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Introducing: Reading Habits reviews
Last year, I had a handful of reviews killed, two after months of being told they’d be going up soon. This is disappointing and frustrating for many reasons, not least being the fact that I’m reviewing a book because I love that book, because I love what the author is doing, because I believe there’s levels to it, and I love to spend a couple thousand words telling you all about it, and I think I do it well. So I was sad those reviews wouldn’t reach an audience.
….or will they?
After some crying I remembered that I have this, a list of people who are interested enough in my thoughts on my books that they’ve welcomed me into their inboxes. So I’ve decided to return to a paid option of Reading Habits, which would include 1-2 formal-ish reviews a month — possibly more when my manuscript is in. (❗️❗️❗️🕐🕜🕑🌀😅😅😅💥🔜🔜🔜🔜🔜🔜) Pitching is soul-crushing and most often the money is depressing, so honestly this feels better.
[FORMER MONTHLY PAID SUBSCRIBERS: THIS MEANS YOUR RECURRING $5 PAYMENTS WILL PICK BACK UP. I will not be offended if you decide you’ve liked not paying for it and cancel. I honestly will not even notice. ]
These reviews will start with the ones I lost last year:
Meet Us By the Roaring Sea by Akil Kumarasamy
Slenderman by Kathleen Hale
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma
The Old Place by Bobby Finger
Flight by Lynn Steger-Strong
And then who knows.
On the fence? You get the first one for free!!
Already sold? ⬇️
Human Connection in the Age of AI
Akil Kumarasamy's debut novel Meet Us by the Roaring Sea follows characters desperate to better understand and connect with humanity — and how extreme attempts can go very wrong.
In Akil Kumarasamy’s hypnotic, lyrical debut novel, Meet Us By The Roaring Sea, the ethics of artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision-making are entryways into some of our oldest and most profound questions about empathy, existence, and morality. The story centers on an unnamed 26-year-old protagonist whose day job is training AI models, but whose passion project is translating a found manuscript from the 1990s written in Tamil, a classical language—one of the oldest and most intricate in the world—spoken primarily in southern India. (In an unusual but compelling choice, Kumarasamy writes the protagonist in the second person—“you” are the translator, too.) We meet that character in a recognizable near future, where people are distilled into data points—individual carbon scores are tracked and penalized; self-driving cars decide who to sacrifice in a crash; the Association for Human Potential works diligently toward “molding the best of humanity.” She’s reeling from the sudden death of her mother two months prior, and she’s preserving her house—a mess of hoarded trinkets and heirlooms—like a shrine. The protagonist lives in that shrine with her 22-year-old cousin, Rosalyn, a scientist who’s gone rogue from her job developing an Alzheimer's drug to develop an experimental, possibly dangerous, treatment that isolates and extracts people’s memories. Rosalyn spends her free time watching reruns of Soldiers’ Diaries, a cancelled reality series that took place in a war zone years ago, while the protagonist spends hers deep in her translation project. Each finds the other’s pastime macabre. Their worlds, and world views, are shaken when two outsiders intrude on their lives: a vet from Soldiers’ Diaries struggling with PTSD who Rosalyn takes into their home, and a Pakistani-American artist whose parents’ lives were calculated as less valuable than those of a white mother and her toddler when their cars were headed toward each other, and who's turned their home into an art exhibit about their lives and the many algorithm-caused deaths.
The protagonist’s narrative progresses in alternating sections with the untitled manuscript as she’s translating it. (The manuscript narrative is a little harder to follow—denser, more esoteric, with vague allusions to dystopian events—and I wondered if this was intentional on Kumarasamy’s part, ongoing proof of the protagonist’s sometimes clumsy, or at least imperfect, work.) It’s written like a collective memoir, told in plural first person from the perspective of seventeen girls beginning medical school on a war-torn island populated by refugee camps. We know it’s from the 1990s, but we don’t know if the 1990s of this universe is identical to ours. The salient point is: It could be. We never learn concrete details of their world—there’s a devastating drought, televisions are luxury items, poverty and war are constants—in other words, pain and suffering are pervasive. Almost immediately, the students’ mission of helping others becomes something close to spiritual as they adopt “radical compassion” — an ideology and practice founded by a trio of older students who become their mentors. “We were practicing to become not only doctors but saviors,” they write, and the key to that transition is deprivation and suffering. They starve themselves; they watch each other cut their own skin; they stand for sixteen hours on a train so someone else can sit; they practice and study so they can make their future patients’ pain their own and, theoretically, better understand that pain and then cure it. There’s no room for ego or joy, they say, “when we have the world to heal.” This guilt is weaponized in the future by tech evangelists trying to convince the public to sign up for mass surveillance: “We are living in a more thoughtful and conscientious age. Don’t you want to be part of that?”
Though a healed world seems an impossible goal, the act of reaching toward it is powerful in itself, and dangerous. Reaching is a common theme throughout the novel, each character driven by a deep yearning for connection, to know and be known. Once you notice the pattern, you see it everywhere. The protagonist and those around her are always working toward bridging gaps—between the self and the other, the mind and the body, emotion and language, past and present.
When the protagonist recalls the manuscript she first found in college, a single line plagues her until she finally digs it out from a box under her bed: “There’s a way beyond mortality.” This, ultimately, was the end goal of the medical students and their radical compassion, but it also works as a logical conclusion of the smaller attempts throughout the book. The protagonist’s mother tried to merge the past with the present through mementos. Rosalyn imagines merging human consciousness with machines by storing a person’s memories outside of their body; she tests it on the Soldiers' Diaries vet and ends up exploring a revolutionary form of empathy by implanting the memories he wants to be rid of into herself, a confused attempt to both better understand him and actively preserve the memories. The protagonist connects the women from the manuscript with modern readers through translation. The artist wants to bring the public into her grief by reminding them of her parents' sacrificed humanity. The women want to save the world by becoming martyrs. Each is an attempt at immortality, with little hope of succeeding. As the book progresses, the protagonist begins to recognize the failures in her AI work and in Rosalyn’s memory harvesting. Who are these advancements helping, really?
Nevertheless, Kumarasamy doesn’t seem to want us to despair. Early on, the protagonist struggles with translating the first-person plural; Tamil has two words for two types of collective, but she can’t cleanly distinguish between the two in the English text. She considers the various functions of “we” in conversational English—to shrug off blame, to claim authority, to make grand statements. But in the manuscript she finds comfort and community in the word, “the warm shelter of belonging somewhere.” By the end she’s making her way toward that “we.” The best version of human connection is when a person is able to make space for another without negating themselves. It can be generative, cooperative, abundant. There is a boundary after which compassion becomes self-destructive, where obsessive empathy obliterates, and Meet Us by the Roaring Sea cautions us against mistaking hubris or nihilism for selflessness—but the sweet spot before that threshold is worth aiming for. •