Hey, it’s October already—and as seems to be the case more and more often these days, I’m not at all prepared. October’s always a busy month because that’s when I usually participate in a month-long drawing challenge, and this year I’m attempting Janelle Shane’s AI-generated Botober list for weird animal prompts. (You can follow my attempts in this Twitter thread.) At any rate, today I’ve got another mixed bag, the some what random collection of books I’ve been reading lately.
I’ll start with Dry, which I mentioned last time, and finished reading in the interim. The premise is that water levels have run low enough that Southern California’s taps are entirely turned off, and it doesn’t take long for the situation to devolve into something akin to The Walking Dead. Alyssa and Kelton are two teenage neighbors who tell a lot of the story from their points of view, as make their way (along with Alyssa’s little brother Garrett) to try to find water after Alyssa’s parents went out to get water from the desalination trucks at the beach and never returned. We do get a few more points of view in the story as Alyssa and Kelton encounter some other kids who join their group—though they don’t all get along, which introduces even more tension to an already tense situation.
The Shustermans paint a pretty dismal picture of societal breakdown: people were simply not prepared for the water shortage, in part because California’s leaders tried to mask the severity of the problem until it was simply too late. The communities didn’t get much warning at all, and then the mass exodus to other parts of the country led to huge traffic jams on the highways and chaos at the airports. Although we do get some glimpses of hope—people who band together and support each other—the majority of the characters we encounter are either opportunistic or just extremely wary of strangers, which exacerbates the situation. I’d like to think we’re better than that, but given the way that our nation has responded to things like wearing masks or getting a vaccine, I’m not so sure.
In this book, the water shortage is limited to a region—a big, heavily populated region, but it’s not a nationwide event. Part of the issue is the way that it is downplayed until things get really bad, too, so the rest of the country isn’t really even aware of what’s happening. The book doesn’t really dig into the causes of the shortage, other than some references that things have been drying up for a while by the time the story begins, and it also doesn’t offer a lot of advice about how to prevent it. However, just using the water shortage as a backdrop did make me think more about my water usage, about how much water we use and what we use it for.
Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors by Amber Share
Okay, moving onto something a bit lighter … Subpar Parks got its start on the internet, when Amber Share discovered 1-star reviews of various national parks and couldn’t believe that some people couldn’t find anything to like about these spectacular places. She started making travel poster–inspired images of the parks, but then hand-lettering them with lines from the reviews, and then shared them on Instagram. The Arches National Park in Utah “looks nothing like the license plate.” A visitor to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park “didn’t even get to touch lava.” I came across them on Twitter and had a good laugh.
Now, Subpar Parks is an actual book, and it collects not just the poster art, but also a description of each park, along with various funny stories and cool quotes. Share has personally been to many of the parks herself, and her enthusiastic love for them is evident throughout the book. The book is both an entertaining and hilarious read, and also a great overview of the parks that could serve as a great jumping off point for planning your own trip to go visit a disappointing, bug-ridden forest with no wi-fi.
Speaking of trips, here’s a little guide to interesting places to visit in Oregon! This book, written by a Portlander, has various attractions and locations organized by theme, like science museums, geology and paleontology sites, lighthouses, and even a “Keep It Weird” section. You want to see waterfalls? McCullough suggests nine different places to visit, with information about accessibility and other details. How about caves? The book tells you what to look for (and to be prepared for the smell of the Sea Lion Caves).
I’ve been flipping through the book and marking places that we may want to go visit as a family (as soon as it’s safe to do so, of course). Even though we’ve been in Oregon for a decade now, there are still lots of places we’ve never made it to, even some that are nearby. I do recognize many of the places, and the book made me feel like maybe I should revisit some of those, but I’m particularly curious to visit the lava flows in central Oregon, where astronauts trained for the moon landing because of its strange, desolate landscape.
The one thing about this book that feels a bit like a misnomer is calling it “day trips,” because it really depends on where you live. Oregon’s a big state: it would take about 5 hours of driving to make it from Portland to the DeWitt Museum to learn about early 20th century railroads, and likewise somebody living in eastern Oregon couldn’t drive to Multnomah Falls and back home in a day. It’s a bit like calling Disney World a “day trip”—unless you’re near Orlando, part of your trip is getting there first. Still, if you live in or near Oregon and you’re looking for some more ideas about adventures for your family, this is a fun resource.
Now we’re shifting gears to some more fiction: Automatic Reload is a sci-fi romantic comedy about a cyborg and a genetically engineered assassin who meet cute and then battle an oppressive mercenary corporation. Mat is a body hacker—after losing an arm in battle and getting a prosthetic, he eventually decided that the robot arm was so much better that he replaced all his limbs. (Shades of Machine Man there for sure.) Now he’s a killing machine who has to take on jobs basically to pay for the upkeep, because the limbs aren’t cheap and every mission puts a whole lot of wear and tear on them. The limbs (despite the cartoon illustration on the cover) seem to bear little resemblance to actual arms and legs, and instead are built for their function, with tons of weapons built into them. What’s more, all of his limbs have their own AI, because they can identify threats and respond both more accurately and more quickly than the human meat-brain can. Most of Mat’s work on a mission goes into the preparation beforehand, where he programs his AI’s response parameters based on the situations he thinks he’ll encounter, and then he can almost sleep through the action itself.
On one such mission, things go wrong—probably a setup—and Mat ends up in the company of Silvia, a woman whose body has mostly been replaced with some sort of alien-looking, tendril-covered muscles. She’s unbelievably fast and pretty much bulletproof, and her body seems to react more quickly than her brain can process, striking out with incredibly power if she feels threatened.
What connects the two is that they’re both fighting anxiety, though expressed in different ways. Mat has PTSD from when he was a drone pilot and made an error that resulted in killing a child, and now he deals with it by overpreparing for everything, which can tend toward crippling overthinking. Silvia has panic attacks—she had already been a danger to her family prior to her modification, lashing out at them, and now she’s terrified about what her new body is capable of. The two of them are looking for answers, so they’re headed for the International Access Consortium, the shadowy corporation that seems to capable of just about anything (and also the ones who are responsible for Silvia’s new abilities).
The story is a good mix of action, relationship development, and some world-building, particularly surrounding the culture of body hackers, including things like government regulations and how they’re marketed, and the types of people who seem to run in those circles. It’s a bit of geeking out about the things that AI can do better than human brains, as well as speculation about the future of automated warfare and its consequences. But it’s also, in the middle of it, a sweet story about two people seeing each other for more than their flaws.
You may recognize Ian Doescher’s name from his hugely popular William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series, though he’s also given the Bard’s treatment to some other films as well, like Get Thee Back to the Future or Much Ado About Mean Girls. This time around, he’s given us a larger tome: William Shakespeare’s Avengers is a large-format hardcover, and the “complete” works includes all of the MCU’s Avengers films—that is, The Avengers, Age of Ultron, Infinity War, and Endgame.
Of course, there’s a lot that happens in the individual Marvel superhero movies that tie into the series. Doescher addresses those in the prologues, where the Chorus appears to give you a recap of all of the films leading up to the next play. Each of the scripts reimagines the dialogue for the entire film, but in iambic pentameter (for the most part), with rhyming couplets at the close of each scene, and some stage directions for the action. (In some cases, though, the characters themselves narrate the action.) There are plenty of Shakespeare’s actual lines worked into the book as well, though I’m sure there are plenty that I missed myself. (Exit Natasha Romanoff, pursued by a Hulk.)
There are illustrations throughout the book, some in color and some in black and white meant to evoke a woodcut style, showing the heroes in Elizabethan style: puffy sleeves and ruffled collars. (Thor, of course, looks about like he usually does.) It was a lot of fun to read, particularly since my family watched through the entire MCU series during lockdown, so I had an easier time picturing the films in my head as I read through the book.
Doescher’s afterword highlighted for me some of the extraordinary work that goes into his writing. It’s not just taking dialogue and throwing in some “thees” and “thous” and messing with the meter. Each of the Avengers has their own unique feature, most of which I was completely oblivious to. For instance, Captain Marvel references a famous woman in history in every line she speaks; Wanda Maximoff’s speech always contains a word that rhymes with “scarlet,” “witch,” or “red.” There are even some clever acrostics in various sections of the plays, but I don’t want to give away all the surprises here.
Suffice to say, if you’re a fan of the Avengers films, you’ll get a kick out of seeing them in a whole new light.
The last book in today’s stack is a coffee table art book for Hot Wheels lovers. The Garage of Legends is a collection of full-scale cars that bring the toys to life, and they’re astounding. Many of these started off as the 1:64-scale models and were turned into an actual vehicle. Others were toys modeled after existing cars, now restored and painted to look like the toy. And the last one in the book is the first winner of the Hot Wheels Legend Tour, a competition where custom car-builders bring their full-size vehicles in a competition to have it turned into a Hot Wheels toy.
It’s been a while since I’ve played with my Hot Wheels cars (my daughters have gotten into them and have started their own collections), but I really enjoyed flipping through this book with my kids and being wowed by all of the cool cars. I particularly liked the ones that started as toys, like the Darth Vader car and the bizarre Deora II. Each car gets a couple of pages of photos showing the full exterior and then some details, as well as a list of specs and notes about the design. There are only a couple that include a photo of the toy version, which I would have liked to see more of.
I was also amazed to read about the life-size Hot Wheels tracks built for some of these cars, like the loop used for the Loop Coupes, or the corkscrew jump performed by the Team Hot Wheels Buggy. We had a lot of fun looking some of those up on YouTube, too.
My Current Stack
I’ve got a couple books in progress now. I’m still reading AI 2041, mentioned a little while back. I’ve also been reading Billionaires, a comic book by Darryl Cunningham following the lives of Jeff Bezos, the Koch brothers, and Rupert Murdoch. I’ll just say: wow, if you want to read something that will fire you up, this will do it for sure. So far I’ve read the section on Murdoch, and have started reading about the Koch brothers, and it certainly doesn’t leave me feeling hopeful for the state of things. Good thing Jeff Bezos isn’t at all problematic, right? Right?
I’ve also started reading Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore, a novel about a VR video game that uses weird spoken spells as part of its gameplay. Isobel is the reigning champion of the game, able to spit out these unintelligible morphemes quickly and precisely, but now she’s learning that these gobbledy-gook sounds may actually have some real-world effects. (I’m getting some Lexicon vibes, but we’ll see where that goes.)
Finally, I’ve gotten a copy of Star Wars: An Epic Poem by Jack Mitchell, which retells the Star Wars saga in the vein of a Greek epic. I suppose it’s no surprise, considering Doescher’s success with Shakespeare, that others might want to try something similar—it’s only surprising to me that it’s taken this long. I’ll report back on this one when I’ve finished.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support independent bookstores and my writing. Thanks!