bookshelf books

The Books I Read: March – April 2020

the calculating stars mary robinette kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I had never read Mary Robinette Kowal before. I admit, I’m a little green-eyed at her. She’s one of those people that can’t seem to fail at anything they do. She’s an art director, she’s a theater producer, she’s a puppeter working with Jim Henson Productions. One day she just decides “now I’ll be a writer” and immediately gets book deals and awards and becomes president of SFWA. Meanwhile, I’m writing novel after novel, trying to get published, throwing darts in the dark hoping I word vomit out something well-written and marketable.

But I digress. This is about the book. The Calculating Stars is good. It’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” plus “Hidden Figures”, with a little “The Right Stuff”.

Basic plot: in 1950, a meteor hits the Earth. In fifty years, it’s going to cause enough climate change to bring out an ice age, so if we want humanity to survive, we better get our butts into some moon colonies. The Space Race has become less about “beating the Ruskies” and more about getting the hell out of Dodge. This means lots of problem-solving and mathematics. Which might make you think it’s like The Martian, with tons of math and physics that makes it feel like a school assignment. But it’s not.

A large part of the theme is advancing feminism in a world where we need all the smart people we can get and cutting out half of them is not a wise idea. My favorite part is that it’s not like the “Strong Female Protagonist” like Captain Marvel or Erin Brockovich or Miss Congeniality. A dame who’s got no flaws (except stubbornness) who don’t need no man. This character’s married, in a happy relationship, and they’re both working together. That’s refreshing to see.

The expected trapfalls of stories like this is present though — the chauvinistic male general who disregards anything a female says, the hotshot cowboy who thinks women can’t fly, the woman who acts as anti-thesis for feminism. Characters get a little archetype-y, but they stay likable, because it’s not just “one girl against the world”. There are helpers and hurters, and each is distinct enough. We’re talking about a single character POV with a problem that’s on a global scale. Is that a little too much to shove into one book? Maybe.

I bought in. Some people might criticize it for characters that are too much like stereotypes. Or a main character whose biggest flaw is “stage fright”. When people could die by rocket explosion, and there’s only a few years to get to the “moon colony” stage of the space program, and the tension is supposed to come from public speaking? Seems like her Big Problem is being a progressive woman in a myopic world.

It has hindsight glasses on. But that didn’t make it less enjoyable for me. Especially because, like The Martian and The Right Stuff, all the science seems right, but doesn’t get in the way of the story-telling. I’ll be reading the next in the series.

the starlit wood new fairy tales

The Starlit Wood by various authors

When they say fairy tales retold, they don’t mean “Rapunzel in middle school” or “Cinderella in cyberpunk“. This is more “crank up the maturity by adding sex, drugs, and woman abuse” type of retelling. The themes are skewed toward “men are the devil, women are helpless”. The writing is parched and lifeless and bleak. “The man put a seed in her belly. She lay there while he lay on top of her and did his thing.” And I mean literally using the terms “did his thing”.

Everything screams “I AM WOMAN” and “my character is defined by my womanhood. Whether I spread my legs and let a man on top of me or a take a lover (male or female because love should be free) or I’m a woman in a man’s role. I scream womanness and I have no point beyond that but to be a woman and exist in relationship to men.”

I get that lots of fairy tales are about women suffering due to the actions of men. But when you’re revamping those tales for current sensibilities, they don’t all have to turn it on the same head. Viewing everything from the same lens is dull. Plus it makes everyone unlikable. And I certainly don’t want to read about it over and over.

Especially the female authors. They treat their stories like they’re an artsy short film–all experimental and pretentious. Some of them call it “playing with form”. I call it choosing form over function. Construct over content. Should a collection of short stories really be your experimental ground?

Oh, and two of the stories are of the “set in a world from another story I wrote” variety, and I HATE that. Making your short story as if it’s an advertisement for your other book series. No wonder short stories fell out of favor.

john hodgman medallion status

Medallion Status by John Hodgman

I guess you have to like John Hodgman a lot to appreciate it. And I don’t know why anyone would. He’s not very funny. He’s not very popular. He hasn’t lived through any great tragedies or demonstrated expertise with the written word.

From the book, it sounds like his job is being a celebrity. But a celebrity of what, you don’t know. Like Kathy Griffin or Kim Kardashian. And it’s not even a big celebrity, more like vice-vice-vice-celebrity. And the essays in this book prove that. They’re not even funny, they’re just… diverting. Agreeable.

But not fulfilling because there’s no conflict or drama here. You either get peeved at him because of his elevated status (e.g. his quest to be in the most prestigious Delta Sky Club) or tedious musings on Disneyland (celebrities are just like us!).

High concentrations of meh.

the odd 1s out

The Odd 1s Out: How to Be Cool and Other Things I Definitely Learned from Growing Up by James Rallison

Just watch his YouTube channel. It’s the same content — 75% of the essays/stories are just regurgitated, almost if not fully verbatim, from his videos. And those have the benefit of animation and comedic timing. Even one of the chapter titles still has the words “not clickbait”.

david sedaris calypso

Calypso by David Sedaris

I had never read anything by David Sedaris before, but I had heard him on This American Life several times. He has a distinct monotone that makes him a character just through his voice. And his stories always seemed interesting and funny. So before the apocalypse closed all the libraries, I grabbed this.

Like John Hodgman, he’s a celebrity, but no one knows what he’s a celebrity for. Being a writer, I guess? Like Dave Barry or Lewis Grizzard? But when the essays you produce are mostly about yourself, can you really call that fameworthy? Seems a little narcissistic to me. But I digress.

My biggest beef is that the essays sound super judgemental. Hypocritical of me to complain about someone else being judgy, I know. I like judging. But judgement should be rendered with the right criteria, and for the right reasons. Not petty superficial ones that damn a region or race instead of individual behavior.

His writings have a background of disdain for America. He’s very into criticizing anything that’s not European or his beach house in North Carolina. Except for when those towns and states fund his lecture tour.

He has a dark streak that’s hard to describe. He’s like a George Carlin that’s too lazy to get off the couch. There’s no vitriol or irony, but the same disdain for poor language, travel, and stupid people. In one chapter, he gives an iPad to a sick kid in the hospital. But in another, he makes it his mission to feed his exsected tumor to a wild turtle for… reasons? He even went to extra effort to have a black market medical procedure done for this purpose. There’s something about a character who would take the trouble to do that that makes me ill.

I wish one of his other collections has been at the library that day, like Me Talk Pretty One Day. This book, his latest, sounds he’s taken the turn of old age, losing hope and gaining cynicism.

beat the band don calame

Beat the Band by Don Calame

This is a direct sequel to the first, except this one takes the POV of the group’s Stifler.

There’s a reason that Stifler is a secondary character in the American Pie series and not one of the main four/three. You can only take him in small doses. As comic relief, he’s not supposed to learn anything or grow. The Stifler in American Pie is the Stifler in American Wedding (I didn’t see American Reunion). He’s the trickster, the shapeshifter. He challenges the status quo. He’s the foul-mouthed friend with the crazy schemes. He’s a little bit the enemy — how far will he drag his friends down to pursue his own self-interests?

And you’re going to make a novel about him?

I almost quit in the beginning. Cooper is chauvinistic in a way that doesn’t mesh with 2020 culture. He’s the same character as the last book–obsessed with who’s cool and who’s not. Staring at boobs. Making constant sex jokes and double entendres. Wanting to get with the hotties and naught with the notties. Trying to prove he’s a macho man, almost to the point where he’s a bully. Spending more time and effort avoiding work than actually doing the work. And wanting to bone everything in sight, even if that’s not how teenagers are.


It gets better. The big conflict is that, for his Health class project, he’s paired with a “persona non grata” girl. All he’s worried about is how this will affect his reputation and how to either get out of it or do as little work as possible. And as you’d expect, Coop’s journey is him learning to see women as people instead of weird objects indicative of status and pleasure. And that there are more important things than how you are seen by other people. And I guess I’m a sucker for that kind of story, as that was a common trope in during my teen years (e.g. The Outsiders, She’s All That, American Pie 2, Carrie, Harry Potter). If you can get used to the constant sex references, there’s a decent story in here–a romance and a comedy.

Most times when I read a sequel, I usually don’t have much to say. My oft-repeated tagline is “If you’ve read the first one you’ve probably already decided whether or not you’ll read the second one.” But in this case they’re different books. The first has a butt-monkey as the main character and this one stars the “jerk with a heart of gold”. You don’t need to read the first one, but why not? They’re both good books.

the dutch house ann patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Okay, so first, this is a damn ugly cover.

Second, this is not my typical fare. I read this because my wife was reading it for book club, and I really didn’t have anything new. I had finished everything I picked up from the library for quarantine and all my “to read” books were still on hold at the library. She couldn’t stop talking about how much she hated the last book (Judy Blundell’s The High Season), so I decided to join her this time so I could sympathize and relate. That’s what good husbands do, you know.

Second, my copy had a stupid little “ReadWithJenna” sticker on it and I had to look up what that was. Apparently, the Jenna is Jenna Bush. As in former president George W. Bush’s daughter. Apparently, she’s trying to copy Oprah with talk shows and media correspondence, even down to the book club. I’ll tell you, anything recommended by something that sprang from dubya’s loins already has a strike against it. I don’t need to be told what books to read by someone who’s half-Kathie Lee Gifford and half-political darling. Plus the last time I read a book with a book club sticker, it was “Wild”.

The beginning feels erratic. You don’t get a sense of what the book is going to be about. It’s stream-of-consciousnessy, jumping from one thing to another. My writing advice says that, by the first chapter, you should know what the story is about, but I didn’t feel that way by chapter two or three. It was just setting and exposition. Nothing was happening. Nothing was giving me something to make me say “Boy, I can’t wait to read the next chapter of The Dutch House“. And that’s kind of how the whole thing is.

I mean, it’s well-written and it tells a good narrative, so you get a good book. It’s like oatmeal. Mild and bland. No surprises. No innovations. No risks.

The main conflict comes from what I call “rich white asshole problems”, and these are common in post-modern literature, especially the ones I don’t usually finish or like (examples: Final Girls by Riley Sager, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Dawkins). These two baby boomer kids live a huge old mansion in New England. Their father, although emotionally stunted, is still there and a rich real estate mogul. But they’re mostly raised by two housekeeper/cooks. Then the father marries a shrew and they get two stepsiblings. When the dad suddenly dies, she kicks the kids out and keeps the house and money. What do the kids do? They sit in a car outside the Dutch House and smoke cigarettes and grouse. Then they find out they get a trust fund, but only for education. So the older sister “gets revenge” by making the brother go to medical school and draining the trust from the shrew’s kids. But while attending free medical school, the brother is buying buildings because he wants to become a New York real estate handler like his father.

And you see how it’s hard to relate or sympathize with these characters when you’re a grocery store manager living paycheck to paycheck in 2020 and you just saw an off-duty cop shoot your neighbor for jogging while black and it gets no news coverage.

But I still give it three stars, and this is where I need to explain my rating system. When I think of how to rate a book out of five, I think “Okay, pretend you’re going to a desert island. But you can bring as many books as you want. Would this be one of those books?” If so, I always rate it three stars or above. If not, it should be two or one.

My first instinct was to give it two stars, because of my system. I would not want to read this again. It gave me no emotional reaction. Like I said before, it’s oatmeal. But on the other hand, it’s high quality oatmeal. And I think giving it less than three stars does a disservice to the craftsmanship behind it. I mean, it was a book I didn’t have to read. I could have stopped at any time, but I didn’t.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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