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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)

July 12th, 2016

08:03 pm - A mysterious gift of the occult
Some lovely person bought me a copy of Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven's Prophecy tarot deck off my Amazon wishlist. While most decks come with a little pamphlet that fits inside the card box, with a bare-bones explanation of each card -- usually one sentence or less -- this deck comes with a proper instruction book, although the result is that the box does not really fit the deck of cards. I'll need to find something to wrap them in.

The instruction book is called Illuminating the Prophecy and it's shorter than my main Tarot instructional book, but it's still more than enough to get a beginner started, and it's an excellent supplement to other materials. Stiefvater explains the artistic choices she's made for this deck in particular, which makes it easier to remember the card meanings when using it to do readings, It's also a very good explanation of tarot in general, so it should be useful to use for other decks, if you have other decks that come with useless tiny pamphlets like most of them. Each card is given a couple of keywords, then a page or two of explanation on how it fits into the greater patterns in the deck, what it can mean in different parts of a reading, how Stiefvater feels about the card personally, and anything else that she deems highly relevant. The personal stuff is quite useful--tarot readings are very personal and how one person reads something might not quite fit in the same way with how someone else reads it, based on a reader or querent's life/personality/relationship to the concepts represented by the card. The booklet also has much of Stiefvater's characteristic voice, if not quite as nutty as the one she uses on Tumblr, so it is quite entertaining as well as informative.

I've started entering some of the notes from this book into my own tarot notebook, which is a jumble of things I've learned from different sources but overall draws heavily on Tarot Plain and Simple, which has been my main instructional for years (I lost most of the notes I had from when I first started reading tarot, so now I only use the things I remembered from back then, which was more than a dozen years ago, so that's not a huge amount and it's not nearly enough to do readings from memory with). I think I'm going to end up incorporating a lot of what Stiefvater says into the way I read; I think it's a bit more on my wavelength than some of the tone of the other book.

Overall, A+ deck, A+ instructional booklet, would occult with again. Also, the Queen of Pentacles card is so preeetty.

Current Mood: tiredtired

(Scribble in the margins)

July 11th, 2016

04:16 pm - A beach read for the poker crowd
Book: Life's a Gamble by Mike Sexton

Review is here.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 6th, 2016

12:24 pm - Eat the rich vs. eating our young
I kind of didn't want to read Disrupted.

I heard a lot about it because it takes place right around here, so it was getting a lot of press in the regional news; some of the reviews were also getting sent around a certain part of my social circle; namely, the part I developed when I worked at a hip and dysfunctional marketing tech startup in Boston. It was not HubSpot, but many of the things I was seeing in the reviews being sent to me sounded quite familiar.

I was partly curious to read it, but also sort of figured that since I'd already lived through a brief and disastrous tenure at a chic marketing startup, I figured that actually reading the book would mostly just give me unpleasant flashbacks and impede my attempts to let go of the whole thing. I am already pretty bad at letting go of grudges, so I figured I shouldn't actively sabotage myself.

Enter my mom, who, having had two children lose jobs at super trendy Boston-area startups in the space of about a year, ordered the book and read it, apparently to see if these places really are that unnavigably volatile or if her children are just stupid. Then she told me I had to read it. At this point, curiosity got the better of me and I started reading it, although I refused to actually borrow it and have it in my possession; it stayed at her place and I read it there.

My feelings on this book are mixed. Basically every shitty thing Lyons writes about HubSpot rings true to me, either from my own reading about the way the economy has gotten disastrously fucked, especially for young people; from my own lived experience working at a similar company; from stories I've heard from other people who work at similar companies (including other reports of people having a shitty time working at HubSpot; apparently they're TERRIBLE to their female web devs); and, in the latter half of the book, from dealing with and witnessing the behavior of gaslighting assholes whose main tactic is to stun you into compliance with WTF-ery so off-script from normal human behavior that you just can't figure out how to react to them.

So when it comes to strictly factual, reporter-y things, Lyons is stellar. He does a fabulous job of laying out how these "new economy" companies spin themselves as being Great Places to Work with tactics that sound good but actually screw people over — like "unlimited vacation time," which is code for "you don't bank PTO so when we let you go we don't have to pay you any banked PTO" (thank God the place I worked didn't do that one, at least), or giving people lower wages in exchange for stock options that vest in five years, when the tenure for most workers — especially lower-level ones, who are most likely to think that "stock options" sounds impressive and grown-up, and who probably don't realize that their salaries are being lowered to supposedly account for this because most industries have depressed entry-level wages ridiculously already — is half that or less, meaning that most workers will simply not receive this part of their supposed compensation. Shit's enough to make you vote for Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, Lyons seems to have a severe cognitive disconnect between the stuff he reports on and his ability to understand exactly the same things when they are going on in his immediate vicinity — or, heaven forbid, to him — and there are times when it really hurts his reporting. Much review ink has been spilled pointing out that Lyons is clearly kind of an asshole, and it is true that he is playing the Cranky Old Man Journalist role to the hilt — an archetype I personally find to be in a weird halfway territory between relatable and insufferable — but my issue with his general cranky asshattery is not really that it is unlikeable, but that it prevents him from being able to get more than surface-level observations about the general weirdness and shenanigans going on around him. In short, he styles himself as an anthropologist, but he's definitely the sort of anthropologist that is why anthropology as a discipline has so many issues and so much incomplete information. What he doesn't manage to do is go undercover, which I think would have provided a lot more insight and depth into how anyone but Dan Lyons actually feels about any of the shit that goes on in these companies.

More specifically:
—Lyons points out the lack of diversity and the labor exploitation at these companies, but mostly just seems to use these stats as a club against companies to reinforce that they suck. He doesn't demonstrate any sympathy for the people hurt by practices like insta-firing or sexual harassment, or even interview them. This is a sharp contrast to the beginning of the book where he loses his own job and spends about two chapters illustrating at great length how destabilizing and scary it is, even though he gets notice and severance and all that stuff, and tries to negotiate for things like "just" staying through the end of the year (several months away at the time). While he's happy to point out that it's mean for HubSpot to fire people on a "go to lunch and don't come back" basis, he doesn't acknowledge — even in passing — that, judging from his reaction to being given notice and severance, if this had happened to him he would probably have had an actual heart attack.
—He notices that turnover is high and people get disappeared fast and mysteriously, also notices that everyone around him is RELENTLESSLY CHEERFUL and ALL-IN all of the time, and concludes that all millennials are dumb and easily hoodwinked. Dude: Everyone whose facade of less than 100% committed Kool-Aid drinking cracked even for a moment got let go before you were able to see it. DUH.
—He doesn't really establish relationships with his colleagues, so if any of them are secretly stressed to death and miserable under their cheerful marketer faces, there's no reason to believe they'd confide in him about it. In fact, as an older celebrity hire for whom a new position was specifically created and who seemed to be wandering around a lot of the time not actually doing much, I think if I, a twentysomething young lady who hates self-important business buffoonery with a passion that makes her teeth hurt, were working there during that time, Dan Lyons would be the absolute LAST person I'd let my Obedient Capitalist Robot face slide in front of, especially considering he doesn't seem to have the social intelligence to keep his opinions to himself in a dangerous situation and put on an Obedient Capitalist Robot face of his own, meaning if he didn't rat me out deliberately I'd worry he'd do it just without thinking anything of it. And I say this as someone whose Obedient Capitalist Robot face isn't even very good to start with.
—Specifically, at one point he asks his younger colleagues if they wouldn't rather make more money than be paid in candy, and is baffled when they're all like "I like candy!" Like having some Baby Boomer with a nebulously defined job trying to goad you into complaining about your pay IN THE WORKPLACE doesn't have IT'S A TRAP written all over it in aggressively orange letters with a gif of Admiral Ackbar on it. Millennials know what Baby Boomers think of us when we indicate in any way that we would like to be compensated for our labor. If Lyons is unaware, he should go read some of the stuff put out by the legacy media companies that can't afford to employ him anymore because millennials aren't subscribing to them, and see if he can't figure out why we're not.
—He believes that everyone besides him who worked at HubSpot liked it because they have great Glassdoor reviews. I know at least one hip martech company in Boston that has specifically asked employees to leave positive ratings/reviews on Glassdoor to cancel out negative ones. If Lyons had been at all plugged into the Secretly Miserable Stressed-Out Debt-Ridden Underpaid Millennial Underground Gossip Network at HubSpot, he may have heard something similar. Learning to tap into and navigate the gossip network at my old place of employment was the single most valuable skill I learned there, although I learned it too late. Lyons, it seemed, never learned to use gossip at all. He seems unaware that he could be missing anything. Not a good investigative journalist trait, dude. Be more suspicious!
—HE'S SURPRISED HE GOT IN TROUBLE FOR A COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA THE GODDAMN SECOND TIME HE GOT IN TROUBLE FOR A COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA. And after he'd seen other people also get into giant unprofessional fights over comments on social media. Learn from your experiences! And yet he continues to be incredulous, instead of appreciating that he's the only nonexecutive in the company who would be allowed to hang around long enough to do that twice.
—Basically he complains about how ageist HubSpot is, which is entirely true, but completely fails to acknowledge the other ways in which he still really does have old white guy privilege, because he keeps getting breaks other people don't get. Like being able to negotiate a leave of absence (lol) and actually being able to get anything out of his stock options. I know this stuff is probably invisible to him because it's supposed to be a standard part of how jobs work, but it's not anymore.
—OK, so basically all my complaints boil down to one thing: I think he blows off the younger generation of workers as stupid and hoodwinked too easily and glosses over the ways the 99.9999% of us who aren't startup founders are getting screwed, because his desire to tell an entertaining fish out of water story about how full of wacky people HubSpot is is stronger than his empathy for a generation that's been comprehensively fucked over economically, and certainly a hell of a lot stronger than his curiosity. Most of the people I know who have been struggling through workplaces like this are not dumb. I know people who have been made "executives" at content farms who are 100% aware the moment they get the job that a) they are not ready for this, b) the company is using the prevalence of internships and contract work in the "gig economy" to make themselves look good for giving people salaries at all even when they're abysmally low, c) calling someone an "executive" or "manager" is a shitty way to make them work an additional 20 hours a week with no overtime pay like they're a fuckin' lawyer or something, and d) we'll be called lazy and entitled and told to work harder and make better decisions if we point out that we can't live in the rapidly gentrifying cities where the jobs are and pay the student loan bills racked up from getting the degrees the jobs require on the wages the jobs are paying. WE DON'T LIKE WORKING FOR SHIT WAGES AND WE'RE NOT DOING IT DELIBERATELY TO UNDERCUT BABY BOOMERS. WE DON'T HAVE A FUCKING CHOICE. There's too many of us, too many of us are college-educated, we have mortgage-size debts to pay off even if we don't have houses and families, and so much former entry-level work has been downgraded to usually-unpaid "internships" that we can't afford to not take any job we can find that pays us in actual money at all — even if we're only being paid partly in money and the rest is in stocks we'll never cash out, or salt and beer like we're in the fucking first-century Roman Army. Oh, and if we ever turned down a job just because it was laughably underpaid, five million pseudoCalvinist Baby Boomers with pensions 'n' shit would immediately materialize to lecture us on how awfully full of ourselves and lazy we are and that we should be grateful we could get a job at all and not think we're too good for it. Hey, wait, no — we don't even have to turn down the laughably underpaid jobs for that to happen! But basically, if Baby Boomers are worried that their jobs are being threatened because companies can hire 22-year-olds for a third of the salary they'd have to pay real adults, they may also wish to STFU about how enormously entitled 22-year-olds are that they think they deserve a whole third of a salary. Please see how these two things are related and stop calling us dumb.

Obviously, there are only so many things you can cover in one book, and Lyons' focus here was on how colorfully strange HubSpot is and on the shortsighted, jargon-riddled fuckery of the startup bubble, rather than the younger generation's lack of economic opportunity. But if someone's getting overpaid, someone else is getting underpaid — and I think the underpaid deserve a little more real compassion than just being used as a rhetorical device against the overpaid. Also, full confession: Baby Boomers whining about millennials like we fucked ourselves over is something that got on my last goddamn nerve several years ago; I am well out of nerves and even the slightest hint of it will turn me into a giant angry class warfare rage monster.

For a calmer and more rational takedown than mine of the irresponsible, victim-blaming ways the media covers the idiosyncrasies of millennial lifestyles and economic habits, please see Sarah Kendzior's excellent piece on Quartz this week: http://qz.com/720456/the-myth-of-millennial-entitlement-was-created-to-hide-their-parents-mistakes/

I got less angry near the end when the story refocused away from "observing" the rest of the company and making assumptions about them and onto the process of Lyons getting what in the business world I guess is called "managed out," in this case, the process by which it happened is, in the mental health, sociology and social justice worlds, called "gaslighting." Trotsky's calculatedly incomprehensible behavior is probably unfamiliar to anyone who has so far escaped being in the line of fire of similar emotional abuse, but from my weird addiction to reading advice columns, I don't think it's as uncommon as we'd all hope it would be. Some people just regularly operate in extreme bad faith. This part of the book also reawakened my sympathy for Lyons because nobody, nobody deserves to be deliberately blocked from getting shit done at work, especially not by the people whose job it is to enable you to get shit done. This is the opposite of the point of work and it is truly, truly baffling to deal with, especially in places that talk a big talk about rewarding people who TAKE INITIATIVE and DO THEIR OWN THING but if they personally don't like you they will permanently back-burner any idea you try to run past your superiors and dress you the fuck DOWN for subordination if you try to do anything without running it past your superiors. People and places that operate solely on vague buzzwords do it because they don't want you to have anything to fight for yourself with. It's all too common, but its still inexcusable, and Lyons documents it all clearly, thoroughly, and with the same sense of disbelief/naivete that irritated me so much during the rest of the book, except here it comes off more as a type of innocence that it's sad to see destroyed.

Honestly, the scariest, most effective, and most dramatic part of the whole book is the afterword, which covers the scandal surrounding the firing of two HubSpot executives for what, as far as anyone's been able to figure out, appear to be attempts to procure a copy of the manuscript for Disrupted via hacking and possibly extortion. This is the kind of stuff that really illustrates why the self-important cowboy culture of startups — the deliberately ill-defined rules, the cults of personality, the might-makes-right (or more often, money-makes-right) sense of entitlement, the unshakable belief that if you can get away with something, it must be a moral good for you to get away with it — aren't just irritating quirks of individual douchebros with too much money, they are problems. They allow morally bankrupt people with delusions of technosainthood to seriously fuck with the rest of us honest dumbasses who got suckered into trying to work for a living.

In short: Eat the rich.

Anyway, things end fairly well for Lyons, as he goes on to be a writer for Silicon Valley, which is better than being jerked around in a culty martech startup in New England, and if the people at HubSpot legitimately don't understand that then maybe they are even weirder than the people in other culty martech startups. Things ended OK for me, too, in case you were wondering; I got a job at a newsroom in an industry that might have the least social utility of any sector of journalism ever, but I am OK with that, since I am also allowed to make jokes and they are even letting me occasionally do journalism-ing instead of just editing (I'm still probably getting paid like a third of what Lyons was making as a journalist, though, so we can't put that one entirely on startups). Lyons is right that journalism is much much better for people with cranky senses of humor, even though I know he would probably think I am dumb because I am an overly excitable young lady with a cranky sense of humor instead of an important middle-aged guy with A Family To Support.

Anyway, I know this is (a) a long political rant and (b) about the farthest thing away from an objective book review as you can get, but I did only read the book because someone wanted to hear about it specifically through the filter of my personal experiences with a similar type of company, so that's what you're all getting (congratulations if anyone who's not my mom actually read it this far; I owe you a drink or something) (Mom, I probably owe you a drink too).

Should you read this book? This is going to depend a lot on your personal experiences. If you've worked at one of these places and have any political opinions in the directions that work should produce something useful, or companies should treat employees like humans, then maybe not; it's bad for your blood pressure. If you think that genius is directly correlated to net worth, don't bother — this book is going to challenge your assumptions, but let's face it; you're not going to want to hear it and you're going to write Lyons off as a douchebag who's just sour that he's not quite a big enough douchebag to pull off bilking other people out of millions. (Also, get back in the sea.) If you're a person who has been sheltered within traditional office environments and you are curious about how all this hip open-office-plans-and-ping-pong-tables stuff you've been hearing about works in practice (spoiler: it doesn't), then you should DEFINITELY read it. If you're a manager dealing with low employee morale and are considering trying to fix it by adding branded taps and a foosball table instead of taking another look at your training or performance evaluation processes and making sure they're not made out of holes, also read this book.

Current Mood: angryangry
Current Music: "Do You Hear the People Sing?" Les Mis

(Scribble in the margins)

June 27th, 2016

10:06 pm - More teaching the fish
After reading and enjoying Phil Gordon's Poker: The Real Deal and Little Green Book, I debated whether to pick up the Little Blue Book or wait until I felt I'd mastered the concepts in the Little Green Book better (read: at all). Eventually, I remember that it's never good when I decide to deliberately derail my own momentum at something, so I ordered the Little Blue Book while I felt like it, and picked it up and started reading it as soon as I felt like it.

I think this was a good move on my part, because the Little Blue Book doesn't really introduce many new concepts, but instead applies the ones from the last book to a bunch of hand histories roughly grouped by game type. There's probably some people for whom "entire book full of hand histories" sounds like the most boring stuff on earth, but I found that format especially engaging and useful. One thing I like about poker is that it plays like a mystery story, so each hand history and its little box of "Key Analysis" points at the end felt like reading a bunch of little poker parables with clearly identified Morals of the Story at the end. This is how we teach tiny children the basic concepts for living in a society, and it's about the level of simplicity I seem to require for learning about poker. Also, Gordon is an entertaining writer, and his hand history-short stories contain plenty of amusingly drawn characters and absurd jokes, which also makes them more memorable. I'm still going to have to reread sections multiple times if I have any hope of remembering enough specifics to be able to recall them at a table, because due to my line of work, in which the stuff-I-read to stuff-I-need-to-know ratio is wildly skewed, I seem to have trained my brain to retain astonishingly little detail of what I read.

Anyway, the book is split into sections for cash games, early in tournaments, in the middle of tournaments, late in tournaments, final tables (for the optimistic), online play, and even a section on tips for playing satellites. Obviously, it's mostly the cash game section that I'm going to be rereading until I finally absorb something, but the late-in-tournaments and final-table sections are the most thrilling reading, featuring more big-name pros and with the most tricky psychological stuff. My favorite story is the one where Phil bases his decision-making on an episode of Seinfeld for a hand against Phil Hellmuth, and does the opposite of everything he's initially inclined to do. Phil manages to both outplay and out-jackass other Phil, and it's enormously satisfying to read. (It is also never, ever going to have any utility for me as a player.)

This book does not have charts at the end -- those are in the Little Green Book and it is assumed you've got that one already -- but it does have a very nice glossary.

My only concern about this book is the same as the one I've got about the Little Green Book, which is that the game has evolved a lot since it was published. This book was released in 2006, making it a full decade old. I can tell a lot of the terms you hear these days are missing -- it doesn't discuss game theory optimization, which is currently super hip, and it talks about putting opponents on hands rather than on ranges of hands -- but I've got no way of knowing how that translates into concrete differences in the expectations you should have for opponents' behavior and how you should interpret or play back against said behavior. But I think overall the book is heavy enough on "how to think things through" over "in X situation, always make play Y" that it should still be a valuable resource.

I'm still going to run right out and buy the Little Gold Book, even though that one has "Advanced" in the subtitle and I am clearly actually not ready for advanced anything, just because at this point I really like Gordon as an author. While I'm waiting for it to get here, I'm going to go back and review some things.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 23rd, 2016

09:00 pm - Tarot cards and dreamed-up cars
Aight, so I finished The Raven Boys and then picked up The Dream Thieves immediately that same day, so I might be a tiny bit confused about what goes in which book, because they're all one ongoing story anyway.

This book picks up pretty much right after the last one leaves off. The boys and Blue are still looking for Owen Glendower, although they have made what seems to be progress in the form of the thing that happened as the climax of the previous book. But there is also something weird happening with the corpse road/ley line/whatever you want to call the band of magical energy that Glendower is supposedly buried along: it's starting to flicker in and out like an overloaded circuit.

In other news, Ronan, the fighty Irish boy with emotional issues and a pet baby raven named Chainsaw, is working on his own magical powers: He can take things out of dreams. Chainsaw he took out of a dream, although that was before he started getting the hang of doing it on purpose. Also, somebody beat up Ronan's terrible older brother. Also also, a bunch of people are searching for what they believe is an object that allows people to take stuff out of dreams. Also also also, some dbag at Aglionby named Kavinsky keeps taunting Ronan into street racing and making extremely unclever gay jokes at him. Kavinsky is possibly the most unmitigatedly terrible person out of all the terrible people in this series. His terribleness doesn't even have a point, he's just an overpowered twit.

Meanwhile, Gansey and Adam go to an awkward party at Gansey's house, because his mom is running for Congress. Adam's inability to accept charity and simultaneous desire to break into non-poor society causes problems, as usual, because Adam doesn't understand that rich and powerful people stay rich and powerful because they help each other out a lot. Favors are what people trade in when they either don't have enough money to pay for stuff in money, or when they have too much money for the money to be meaningful. TAKE THE FAVORS. YOU'LL PAY THEM BACK LATER.

Also meanwhile, Blue's mom is dating the hit man that beat up Ronan's terrible brother, and she knows he's a hit man, and it's weirdly adorable? And then the hit man has a weird sort of tragic background/redemption arc about his own terrible older brother. Dysfunctional family secrets abound.

If the first book took a nice floral meandering path to getting the story rolling, by this point, it is rolling pretty fast. The Dream Thieves has its quiet moments and its descriptive passages and its teasing bits of backstory, yes, but for the most part, things have gone and turned into HIGH-OCTANE NIGHTMARE FUEL with someone getting beaten up or murdered or chased around by scary dream monsters with beaks and claws nearly every chapter. Cars blow up. Ronan's non-terrible younger brother gets kidnapped and stuck in the trunk of a Mitsubishi (which later blows up). Probably some other stuff gets blown up too, I don't even remember. Some people die and some other people weren't even alive to start with. Gansey gets covered in bees. This isn't funny because Gansey is very allergic to bees and has already died of bees once already.

This series is quickly moving up my "Did this author write this series just for me?" list, although it is not likely to dislodge the Lynburn Legacy from the top spot. But that is OK. It might get to #2 if it keeps escalating like this. Especially if tarot cards continue to feature in it as heavily as they do.

Current Mood: geekygeeky
Current Music: neighbor's terrible barbecuing playlist

(Scribble in the margins)

June 22nd, 2016

08:43 pm - Welsh mythology and Southern Gothic
I've been waiting to read The Raven Boys for a long time.

In December of 2013 I read Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, a standalone YA fantasy about water horses on a small island in Ireland. I am pretty sure that at the end of this book there was the first-chapter preview for The Raven Boys. I think. I remember the preview itself pretty vividly, because it sounded very intriguing. There were ghosts and prophecies and creepy aunts and stuff. Then I started following Maggie Stiefvater on Twitter and Tumblr and stuff, because she's hilarious, and since the Raven Cycle is her most popular series of books, I started hearing more about it. Something about Welsh mythology. A lot of stuff about death and cars. I don't know much about cars but it sounded like the sort of demented Gothic stuff I like. I decided I needed to read it, but for a while I didn't get around to it. Then, sometimes after it was announced that the fourth and last book was coming out this year and it was also announced that there would be a Raven Cycle tarot deck designed, I decided I would wait until the last book came out, find a good chunk of time when I could really relax and do the thing properly, and try to read the whole series in one go.

Last weekend I went up to my father's cabin in the woods in Maine by the lake and for two days I sat on the porch and looked at the lake and read the Raven Cycle books. I finished the first two and got a little bit into Book 3 before I had to come back to real life. I'm hoping to get back up there sometime this summer to finish the series.

The Raven Boys is the story of a young lady named Blue, who is the only non-psychic in an all-female family of psychics. Blue can, however, amplify other people's psychic powers, so she is a pretty integral part of the family psychic business. Blue doesn't really have friends at her public school, but she actively avoids the shit out of the boys at Aglionby Academy, a private prep school for rich powerful sons of rich powerful families, where basically the entire student body is as insufferable as Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl except even more insufferable because they have cars since they are in the suburbs and not NYC, and cars amplify rich boys' the-worst-ness by a factor of at least 4.

Anyway, Blue is burdened with a prophecy that if she kisses her true love he will die, so Blue very sensibly does what any independent-minded young lady not gruelingly trained in putting up with teenage boys' bullshit would probably do anyway: She decides to forgo this whole romance thing entirely, which is a decision I approve of, but which honestly can be quite hard to do without cracking at all during one's teen years and young adulthood, if only because that is the time of one's life when one is meeting lots of new people and trying new things and going new places and generally having one's world get bigger, and it takes practice to make one's world bigger without having any boys get into it at least once or twice.

In this case, Blue ends up reluctantly making friends with a quartet of Aglionby boys who are on a quest to find and resuscitate the sleeping Welsh king Owen Glendower, and also Blue knows from a vigil she held on St. Mark's Eve that one of the boys, Gansey, is destined to die within the year. Since Blue actually saw his shade herself, it's also likely that either he's Blue's true love or that it's Blue who kills him, or, considering the prophecy, both. Since Gansey is a rich smartass who wears terrible loud polo shirts, Blue is skeptical that he could be her true love, but apparently decides to stick around helping him look for Glendower anyway, even though anyone who's ever watched a movie can see where this is going. PSA: DON'T GO ON MAGICAL QUESTS WITH PEOPLE YOU'RE TRYING TO NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH, FOR CHRISSAKE.

The other boys in this friend group are Ronan Lynch, a fighty Irish boy with massive emotional problems stemming from his father's murder and his older brother's total assholery; Adam Parrish, a non-rich scholarship kid from an abusive family who works three jobs to pay the non-scholarship-covered part of his Aglionby tuition; and Noah, who tells Gansey right at the beginning of the book that he's been dead for seven years and everyone kind of treats it like a random lame joke right up until they find Noah's body that's been rotting in the woods for seven years. Seriously, Stiefvater's ability to straight-up dump spoilers into her own books like three hundred pages in advance and have the reader totally blow them off is amazing. No wussy foreshadowing here! The line of dialogue is literally "I've been dead for seven years" and then when they find the body in the woods you're like NO WAY, WHAT A SHOCK, GANSEY MUST BE SO SURPRISED.

Also, Gansey's name is Gansey, which sounds suspiciously like geansaí, the Irish word for "sweater." Blue often measures the likelihood of Gansey dying on any given outing by whether or not he is wearing his Aglionby sweater, since his shade was wearing that when she saw it, which means he's going to die in the sweater. I am 99% sure that Maggie Stiefvater did this on purpose but now I've got to go ask her just to check. *runs to Tumblr*

While the book has many jokes and general scenes of humorous mayhem, it also doesn't fuck around with the stakes: lives are at risk; the sleepy little town of Henrietta and the prestigious stuffy halls of Aglionby Academy are sites of omnipresent violence, secrets and danger; magic is not to be casually fucked around with, even by the psychics. Every character is memorable, if only because all of them could kill you (except for Noah) but all in very different ways. The story starts off slower than is quite usual for YA, and the writing tends toward the poetic and descriptive in a way that will probably annoy a lot of people who don't like to notice the words when they're reading, but since I'm a shameless fan of a well-turned bit of description I think it builds the atmosphere well--beautiful and slow and muggy like the Virginia summer the book takes place in. In short: Excellent lakeside mood reading.

I read it in less than 24 hours. Then I immediately picked up the sequel.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 7th, 2016

10:15 pm - A book about a book, for bookish kids
For BSpec's book club this season I read Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a classic of YA fantasy that I think I read once when I was wee but didn't end up taking to. I think it was because it was a little too '80s and I didn't know things about the '80s, so I found the Manhattan setting more difficult to understand than I should have considering I grew up like an hour outside of New York City. But now I am an ADULT and I know what the Pan Am building is (mainly, that it isn't the Pan Am building anymore), so I was ready to take another stab at it.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that, like many YA/children's books from the pre-Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire era, it's decently short and quite fast-paced, which is not necessarily the case with a lot of the books I read these days. Nita, a 13-year-old girl who is consistently beat up by a bunch of her classmates, finds the titular grimoire while hiding out in a library in the very first chapter. From then things move along quite rapidly as she studies the wizardry book, makes friends with a fellow novice wizard named Kit, accidentally summons an adorable tiny white dwarf start that they name Fred who is so unendingly adorably and charming that you know immediately he's going to die (er, "blow his quanta") at the end from almost the moment he appears on the page, and sets off on a simple-seeming Quest to retrieve her space pen from where Fred accidentally ate it, which, predictably, goes all wrong.

I swear to God it's like I'd forgotten what normal adventure story pacing is like. I should take notes and apply them to my own endlessly long meandering manuscript o' doom.

Anyway, Fred is super cute, and the creepy shadow version of New York that he and Nita and Kit wind up in is deeply creepy. Things like taxis and fire hydrants and helicopters are semi-alive, and terrifying--predatory creatures that eat dogs and pigeons and other hapless actual-lifeforms. This version of the universe has no sun and is ruled by a Morgoth-like being who has stolen the MacGuffin of the story, the Book of Night with Moon, the object within which all reality is written. The two teens, being totally unprepared novice wizards and therefore more powerful than the older ones (this isn't snark; that's actually how magic works in this world--younger people have it more powerfully) have to find and retrieve the Book and bring it back to their own universe through a small tear in space-time in Grand Central Station. This involves getting chased a lot, making friends with an angry Lexus, and bartering with a senile dragon. It's all simultaneously very thrilling and very adorable.

I can definitely see why this really spoke to a lot of kids in the age range it's targeted toward, and why it seems to have had the same effects on its fandom as the Alanna books or the Wrinkle in Time series or Ella Enchanted. I'm not going to get that same level of sucked into it, probably, since my formative years have passed, but I'd definitely be interested in reading the sequels.

(Scribble in the margins)

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