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December 1st, 2016

03:38 pm - Learning poker from a fellow child of Gerald
I read and reviewed Alexander "Assassinato" Fitzgerald's new book The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can Be a Great Poker Player over at the day job.

(Scribble in the margins)

02:44 pm - A nice little story about journalism and murder
So not a lot of great stuff has been happening since the election, but a brief moment of relief arrived yesterday in the form of a brand-new shiny Shadowshaper novella from Daniel José Older, which only cost $0.99 on Kindle. I promptly cancelled my evening plans to bug out about stuff on Twitter and bought Ghost Girl in the Corner. I then had a lovely evening with Tee and Iz and three glasses of boxed wine and it was the best I’ve felt in three weeks.

Anyway, as for the novella itself: Most of the most-beloved characters from Shadowshaper are here, but the main action surrounds Tee and Izzy, with a big helping of Uncle Neville. The mischief all starts when Tee sees the ghost of a teenage girl in the basement where she’s taken over Manny’s local newspaper after he died in the last book. Tee has acquired some sort of community journalism grant and has a small crew of intrepid teenage reporters, including a white girl from Staten Island whose grandma is the creepy old lady with the creepy dolls from one of the short stories in Salsa Nocturna. There is also a dude who writes about sports, but when he’s first introduced he says “I write about esports” and I thought he meant eSports like competitive video gaming and then got all confused when he was covering local baseball games and not, like, CS:GO tournaments, but no, it’s just that Older writes out people’s accents and I am a huge fucking nerd.

Anyway, the local baseball games are important because, while Tee is trying to figure out who the ghost in the corner is and simultaneously screwing up her relationship with Izzy, one of the local teams’ star players mysteriously disappears. The cops are, predictably, zero help. The ghost girl in the corner, on the other hand, is, as are the giant printing press and Uncle Neville. How do all these things fit together? You can find out for $0.99.

While the plot is very heavy, the characters are delightful. The dialogue is witty and vivid, which will be surprising to no one who has read anything else by Older or heard him speak at a convention or reading. The social commentary is sharp and incisive—mean, yes, but insightful and hilarious with an eye for detail, like Jane Austen except about modern urban Latinx communities instead of 18th century English countryside gentry nonsense. (If you’re thinking “So not like Jane Austen at all, then,” let me know and I will gladly subject you to three hours of rambling about social satire and economics.) It's also full of fun little references to things, from Older's other work (I mentioned the creepy dolls lady above) to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  There is also a brief but very timely and satisfying instance of straight-up Nazi fighting.

Overall, it is a wonderful and much-needed morsel of awesomeness to tide people over until Shadowhouse Fall comes out.

(Scribble in the margins)

November 26th, 2016

02:11 pm - Wisdom of the olds
Somewhere in between my project to read poker strategy books in order to be better at poker and my project to read books on the history of poker and gaming so that I understand my current field better, there sat the decision to read David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker.

The Theory of Poker is older than me, although it has since been updated a few times. I have read about it in a number of the other, more recent poker-related books I’ve gone through this year. I know it was still being used widely as a resource when the poker boom kicked off fifteen years ago or so; Kenny Hallaert mentioned it when I interviewed him earlier this fall, saying it might still be useful for beginner players.

One thing that’s instantly noticeable about this book is that it was clearly written before no-limit hold’em became the game of choice for everyone and everything. While this can get a bit confusing for a reader who really only knows NLHE at all (i.e. me), it does allow Sklansky to illustrate concepts in multiple different ways in different games. Since this book is light on math (by poker book standards, at least—obviously it’s got a bunch of stuff about pot odds and basics like that) and more about how to reason through various poker plays, such a setup is fairly useful for showing how the concepts work. There’s a lot that’s explained that I would now consider to be very basic information, but I’ve also been reading beginner-level poker books pretty much all year so I suppose it’s good that some of it’s starting to sink in.

It’s not the most enjoyably written poker book I’ve read, featuring neither the goofy jokes of Phil Gordon’s little books nor the sarcastic cracks of Alexander Fitzgerald’s Myth of Poker Talent, but it’s pretty straightforward and accessible, usually erring on the side of over-explaining rather than conciseness. It’s basically a textbook.

This is also the book that introduced the awkwardly lengthy but still very important Fundamental Theorem of Poker, which I already knew about because it’s been cited in at least five other books that I’ve read this year. The Theory of Poker explains many, if not most, of the hands illustrated within it by relating it back to this fundamental theorem, ensuring that you’ll never forget it no matter how un-pithily it’s worded.

Even though so much of what’s covered in here is also covered in subsequently written poker texts, I’m still glad to have taken the time to read this book itself. How much it will help me out remains to be seen; unfortunately, this is a library copy so I probably won’t be going over it multiple times with a pencil and highlighter like I’ve been doing with some of the other poker strategy books I’ve found. (Somebody who got this book from the library before me did go over it with a pencil, but some people have, like, no manners.) But I definitely have a better sense of what everyone else is talking about when they’re talking about this book, and that’s pretty important for getting the most out of everything I read.

(Scribble in the margins)

09:40 am - Four spies and some poker terms walk into a bar
I started reading Elizabeth Bear's One-Eyed Jack: A Novel of the Promethean Age a little over a year ago, in the bathtub at Mohegan Sun.

It has taken me so long to finish the book not because it wasn't good, but because I have only read it in the bath — sometimes at casinos but also sometimes not, otherwise it would have taken me even longer, especially considering the last casino I stayed at only had a shower. My copy is now very water damaged.

Anyway. I had picked One-Eyed Jack for my casino bath reading because it's about the spirit of Las Vegas fighting to keep his city from being annexed by the spirit of Los Angeles, so it seemed topical.

There are actually two spirits (or genii) of Las Vegas: the One-Eyed Jack, who has one normal eye and one magical eye he keeps hidden under an eyepatch; and the Suicide King, otherwise known as Stewart, who seems to have a magical ability to kill himself and then resurrect again. Jackie and Stewart are boyfriends in addition to sharing the job of genius of Las Vegas. This seems like it would break a lot of workplace regulations but it looks like being a magical symbol isn’t a very well-regulated field considering all the other stuff that goes down in this book.

Jackie and Stewart eventually form a coalition with several interesting characters, including two ghosts of different John Henrys, some "media ghosts" of unnamed TV spies, and vampire Elvis (though this vampire Elvis is very different from the vampire Elvis of the Sookie Stackhouse books). The antagonists include Angel (the genius of Los Angeles, in the form of a young ingénue), a character known only as “the assassin,” a Promethean Mage, and the ghost of Bugsy Siegel.

I was a bit confused about who precisely all these people were, since I am not much up on my ‘60s TV spies — nor on my Las Vegas history, really, although I do at least know who Bugsy Siegel is. But once I got used to identifying the spies by their descriptors instead of names, it was all easy enough to follow.

The book takes place mostly in 2002, and as is usually the case, I still find it a bit jarring to realize how long ago the mid-2000s were and how much it really was a different era — it makes me feel old — but it’s impossible to miss because stuff in Vegas changes so fast that, even without ever having been there, I know a bunch of the properties mentioned in the book have since shut down and new ones opened; also, Jackie wears black leather cargo pants because he is terribly cool, and it’s become hard to remember that there was a time when cargo pants really were cool and not just a shorthand for sartorial laziness. Other bits of the book take place in 1964, because that’s when all the media ghosts come from. The time travel isn’t flashy; it just sort of happens—there’s enough ghosts in the story already that visiting the ghost of 1964 isn’t that big a deal.

Since this is a spy story I don’t want to talk too much about the plot but suffice to say that, in keeping with the general theme, it, like a game of poker, features long stretches of quietly waiting and thinking about things (I don’t believe poker is ever boring) interspersed with moments of high drama that vastly change the dynamics at the table. (Poor Angel spends the first three-quarters of the book chipping up relentlessly only to spew off her entire stack in one dumb play. Been there done that; it’s awful.) All the disparate threads and meticulously solved riddles finally come together near the end to put a fast-paced and deceptively simple end to the conspiracy.

One of the unifying principles of how magic works in this book is that it relies very heavily on symbolism and stories and beliefs, reminding me a lot of Discworld if the Discworld books were about twelve thousand percent more serious. Genre savviness is important for our heroes to figure out what is going on. Gaming-related symbolism abounds, which is fitting, because gaming-related symbolism abounds in English writing anyway, only this time it’s all looked at a lot more closely than usual.

Like the other Elizabeth Bear books I’ve read, this was pretty weird and I think I’d have to read it again to figure out some of the weird stuff I didn’t get the first time around, but I’m probably not going to because I have at least three unread Elizabeth Bear books on my shelf at the moment. I always like her stuff but it tends to end up taking me a lot longer to get through than I think it’s going to.

I recommend it to anyone who likes metafictional genre-savvy stuff. Pairs well with a Lush bath bomb, a nice hotel room, and an adult beverage.

(Scribble in the margins)

October 29th, 2016

03:51 pm - Broke-ass city chicks, London 1945 edition
Today in "books I was supposed to read for a book club but I didn't make it to book club," I just finished The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Sparks.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that it is pretty short, coming in at 175 pages. A lot of 20th-century lit is pretty short, I think, though I'm not sure why. There is probably research on it somewhere.
The last book I read was also short mid-20th-century women's literature, though a very different genre, but it was still interesting to see what struck me as stylistic similarities, although I guess it is just general mid-century writing that I'm responding to. There are few other similarities. Jackson was American and Sparks was British. Jackson wrote creepy gothic/horror and Spark's book is sort of everyday realism/slice of life, with a slightly comic touch.
The story takes place in 1945, in a boardinghouse in London called the May of Teck Club, for the titular impoverished-but-not-destitute women under thirty. The book has a very strong sense of time and place, with the war and rationing and all that sort of thing shaping everyone's everyday lives to a large degree; at the same time, much of it was very familiar to me as a broke young lady under thirty myself, and one who has lived in shared housing for the past ten years. Some of it is embarrassingly similar to things I see today in detail, such as the party with a bunch of hip young intellectuals drinking beer out of jam jars even though there's no shortage of real cups, and other bits are more painfully familiar in essence even if the details are different, like how freaking irritatingly faux-deep all the oversexed poetic young intellectual dudes are, and the poor young lady who works in publishing staying up late in her room doing freelance work to make ends meet while trying to emotionally subsist off of the vague air of glamour she gets from her peers for working in the "world of books." Shit never changes, does it.
The vignettes about the May of Teck's inhabitants are threaded together with a framing device that is a series of phone calls between the various girls, several years later, passing around the news that the central insufferable young intellectual dude of 1945 has just died in an uprising in Haiti, where he had gone as a missionary. The girl who worked in publishing has grown up to be a gossip columnist, so she is the one mostly trying to spread the news and collect information for an article.
The girls who are featured most often in the vignettes are Jane, the one who works for a shady publisher; Selina, a very beautiful girl with multiple lovers, including the intellectual dude, who she meets by climbing out the bathroom window to sleep with on the roof; and Joanna, who teaches elocution, apparently during every waking minute. There are another half-dozen or so girls who we know by name and with varying degrees of characterization, but Jane, Selina, and Joanna are the most important. At first it seems as if the book doesn't have too much in the way of plot, being mostly a series of darkly witty observations about the follies of young minds that take themselves very seriously, but it does all lead up to a rather explosive ending.
I should probably check out some of Muriel Sparks' other writing; it seems like the sort of thing I really ought to have read in college but didn't. It also makes me want beer in a jam jar, but if I went and poured myself one I'd probably just feel pretentious.

(Scribble in the margins)

October 24th, 2016

09:30 pm - No organism can survive under conditions of absolute reality
So Andrea decided to reread The Haunting of Hill House for Halloween and suggested on Twitter that this was a cool thing that all the cool kids were doing, rereading The Haunting of Hill House, because clearly it's a fun book that you want to read more than once, so I figured I should be cool too and read it for the first time, especially since I read We Have Always Lived In the Castle for the first time a few years ago and I liked that one.

The Haunting of Hill House is by Shirley Jackson (Ms. Jackson if you're nasty), author of the very famous short story The Lottery and the person the Shirley Jackson Award is given in honor of at Readercon every year. Both The Lottery and We Have Always Lived In the Castle were deeply creepy, but they still did not prepare me for the creepiness of The Haunting of Hill House, which, as you can probably guess from the title, is a haunted house story, and I am highly susceptible to haunted house stories anyway for basically the same reasons that I love wacky old houses, which is that I am an overly sensitive dork.

Even by haunted house story standards, this one is creepy because, while there is definitely something otherworldly living in Hill House, this seems to be the result of the core problem that the house itself is simply fundamentally, unreservedly evil, and has been from the moment it was built, even before it was finished being built. Its very architecture is apparently designed to psychologically torment anyone who looks at it, let alone anyone who spends time in there. It is weirdly imbued with all the psychological unhealthiness of the morbid weirdo who commissioned the thing, and it is dark and all the angles are wrong and it is buried deep in the feet of the hills and none of the doors ever stay open.

Our main characters are four people who go to stay in the house for a three-month study of paranormal phenomena; two of them are women who have experienced paranormal phenomena in the past. Our narrator is a timid, dreamy, somewhat internally spiteful oddity named Eleanor, who is thirty-two years old and reads like she’s eighteen, and I say this as someone who is both younger than thirty-two and continually feels like she’s still a teenager. Eleanor’s sense of stunted, prolonged adultulescence isn’t formed by widespread economic collapse like mine and my peers’ is; it’s instead due largely to having spent most of her adult life shut away caring for her sick and not-just-internally spiteful mother, plus an overbearing sister who treats her like a child. Eleanor basically has to steal the car and run away to get to Hill House, which is totally how functional adult families work.

When Eleanor finally arrives at Hill House, and meets Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, and the creepy-ass housekeeper and his creepy-ass wife, things go one of three ways in a series of exquisitely paced and plotted scenes: Sometimes, Hill House is just disorienting and unpleasant, with little supernatural activity and a lot of tilting minor annoyances, like things maybe moving just outside your peripheral vision, or just being oppressively dank and Victorian. Other times, the company and good food and occasional bout of nice weather mean that they actually are having quite a nice time, exploring the brook in the backyard or drinking brandy and playing parlor games, all shut up together in the parlor where they can safely keep an eye on each other. And sometimes, there are the manifestations, which are when shit gets really creepy: writing on the walls that calls out Eleanor by name, blood all over Theo’s room, banging noises and creepy laughter in the hallway. It’s all done in a way that is fantastically, exquisitely chilling, and even now thinking about it I have had to pull my legs to the side where I can see them because they felt unsafe all the way under the desk in the dark, and the heat vent is gently blowing on a wall hanging and the noise is making me jump out of my skin with every taptaptap of the wooden dowel on the wall, a noise that usually becomes quite invisible to me by the end of the first day of having the heat on.

But Hill House has plans for Eleanor, and they are not to scare her into leaving; they are much more sinister than that. And seeing Eleanor’s thought process change and morph as she goes totally Yellow Wallpaper on us is even more terrifying than any of the manifestations Hill House throws at her, except perhaps the one where she’s holding Theo’s hand in the dark while there’s a voice manifesting in the next room and then when the lights go on Theo’s too far away for it to have been her hand. Why that one scared the shit out of me the most I’m not sure; probably because it’s more deceptive than the more cinematic hauntings like the white, white trees against the black, black sky. In unrelated news, I’m going to bug the fuck out next time I try to wear my black shirt with the white tree on it, aren’t I.

Apologies to our beautiful shy cat Amaranth who tried to come in and meow at me in a rare display of friendliness while I was writing this review; I didn’t mean to jump out of my skin and shriek at you, it was just very bad timing. She’s probably going to hide from me for like a month now.

Anyway, I feel like this book certainly has earned its reputation as the scariest ghost story ever told, and I will not be reading it again anytime soon, although Andrea has threatened me with the movie. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.

(Scribble in the margins)

October 22nd, 2016

03:17 pm - Snow White and the seven other badass women
The last book that I kept on the Kindle app on my phone took me over three years to finish. Because of this, I decided the next book I kept on my phone would be shorter, so I settled on Catherynne M. Valente's novella Six-Gun Snow White.

Six-Gun Snow White did not take me nearly as long to get through, although this was less because it was shorter and more because I kept going back to read it more often. I read it in all the usual places I read on my phone--doctors' offices and on the T and at the pharmacist--but I also read it in bars and in casinos, and occasionally even at home surrounded by my fifteen hundred other books. It was that good.

Obviously from the title, it's a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. This one takes place in the Wild West, and Snow White is the half-Crow daughter of a robber baron who runs a mining corporation and a Crow woman that he basically bought and threatened into marrying him. Snow White's mother doesn't last long in captivity, and so the girl is raised by a series of well-intentioned house staff for several years and basically allowed to run wild as long as she doesn't demand her father's attention and nobody really important sees her. She learns to shoot and her father gives her a gun with ruby pearls on it, which she names Rose Red. Everything seems fine enough as far as the girl is concerned until Mr. H remarries. It is the new wife, a scion of a respectable Boston family who had some sort of scandal back East, who nicknames the girl Snow White as a racist taunt to go with the terrifying beauty regimen she imposes.

The new Mrs. H., of course, has a mirror, and this, also of course, is where stuff gets weird. This mirror doesn't talk, but it does seem to have a whole backwards alternate reality version of Mrs. H.'s life in it.

This deviation from the basic plot of Snow White isn't the most important or original thing about the novella. Valente's strengths here lie in her lyrical prose and her dreamlike world building and characterization. After establishing Snow White's character, first in isolation and then as the victim of Mrs. H., what feels like the plot of the novel really kicks off after Snow White runs away and she has to deal with all sorts of other people—we see her navigate the world of the workers in the mines, we see her best the huntsman (or in this case, "the dude," which meant something different back then than it does now), and we see her establish herself among a homestead of outlaw women, neatly obliterating the usual dynamic of being taken in by some cute wacky others because they're so nice and replacing it with a story of grim solidarity.

There is no Prince Charming in this story. Or rather, there is, but that's just the name of Snow White's horse. There is a creature called Deer Boy, who might have had a rougher time of it than Snow White even at the hands of Mrs. H.

Though the piece is relatively short, it is, like most of Valente's work, incredibly dense, and I don't mean that in a difficult-to-read law text way, I mean it as a lot of layers of meaning and connections between things that you'll miss if you don't read carefully and explores a lot of issues of class and race and gender and America and belonging and abuse and all that stuff all at once, and also it's fun to just roll around in the lovely gritty sentences and general gunslinginess. Sometimes. This book is a lot less lighthearted than The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland or even most of Speak Easy; it is extremely violent, with fairly explicit depictions of domestic, industrial, and sexual abuse. The language, even with all its metaphors and its occasional joke, doesn't obscure or romanticize any of this; it heightens it. I've seen a couple people asking if this is a children's/YA book or if it's appropriate for second graders and ahaha nope. High tolerance for the sheer unrelenting awfulness of human history is definitely a prerequisite here. For me, this is one of things I like about this as a fairy tale retelling; fairy tales had a long tradition of being gory and violent and full of torture and stuff before they got bowdlerized and Disneyfied in the twentieth century. Other people's mileage, obviously, may vary.

As for me, I enjoy violent terrible history things, and I really, really enjoy Valente's multilayered writing, even if it's way smarter than me and makes me feel like I don't have anything sufficiently intelligent to say about it.

(Scribble in the margins)

September 23rd, 2016

10:07 pm - In which poker is great and nerds are... well, nerds
I was not 100% sure I was going to like Ship It Holla Ballas.

Quite frankly, I was unsure if I was going to like it for some of the same reasons I was curious about it. I was also a teenager during the Bush years, so I'm largely of an age with the people followed. I was unhip and culturally oblivious enough to have no idea that the poker boom was happening, but I do have some memories of that time period: Namely, that it was an awful cultural wasteland full of cargo shorts and McMansions, and that teenage nerds were terrible and teenage boys were especially terrible, also LiveJournal was still a thing. I didn't really want to revisit that time. (Full disclosure: My memories of that period may be influenced by the fact that I was at the time a bored angry Goth with clinical depression.) But I was quite curious about what these other teenage nerds were doing while I was learning to read Tarot cards, a hobby I have never even tried to monetize (although perhaps I should).

I had also heard one anecdote from this book referenced a few times, I think once on the Thinking Poker podcast. It was the one where Tom Dwan dares some one to jump into a pool full of sharks for five thousand dollars. At first a teenage girl whose mother had inexplicably left her with them volunteered; then she chickened out, so one of the other dudes did it. I thought this anecdote was amusing, so I figured there might be other like it. I also did the usual "What would I have done in that situation?" line of thinking one has sometimes, where I had to come to the reluctant conclusion that, as a 16-year-old, it is likely the lizardbrain sense of self-preservation would have won and I would have also chickened out, but now that I am 28 and more mature and know the value of a dollar, I would totally jump into a pool of sharks for $5k.

Anyway. The book is not about me.

The book starts just before the poker boom really blows up and starts following a few guys who are a little bit older, by online poker standards--guys who had already completed college and were starting their professional lives, guys in their late twenties or early thirties. These guys are not really the focus of most of the book but they provide an entertaining viewpoint to get comfortable with before their scene is roundly crashed by a bunch of high school and early college kids. It's an excellent hook, presenting the dropouts who would become the Ship It Holla Ballas from an older, outside perspective before getting deeper into their backstories and viewpoints.

Most of the book does a pretty seamless job of putting the Ballas' stories in context of the perfect storm of very particular factors going on at the time, both in online poker and, on the rare occasions merited, in the rest of the world. As someone who is very interested in the sociology of nerd groups, I was especially fascinated by the roles of the 2+2 forums and the eventual formation of the "crew" in shaping not only these kids' social lives, but their sense of normality and their poker games. I actually would have liked to hear a little bit more about how the way this community pooled knowledge and built off each others' ideas advanced the strategies and understanding of how poker works and the way it's played, but probably throwing in more stuff about math and spreadsheets would have slowed the book down a bit.

While there are certainly a lot of anecdotes about crazy expensive shenanigans that are entertaining, unsurprising, and possibly thrown in to let the reader live vicariously a little and wonder if we'd be that bananas if we were that rich at that age (since face it, most of us weren't but would like to be), there are also a lot of things that were toothache-inducingly familiar to me as someone who spent a lot of time around young nerd dudes, including living with them. Like, these kids went and bought a mansion in Vegas and they... did not know how to house. At all. I have lived with people who didn't know how to house. It is viscerally awful. Also these kids once got all their shit stolen because they didn't know where the circuit breaker was or, apparently, what a circuit breaker was. (Apparently I was the only person who came of age in the 2000s whose parents made sure she knew what a circuit breaker was before leaving home.) The descriptions of the Balla mansion were like all my worst bad roommate memories on steroids. All the stupid shit about The Game and pickup artistry was also unfortunately familiar. I don't know exactly how much The Game was responsible for nearly every dude I talked to between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five being completely intolerable, but Jesus, it did not help. There is one line regarding one of the kids profiled that says "Talking to women feels like a video game whose rules he can't figure out," which is probably intended to be sympathetic and which the authors probably felt was an at least middlingly original line. That shit gave me traumatic flashbacks. Dudes who think women are video games are legion, they are almost never subtle about it, and I spent ten years being mistaken for a video game before I managed to structure my life to avoid these people; what am I doing to myself going and reading about them? It took chapters before I could give a fuck about this character again at all, and then he goes and fucks it up again at the end of the book by noting in a tone of surprise that some of the techniques he has since learned for talking to women also help him talk to people in general. Hm... I wonder what talking to women and talking to people have in common? What's the connection between "women" and "people"? Everyone knows women are the opposite of people. 'Tis truly baffling.

Casual misogyny masquerading as social awkwardness aside (not that I'm the type to put that aside, obviously), the book does an excellent job of humanizing these weirdos, and illustrating the effects of their alienation from their non-stupid-rich peers, of being very successful very young at something that doesn't necessarily have a lot of meaning or social utility, of forming a crazy tight group of friends in your teens and slowly having it dissipate as you all go your separate ways as adults, of pursuing a goal and feeling empty once you achieve it because what are you going to do with yourself now? It grounds the book a lot more than you'd think it could be grounded considering the sheer volume of vapidly humorous anecdotes about obnoxious behavior and spending money on stupid things that fill the book.

The stuff about the transition from online to live poker and the generational warfare between the storied old guard and the "these Internet kids!" was, personally, my favorite material covered in the book; generational warfare always makes for lots of drama, also, Phil Hellmuth is annoying as hell and good on Tom Dwan for calling him out. Tom Dwan may have been my favorite person in the book, probably because he came off the least bro-y and the most like a space alien.

One thing about this book that is kind of weird is that all the online players are referred to by their screennames instead of their real names, throughout the entire thing. Some of these screennames I could match with players already and some I could not; it was also fun playing Spot the Screenname I Actually Recognize when other members of the online poker community were mentioned. Another upside of this dedication to screen names is that "durrrr" is consistently spelled right throughout the entire book, which is apparently not standard among poker publications.

There are some slightly disjointed-feeling bits near the end as important things happen in and around the world of poker that our now well-established main characters aren't necessarily in the middle of, such as the sneak passage of the UIGEA, and a deep dive into the gossip and scandal of the rest of the 2+2 forum subculture. This is all very important material to understanding the rise and fall of online poker in the U.S., it's just presented in a way that includes some very sudden jumps from the World Series to Washington.

But that's my only criticism of the book; all my other criticisms are strictly about the subject matter. Ship It Holla Ballas was a fun, fast, insightful, surprisingly grounded read about a bunch of idiot boy geniuses in a very unique, bizarre time and place.

(Scribble in the margins)

September 1st, 2016

01:20 pm - THE HAMILTOME
On my mother's coffee table there is a book.

It is a beautiful, beautiful book, a perfect blending of the best of old and new book styles, with deckle-edged pages and full-color illustrations and a glorious Baskerville-esque font.

It is the Hamiltome.

More properly known as Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter's history/look behind the scenes/giant scrapbook of the making of Hamilton: An American Musical is pretty much everything an obsessed Hamilton fan could want. My mother had this thing pre-ordered almost the second it became available for pre-order. The only thing that would make it better is if it came with a pair of tickets to the show, but alas, that would probably also raise the price several thousand percent.

It contains, obviously, the full lyrics of the show, annotated with goofy good humor by the Internet's wacky uncle himself, Lin-Manuel. It also contains biographical sketches of and interviews with nearly everyone involved in the show -- cast members and producers and designers and choreographers and all the other brilliant, dedicated people who make theater magic happen.

The story it tells is pretty awesome, and it's aware of its own awesomeness, but not in a smug way. It's just full of joy and pride and nerdy LOOK AT THIS COOL THING WE DID and it's great.

I almost cried multiple times, although frankly that happens when I listen to the soundtrack too, so it's not surprising.

If you are not an obsessed Hamilton fan and want to know why everyone else has suddenly become one over the past year, this book will certainly answer that question at length! Although I do also recommend just listening to the soundtrack and letting it eat your soul.

Anyway, book and soundtrack are both recommended for any and all humans who like musical theater, history, hip-hop, weird genre mashups, strange new things, clever wordplay, displays of genius, sass, joy, laughter, crying, or any combination thereof (I am particularly fond of sass + crying), and also for people who do not like or are unfamiliar with any or all of these things, because even if you don't like it normally you'll like it here. Like, I couldn't tell hip-hop from a hole in the wall until I heard Hamilton, and it doesn't matter.

(Scribble in the margins)

August 29th, 2016

02:58 pm - "Peak Poker Performance" raises the bar for discussing your mental game
I admit I was a little bit skeptical going into Dr. Patricia Cardner's Peak Poker Performance: How to Bring Your 'A' Game to Every Session. I am literally a professional fault-finder, and the sometimes bogglingly large gap between actual science and science as it's presented in popular writing is one of my areas of especial interest. I've done time in the trenches of academic publishing, working with textbooks and journal articles in assorted social sciences, and I've done time in the trenches of the sort of content mills that are responsible for filling your social media feeds with "5 Simple Life Hacks That Will Make You 10 Times More Productive, According to Science"-type articles that tell you to take a nap at 2 p.m. in the office, like that wouldn't get most of us fired. Pop-sci self-help works are just about the only type of book I viscerally distrust.

See the rest of the review at Casino City Times.
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(Scribble in the margins)

09:06 am - The past is a different country
Hey, I managed to get a hold of this book before the book club it's for actually met! AND I read it!

L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between is an English countryside drama, not as moor-y as Thomas Hardy—more of a Jane Austen-y setting but less comedic. It follows the childlike musings and wanderings of 12-year-old public school boy Leo Colston as he spends his summer holiday at the grand old house of his classmate Marcus. Leo gets recruited as "postman" to run messages between various adult members of the estate, most notably running top-secret messages between Marcus' beautiful older sister Marian and a local farmer named Ted. Leo, with a child's love of secrets and drama and no idea what the hell is actually going on, at first enjoys the responsibility of his secret missions, but obviously everything eventually goes to hell. You can probably guess what the messages were actually about.

Considering the inside jacket flap gave away 90% of the plot, the book was still engaging and held some surprises, which I guess is what makes it Literature. The framing device is simple but executed well—old Leo finds his diary from that year; the diary has the signs of the Zodiac on it and is responsible for two motifs that carry throughout the story: Leo's obsession with the Zodiac, and his reputation—among both himself and his schoolmates—as a magician. There is also some excellent use of foreshadowing regarding the belladonna plant in the outhouse. I had guessed someone would be literally poisoned, but I suppose that would have been too melodramatic for this story.

As a coming-of-age/loss of innocence story it's about as awkward as it gets, and really paints a vivid picture of how simultaneously cynical and sheltered well-bred Victorian children were (the main story takes place in the summer of 1900, which young Leo thinks is very significant. As someone who was about 12 when 2000 happened, I can relate). Leo and his schoolmates bully the everloving shit out of each other, to the point that Leo is not only pleased with himself, but the whole frickin' school is pleased with him when it is believed he gave two other boys concussion (via black magic rather than pummelling them, but still). On the other hand, witnessing what the letters were really about gave him a monthslong illness complete with amnesia.

Leo is likable enough as a protagonist but only because he is 12 so you can't really blame him for being ignorant or making dumb choices; that is, after all, what the whole "innocence" theme really is about. And the long detailed looks into the thought processes of a clueless, slightly romantically-minded 12-year-old should be fairly relatable to anyone who was at all of a self-conscious or romantic turn of mind when they were young and clueless themselves.

The book is not long, but it does, like many Victorian novels, take something of a leisurely approach to pacing.

(Scribble in the margins)

August 23rd, 2016

04:42 pm - A lonely rock in the sea
A book club I am theoretically still in read Tove Janssen's The Summer Book, and my library copy got in the day after the book club met. Great timing, library. Anyway, I was curious about it, and it was short, so I read it.

Tove Janssen is best known for her books about the Moomins, a family of adorable little troll creatures. I was big on the Moomins when I was little. I still adore them; I bought a copy of Finn Family Moomintroll in Swedish when I was in Stockholm, which meant that at one point I had three copies of Finn Family Moomintroll.

The Summer Book is all about humans but there's a distinct similarity of style, and hints of the same sense of humor, although The Summer Book is overall much less whimsical. Janssen apparently wrote it in a period of deep grief over the death of her mother, although this is not explicitly covered at any point in the book.

The main character is a little girl called Sophia, and the other main character is her grandmother, who lives on a tiny remote island way out in the Gulf of Finland, where Sophia and her father spend their summers. The book is structured like a bunch of unrelated vignettes, so while I'm fairly certain all the stories are supposed to take place in the same summer, it's not 100% clear that that's really the case.

The book overall does not have a plot, and some of the vignettes sort of do and some of them sort of don't. I'm not usually huge on litfic that has no plot, but these are just charming and melancholy enough to pull it off. They are often sort of wild and sad and mundane all at the same time, and they illustrate a lot about being very young and about being very old, with everyone in the middle sort of off in the distance being distracted by doing things, which is probably about right. There is a blink-and-you-miss it reference to the fact that Sophia and her father are here at her grandmother's house this summer because her mother recently died, which lends some extra weight to some of the volatile conversations Sophia has with her grandmother about God and angels and other sorts of Big Questions that Sophia is too young to understand and the grandmother is too old to pretend to.

Sophia is very much a young child in all the most awkward and embarrassing and real ways that you forget about when you grow up unless any of it turns into stories that your family torments you with for years, but reading this book brings some of it back. (I'm specifically thinking of The Phase Where You Can't Handle Small Animal Death, which I used to think was just me, but apparently if it's not everybody it's at least not just me.) It's pretty annoying to read, but that is not a criticism. I haven't been old yet so I can't be embarrassed by the grandmother; I think she's pretty awesome, actually.

The book is very short, only 150 pages, and while I'm sure there are many things to be said about it, I sort of feel like if I try to say too many of them it will ruin it. It's a very quiet, subtle sort of book and I do not tend to have quiet or subtle opinions/analyses.

(Scribble in the margins)

August 13th, 2016

09:43 pm - Death and drugs and Derrida, oh my
The next book for BSpec's book club is Scarlett Thomas' The End of Mr. Y, which Lyndsay chose upon her appointment to the rotating dictatorship of book club. I'm pretty sure Lyndsay has also given me another Scarlett Thomas book out of the HMH stash, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet, because ::gestures to TBR shelves::.
The title of this book is also the title of the book that this book is about, in the tradition of many other books about books. In this one, The End of Mr. Y is a little-known 19th-century work of fiction of which there is only one known copy in the world, and which is supposedly cursed, because everyone who has ever read it has died.
Our protagonist is Ariel Manto, an English Lit Ph.D. student doing a thesis on thought experiments. She's interested in the little-known 19th century philosopher who wrote The End of Mr. Y, as is her Ph.D. supervisor, who mysteriously disappears. Some time after he disappears, Ariel finds a copy of the book in a secondhand bookshop, and finds the recipe for a tincture that can take the drinker into a sort of mind-jumping Matrix-like telepathy-land that the author of The End of Mr. Y called the Troposphere.
At first I found Ariel a very relatable protagonist in that she is an overthinking, anxiety-brained, potato-baking, financially strapped book nerd with a general interest in weird nineteenth-century stuff but a sustained tendency toward serially obsessive topic-hopping, researching her way around different subjects every month. Before she does her Ph.D. she writes a magazine article called Free Association, published monthly, which sounds like a fantasy writing assignment -- she basically takes an entire month to write each article, and just writes about whatever topic she's interested in that month. (The fact that she can subsist off of one piece of writing each month pretty much blew my suspension of disbelief to hell, even if this book was published pre- the world economy imploding and takes place outside the U.S. But it was a nice fantasy.) She gets laid more than me, but not only do all novel protagonists, I'm pretty sure most real people do as well. But as the book went on, and Ariel drifted more and more into being a sort of stock Troubled Antihero, I grew more and more annoyed with the sort of flatly gritty quality of the book's depictions of the "real" world. Ariel started to remind me of The Toast's piece "A Day in the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero," except that she was female, which ought to be a bigger subversion than this felt like -- it was still all cigarettes and colorless sex, both of which are tropes that I feel are basically cheap ways of establishing a book as A Book for Adults. Characters who have a lot of sex but are too deep or damaged or whatever to enjoy any of it are one of my pet peeves, as is deliberately writing sex scenes with no emotion to them whatsoever just to establish that the character/the author/the audience/someone somewhere, I don't know, is definitely world-weary and blase enough to know that sex happens but it's nothing to get excited about. A one-paragraph sex scene randomly inserted into another scene that you could cut out without interrupting the flow of the conversation at all is one that probably should be cut. Also, if you're going to throw a lot of pointless sex into a book just for the sake of -mundanity and realism- and stuff, I'm going to notice things like that nobody ever uses condoms and the main character doesn't seem to be on birth control of any sort, yet nobody has even a single passing thought about the possibility of pregnancy or STDs.
From that point, other stuff started to annoy me more: The MC is apparently quite poor, and much attention is paid to having little money (which I relate to), but she doesn't seem to have any of the strings that being poor usually comes with: She doesn't have a credit card, she doesn't seem to have any debt, when she abandons her apartment she doesn't seem to be worried about any kind of liability for not making the next month's rent -- she's basically poor but free in a way that being poor doesn't really allow people to be free. It gives the whole thing a sort of ungrounded quality that renders all the other kinds of details that seem to be trying to establish groundedness (i.e., the constant monitoring of how much cash she has on hand -- a set of mental calculations that I am, in fact, quite familiar with) feel like a sort of poverty-chic set dressing rather than having much urgency to them. And I'm not even going to get into how the whole Aimless Academic trope that's so popular is just wildly contrary to anything I hear coming out of academia these days. Maybe it's a British vs. US thing, maybe it's an old economy vs. new economy thing, but if Ariel Manto were at a US university in 2016 trying to do what she's doing, she'd be an adjunct professor with multiple courses to teach and $90K in student loan debt, and she'd have fought out fifty competitors tooth and nail for the position, rather than being randomly invited to do a Ph.D. at a conference and just showing up and doing it.
The other thing that messed with my suspension of disbelief is that the mystical tincture that brings people to the magical realm of the troposphere is a homeopathic remedy, which means it's almost entirely water.
There are more advanced scientific concepts tackled in the book, including lots of physics ones that I am minimally familiar with, so I cannot nitpick them. But the characters specifically talk about learning a lot of these concepts from popular science books, and in the areas of science in which I am more than minimally well-versed, the gaps between real science and popular science are a major source of interest to me. An especially interesting article I read yesterday actually did talk about this problem as it relates to theoretical physics. The result: I'm enormously, if uninformedly, skeptical of about 99% of the discussions about science in this book, and this book is in very large part discussions of science and philosophy and the nature of reality and all that. The philosophy I could also probably stand to be better versed in. But ultimately, while using simplifications, metaphors, and models can help you understand scientific concepts at a rudimentary level, having an understanding of the simple versions of scientific concepts doesn't help you solve actual problems in those fields. Ariel Manto is about as well equipped to come up with major breakthroughs in anything physics-related as I am to personally design and program a functioning digital currency system (I just did a month's research and wrote an article on bitcoin). This book definitely belongs to a subcategory of "trashy-intellectual" that I actually tend to like quite a lot -- the Outlander books have a similar "my research, let me show u it" vibe, as does the Discovery of Witches series. I am enormously susceptible to this particular brand of guilty pleasure. I found myself wanting to challenge this one a lot more than I usually do, probably because the research concepts it's splashing around in are fundamental questions about the nature of reality so it seems to be taking itself really seriously, even though it's basically just a big nerd-neurosis fantasy along the lines of Dune but for different types of nerd-neurosis. The story eventually seems to conclude that you can rewrite the universe by thinking about it sophisticatedly enough, which I think is clearly a "What am I doing with my life, what is the point of doing all this obscure research nobody cares about" academic-existential-crisis-assuaging sort of fantasy.
Which, quite frankly, I do think is a really interesting set of fears to write a wish-fulfillment story for.
And frankly, the Troposphere was fun. The general mystery with the book and the being chased by ex-CIA agents and jumping around in people's minds and through history and into being mice and cats and other people was a good dramatic fantasy romp. The excerpts of fake 19th-century writing with its ploddingly moralistic tone and creepy, tawdry circuses were delightful. Many of the secondary characters are flat-out hilarious, although I'm not sure they're intended to be. The whole thing would make a trippy as hell animated miniseries or something; or even a live-action one with maybe an exaggerated Tim Burton-y aesthetic. I would totally watch that.
I'll be interested to see what aspects of the book people seize on to talk about at book club. Since this is BSpec book club and not the sci-fi group book club, I think I can at least count on the discussion not being just three hours of How Does Time Travel Work, at least.

(Scribble in the margins)

August 8th, 2016

09:47 pm - Range combinatorics are sexy
So, despite my full knowledge that I am nowhere near ready for it, I went and read Phil Gordon's Little Gold Book: Advanced Lessons for Mastering Poker 2.0. Phil Gordon had promised me on Twitter that it would break my heart, but probably only because there is no emoji for breaking your brain.

Sometime, somewhere, back in the day—like, WAY back in the day—I actually quite liked math. Sometime before it got all abstract and it was fun actually seeing how things went together. Sometime when I was young enough that my teachers actually understood the math they were teaching me, before I hit the age where anyone who actually understood this stuff could get a higher-paying job than being a schoolteacher, and I started to not only lose interest but get sour about it, figuring a) that if my teachers didn’t need to know this stuff in order to be math teachers then I certainly couldn’t need it for anything, and b) if I can’t rely on my teachers to be able to help me with stuff I have questions about then fuck all of you I’m going to read trashy vampire novels in the corner. (You get no points for correctly guessing around what age this phase was. It was exactly what it sounds like.)

So I was a little surprised to find that a lot of the math in this book was actually enormously fun to read about. And it all stuck to involving real numbers, so I could mostly follow it! Of course, it’s easy enough to do that since Phil does all the math for you; the reader just has to see how it fits together, not do the calculations themselves. But I found myself wanting to do the calculations myself even though I am dreadfully out of practice on any math more complex than calculating a restaurant tip (I have just enough pointless pride not to use a tip calculator). Clearly I need a workbook of some sort, especially since there is always a considerable gap between when I read about a concept and when I can start recognizing it in live play, even the easy stuff. As in, I think I am just now starting to see results from the Little Green Book, and I have gone back and reread some sections of that several times, in addition to now reading two more Phil books and an Ed Miller book on top of it.

Weirdly, one of my favorite things about this book is that there are large chunks of it that I do not really need. For example, nearly a third of the book is dedicated to PLO, and I have not ever played PLO and probably won’t anytime soon, so it is good that I read it so I can understand other people a little bit more when they’re talking about PLO, but I don’t have to worry about going back and studying that part. Some of the Hold’em advice is geared toward online play, which is currently illegal in Massachusetts, but again, it’s good to know what all the HUD stats and such mean so that I can understand what other people are talking about better. This all leaves me with a much more manageable page count of things I actually need to go back and study.

I do want to master the math because I think it would be great if I could learn to like math again. I think a lot of the advice on specific plays will eventually become more useful if (hopefully, when) I “graduate” from the $0.25/$0.50 game, which is explicitly introductory, but in the meantime I certainly have plenty of work I can do to get a better grasp of exactly what is going on in that game, in terms of learning the math and hand reading and remembering odds so I don’t have to try to do actual calculations at the table (because that takes forever and also I’m bad at it) and sometimes even keeping track of how much money is in the pot besides “small pile of chips,” “medium pile of chips” or “big pile of chips.” And there absolutely are more experienced players than myself in the $0.25/$0.50 game that I will have to do a lot more work to figure out how to beat, because it’s really not hard to have more poker experience than me.

Another fun thing about this book is that we get some guest lectures from other pros, so we get a look at the learning process itself as Phil gets private lessons from “Internet Whiz Kids” like Annette Obrestad and Dan Cates. Multiple perspectives are always a plus, even though as far as strategy stuff I’ve read so far goes, I still like Phil as teacher better than anyone else. His style is very concise and approachable and, above all, friendly, which is tough because poker writing involves a lot of “lol these people are bad” and I’m like “but I’m bad too!” This book has fewer jokes than the Little Blue Book (the Blue Book was positively silly in places), but it’s still light in tone and the hand histories contain a large enough proportion of hands that Phil misplays or loses to make the reader feel like it’s OK to fuck up sometimes; see, poker is hard. And honestly, walking through mistakes is at least as instructive as walking through doing things perfectly. That said, this is still a book full of technical stuff for people who are actively working to develop a skill; it’s not something to be read for fun, even if you generally find poker interesting and possibly even if you like math more than I do. I was markedly in over my head for a lot of it, and I am highly motivated to learn this stuff as rapidly as I can because I am a deeply money-conscious person and cannot afford to be bad at poker for very long.

The book ends with a warning that if it’s later than 2013, it’s probably outdated already. Since it is, tragically, 2016, I will assume that at least parts of it are. If I ever get to a point where that matters, I am sure I’ll find something else to catch me up, but for now, I’ve got plenty of homework.

Current Mood: geekygeeky
Current Music: heavy metal Jigglypuff song

(Scribble in the margins)

August 6th, 2016

02:25 pm - An end to the saga of ravens and bees
The Raven King is, I think, the most Raven Cycle-y of the Raven Cycle books. It’s also my favorite because my copy is signed by Maggie Stiefvater herself, which is always a plus. But it’s also a really fulfilling end to the series, drawing on all the themes and motifs set up right at the beginning—Blue’s prophecy and the vision of Gansey’s death and the tomb of Glendower and all that stuff—but also introducing wacky new elements and characters right up past where you’d ordinarily think you’d be getting much new information in a story this long. Henry turns out to be pretty important, and while it seems weird to be basically adding a fourth Raven Boy a few hundred pages from the end of a four-volume series, Henry is too awesome for it to matter—as is RoboBee, Henry’s magical robotic bee that functions as something between a familiar and a James Bond spy gadget.

Much of the series thus far has dealt with uncovering family secrets, but there are still more to be discovered, and they’re pretty big ones. Ronan has the most outlandish ones, and you’d think they’d be predictable after a while but they’re somehow not—after finding out in book two that his father dreamed up his mother and in book three that he dreamed up his brother, you wouldn’t think there would be more things to find out that he accidentally dreamed up, but there are. And that’s not even getting into the business end of things. Adam is still in some sort of weird possession/communication with the spirit of Cabeswater, which was getting better for a while as he learned to listen to it, but which is not becoming a problem again as Cabewater gets infested with the demon awakened at the end of the last book, which looks like a giant-ass black hornet (because wasps and bees and stuff are a huge recurring thing in this series and if I’d known I would have insisted the bees panel talk more about it at Readercon) and seems to function a lot like Hexxus from Ferngully. Henry has… well, he has the backstory that gave him RoboBee. Gansey is dealing with all his rich dude legacy problems, plus the having died already once thing, and while this Glendower quest has taken him all over the world, it turns out the answers might lie closer to home than he suspected.

Blue may be having the worst of it, though, because they found her father and brought him home, and he’s been cowering in a broom closet avoiding Gwenllian for the whole time, and it’s kind of sad. And then there’s some stuff where Blue might be basically part tree, and it’s pretty weird, even though Blue already has a lot of experience with being weird. It’s above and beyond weird and Gansey is still going to die.

On top of that, Piper, who has graduated to becoming our main villain after murdering her husband and adopting the demon hornet, might be more knowledgeable about magic shit than her husband was, but still does not seem to really grasp the gravity of what she’s doing when she decides to sell the demon hornet to the magical-object-collecting community. Frankly, the Piper/demon alliance is not the most seamless pairing of personalities, and it’s pretty hilarious. Piper also disses Legal Sea Foods, because she is the worst. Legal is a venerable Boston institution and their food is delicious even if they are functionally a chain now.

While the plot gets darker and weirder and more and more people die and Cabeswater is unmade, the language in the book actually gets funnier and more Stiefvater-y, and somehow it works. Part of this is because there are deceptively goofy-sounding characters like Piper and Henry, who are, respectively, amusingly shallow trash and using humor as a form of camouflage/coping mechanism for all the weird shit he’s part of. But even the third-person narration has gotten even less invisible than it was at the beginning of the series, using all sorts of interesting tricks like repeated lines, words and half-words floating about with no punctuation, stream-of-consciousness description, and jokes. Also, how do you not laugh every time you see “RoboBee” written on the page, no matter how dire the situation? Especially when everything else going on is so medieval?

Overall, it does end up reminding me a bit of the Lynburn Legacy books, with a similar blend of death and jokes, and of the modern and the historical. I’d definitely put it in the “sassy Gothic” subgenre that I wish was larger because it’s basically the sweet spot of Relevant To All My Interests. I can’t wait to see what Stiefvater comes up with next.
Current Mood: caffeinated

(Scribble in the margins)

02:18 pm - More ravens and bees
I got back up to Maine to finish the Raven Cycle books! Go me!

Technically I started Blue Lily, Lily Blue the last time I was up there but I only got a few pages into it. But this time I splonked down on the porch and pretty much ripped through the whole thing. It was pretty glorious.

In this one, Blue’s mother has disappeared to go look for Blue’s father underground. Blue and the Raven Boys start sort of looking for Blue’s mother, but also looking for some entities known only as the three sleepers. One of them is the king they’re looking for, Owen Glendower. They’ve been warned that one of the sleepers must be woken and another one must not be woken; apparently, there’s no word on the third.

Of course, it’s the third one they end up actually waking first; this is Owen Glendower’s awesome and thoroughly batty witch daughter, Gwenllian. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce that. Irish I’m starting to get a hold of but Welsh is still quite beyond me.) This is possibly not even the weirdest thing going on, even though Gwenllian speaks in riddles and songs and wears multiple dresses at a time and has giant curly hair that she keeps things in and generally sounds like a cartoon character drawn up by a disgruntled Disney animator on acid. I heart her.

We meet more bad guys, including the Gray Man’s insufferable former employer, Colin Greenmantle, and his similarly insufferable wife, Piper, who—in a fun twist that I appreciated more than words can say—Colin seems to believe is his trophy wife but who actually knows more about creepy magic shit than he does and has a lot more experience dealing with it and, consequently, can command more power and get up to more nefarious things that Colin doesn’t quite understand. It’s enormously satisfying.

In other news, Gansey and Blue start secretly sort-of dating; Adam is dealing with how to interpret invasive communications from Cabeswater, with help from Persephone; Ronan is doing sketchy dream stuff at the Barns that no one seems to quite understand and that isn’t working anyway; Noah is still dead but having an increasingly bad time of it; and Gansey’s British friend Malory has found a mysterious tapestry featuring three bloody-handed ladies who all look like Blue.

Most of the magical action in this book focuses not on Cabeswater but in a cave on the property of a man named Jesse Dittley, a large farmer who speaks in all caps and only eats Spaghetti-Os. The cave carries a curse on it that results in a Dittley dying in it every couple of decades or so, otherwise the walls of the farmhouse bleed and all that other poltergeist stuff. There are actually multiple caves because there’s also one for the sleeper who must not be woken (guess what happens to that one at the end of the book), but it’s complicated figuring out where they are and how they’re all connected, because magic.

We also meet an amusing Aglionby student named Henry who does not seem very important at first, just very friendly and cheerful with big hair. He drives an electric car. He will be important later.

I’m getting some of the plotlines confused in my memory because this book does quite a large amount of setting up things that are going to explode spectacularly in the next book and I don’t always remember where one book ends and the other one begins, with the exception of the bit with the sleeper who must not be woken. But it doesn’t have that lack of tension that some books that are all setup have. Things are moving along and weaving together in complicated ways that all will probably make sense eventually and everyone is having lots of feelings and there’s some lovely register-switching going on depending on whose head we’re in at the time. Colin Greenmantle has a glib, dismissive, affectedly witty inner voice that’s simultaneously as insufferable as he is and genuinely funny to read. It’s almost painfully modern in the context of all the mythological timeless stuff going on in the rest of the series, even though it’s reminiscent of writing styles that I love when they’re on the Internet, but it does an extremely good job of characterizing Colin as a superficial type who doesn’t really understand what it is that he’s messing with. Meanwhile, the rest of the book is filled with lush, colorful prose interrupted by periodic bouts of swearing, usually from Ronan.

Ronan, by the way, is an underappreciated comic genius. Probably nobody would ever tell him that since he is angry and powerful and all dangerous and stuff, with his pet dream raven and his biker jacket and his fighty attitude and his adorable crush on Adam, but his trolling abilities are top-notch (especially regarding deployment of the murder squash song) and he can do wordplay in both English and Latin. Also, Chainsaw might be my favorite character in the whole series.

The book does end on a massive uh-oh, with a bunch of people dead and bunch of other people who were previously either lost or dead being recovered, so I can understand why fans of the series were very upset about having to wait for the next book to come out. It’s the sort of thing that’s why I waited so long to read this book in the first place, and I am glad I did, because it meant I got to jump right into The Raven King.
Current Mood: caffeinated

(Scribble in the margins)

August 1st, 2016

08:38 pm - Of cowboys and... cavemen?
Aight, buckle in, because this is going to be a long one.

I read James McManus' Positively Fifth Street a while ago and I liked it, so I picked up his more recent nonfiction book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. This one is basically just what it says on the tin, a nonfiction history of poker, with no memoir/personal essay bits. It was published in 2009, two years before Black Friday although after the passage of the UIGEA. This was also the year before I graduated college, and, though I managed to completely miss the poker boom while it was going on, it also really brought me back to that era, and not in a good way.

It's a very good book about the history of poker. But it has several flaws that all boil down to basically one major flaw that I have a lot of FEELINGS about, and that is: It hits every single shitty ubiquitous journalistic trope of that era, especially all the ones that drove me away from ever taking a single journalism course.

My specialization within my English major was something called "discourse studies," which consisted of additional genre studies (beyond the regular English requirement), some linguistics, some communications theory, some general media studies/media literacy stuff, and a bunch of creative writing courses. I took four creative writing courses because you needed to take four creative-writing-or-journalism courses, and my goal was to learn to write. Journalism, I figured, was clearly where you went to learn how to not write, at least if literally anything I was seeing in published newspapers or magazines was any indication.

In fact, the Death of Journalism was something I was (and am) enormously and morbidly fascinated by, the abysmal state of science journalism doubly so. The issues with the economics of news media and the collapse of advertising revenue were certainly fascinating, because I'm always interested in follow-the-money type stuff, but I'm also interested in the specific questionable themes and storylines we see over and over again in supposedly nonfiction works. The more I dug around finding criticisms of the bite-size, easily palatable oversimplifications and shallow framing I was seeing so frequently, the more I thought that the mainstream media functioned at least as much as a form of cultural mythmaking as it did a source of information -- it did the same work as fairy tales and Bible stories do for children and religious people, but for the adult, secular chattering classes. (I still think this, only more so.)

While some of this is slowly getting better and much of it is not, my college years were the absolute height of the neuro-nonsense/neuro-babble craze, which finally started seeing some well-deserved backlash around 2013 or so, although Slate puts the seeds of the backlash as far back as 2008. Suspiciously neat'n'tidy evolutionary narratives are, unfortunately, still going strong, although they're less omnipresent than they used to be (I have not had a dude try to hit on me using one in several years, at least, thank Jesus), and some of the recurring myths are starting to see some more pushback when they do crop up than they used to (exhibit A being the "women talk 3x as much as men" stat, thoroughly debunked several years ago at LanguageLog). I think this has less to do with the lazy allure of "we're just like that, nothing to be done lalala" wearing off or people becoming more informed than it does with the implications of the world economy imploding and society fraying at the seams -- much of the mainstream media's sciencey pep rallying has gone the full self-help route, promising that your brain and body has infinite power to change and adapt to anything at all so there can never be any sorts of real problems on the outside, like in society or with the economy or anything, it's ALL YOU, you have the POWER to CHANGE and just WILL yourself out of any sort of human limits or reactions to things by DOING YOGA AND EATING MORE KALE, etc. etc. The endless adaptability narrative (individual adaptability, of course) is what better enables cultural inertia right now, and so is getting more page space.

But around 2009? Dubious evo-psych wasn't just being used for its always-in-demand purpose of excusing men's shitty behavior. It was being used for literally fucking everything about every goddamn topic imaginable. There was shitty evo-psych about why people voted Republican or Democrat. There was shitty evo-psych about shopping malls. There was shitty evo-psych about intelligence and binge drinking. There was even some shitty evo-psych about introversion and extroversion, as played out by some highly specific type of goldfish or something, in Susan Caine's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.

And, apparently, unbeknownst to me at the time, there was shitty evo-psych about poker. And about some other things that McManus somehow managed to co-opt into being about poker.

Unfortunately, the worst stuff is front-loaded right at the beginning, which is why it took me so long to get into this damn book. He's determined to tell the whole story, not only all the way through chronologically right from the beginning, but all the way through chronologically from several millennia before the beginning. Playing cards don't get invented until Chapter 3.

Chapter 1 is mostly American mythmaking, with some anecdotes about various Presidents mashed up with some very sciencey-sounding stuff about the traits of immigrants being passed along in Americans' DNA, as if it were an either scientific or historical fact that Americans are all descended from voluntary immigrants and that's why we're so ~special~. While the erasure of the Native American population is pretty par for the course in most treatments of American history, it's slightly more surprising in publications about American gambling; in addition, the country's substantial black population came here almost entirely unvoluntarily; in further addition, quite a lot of the white people who came over when we were still colonies were shipped over as prisoners. McManus cites a figure of 2% (doesn't cite it from any study that I can find) for emigrating populations; this surprised me, since McManus is Irish and the Irish have, rather famously, been forced to emigrate in numbers up to ten times that -- and even in those cases, emigration was often "assisted." This whole section seems to come from a single book that's supposedly largely a cultural analysis, but which I will apparently now have to go read and dig into the sources used in order to figure out if it manages to square any of these circles.

A good fisking of Chapter 2 could provide the basis for a semester-long course on everything wrong with modern journalism. In my review of Positively Fifth Street, I said parenthetically that "Regrettably, this leads him down the tiresome evo psych path more than once, but as far as evo psych explanations for stuff go it could be a lot worse." Well, this book is the lot worse that it could be. I will spare you the full deconstruction, especially since I'd want to irrefutably source everything, and I didn't hold on to as many of the social science textbooks I worked on at Pearson as I should have. But suffice to say that this chapter contains a lot of stuff about the behaviors of prehistoric man (just man) that bears very little resemblance to anything I read in any of the anthropology, archaeology, psychology, history, biology, communications, or child development textbooks I edited at Pearson, or any of the scientific journal articles and studies I had to pore through when research-assistanting a university-level psych class on "Evolution, Culture, and the Mind." Behaviors of prehistoric women in this chapter were limited to a claim suggesting that women wore makeup and jewelry while men didn't -- findings straight out of the Flintstones Academy of Prehistoric Anthropology. I laughed so hard I dropped the book, and I didn't pick it up again for two weeks. I also recommend skipping this chapter if you're not in the mood to hear about how the entirety of human existence depends solely on unchecked male aggression, rather than it being a major threat to everyone's existence when not carefully controlled and mitigated by actual fucking prosocial behavior. (I think I got to this part on the same day that story broke about a dude stabbing a lady on the train in Chicago for turning him down, so I had approximately negative patience for "men are aggressive to attract the ladies" type bullshit. Maybe it's badass that you can kick the shit out of a woolly mammoth or whatever, but only if I'm ENTIRELY CERTAIN THAT YOU WILL ONLY EVER KICK THE SHIT OUT OF THE MAMMOTH AND NOT ME.) Like... for fuck's sake, dude. Poker requires aggression in betting, sure, but behaviorally it requires sitting at a table with a bunch of fellow humans for several hours. And the sooner poker players realize this and make acting like it as much of a requirement for being considered "good at" poker as knowing how to size their raises properly, the sooner they can stop whining about how hard it is to attract new players to sit at tables with them for several hours.

The book starts to get better once we move into actual history and there's actual on-topic material to address, such as the invention of playing cards and the development of early gambling games. This stuff is much more interesting, although the previous two chapters have certainly done quite a bit to damage McManus' credibility for anything where he doesn't show all his work. Many of the times and places discussed are areas of history where I have much less of grounding in than I do in problems with mainstream science journalism and the methodological weaknesses of self-serving evolutionary narratives, so I'm not armed with much in the way of how to determine if it's right or wrong.

The actual poker stuff -- which, to be fair, is like 80% of the book, and certainly the most important 80% -- I tended to find credible. McManus's approach to poker history/mythology is basically the opposite of his approach to all the tangential subjects he tries to tie it to: When it comes to old poker anecdotes, biographical information of legendary gamblers, famous poker hands of history, etc., he goes out of his way to demythologize it, often interviewing multiple subjects or visiting multiple primary sources, carefully examining the trustworthiness of each of them and putting them in context of the journalistic standards and reliability at the tame, making sure the audience knows when and where something could have been exaggerated for effect and what factors make it how likely that a given account is total bollocks or not -- you know, proper history study stuff. It's exhaustively researched and sourced. Names, dates, prizes, buy-in amounts -- all the poker data is there and accounted for. He clearly loves the subject of poker and wants to do as right by it as humanly possible, even if it means up giving up believing in some really fun tall tales. We're given some very detailed looks into the minutiae of what seems like every bracelet event ever played at the World Series. Careful attention is given to not forgetting the respected, talented players who came in second, third, and otherwise not-first in major events, who tend to be forgotten about in the usual poker lore of big winners. The demythologizing of actual, nuts-and-bolts poker history is so thorough and careful that it occasionally borders on dry.

I'll still take it over the re-mythologizing of everything else in order to create neat and simple buttresses for the central thesis of the book, which is that poker explains basically everything about American and world history and humanity and life itself. (There's even an additional cringeworthy chapter specifically about poker and sex, buried deep in the final third of the book, just when I'd managed to forget about all the shitty evo psych from earlier.) Poker is indeed incredibly multifaceted, so it's really weirdly easy to tie it to quite a large number of things, and as I've started studying it more I've also found myself conceptualizing of more and more regular, everyday stuff in poker terms. (I'll be interested to see if any of the things I learn from playing poker will noticeably affect my behavior or thinking in other areas of life -- if it'll improve my short-term memory, my long-atrophied mental math skills, my comfort with making decisions quickly, my assertiveness, all that stuff the strategy books say are transferable skills.) But because poker genuinely is so tie-in-with-able for so many things, it's somehow just extra annoying when someone seems to be overdoing it. And while it's a hallmark of nearly every nonfiction book published in the 21st century to dedicate at least the concluding chapter to expanding the reach of the subject until it encompasses the entirety of the human experiment (I'm looking at you, The Ghost Map), this book actually lacks a Theory of Everything last chapter, because the Theory of Everything bit is visited and revisited so many times throughout the text. In a unique twist, the book actually ends on a fairly limited, concrete call to action to do something about the UIGEA because it's terrible, and the observation that poker is very popular and will probably keep existing.

Anyway, 80% of this review has been about the 20% of the book I had a problem with, so here are some really fun things from the 80% of the book I liked:
--A long and colorful accounting of all the popular ways of CHEATING AT CARDS ON STEAMBOATS which is just as delightful as it sounds
--Many many presidential anecdotes for many many presidents
--A history of poker strategy literature, starting all the way back at the "how to cheat" primers with grossly long names that were popular long before the ones about non-cheating strategy
--Dr. Jerome Cardplayer
--A meticulous accounting of some absurdly rich dude's quest to bust a crew of the best limit Hold'em players in the world through sheer variance by basically hammering them with his bankroll
--Entirely too much stuff about the WSOP, considering he wrote a whole other book about it
--A decent amount of content about women poker players, although obviously not as much as I would have liked because there have not historically been as many women in poker as I would have liked, and there still aren't, but the ones who are there are totally badass and awesome
--Some funky stuff about AI and game theory, most of which involves interviewing actual scientists about actual scientific research!
--BATTLE STORIES about the Civil War, told using the word "bluff" a lot and therefore totally definitely actually about poker
--Adorable misspelled epigraphs culled from online poker forums/poker room chatboxes, complete with emojis and lots of all caps

All in all, this is a truly wonderful 300-page book, plus some crap that inflates it to a 425-page book. I would have gotten through the 300-page book in less than a week if that was all that was there to read. It's still a very valuable resource in my poker education, though, and it was indeed high time I read it.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 21st, 2016

04:55 pm - A thing I had forgotten I was reading
I just finished reading Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day, by Ferdinand Gregorovius.

I was reading this book, more or less, for a very, very long time.

I started reading it on Kindle back during one of the summers I was working at Pearson, picking it up after finishing Rafael Sabatini's The Life of Cesare Borgia because Ellen and I were in a Big The Borgias phase at the time. At some point I opened it on the Kindle app on my phone and it became The Book I Was Reading On My Phone, you know, the one I read when a) I don't have another book or e-reader on me and b) I'm not doing other stuff on my phone like checking Twitter or playing Sudoku. In other words... basically never. Hence the multi-year delay in finishing it.

This biography was first published in 1904 and presumably written several years before that, since 1904 appears to be after the author's death. It's very 19th century in style in that it has not learned to ape the trappings of objectivity, and the author regularly opines at great length about who is virtuous and who is dastardly, and rages against other historians whom he believes have come to the wrong conclusions about the various 15th/16th century Italian personages. On the upside, the book gives a pretty comprehensive look at what he could find out about Lucrezia's life and the lives of the rest of her family, and is very well sourced, quoting extensively from primary sources and illustrating exactly where there are gaps or questions of veracity in the historical record. So while it is definitely dated, it's not a bad piece of scholarly work for the time. It is, however, a little dry and hard to follow sometimes, largely due to the author's ever so proper habit of referring to people by their titles rather than their given names much of the time, and many nobles of the era went through a lot of different titles over the course of their lives.

The author is enormously pro-Lucrezia and unfortunately I think that's sort of boring? Like, evil scheming incest murderess Lucrezia is much more INTERESTING than gracious pious family lady Lucrezia who has been the innocent victim of slander because of her power-hungry relatives. There's fortunately some solid information on the machinations of said power-hungry relatives to keep things interesting, though.

Overall this was an interesting enough curiosity but if you want to actually learn about the Borgias there are many much more recent and probably more easily readable books available. I should check some of them out one of these days. And if you just want to be entertained, the ridiculous Showtime show is very fun (and has a very attractive cast).

(Scribble in the margins)

July 17th, 2016

07:36 pm - Zelda Fair and Frankie Key play poker with the devil
Catherynne M. Valente was the Guest of Honor at this year's Readercon, so, although I was trying to be frugal, I just had to get one of her books -- signed, preferably. I've only read two of her other novels and a few short stories, but that's enough to know that she's an absolutely genius storyteller. Her work varies pretty widely in tone and theme, but it's always dense with allusions and myth and the prose is so gorgeous and vivid it makes you want to read it out loud to somebody.

Speak Easy jumped out at me because of its gorgeous cover, which I know you shouldn't judge a book by, but sometimes I do a bit anyway, because that's how book marketing is supposed to work. The Roaring Twenties party vibe is pretty evident right from the get-go, with the font and the art style depicting a short-haired lady smoking a cigarette in front of a pelican what looks like a busy scene of other partying folk, all framed inside a fancy keyhole like the reader is spying on them. It's a pretty perfect representation of the story inside, which is a lushly written novella about the folks living in the magical Hotel Artemesia, loosely adapted from the fairy tale about the twelve dancing princesses (and also referencing it several times), providing a fictional backstory to the tragic marriage of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Our main character is the mysterious Zelda Fair, who came to New York to find out what she is good at, and while everyone else thinks she's perfectly excellent at being Zelda, she's not contented with that. Nearly everyone else at the Hotel Artemesia has a role, sometimes many of them, and Zelda's so far seems to be to turn heads and show up at parties and try a different job every week until she finds the right one. She lives in an apartment in the hotel with three other girls: a dancer, a theater critic, and a costume seamstress. Several of the men in the hotel fancy they're going to marry her, and they're all wrong, at least right up until the end.

Much of this book is an ode to partying -- to dancing and drinking and dressing up and doing outrageous things and meeting outrageous people, and generally to the power of letting loose and having a good time. But it's not shallow at all, and it's not so much that beneath all the dancing on tables and wearing shiny dresses there runs a desire to be seen and to be loved and to create and to be good at things, but that it's all intimately bound up with it. Zelda has some pretty important things to say about the joys of talking when she's sitting around in a silver dress in a bathtub full of gin, eavesdropping on the other partygoers. And Frankie Key ruins the last party in "Canada" (spoiler: it's not Canada) the same way he ruins Zelda's life: by being grasping and entitled and ruining what he loves by holding onto it so hard it breaks, because he's controlling like that even though he seemed so nice at the beginning, just wanting to be good at something just like everyone else did, but he couldn't leave well enough alone when he finally descended into the wintery underground forever-party that belonged to the master of the Hotel Artemesia, a cheerfully awful godlike type of being called, among other things, Al.

The plot seems to get off to a slow and vague start, with a fairly large cast of characters for such a tiny book, but by the time the whole web of drives and desires and attempts at escapism all come together at the end of the story in a deadly, supernatural poker game, it turns out it was all being set up right at the beginning.

I did not know when I picked up this book that the climactic event of the story was going to be a poker game, since I actually read this to take a break from just reading poker books all year, but I was pretty delighted. The game is called Cretaceous Hold'em, which is pretty hilarious to me, and from what I can tell of the gameplay it does seem to be probably a version of five-card draw rather than a hold'em-style game, but that's Al for you. They don't play with chips, instead betting trinkets and personal items that represent bits of their lives. Frankie essentially wins Zelda in the poker game when he wins all her stuff, including her creativity, because in real life F. Scott Fitzgerald basically stole a bunch of Zelda's writing to use in his own novels and then locked her up in a sanatorium.

I do think the absolute best thing about this book is the language, by turns sumptuous and hilarious, and often both. My favorite line in the whole thing is when Frankie is described as not having "the smooth God gave a porcupine," which is something that I will probably find myself using to insult actual people sooner or later. Basically the whole book is like that. If you don't like paying a lot of attention to the actual words on the page you'll probably despise the book, but if you like to roll around in ridiculous '20s slang and steal new ways to insult people from writers smarter and more creative than yourself, like I do, then it's just about the best thing you could read.

The book cost me $40 because it's a signed special edition, number 890 of a run of 1250, with a special flyleaf framing Valente's signature in a purple keyhole so that it doesn't have to go on the title page like when a regular book is signed. It was well worth the $40, as short as it is, because the physical book is a work of art just as much as the words inside.

My only criticism is that it feels vaguely wrong to read it without an adult beverage in hand, and I really just couldn't stand to do that for several days after Readercon, because in real life partying all night leads to hangovers that make you cranky and tired and not want to touch booze again for days, or at least they're starting to with how old I'm getting. But one of these days I'll probably read it again and I'll make sure I have champagne this time, and maybe somebody to read it aloud to.

(Scribble in the margins)

10:40 am - moar poker bookses
I picked up Ed Miller's Getting Started in Hold'em at a gorgeous secondhand bookstore in Harrisburg. Pros: It was dirt cheap. Cons: It was published in 2005, very shortly after the poker boom really kicked off, when everyone was throwing money around and few people had figured out what they were doing yet, so it's possibly kind of dated, and if I knew enough about poker strategy to really be able to evaluate what's still applicable and what's not, I wouldn't be reading books with "getting started" in the title.

But I bought it anyway, for a few reasons. One is that I seem to be doing an entire literature review of poker writing this year, so I figured it'd be interesting to compare/contrast to Phil Gordon's books and to the articles that cross my feeds and to whatever else I'm reading. Also I know Miller has written many more recent books, so I figured if I liked the approach/style in this books that should give me a better idea of if it would be worth my time to seek out and read the more recent ones.

The book starts off with an assurance that "Don't worry! Most of the people you play against will be bad!" which is basically the opposite of what you hear now, which is lamentations that even people who have never sat down in a cardroom before will have read all the books already (can confirm: Have never sat down in a cardroom; plan on reading all the books first. Why wouldn't I?). It also assures the reader that anyone who is "reasonably intelligent" can become a breakeven player pretty quickly, a statement I believe is designed to be soothing but which his basically going to just make me judge myself when I don't pick up stuff as fast as I'd like to, a thing that is already happening (probably at least partly because I am reading 10-year-old books instead of noodling around with Flopzilla like you're apparently supposed to in 2016). I'm also not an enormous fan of the setup (apparently pretty common in more general, beginner-level poker books) of teaching limit strategy and then teaching how to adjust it for no-limit; I've only ever played no-limit so information on limit is probably just going to confuse me and take up precious brainspace that I need for learning to play the games I'm actually in.

On the upside, the book is quite short, clocking in just shy of 200 pages; is written in a clear, concise, and very easy-to-follow manner; suggests concrete, actionable strategies complete with refreshingly simple charts and text callout boxes; and does contain a lot of less stressfully optimistic expectation-setting advice about dealing with variance, developing hand-reading ability (short version: you'll be bad at this for quite a while), and common psychological traps players fall into. There are some places where it diverged pretty sharply from the advice I've been reading elsewhere -- mainly in its suggestion that beginner no-limit players deliberately play short-stacked -- but overall I think it makes sense considering the focus of the book, which is not to teach about what the pros are doing to win the World Series, but instead to get a beginner onto a more-or-less functional TAG strategy as soon as possible so that they don't go broke while learning the game in more complexity.

The big question in any instructional reading is: Did it work? Was it helpful? Poker being poker, by the time I review something I feel like it's always too soon to tell. Getting multiple perspectives and strategy advice from different authors I feel can only help me, since it forces me to think about the material in different ways, and sometimes having concepts explained differently can make them easier for me to grasp. I did reread the no-limit cash game section in the park on Friday shortly before my women's game, and I did make money that night, but this is probably more due to my running decently well and not starting the evening off massively on tilt like I have for some of the past few weeks than it is to remembering anything much of what I'd read that afternoon. But I liked the style, and I'll probably try to scrounge up copies of the more recent and/or advanced books by this author sometime this year.

(Scribble in the margins)

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