Monthly Archives: June 2018

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

What It’s About

A neurosurgeon, diagnosed with terminal cancer, documents his life, treatment, and reflections on mortality.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is a book that was so personally moving to me, it’s hard to explain without talking in extremely subjective terms. I’m someone who struggles with ideas about death, especially in the absence of a religious affiliation. It scares me, just like everyone else, and I want to make sense of that fear without resorting to hopeful beliefs I can’t confirm. I want to accept death as best as I can with the knowledge we have.

This book was a positively religious experience for me. It was raw and honest and insightful, and really, genuinely helped me grow in my beliefs about the meaning of life. It is frank without being nihilistic, hopeful without being saccharine, and painful yet still viscerally comforting.

On top of all of that, it is beautifully written. I’d recommend it to anyone who is looking for a deeper understanding of life and death.

Content Warnings

A mention of a colleague’s suicide, and some tragic terminal illnesses.


AIO Reviews on Temporarily Irregular Schedule

Hi, faithful readers. At the moment I’m in the middle of a move as well as starting a new job, and while I can still find time to write, my regular schedule has been thrown wildly off. I do not want to pause the reviews until things settle down (’cause let’s be honest, they won’t for a while) so instead I’ve given myself permission to post irregularly over the summer. My plan is to still average a review every couple of weeks, but it will be posted when it’s posted. Hopefully in the fall I will be able to resume some kind of regular day and time.

Sorry for the change, and I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer!

How Emotions Are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

How Emotions Are Made.jpg

What It’s About

A new look at the structure of the brain, the constructs of society, and how those two combine to create the experiences we call “emotion.”

Why I Think You’d Like It

Every page got my mental wheels spinning. I thought her merger of social constructionism and neurology had interesting potential, but I had so many questions about what exactly she meant and how she dealt with some of the research that contradicted her. She dealt with them, in ways that not only answered my questions, but opened up new, exciting implications.

One of the theories she contradicts is Paul Ekman’s famous categorization of emotions and facial expressions. That’s the one that has gotten a lot of attention from the show Lie to Me and the Pixar film Inside Out. She not only provides solid counterevidence, but repeats the experiments he used to develop his theory, and lays out the flaws in his methodology. For people who aren’t already massive geeks on the topic; he claimed to demonstrate that even humans in highly isolated cultures divide cultures into variations on happiness, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise. He also said that people from any culture can readily identify the corresponding expressions. What Lisa Feldman Barrett discovered, in repeating these experiments, was that the researchers framed the studies in such a way that they were teaching their subjects Westernized categories of emotion as the experiments were performed.

That chapter alone is worth reading, because of how well it educates people about not only the interplay of emotions and culture, but the scientific method and the importance of critical thinking. I think that is especially important right now, when so many people are willing to cherry pick the studies they want. When experiments contradict, and they often do on the borders of our understanding, you do sometimes need to choose which ones to believe. But you can’t do that effectively without understanding why scientific studies often disagree, and how to compare methods to see which result is more likely to be correct.

The book also talks about social constructions not as illusions, but as realities. So often, social construct is treated as synonymous with “fake” or “insignificant,” but in truth social constructs are a natural part of how our brains work. They have implications for our lives and our ability to understand the world around us. She discusses them in a way that I think is productive and enlightening, that allows for both criticism and appreciation of how cultures affect our understanding of even our own minds.

All that content is impressive, and what’s more impressive is how Lisa Feldman Barrett fits it all in while still giving us a fun read. She has a tone that is intelligent but warm conversational, and relies more on practical examples than technical jargon. When she has to include more scientific language, she explains it in a way that is highly accessible, without making you feel like you’re being talked down to.

I went ahead and bought a copy because I knew I’d want multiple readings to process all the good stuff that’s in here. I don’t know if she has cracked the puzzle or not, but I know she gave me great ideas to mull over, and important questions to ask. When it comes to these kinds of topics, that’s the best you could possibly ask for.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half

What It’s About

The misadventures and comic reflections of a beautiful person who is still figuring out how to get her life together.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It began as a sort of half blog half webcomic-with-terrible-art. But terrible in a good way. Even though the shapes and proportions are all wrong and weird, there’s this wonderful expression in all of her characters. I’m not normally one for stylistically bad cartoons (I can’t even stand The Fairly Odd Parents or South Park) but I unabashedly love the art of Allie Brosh.

Anyways, this comic/blog stopped updating for a long time. When it reactivated, she revealed that she had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. She shared her story in a way that was simultaneously educational, honest and hopeful. And, of course, very funny.

This book includes that story, along with her greatest hits from the blog and a handful of great new stories. Common themes include her childhood, her dogs, and the bizarre chains of events that lead to her making the weirdest life choices. She also touches frequently on depression and ADHD, not in a lecturing, Very Special Episode way (except for the post about her depression, which, as I said before, is fantastic). It’s more just that these are stories about her life, and everyone’s life has recurring supporting characters. Some of those characters are people, like her Mom and her boyfriend and her dogs. Some are more abstract, like her ADHD, depression, anxiety and assorted maladaptive self-loathing thoughts. This is what being a person with mental health baggage is like.

I love her honest lens, her warm humor, and her ability to be vulnerable, in a way that lets us see our own flaws in her, and love ourselves for them just as we love her. If there’s one complaint I can make about this book, it’s the sense that she is still struggling to recognize how special she is. It’s a struggle we all face, and I hope that she, and you, will conquer it.

Content Warnings

Discussion of suicidal ideation.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: Eugene’s Dilemma

After being fired from Whit’s End, Eugene has gotten a job in the computer program at Campbell County Community College. He is once again being shown around a top secret computer room. Why is this one secret?

Because it houses highly confidential information; academic records, student finances, payment methods, etc. If someone unauthorized got in, they could steal from a student or ruin their career prospects.

Now, see, that’s a legitimate reason to have a secret computer room.

Eugene’s new boss, Mr. Burgermeister, introduces him to Nicholas Adamsworth, an 11 year old computer prodigy. He is also part of a test program, where gifted orphans get to live in colleges instead of being bounced through foster homes and orphanages. He likes working in the college. He doesn’t fit in, but he misfits in a way that works for him.

Eugene himself is an orphaned prodigy. He tells Nicholas that he is impressed, as he himself only began working in advanced academics at age 13. Nicholas, in turn, is thrilled to meet an adult who knows what it’s like to be in college before your voice has cracked. They immediately settle into a nerd mentor/mentee relationship that is everything good and wholesome in this world.

Eugene next meets Richard Maxwell, who is Nicholas’s tutor and supervisor. He ribs Eugene about getting the job he wanted. Eugene doesn’t know how to interpret a joke, and Richard Maxwell doesn’t know how to talk without making them. Let’s just say they get along less well than Eugene and Nicholas do.

On to our next plot point; while doing routine spot checks of the databases, Eugene discovers a series of grades that don’t match up with earlier records. Students are recorded as receiving As in classes that they actually flunked. The mistakes are too numerous and too dramatic to be simple clerical errors.

As Eugene presses Nicholas about who has had access to these records, before Eugene came on board, he cracks and fesses up. He did it, under the coercion of Richard Maxwell (people usually call him by both of his names. I don’t know why). The motives aren’t complicated. Students wanted to pay for better grades, Richard Maxwell wanted money, and Nicholas didn’t want to be booted back to the orphanage.

This creates a serious moral dilemma for Eugene. On the one hand, if he leaves the grades alone, he is pretty much failing the one job he has. But if he turns the pair in, a vulnerable kid will leave the one place that has felt sort of like home in a long time. Eugene knows too much about what that feels like to put him through that. Not to mention that, as a test case, Nicholas’s success has implications for other kids.

Then Eugene realizes there is a way around this. All he has to do is hack back into the system, and change the grades back. The wrong is righted, and nobody would dare bring it up, because they would only incriminate themselves. The only problem is Richard Maxwell, who could give Nicholas a falsified bad report, simply for the sake of revenge. This prospect terrifies Nicholas, but Eugene swears to protect him. If Richard Maxwell starts telling lies, Eugene will fight them. Nicholas decides to trust Eugene, and they set to work fixing the grades.

Seriously, Eugene and Nicholas are too pure for this world.

Turns out, Mr. Burgermeister has been privately monitoring students’ grades, based on rumors that somebody is changing them for money. Unfortunately, he started this monitoring too late to catch it the first time around, but soon enough to catch Eugene changing them back. Which, as he doesn’t know that Eugene was actually changing them back, looks a lot like Eugene was in on the whole scam. And the only way to clear his name is to turn on Nicholas.

Eugene can’t do that. He confesses the crime to the school board… which happens to include Whit. Now, all of a sudden, Whit decides to do a more thorough investigation. He uncovers the fact that discrepancies on the records show up before Eugene’s arrival, and that his tampering seems to have corrected, rather than exacerbated the errors. While the rest of the board reviews these notes, Whit goes to talk to Eugene. Eugene says that he is taking responsibility for his department, which is what he learned from being fired at Whit’s End. But Whit is still not convinced of Eugene’s guilt. He goes over the information he found, and then is interrupted by Nicholas.

Nicholas, cinnamon roll that he is, refuses to let Eugene take the blame for his own mistakes. He makes a full confession, including implicating Richard Maxwell.

Richard Maxwell is fired, but they tell him they won’t press charges. Um… why? Seriously, why?!? His behavior was not only corrupt and criminal, but it honestly qualifies as child abuse. What’s worse, he does not seem remotely remorseful. He even brags about having another job lined up. There is no reason given for the college letting him off the hook, except that the show wants to be free to use him as a recurring character.

Nicholas gets a light reprimand and probation, but the program is safe and, now that he doesn’t have a sociopath controlling his future, he’ll probably pass that probation just fine. As for Eugene, Whit declares that these events have proven that he has learned his lesson, and offers him his old job back.

Wait, what?

Okay, if you haven’t read the previous episode review, I highly recommend that you do so now. But in summation, here’s why Eugene was fired; he did exactly what he was told to do.

No, I’m serious. Whit had a secret computer room in Whit’s End, and it included programs with government secrets, because in addition to being an all-knowing independently wealthy ice cream shop owner, he is a badass spy. And like all badass spies, he keeps confidential materials in his Jesus-themed Chuck-E-Cheese. You know, where kids come to play.

Whit showed Eugene the computer room, so he could use it to do the few legitimate programs that were necessary for running the shop. He made Eugene promise to not show the computer room to anybody, and only use it in the way he had been authorized. Eugene did not break those rules at any point. The only thing he did wrong was, one time, leave a door open, causing Connie to accidentally see and learn about the computer room. Later on, she opened one of the confidential programs, also on accident.

If Whit didn’t want this to happen, he shouldn’t have put government secrets in a Jesus-Chuck-E-Cheese!

If Eugene had committed a security breach at Whit’s End, then yeah, this would probably indicate that he had learned a valuable lesson about responsibility and whatnot. They are clearly going for the whole message of “sometimes people screw up, but when they prove that they’ve made a real commitment to not screwing up in the same way again, they deserve to be forgiven.” That’s a great message! I am one hundred percent behind it. In fact, if you listened to it on it’s own, you would probably project a story that better fits the intended narrative onto the previous episode. And therein lies the one real problem. It frames the conflict in such a way as to rewrite prior events. Growing up, I remembered this saga in a weird way. I remembered the message of “make mistakes but learn from them and you’ll be forgiven” and projected it onto a situation where an authority figure mishandled his own power and then blamed his friends and employees for it.

Of all the episodes in this whole Applesauce saga, this is probably the best. There are some troubling implications here, but they are mostly the fault of the episode that came before, and also the episodes that come immediately after. I will get to those next time, starting with the one where Connie learns her own dubious lessons.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Everything about Eugene and Nicholas’ relationship is adorable.

Worst Part: Richard Maxwell not ending up in jail.

Story Rating: Overall pretty good. Eugene’s conflict is an interesting one, you care about the characters, and the nerdy dynamic between Eugene and Nicholas makes this one entertaining as well. A

Moral Rating: As a standalone episode about justice triumphing and the bad guys getting caught, it’s a pretty standard feel good kids story. B+

The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie

What It’s About

A series of sci-fi and fantasy shorts that explore humanity’s past, future and soul.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I love the idea of alternate history. I want to better understand history, and I think a powerful tool in that understanding is imagining what things might have been like, had a few details turned out differently. Unfortunately have seen two alternate history stories that I thought were good. One is the mockumentary C. S. A. :The Confederate States of America, which is one of the few “what if the South won the Civil War” takes that is not blatantly southern apologist, but is instead equal parts satire of southern apologism, and chilling dystopia on par with 1984. The other one is “A Brief History of the TransPacific Tunnel,” the thirteenth story in this book. It is equal parts an intimate redemption story, and a complex, immaculately researched look at the interwoven threads of history. In a handful of pages, it speaks more profoundly about the intersection of politics, economics and social movements than most textbooks. Without sacrificing impact for subtlety, or subtlety for impact, it raises unsettling questions about effects vs intentions, sacrifices, and the costs of progress. And while exposing humanity at it’s worst, it also exposes raw, brutal hope.

If this book only had a couple of stories on that level of excellence, that would be reason enough for a recommendation. But honestly, every one is on that level; quality characterization, beautifully crisp language, Black Mirror-level thought provoking while still lovely and cautiously optimistic. What’s still more staggering is the sheer diversity of stories. There’s a sweet, personal coming of age story about a world where everyone’s soul manifests as a physical object, and a young woman who must carefully protect her ice cube heart. There’s a tense cyberpunk detective noir where a PI hunts a serial killer with a bizarre MO. There’s a strangely poignant encyclopedia entry on the writing systems of interplanetary species.

The stories in these books have swept up Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards like so many crumbs, and it’s no surprise. Ken Liu takes on every subgenre of science fiction and fantasy and masters them all.

Content Warnings

Some stories discuss racism or violent events. For the most part, they are at most moderately intense, but two, The Literomancer and The Man Who Ended History, have especially graphic torture scenes. In both cases, the torture is completely necessary to the points the stories are making. The latter is especially important because it is an accurate account of historical events. But man, it is rough.