Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

CatfishingcoverCatfishing on CatNet
by Naomi Kitzer
2019

Naomi Kritzer wrote the Hugo-Award-winning short story, “Cat Pictures Please” in 2015 about an AI that woke up on the internet and wants to do good but struggles a bit with how people work. And decides that their currency of choice is cat pictures. Send cat pictures, get help fixing your life. The help is a bit hit-or-miss but the internal ethical debate about what help should be provided is a combination of interesting, adorable, and hilarious.

This book developed from short story and the AI has set of a social media site CatNet where people can go trade in cat pictures. Our main character, however, is Stephanie, a teenage girl who’s mother is moving her again because they are always moving because the mom is spooked that Steph’s father might have found them again. Steph is mostly resigned to the whole situation, with no particular memory of her father but going along with the constant moves and always being “the new girl” and having all of her friends in a chat room on CatNet.

But then things begin to happen: Steph makes an actual friend at her terrible new school and she begins to test some of her mother’s rules, the AI is enjoying having friends on CatNet too and is beginning to think of “coming out” to some of them, and the world at large is struggling with the ethical considerations of robot teachers and self-driving cars, both of which have the potential to be hacked.

There’s also a diverse cast of characters that isn’t the point of the book but also shows how diversity of a variety of types is really the foundation of putting together a group of semi-outcasts: the main friend group is all people who have made their main friendships online for a variety of reasons. And as I was writing that I realized I had to skim four years back through my reviews here because this book is reminiscent of WWW: Wake, but just so much better.

The one problem is my growing pet peeve with a lot of books and how it sets up the next book in the series immediately, the new mystery starting even before the main conflict concludes. I’m still going to read the next book as soon as it’s available in 2021, but I’m annoyed at the set-up.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this book, and if you have time to be browsing this review, then check out the short story immediately!

The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau

By Kathryn Schulz

ThoreauAs I mentioned previously, I’m struggling with full-length novels, and even short stories seem to require a level of focus I don’t quite have in me right now. However, I ran across this five-year-old take down of Henry David Thoreau, and gleefully read the whole article in a matter of minutes. I’ve already described my love of writers dunking on other writers (and politicians), and this is up there with the best of them.

I’d heard before that Walden was much less remote than Thoreau described and that his ‘isolation’ there is the epitome of invisible women’s labor as his mother brought him food and did his laundry, but Schulz drags him point-by-point in this beautifully comprehensive and funny essay. A few choice excerpts, but I highly recommend the entire thing:

“I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce.”

“Food was bad, drink was bad, even shelter was suspect, and Thoreau advised keeping it to a minimum.”

Judge_MathisAdditionally, a more low-brow, comfort read during this time is Samantha Irby’s semi-daily recapping of whatever Judge Mathis episode she watched on YouTube the previous day. This is basically exactly my attention span right now, a funny, rambling, mostly kind discourse on low-stakes court-room drama. I look forward to them every day, and they are one of the many little things helping me get through these times.

Medallion Status

By John Hodgman

Medallion_StatusI’ve been listening to a lot of the Judge John Hodgman podcast at work, since it is very soothing. Two funny, smart hosts (Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn) adjudicate cases of very little significance. In one of my recent favorites, a husband “sues” his wife to prevent her from getting a worm-based compost bin in their apartment, and it is hilarious, hilariously gross, and charming. In this episode, as per usual, Hodgman charmingly gets at the base issue and finds a solution that leaves both parties extremely pleased, and it is so refreshing.

While mired halfway through Smoke, I put a hold on Medallion Status, figuring it would be the perfect fluffy palette cleanser. And I was 100% correct! While I know Hodgman best from his guest appearances as the deranged billionaire on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, he is most generally well known as the PC in the old Apple ads. He is the first to acknowledge that was the height of his fame, too. With the ads came more regular roles on television shows, and a gold medallion status on his airline of choice.

In Medallion Status, he reflects surprisingly poignantly on the weirdness, seductiveness, and elusiveness of even relatively minor fame. It is also so consistently funny; I was giggling out loud every few minutes in what I’m sure was a very annoying manner. His writing is so deceptively simple that over and over again I would be caught off guard with just how funny it was.

Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results

By Josh Gondelman

Nice_TryWhile I’m talking about funny, kind white men, I also have to recommend Josh Gondelman and his collection of personal stories, Nice Try. He is an incredibly funny comedian – his standup album “Physical Whisper” is one of my favorites – and is frequently referred to as the nicest guy in comedy (thus the title of his book). And he is super nice! His comedy is self-deprecating, but also wildly relatable, about trying your best to navigate increasingly complicated life while feeling like you might be missing some key tools.

The book collects stories his written for other publications and additional personal stories. In one chapter, he talks about struggling with his growing awareness of how problematic the NFL is, both physically and socially, with how love for the game was an important way to bond with his family (this also led him to co-create #agoodgame, tying points scored to donations). In another he talks about adopting a dog that may or may not have been stolen from its original owner, and figuring out what to do about that, with the same amount of maturity and savvy as any of the rest of us (i.e., none). It’s all very funny in a way that is laughing with, not at, all of us about how ridiculous life can be sometimes.

Fanfiction: The Untamed/GoDC edition

I have now read a lot of fanfic for The Untamed / Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. I figured it was time to make some recommendations here for some of the best of them. It was extremely hard to weed it down to just four, and I had to struggle to try to keep them solidly distinct from one another (there tends to be a lot of overlap in fanfic) and generally happy (canon gives a lot of opportunity for angst). And not too explicitly graphic, although I compromised that one a bit.

So here are my four recommended fanfics, in order chronologically through events and also in order of humor, from heart-wrenching to hilarious:

   DURING CANON, there’s always going to be a certain amount of angst:

Devoutly to Be Wished
by yunitsa
word count: 3,032

Summary: Five (and half) times Wei Wuxian fantasies about Lan Wangji, and one time he doesn’t have to.

Why I recommend it: I was going to keep this list of recommendations strictly non-graphic and then I realized that I had to include this one because it’s a gorgeous and heart-breaking look at the main character and his desire for his beloved as he grows and changes.

   IN THE MISSING YEARS, there’s a surprisingly less angst:

Scapegoat
by astrobandit
word count: 1,325

Summary: four ridiculous things the Yiling Patriarch was blamed for, and one ridiculous thing that was positively his fault.

Why I recommend it: The canonical storyline switches between the past and the present with a good decade in between the end of the past and the beginning of the present, and in that time Lan WangJi appears to have decided that he has no more fucks to give and it is glorious. This story is a few very short vignettes that show just how done with everyone’s idiocy he is. Glorious!

   IMMEDIATELY POST-CANON, specifically to the TV show

The Absolutely True Story of the Yiling Patriarch: A Manifesto in Many Parts
by aubreyli
word count: 19,692

Summary: In which the junior disciples (namely, Lan Jingyi, Ouyang Zizhen, and a reluctant Lan Sizhui) turn to RPF in an attempt to rehabilitate Wei Wuxian’s reputation so that he and Hanguang-jun can get together and get married and live happily ever after. It’s… surprisingly effective.

Why I recommend it: This is both beautiful and hilarious and does an amazing job of capturing that dichotomy that’s also present in the original story of balancing humor and drama.

   FURTHER POST-CANON, our main couple are an established couple and dealing with other things:

A Civil Combpaign, and it’s companion, Besieged
by Ariaste
word count: 31,015

Summary: “And,” said one of the pompous ministers, “there’s the matter of a marriage to consider as well!”
Jin Ling, who at the beginning of that sentence had expected to slam into the very last wall of his patience and lose his temper entirely, paused. “A what?”
Thing was… it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Why I recommend it: This is side-splittingly funny. I had to struggle through some second-hand embarrassment but it’s worth it because this is the most awkward courtship attempt ever between two of the younger generation with our main couple established and looking on. And Wei Wuxian’s perspective on it all is an utter delight. Also, in some ways, this version of Wei Wuxian reminds me of Eugenidies from The Thief.

 

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

mdzs coverThe Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 
Written by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
Translated by: K.san
2018-2019

This is a phenomenon.

I first discovered this because someone I follow on tumblr was posting a steady stream of amazingly beautiful screencaptures of beautiful people and scenes from the show, The Untamed, showing on Netflix.

theuntamed

I convinced Anna to try it out with me, and we were quickly enthralled and had to watch all 50 episodes even though the plot was confusing enough that we had to read the episode summaries before watching each episode and then discuss the events to make sure we understood what was going on.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that we were dealing with names that we weren’t used to, so mostly gave everyone a nickname: Protagonist, Beloved, Beloved’s brother, Protag’s brother, Protag’s sister, Red girl, Red guy, Fan guy, Douche, Psycho, Douche’s Cousin who makes Douche look better in comparison… etc.

It says something about how charismatic the acting is that we were drawn in despite the initial confusion.

So, we watched all 50 episodes and it was done. There was an amazing and beautiful conclusion. But also: what was I going to do with my evenings now????

I mean, the answer is clearly: fanfic. But before that, I discovered was that the tv show was based off a book, Mo Dao Zu Shi, that has a freely available online fan translation, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by K.san, of all 113 chapters plus 13 “extras”.

There is action and adventure and mystery and intrigue and magic and it is so freaking funny. What was funny in the tv show is ten times funnier in the book because we get the internal monologue of our main character. What was subtext in the tv show is very much text in the text. On the other hand, what was known-but-unspoken by the characters in the tv show is dumb-ass boys being absolutely terrible at communication in the book.

Anyway, this is an east asian fantasy world with swords and magic and ghosts and a variety of supernatural spirits that are probably more culturally known in China but easy enough to just go with as an American reader.

The basic premise, is that a much reviled and yet also much respected character was killed some sixteen years before the start, but has been brought back to life as part of a revenge (on someone else) plot. Wei Wuxian finds himself alive again, somewhat insulted that his reputation after death had gotten so bad that someone brought him back to life to kill their family. And things quickly spiral from there, because sixteen years is just long enough for the next generation to start dealing with the world but not enough for the earlier generations to have forgotten Wei Wuxian or moved on.

There’s a lot of flashbacks in the book as we alternate between seeing what’s going on now, with the newly alive Wei Wuxian, and what happened prior to his original death, and how it got the point where he was killed in a coordinated attack. Meanwhile Wei Wuxian and Lan WangJi have the most slow-burn, mutual-pining, idiot-boys-cannot-communicate, romance going on in both time periods.

It also starts off quite funny, and gets progressively darker as it goes along, even as it maintains some of the humor, and finally breaks through into lightness again at the end.

All this goes to say, I loved this and I want to recommend it to everyone who thinks they might like this kind of fantasy action shenanigans, but if the genre is not your thing, then I’m not sure if the book is good enough to break through. But maybe give the tv show a try just to see.

However, a couple of warnings:

Warning #1: the translation is very, very good for an amateur, but is rough for a professional. I did find the translator notes quite interesting as she discussed some of the word choices she made. And since she was posting the translated chapters as she went, it’s also interesting to see how the translations changed and improved over the course of the full book.

Warning #2: there is explicit sex near the end of the book and even more in the “extra” chapters after the story arc is complete. The scenes say more to me about the author’s kinks rather than staying true to the characters. Since the kink in question, playing with consent issues, is kind of my anti-kink, even when it’s clearly desired by both, I didn’t care for it and look forward to fanfic fixing that particular aspect.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods_of_Jade_and_ShadowOoh, this book is so good (and how gorgeous is that cover)! It really does stand as uniquely its own, but all the descriptors I can think of are derivative of other books: it’s like American Gods but gentler, funnier, and somehow just more feminine; it’s got elements of both The Last Unicorn and The Labyrinth, a couple of my favorite pieces of media. Basically, they all have common motifs of mortals discovering the unexpected power they have to either help or resist immortals.

Set in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea is the poor relation in a wealthy family, in her own words: treated like Cinderella, but without the sweetness of character that earns Cinderella her eventual reward. She instead balances duty and resentment in a very recognizable way and chafes at her endless days of drudgery until she accidentally releases a God of Death from imprisonment. At which point, she is basically conscripted in his search for vengeance against those that imprisoned him, leading her from her small town, where her family at least was a large fish in a little pond, into progressively larger cities and exposing her to an array of beings, both natural and supernatural.

This is where it gets tricky. Our heroine is human in the most empathetic way, trying to do what is right while struggling with all the human weaknesses of anger and anxiety, while the god is charming in his own aloof, uncompromising way. The two are supernaturally connected for the duration of this quest, to the peril of both. There is a predominate theme, similar to in The Last Unicorn, of how lengthy exposure to mortals and the mortal world weakens/tarnishes immortals so that they are never as pure as they were to begin with, and that is very effective suspense for me.

A serious trigger warning, however: this is a God of Death we are talking about here, so there is plenty of death abounding, including animal sacrifice and suicide. Now both of those are things that I’m pretty sensitive to, and I was able to read it without trouble because they happen quickly and matter-of-factly instead of really delving into the gritty details, but take care.

While I was reading this, Rebecca sent me a link to a Tumblr post, which gives a variety of excellent recommendations for “Adult fantasy books not by straight white men!” The poster organized it by general tone, which is so, so useful. Under “Urban Fantasy,” one of my favorite sub-genres, she recommends a vampire noir in Mexico City by Moreno-Garcia, so that’s definitely on my to-read list!

Similarly, Rebecca then also sent me a list to “Become Very Well-Read Without Reading Anything by a Man” where you can see how many well-known (not necessarily classics) books by female authors you’ve read, and I love an opportunity to show off my reading! This was not that opportunity because I’d only read 36 out of the 250 books, but it did give me a lot of additional recommendations to look forward to!

— Anna

The 1619 Project

I wasn’t planning to borrow from Kinsey’s occasional tendency of reviewing something that everyone has already read and talked about, but Rebecca assured me that it hadn’t crossed her path until I told her about it.

So…the 1619 Project:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The more I read as an adult, the more I realize just how sanitized the history I was taught was, and most particularly when it comes to slavery. This project is a collection of writing looking at the history of slavery, how it has roots in every sector of our country, and the ongoing harm it does today. It includes over a dozen pieces – mostly written essays but also poems, short works of fiction, and photo essays. It is large in scope, both in size and range of topics, and it is a daunting read that I honestly wasn’t sure I could manage.*

Then I started seeing some of the buckwild responses from conservatives who very clearly had not read any of it, and decided that I had to read it, out of spite if nothing else (for proof of what I’ll read out of spite, see Atlas Shrugged). And no lie, it is a hard read, though I suspect less difficult for black readers, who may mostly feel relieved to see published acknowledgement of what they already knew. I’ve set myself to read just one of the entries each day, so I’m only four in at the point of this review, but I feel like every sentence hits me like a ton of bricks:

This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin.

— from “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” by Nikole Hannah-Jones

Continue reading

eNewsletters

I promise that I’m going to review an actual book eventually, but in the meantime, here’s some more links!

We’ve all mourned the closing of The Toast on this blog (though thank god for the archive!), and before it closed, the editors tried multiple ways to make it financially sustainable but not exclusive without success. E-newsletters may be the answer! Both Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Mallory Ortberg, founding editors of The Toast, have ones that mirror their respective writing styles. Both newsletters are primarily for a paid subscription, though include periodic public posts for people who either cannot afford the subscription or want to read some samples first.

Nicole Cliffe’s daily newsletter, Nicole Knows, lists interesting reads from around the web, including long-form articles, YouTube videos, tweets, advice column letters, and my favorite, particularly juicy reddit posts. She also recently published an interview with Alanis Morissette in Self Magazine, and I’ve never been a huge fan of Morissette’s music, but reading these two smart and compassionate women talk about feminism and motherhood and individuality was a real inspiration.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s newsletter, The Shatner Chatner, is not as regular as daily, but several times a week, and my best idea is that it spans whatever he happens to be thinking of that day. It is often very funny, often very insightful, and sometimes so educational on trans issues that I’m scrambling to keep up.

And finally, this isn’t really a newsletter in the same way as the above, but R. Eric Thomas, an incredibly funny writer for Elle.com, writes a weekly tinyletter, in which he collects his 3-4 articles for Elle.com with some additional commentary or personal anecdote. They are free to subscribe to, and I look forward to them every Sunday as the only thing making current politics even remotely bearable.

—Anna

Running from COPS

So, I’ve moved to Michigan! My life got increasingly frantic leading up to the move, and now I’m surrounded by boxes, but things are calmer. I’m currently reading Rewind, the fourth in the Pinx Video mystery series, which continues to be a delightful mix of noir-ish detachment and absurdist humor. It is a perfect counterbalance to the stress of packing all of one’s belongings up in boxes and then having to unpack them again.

Running_from_COPSHOWEVER, have I got a podcast recommendation for you! It is fascinating, intense, and disturbing, and I have to take it a little at a time. “Running from COPS” is a widespread look at the show COPS, which I was shocked to realize has been on for 30 years and has aired more than a thousand episodes.

I was never a huge fan of the show, but also didn’t think very hard about it, assuming it was just a normal look at law enforcement, and how you viewed the show depended on how you viewed law enforcement in general. Which, according to the podcast, is an entirely intentional impression created by the show and has had truly insidious effects on the evolution of law enforcement.

The podcast interviews the creators of the show, network producers, retired police, lawyers, and most importantly the “criminals,” who are often found not-guilty after the cameras have turned away but will forever be “the person on COPS”. The creators ask a lot of very good questions and then follow up with the people that can answer them, which is the very best of critical-thinking media these days.

I think, like a lot of complacent, middle-class, white people, I had generally bought the argument that while flawed, law enforcement was generally trying its best, and the last decade or so has been a continual waking up to a very different reality. This podcast, for me, has been yet another wake-up call on how methodically the institution of law enforcement has been normalizing and even celebrating human rights abuses. It is not always an easy listen (honestly, in this day and age, just listening to the audio from episodes is upsetting), but I highly recommend it, not only because it is an important eye-opener but it is just great podcasting!

Great Literary Takedowns

HunterSThompsonI can’t remember what social media recommended this, but a while ago, someone linked to this truly incredible ‘eulogy’ that Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Nixon on his death:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It is also shockingly reflective of the current president, as well. In these terrible times, I’ve been really missing the political writers like Molly Ivins, who could make me laugh while exposing the most outrageous politics, and we need more of them. I hope to God someone writes something similar about Trump on his demise (or sooner).

* * * * * * * * *

MarkTwainWhen I was relating this to my mom as perhaps the best literary take-down I’d ever read, she reminded me of Mark Twain’s savaging of Fenimore Cooper, which if you haven’t read, you need to go do right now:

We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper’s books “reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention.” As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews’s literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever “situation” in Cooper’s books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it.

Honestly, is there anything better than a truly skilled author using their gifts for maximum snark?

* * * * * * * * *

Unrelated, but since I’m linking to things, I’ve been obsessed with this tweet all week:

GarthGreenwell

Some good samaritan put together a spotify list that I’ve been listening to all week, and just mulling over how hard it is to feel vulnerable in your teens, trying to make meaningful connections with other people. And, of course, it is just a total shot of pure 90s teenage longing!

— Anna