The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders

Another Brad birthday book. I had not idea what this book would be about. I was surprised to read the inside of the book jacket and learn that it was about Lincoln’s child, who died young of Typhoid, being stuck in some kind of purgatory and the ghosts therein. It’s hard to describe it without it seeming silly or like fantasy. And yet it is not fantasy. It is classic ‘literary’, whatever exactly that means, it that it was very much about people and though it was strange and fantastical it had more of a magic realism feel than a fantasy one.

(What makes fantasy different from the magic realism of Marquez or Murakami? I’m not sure.)

The style was unusual, almost play like in that everything was attributed but it helped with this aesthetic of everyone being a ghost and thus it is all more thoughts than words.

However there were also sections which seemed like it was quotes from historical documents about Lincoln. It was a great gestalt to see twenty different descriptions of Lincoln’s eyes all smashed up together, or to read of the party they held in the White House (while Willie was sick) and people saying the moon was high, there was no moon, the moon was bright orange, etc. etc.



The Flick

Play by Annie Baker

Brad got this for me for my birthday. I haven’t read a play in *forever* and had forgotten how fast they go. I felt the majority of it was amazing — funny, weird, very human and insightful. The very end didn’t quite capture me; but then again it’s hard to really see the emotion with just the script.

It looks like they are making a movie out of the play.

The Ethical Slut

By Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

Another book club book. The beginning was a bit too touchy feely for me, a lot of ‘everyone is different and that is okay’ kumbaya stuff that I’m not super into. The middle felt like generally good relationship advice; how to deal with jealousy, how to be self-sufficient, how to ask for what you want, etc. The last part was bit too much about polyamory for me, very detailed and specific about things not super relevant.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The second book club book for Dan’s book club. This book was insane. That’s what I kept thinking when I read it. Have read other stuff by Marquez — Chronicles of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera — and they were great books. But this was one weird and crazy.

It follows a family in a small village somewhere and covers one hundred years of their progeny, from a time when gypsies came and sold them ice and a magic carpet (both equally grand to the people) through to a banana plantation coming in with Americans and barbed wire fences and union breaking and massacres, through a four year rain… So much goes on it is hard to describe.

There was a flighty element to the writing as there was no one main character but we would jump from person to person so quickly it was hard to notice at first. The writing was beautiful and engaging and yet seems like it should have felt like a laundry of what happened and what people were thinking.

The family itself is filled with strange characters, dreamers and inventors and a civil war hero and the original parents are cousins, constantly afraid their children will have pigs tails. Incest keeps coming back to the family and their downfall is when one of the boys (many generations past the original parents) falls in love with his aunt and basically sexually assaults her, which really causes her to fall in love with them and then they have a child. They are the only ones left of the bloodline and this child is their downfall; in the end they all die.

At the book club we couldn’t figure out what the incest was about. Why was it so prominent? Did it mean something? Were we missing some cultural context?

It is a book I would read again, as so much happened it seemed to rush by and I couldn’t touch every piece to really feel it.

Weapons of Math Destruction

By Cathy O’Neil.

An easy read, much of which I’d seen before. (Read it for my Topics in Human Language Technology Class.) The basic idea is that lots of algorithms are now used to make some large decisions in life – who gets parole, what you get charged for car insurance, who gets hired – and these algorithms can have very significant problems. Not all, but many. Her criteria for being a problem algorithm (i.e a WMD) is that it’s Widespread, Mysterious, and Destructive.

Any many algorithms are just that. Used a lot, but no one really knows how they work or can justify or explain any of their outputs, and they cause a lot of hard by embedding the biases of the data into the outputs.

Understanding Computers and Cognition

By Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores.

First part is intro into non-rationalist approaches to cognition. They mostly talk about the theories of Maturana (who comes from biology) and Heidegger (who comes from philosophy) and try to tie them together. The main idea is that language comes about through structural coupling — we want to talk in such a way that others understand and believe us. There is no ‘objective’ definition of water; it’s contextual; but that’s not to say there is no grounded definition: we use the word contextually in a way such that others continue to believe our commitment to common understanding. e.g. “Is there water in the refrigerator?” is an ambiguous question without the context: are we looking for something to drink or trying to find out what’s wrong/if it’s leaking? If we’re in the former situation and reply “Yes, in the cells of the eggplant” that’s an obnoxious answer and too much of this will result in no longer believing we are committed to answering questions.

Maturana did really interesting work in vision, showing that there’s no ‘absolute’ processing of light but rather only contextual processing, at a biological level.

Heidegger introduces this idea of ‘thrown-ness’ in which when we are using a hammer we are not thinking about using a hammer or the representation of a hammer; we simply are doing. We sometimes think and reflect, use representations or construct them, but not always (and maybe not mostly.) We are more often “in” it.

They also talk about breakdowns, in which our expectations are not met and we must reevaluate.


Part Two gets into AI and the reason rule-based systems (they talk about ELIZA, the block moving program, and the medical expert-systems, as well as Winston’s analogy engine!) are not a good reflection of human cognition, which is situated and highly contextual and flexible.


Part Three gets into designing computer systems. They critique the management theory stuff by Simon that if we could just program in all the options we could make the right decisions. I liked their analogy of your car breaking down: you could fix it, or a buy a new car. But maybe you can’t afford either. Maybe you take the bus and realize you don’t need a car, or convince your company to intro a shuttle service. You could kill yourself — what constitutes all the options is ambiguous at best and most likely not real. Sometimes you can dissolve the problem instead of solving it.

But I wasn’t super into this section. They talk about how calculators and word processors are great; they are good tools, they have thrown-ness. But this didn’t feels super related to part one. It was mostly about design. Maybe I didn’t read it closely enough. It felt a little up in the air in a way that the other parts were very grounded in theory and concrete.

Perhaps I was expecting it to be more about how to get closer to human cognition than how to produce useful computational tools.

I like the idea of thrown-ness, and their definition of language that allows shared meaning without needing absolute definitions of words.

Thrown-ness is super useful for understanding when a tool works. Makes me think of the low floors/high ceilings analogy for good tools.

Context context context.

Poetry in context: what do you want, what have you read, what do you expect?

A Little Life

By Hanya Yanagihara.

Read this for Dan’s bookclub. Incredibly, incredibly sad. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried so much while reading a book before.

I thought it would be a book about gay men in New York. It was not really about gay men, or the gay lifestyle, though several of the characters are gay. Instead it is mostly about Jude, a man who experienced terrible and sustained and varied sexual abuse his entire life up until basically 16 when he went to college. It’s about how he lived for the rest of his life and the (male) friends who tried to help him and his success and constant cutting and eventual sexual (or at least romantic) relationship with one of those friends.

At the bookclub we had plenty of complaints about the book. That it had no real female characters, that it was not really about gay-ness, that all the main characters became hugely and inaccessibly wealthy and successful. And yet its profound sadness and ability to describe the incredible, awful abuse this man suffered is surely a huge feat.

Everything that rises must converge

By Flannery O’Connor

[A bit behind on my write-ups…]

I bought this from the Harvard Bookstore at a warehouse sale on a whim, because I had been meaning to read some Flannery O’Connor (I think I had read A Good Man is Hard to Find in high school…) and the book cover had a wonderful watercolor design on it.

The stories are stark and ambiguous, often of terrible things being done to people, in a rural South I really know little about. There was a story of a grandfather who hated his son and grandchildren except for one girl that was very like him. He owned some of the land his son and family lived on and decided to sell the piece just in front of their house to be developed as a gas station, which would ruin their view of the mountains. The girl came to hate him for this and he tried to give her a beating and then she became violent towards him.

The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities

By Gilles Fauconnier, Mark Turner

I only read part one (back in September). Wanted to keep the notes for when I get back to it!

Conceptual blending! It’s the basis of all creative and non-creative thought. Language has a ton of counter-factuals in which we easily understand things that are explicitly not true. Mostly this comes from being able to do conceptual blending, where we take two frames of thought and merge certain parts of them.

This can be imaginative but it can also be mundane. e.g. Consider the form X is the Y of Z. This could be Paul is the father of Sally or poetry is the echo of the soul. They both use conceptual blending to map one space onto another. The first projects the conceptual space of two unrelated people into our conception of fatherhood. In the second, we have the space of poetry and souls which are projected into our conception of echo. The first has a clear interpretation; the second less so; but in both it’s the same act of mapping conceptual spaces onto each other.

Conceptual blending is a way of compressing information. Forget exactly what they said about this.

It’s often a subconscious process. I think here they almost touch on the “Thinking Fast and Slow” conception of how we think, in that conceptual blends often are the fast thinking and sometimes we need to break out that way of thinking to think about something more deeply or logically.

My response: I dig conceptual blending. It’s unclear exactly how it is always a compression of information if it requires or draws on all our knowledge of the anchoring frames to create the blend. I guess the resulting blend is a compression, but only because it ties to other stuff we know. This doesn’t exactly fit with my understanding on compression. But, I think the idea is good and it seems like essentially an extension of the conceptual metaphor theory, which is mapping one concept onto another with some shared overlap that increases our understanding of the target concept. Perhaps it’s two-way conceptual metaphor theory.

Weirde Sister

By James Gendron.

I ordered Patricia Lockwood’s first book from Octopus Books after reading Priestdaddy and wanting to read more of her work. I’d already read Homelandsexuals. Plus, Octopus Books advertised a chapbook competition in August (since then this has disappeared) that I wanted to submit to so I wanted to read more of what they had published. So I picked this book called Sexual Boats.

When the package arrived it came with a third book I had not ordered. Weirde Sister. Ironically, I liked Weirde Sister far more than the Lockwood book or Sexual Boats.

Weirde Sister is about the Salem witch trials, a kind of imaginary walk from the perspective of a woman later denounced as a witch a burned. It’s vivid and strange. In some ways she truly is a witch, walking into the depths of a lake to do magic at its bottom with out women, but in other ways she is modern and aware of her persecution as prejudiced hunt.

His daughter left to start a new life

In what would eventually become the computing industry

The villagers scattered

The weight of the hail lowered his fields six feet in altitude

He was attempting to flee when a final streak of hail severed his penis

His wounds weren’t fatal but they were very demoralizing

In the sense that the governing morality of our time

Is highly penis-oriented

The style is long sets of punctuation-free, capitalized lines. It is not a style I would expect I like. No rhyme, little rhythm, no sentence structure, just words swaying in the wind, moving through space, with the occasional stanza break. And yet I loved it. I loved the strangeness, the way the real mixed with the fantasy of an actual witch, I loved the humor and the sadness. For a long while I was convinced the author must be a women, though I saw the name ‘James’ on the cover.

Sexual Boats, the book I actually ordered, happens to be by the same author. Weirde Sister is much better.