What We’re Actually Reading: This Is How You Die

Posted on January 21, 2015 by


So this is maybe not the bonus post you were expecting, but it’s a feature I’ve wanted to do for a while now. Given that this is a books blog and all, I’ve been interested in starting up an extra series on the side about books that I’m actually reading. For fun, in contrast to the main thing we do over here at Bad Books, Good Times, which is self-describing. And feel free to talk about whatever books you (yes, you, reader!) might be reading right now. This is a books blog. I figure people might also maybe be interested the books they’re actually reading too maybe.

I’ve got a bit of a backlog of books I’d like to do, although I’d like to try to stick more or less to what I’m actually reading at the moment, as the title would suggest. Also, I promise The Room is coming back eventually.

This Is How You Die

It’s a lot like what it sounds like!

this is how you die

It’s a collection of short stories that take place in a world in which people know how they’re going to die. I could keep explaining it, but it’s really best explained by the comic that conceptualized it. Ryan North, who edits this series and wrote one of this collection’s best stories (and whose work I’m a pretty obvious fan of), first came up with the idea for the Machine of Death in his webcomic, Dinosaur Comics, back in 2005:

dinosaur comic machine of death

Because the internet is this weird place where someone can make a joke that then suddenly wills itself into becoming an actual thing, a short story collection came together. In 2010, Machine of Death was independently released, went to #1 on Amazon (outselling Glenn Beck’s new book that also came out the same day, which he was publicly very pissed off about), and also immediately became one of my favorite things. Other fans of the comic wrote stories that ran in so many different directions, and it was fascinating how the stories took the same idea and created incredibly poignant stories. The core idea behind a machine that predicts a person’s death doesn’t really seem all that out-there when you realize how frequently stories use death to comment on life.

I had less interest when I heard about the second collection, This Is How You Die, partly because the first one did gradually become a bit hit or miss. This Is How You Die, then, is sort of an incredible feat for topping the original in every way possible. I’m hardly the first to say that, but it’s really astounding how much this second collection of stories has greater range and imagination. There’s a fantasy one from the perspective of an orc. There’s a choose your own adventure one. There’s a government propaganda illustrated children’s story. There’s a goddamned Sherlock Holmes fanfiction one. It really does go above and beyond everything I loved about the first one.

Possibly most astounding of all, not one of the stories uses the original comic’s ironic twist at the center of the story. A great deal of them don’t even feature the main character dying. People come to terms with their fate, use their fate for the greater good, lie about their fate for financial gain, and sometimes make terrible decisions, because even in stories focused entirely on people knowing how they’re going to die, that’s just life, isn’t it?

Can You Explain It In Terms Of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

It’s sort of like in House of Night where Stevie Rae was dying, yeah? Except if we were actually supposed to know about it, rather than just knowing because it was super obvious foreshadowing. So it wouldn’t have actually been that different, now thinking about it.

At least, for the reader. The characters, however, could have benefited from a little reflection on the human condition. I’m not saying every book would be improved if the characters were cognizant of who was going to die (that’d be super dumb), but maybe Stevie Rae’s death would have been more genuinely poignant if Zoey at least took some time to reflect on her friend and appreciate the role she had in her life, rather than chalk up her obvious impending death to her period.

Alternatively, reading This Is How You Die is sort of like reading Tris’s death wish in Insurgent, except where everybody’s dealing with the inevitably of death rather than Tris’s totally avoidable death wish. You’re allowed a much more insightful take on how characters define value in their life and death when you’re not constantly thinking, “NO TRIS NO”.

No, I have no idea how I’m going to explain any of the nonfiction books I read in terms of other books we read on the blog. We’ll just see what happens.

And Also Currently Listening

Ok, I know this starts to be a stretch from thinking people reading a book blog might be interested in more talk about books, but I used to do a small music diary type-thing way back in the day on my personal blog and it was really fun for me, and I kind of want to give it a try again. So (maybe) every time I do a “What I’m Actually Reading”, I’ll also talk a bit about some of the music I’ve been listening to lately, in case anyone’s curious/still reading this.

First off, I know I’m late to the party with FKA twigs, and only just had my first listen earlier this week. I love music that finds a way to use its own jarring essence to smooth itself out. I was surprised re-listening to this just how listenable it was, when my initial impression was that it was alienatingly unfiltered.

I’m always kind of embarrassed whenever I get into actual conversations about hip hop, because my go-to favorite artists (Kanye, Lupe, probably another act ending with an “ayyy” sound I can’t think of right now) aren’t exactly difficult choices. A friend of mine told me to check out Kendrick Lamar, and after seeing him perform as the last ever musical act on The Colbert Report, I went exploring. I especially like his delivery on “Sherane”, where he starts out almost completely forgoing rhythm and meter, sounding like basically anyone just starting to tell a story. And then another friend of mine told me that they’d tried to get me to listen to Lamar years earlier. Oops.

And I’ll wrap up with Neko Case‘s “Man”, which I recently rediscovered in all its acerbic, stinging glory.