

Or, well. To be more precise, the short story “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore  was a selection for the meeting. Beyond that, we were left to our own devices to find what we could of Moore’s writing elsewhere. The Stockholm public library had Black God’s Kiss, a 2007 edition of the anthology of Moore’s “Jirel of Joiry” that Paizo first collected and published in the 80s, so I rounded out my sci-fi experience with a generous helping of fantasy.

I won’t comment too much on “Shambleau” here, because it’s not in the Black God’s Kiss collection, but you can easily find it in the Internet Archive’s fantastic collection of old pulp magazines. That said, the protagonist of “Shambleau,” Northwest Smith, appeared in several other stories by Moore, including a crossover story with Jirel of Joiry that does appear in this collection.

To provide some context, our organizers suggested C. L. Moore after doing a deep dive into the real-life pulp writers who inspired the writer characters in the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” There is widespread fan agreement (and maybe even official Word of God?) that the character Kay Eaton is a fictional analogue for Star Trek writer and producer D. C. Fontana as well as pulp writer C. L. Moore. (That said, while Eaton in the episode is instructed not to disclose her gender, there’s nothing in either Moore’s or Fontana’s biography indicating they did likewise. Moore used initials to hide her identity, but that was to hide her status as a published author from her employer, not necessarily to obfuscate her gender.) That was the first time I’d ever heard of Moore so this was undiscovered country (hah! hah!) for me, and I think most, if not all, of our book club members.

Up to this point I’d already read several short stories from the magazines in question—primarily Weird Tales, but also a few others like Astounding Stories—so I was familiar with their typical literary style. I bring this up because Moore writes in the same style and thus her stories have a certain breathless “biff! pow! socko!” quality to it that’s no longer en vogue. And like so many of these other stories, the characters are really second billing to the Weird and Astounding elements: the alien settings, the supernatural forces, the fantastic magic. Does Jirel really evolve in the way we expect characters to do today? Only very slightly, perhaps, in the title story. Do we get a glimpse into her inner life, thoughts, dreams? Not really. Does she have any defining characteristics besides “proud” and “violent”? Nope! It’s not entirely science fiction or fantasy as it’s commonly written today, but if you’re already well-read in the genre then Moore does not disappoint. The stories advance at a  breakneck pace through the weird and magical 16th century France that Moore has created, the kind featured in countless Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

The collection is entirely short stories. While the first two are tied together through their plot, and a couple of the later stories make oblique reference to the events of the first, all of the stories stand on their own and exist in a sort of self-contained vacuum. This only makes sense, when you consider their original publication over several years in various editions of various magazines, but readers going in expecting (for whatever reason) a long-form novel would be confused and possibly disappointed. Even with that understanding, it can take a moment to shift gears when you’re mostly used to reading novels, or short story anthologies where the stories are entirely disconnected in terms of plot and characters.

From a genre historical perspective, these were a lot of fun. After countless words spilled about Manly He-Man Heroes running around beating stuff up, having a Xena Warrior Princess run around and beat stuff up is a welcome change. One refreshing difference from stories we see today is that Moore never presents it as weird or unusual for Jirel to be the feudal head of Joiry or the commander of her men; no secondary character remarks on how Joiry is unnatural for being commanded by a woman, and none of the foes Jirel faces (who run the gamut from relatively mortal wizards to unearthly sorceresses to vague, abstract supernatural forces) underestimate or undervalue her because of her gender at all. Nor is Jirel simply a palette swap of Conan the Barbarian. Several of the conflicts in the stories are driven by romantically or at least sexually charged encounters rather than overt violence; Black God’s Kiss is maybe my favorite in the collection because despite being a swords-and-sorcery revenge story, the story also captures the erotic tension of competition and rivalry well.

With that all said, I’m not entirely thrilled with the cheesecake cover art of this edition of the collection. I guess boob armor and tactically inadvisable exposed skin is now a fantasy art trope, but it clashes with Jirel’s actual character. Her dress is invariably actual armor, a doeskin tunic, or some kind of fancy gown. It seems to miss the point to take a pioneering woman fantasy protagonist and give her the Heavy Metal treatment. Of course, the original cover art for “Black God’s Kiss” isn’t really a proper representation either:

Cover of Weird Tales with the text

Overall the stories were fun and compelling, and I really wish that Moore had used them to launch into a full-length novel so we could spend more than an hour or two at a time with Jirel and her world. Or, barring that, more than just six stories would have been nice. By contrast, Conan the Barbarian appeared in 18 stories published before Robert E. Howard’s death—not counting Conan-adjacent pieces and posthumously published works. Perhaps if there had been an equal volume of Jirel of Joiry stories, she’d have her own beefcake cinematic avatar to cement her place in pop culture history.

It’s not too late for that, I suppose! I nominate Ronda Rousey for the role.

Catfishing on Catnet

The bulk of my reading seems, more and more, to be taken up by the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club. I’m not complaining; merely observing. The book for November was the underwhelming and skimmable Catfishing on Catnet.

Cover of Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer.

I went in cheering for this book. The original short story, “Cat Pictures Please,” is a fun and flawless gem of a short story. The voice is pitch-perfect. The way Kritzer is able to build the lives of the people in the story through the wake of their internet activity is masterful.

The novel ruins everything by adding teenagers.

I know, I know. Insert the Simpsons meme here:

Two shots of Principal Skinner from the Simpsons. In the top he looks concerned, and the text reads,
Have I inadvertently rendered myself even MORE old and out of touch by referencing The Simpsons, a show that is no longer funny? Oh well.

Let me say what I would have wanted to see in a full-length novel before I complain about what I read. I think that will maybe serve to highlight why I disliked this book so much, if I can properly sketch out my expectations.

First and foremost, I would have preferred to spend all of my time with the AI narrator. Maybe the premise would have worn thin, but then again, maybe it wouldn’t. I also would have preferred it to not be YA. The original story featured grown-up humans, after all, and I also can’t stand YA.

On a more substantive level, I would have wanted to see a complex, philosophical and slow-burn character-driven story: maybe a coming out bildungsroman, maybe a queer romance…you get the idea. That kind of approach would have been truer to the spirit of the original story and a more interesting thing to do with the premise. Something with nuance, something with depth, something that made you work a little bit to infer what was going on off page. Off screen?

And I name queer aspects specifically because 1) that was the focus in one of the three vignettes in the original short story, and 2) because queer themes make perfect sense: the internet is where a lot of, well, everything happens these days, including awful Trans Discourse TM, and at the same time, it’s a place where trans and queer people of all ages can find support and information in a world that’s not quite ready to support them yet. An AI character is also a great means of examining social norms from oblique angles, like in the Ancillary Justice  and Murderbot series.

If Kritzer had written a book like that, it would have been amazing.  But alas, she didn’t! Instead she wrote a Wacky Spielbergian Young People Doing Scary Things adventure, where our gang of misfits all neatly check off a panoply of GLBTQ+ and racial identities in a way that feels like a white cishet writer trying to play representation Bingo.

The teenagers aren’t nearly as fun to spend time with as Alice, and I skimmed the human chapters as fast as I could without losing the plot. (Needless to say, I did not enjoy the portion of the book where Alice is taken offline.) Not only were the humans just naturally last interesting than Alice, but…

Look. I was once a weird teenager on the internet among many other weird teenagers on the Internet. Some of us did, indeed, form a tightly-knit “found family” of life-long friends. What Kritzer is attempting to capture here was basically my life from age 15 to 23, and since I know it so well, I can see all the more clearly where she failed.

The cloying syrupy sweetness between the teenagers in Catfishing doesn’t read as “genuine emotional connection” so much as “desperate fawning for approval.” The two or three mild-mannered interpersonal conflicts that arise, presumably Kritzer’s attempt to make the group dynamics more realistic, are all resolved within less than a paragraph of dialogue and thus have the exact opposite of the (presumably) intended effect. Where is the shitposting? Where is the trolling? Where are the Problematic Opinions? Where are the memes?

This failure to capture the sense of being at home on the internet is what ultimately tanked this book for me. If you’re like me and you want a thought-provoking story about how our lives, relationships and identities play out on the internet, give this one a pass. But if you want something mindless that won’t take a lot of focus or emotional investment, I suppose you could do a lot worse.

Vacation Reading

Happy spooky season, everyone! I kicked things off by renting a cabin in Falun for two weeks, where I did a lot of walking (in cemeteries, no less), a lot of reading, and a lot of sweating it out in my own private sauna. I don’t have all of my photos of the walking uploaded and cleaned up yet, and there’s not much to be said about the sauna, but I can go ahead and talk about the reading. Some of these books might be worth their own post, but for now I’ll just stick to bite-sized thoughts.

Parable of the Sower

I watched Sarah Zed’s underwhelming video on YA dystopias a week before I left, so the whole trend of YA dystopias was on my mind as I read this one. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, several years before our current glut of YA, but by industry genre standards it would be slotted as a YA dystopia if it were published today. And yet, it’s clearly a very different (and much better) beast than The Hunger Games or Divergent or whatever else tried to ride that wave. Is it fair to put Parable of the Sower in the same category as them? From a quality and content standpoint, I would say of course not. But from a book-selling standpoint, there is no difference. Consumerism is a cancer.

The History of White People

Extremely illuminating reading. My father’s side of the family came to the US around the turn of the twentieth century from villages that are in the south of current-day Poland, but there is absolutely no family lore about what it was like moving here, or about life or family back in The Old Country, or anything like that. (Making sense of the immigration documents is also a trip, just because territory was a bit up in the air at that point in time.) Painter’s research obviously can’t fill in the gaps of my own  family’s history, but it gave me a broad sense of the historical context of their arrival in America, and a rough idea of what kind of prejudice and problems they might have run up against—something I’d never really reflected on before.

Beyond my own personal takeaways from the book, the examination of the construction of “white” as a middle class signifier and its gradual expansion over the years is a valuable piece of scholarship for understanding American society as a whole.  The only downside is that The History of White People is over a decade old now, and reading a discussion of race and whiteness in 2021 that ends in a discussion of Barack Obama’s presidency rather than Donald Trump’s feels a bit…unresolved. GoodReads indicates that Painter’s most recent book is from 2018, but it’s a memoir rather than any kind of scholarly work. Hopefully she’ll put out an updated edition of The History of White People at some point.

Shards of Honor

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I don’t think anyone really enjoyed it all that much? For me, at least, there was too much romance and not enough sci-fi. Internet rumor mill pegs it as Star Trek fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off, and I believe it.

Becoming Beauvoir

An absolutely outstanding new biography of Simone de Beauvoir drawing on previously unavailable or untranslated material.

The Cyberiad

One of my philosophy professors taught a popular and engaging philosophy of the mind course, or maybe a couple variations on the idea, and one of the texts for it was The Mind’s I, an anthology that included a story from The Cyberiad. My particular iteration of the class didn’t use that book, but I browsed through a friend’s copy out of curiosity. Long story short, one of the selections I always thought was part of The Cyberiad wasn’t actually, so my introduction to Stanislaw Lem was actually Solaris.

So now I’ve finally read The Cyberiad for real. The English edition is an incredible feat of translation; it struck me as I read one of the first stories in it that one of the textbooks or more scholarly anthologies I’d read over the years had highlighted exactly this story so now I’ll have to try to do a little detective work to see what, exactly, they had to say about it.

Un hiver à Majorque

Still the same book as it was the other two times I read it this year. Unlike my previous attempt with the original French, this time I looked up every (or almost every) word I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out from context.

The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road: A Comparative Reading

I purchased The Scenarists of Europe and 1 the Road concurrently, though this was unintentional on my part. Or rather, the only intention was: “Ah yes, there are several books I’ve been meaning to buy for some time now, let’s pick them up all at once.” A third book in this same frenzy of book-buying, A City of Han, might even claim a tenuous thematic connection to the other two, but that’s only if you’re really reaching. It’s still a book I want to talk about, but more on A City of Han in another post.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I would do if I were given the infinite resources (time, money, mental stamina, ability to decipher subtext) to pursue a graduate or postgraduate degree, or heck, even just pick up another bachelor’s. I have a couple topics picked out for English literature, and one of them would be travel writing. I love it on a surface level—living vicariously through the writer in other times and places, opening yourself up to novel (hah, hah) experiences from the comfort of your couch. But as an immigrant, and as someone who’s worked abroad, I also live for the self-conscious reflection that comes with navigating cultural differences, Othering, and living between two worlds.  I don’t think that was really on my mind when I bought these books, and yet it’s a shared characteristic.

Straight up, I didn’t entirely enjoy either of them. I am, frankly, too much of an illiterate peon to fully grasp what Judge was up to in Scenarists, and novelty only carries AI-generated text so far. But something linked them in my mind, and the books began feeding off of each other.

They are both novels deeply about place. 1 the Road is literally a travelogue. The movement in Scenarists is much more oblique, and perhaps more psychological than physical, but the focus is nonetheless on locations and environments (though these environments seem to be external manifestations of interior conditions). So much so, in fact, that I would have had a hard time placing the book in its proper historical context if I didn’t have access to the back-of-the-book summary, and that I still will refrain from using the “historical fiction” tag. What if the undeniably striking Imagist* prose of Scenarists had been pressed through the banal cheesecloth of times, dates, cities, local businesses that constitute the bulk of 1 the Road?

The introduction to 1 the Road highlights the typewriter, and then later the word processor, as tools that didn’t replace writing or render it obsolete but simply helped writers do more writing by removing a lot of awful tedium. The implication is that perhaps an AI** can do the same thing. What if an AI could help you work through your writer’s block, or generate a plot to play around with? Of course, at that point we’re discussing higher-level procedures than simply collecting random input and spitting it back out in more or less semantically intelligible English. That’s where things like perspective, themes, characterization, and description come into play.

Maybe the AI writing tool of the future won’t be one that generates anything for you. Maybe instead it’ll train itself on more books than you could read in a lifetime—all the books you meant to read but never did, all the ones that people and crit partners keep comparing your work to—and highlight the differences, whether it’s as granular as sentence length or as “big picture” pacing or as abstract as characterization.

Certainly AI isn’t going to replace writers, or human writing, at least not human creative writing. (After all, the AP is already using computer-generated writing for sports coverage, among other topics.) But I feel like if you gave a writer like Judge the building blocks generated by something like the AI at work in 1 the Road it would be interesting. The banal input of date and time might have been all it took to ground Judge’s surreal writing and turn the book into something my tiny brain could more readily grasp. Judge’s deft hand at visceral and discomfiting images would have had a field day riffing on some of the weird stuff a computer trained on Beat writers spits out.

Sometimes you read a book because you like it, and sometimes you read a book because it’s good for you—the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables. The Scenarists of Europe and 1 The Road, together, constitute an experience that I didn’t particularly enjoy at the time, but that months after the fact I’m glad that I had.

*Bro I know Imagism is term usually reserved for poetry but I don’t care.

**Bro I know “AI” is a vague term that doesn’t really capture what this was and also invites popular imaginations (HAL 9000, Skynet, the Matrix) that are far from the actual truth of things (machine learning, neural networks, training sets, etc.) but I don’t care.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Right before the pandemic broke out, I stumbled my way into the neighborhood book club—loudly and awkwardly, because I’m an American and unable to stumble into anything except loudly and awkwardly. My original intent was to make sure I kept up with my Swedish reading, but more often than not any given selection will originally be in English. Their Swedish translations are of theoretical interest for me, even practical, and sometimes I read them (Dödsynden) and sometimes I don’t (The Fifth Season). This was one of the latter.

I was tempted to tag this as memoirs but chose not to, since the book is classified as fiction above all else—its (purported?) origins as a letter to Vuong’s mother notwithstanding. Since I don’t know Vuong personally and am hardly in a state to speak to the details of his personal life, taking it as fact feels presumptuous. Fiction it is.

This was an excellent book to follow The Crying Book, as their structures are rather similar. This might be another reason why I was tempted to tag On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as memoirs; it nestled into my memory alongside The Crying Book almost immediately. Vuong and Christle both favor short, brief scenes that are not necessarily in chronological order and are instead connected more by theme. Nonetheless, they both manage to keep narrative tension sustained throughout the book, so you don’t feel like you’re reading a random jumble of unrelated events. Maybe Christle was inspired by Vuong, in the end, since On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published a few months before The Crying Book. Maybe they’re in some of the same writing groups. Maybe they’ve been inspired by the same writers. Maybe it’s an artifact of being poets. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe, since both books also deal with similar subject matter, this sort of float-like-a-butterfly approach to tackling grief and too-young, too-tragic deaths.

That’s about the the only original thought I have about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It won an incredible amount of prestigious awards; I’m sure book reviewers and judges and all the rest have exhausted anything else there is to say. But that’s my thought and I’ve shared it.

Sam the Cat: Detective

When I moved to Sweden I brought a handful of my favorite children’s, middle grade, and young adult books with me. My motivation was largely nostalgic, but they ended up being useful resources when tutoring.

Sam the Cat: Detective is one that never made an appearance at a lesson. I didn’t have any really cat-obsessed students and I’m not entirely sure all of the detective and noir style elements would have been a productive challenge. In fact, I didn’t re-read it until just a couple weeks ago, when I read it out loud to my sambo over a weekend. (His new-found appreciation for audiobooks means that he also enjoys me reading out loud to him; this is hardly the first book we’ve enjoyed together like this.)

Scholastic edition of Sam the Cat: Detective

I distinctly remember loving the hell out of this book as a kid, to the point where I read it multiple times. I generally don’t get much out of re-reading books until I’ve all but forgotten them, and the same was true for me as a kid, so reading any book more than once was a rarity. What stuck in my memory was the noir-style tone, a couple essential vocabulary words (“fence,” as in a buyer of stolen goods; “cat burglar” (because of course) and very likely “dumbwaiter”) and a very chaotic showdown at the end where a cat burglar is foiled and apprehended by a dozen neighborhood cats.

It turns out adult me also loved the hell out of this book, though maybe not for all of the same reasons.

The writing is definitely a very self-aware hard-boiled detective…homage? parody?…that’s suitable for kids but in no way condescending or dumbed down. At 8 years old I wouldn’t have been conversant with Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, of course, but kids can tell when there’s very Smart Grown-Up Stuff at work (except when they can’t; at the same age I didn’t realize Get Smart was supposed to be funny) and the sense that there was Smart Grown-Up Stuff was without a doubt what a large part of the appeal was for me. There are also jokes for the grown-ups in there, for the parents who would have inevitably been reading this to their kids at bedtime, including an acrobat troupe of cats called Wang, Chang, Sturm, and Drang. And while yes, it’s definitely a play on the old Chinese circus acrobats trope, the cats don’t speak in broken English or cringe-y dialect.

The mystery isn’t bad either. An adult reading it, especially an adult who’s read at least one detective novel in their life, will probably figure out the bulk of the mystery by the time it’s done being set up, but what you lose in the obvious nature of the mystery qua mystery, you gain in appreciation for Stewart’s technical accomplishment in the whole package. The cats are able to solve the mystery faster than the cops because of their different perspective; the story logic doesn’t rely on the target demographic being children. They also have an imaginative and genuinely adorable parallel cat world, with cat celebrities (in this case, cat food commercial animal actors) and cats running businesses like detective agencies and salons, paying each other in cat food and information about humans that feed strays but also very casually making use of telephones, computers, and microwaves. Stewart and her editor also do an excellent job of succinctly explaining the more advanced or specialized vocabulary in a way that fits in smoothly with the rest of the narration, usually with a joke when possible (“Personally, I always thought a dumbwaiter was a server at the restaurant who spilled the wrong kind of soup in your lap…”) Plus, semi-colons. Hallelujah! Just because your book is for children doesn’t mean your prose needs to be dull and repetitive.

Adults who never read it in childhood might not love it the way that I did if they read it now, but that’s okay. I still love it, and that’s all that matters.