Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

This book had all kinds of features that normally make me crazy (whiney awkward young white male protagonist; teen inner monologue/dialogue that is trying so hard to be 'with it' & happenin' that it's painful; main character spending a lot of time not interacting with people so that everything that's happening has to be described through narration/inner monologue; lack of much dramatic tension). And yet, I was engrossed all the way through & just had to find out what happened next.

Somebody somewhere described this book as a cross between The Matrix and Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, which is absolutely spot-on. (Late eccentric billionaire creator of the world's now-pervasive virtual reality "second life"-style video game creates a wacky contest wherein the winner must prove his/her worth by solving a series of riddles & tasks in order to inherit said billionaire's fortune, including the game.) I didn't rush to read it when it came out because I knew the riddles/tasks were all based on kind of 70s/80s geek/nerd/gamer/whatever-you-want-to-call-it culture, which I've had a decent amount of exposure to but haven't really lived, & I was afraid a lot of it wouldn't make sense to me because of that. But, it turned out my passing exposure was plenty. I feel like I got 90%+ of the references & jokes, & any I missed clearly weren't crucial to the story. Still, I can absolutely see how people who are/were really into all that stuff & have much deeper knowledge of the culture would find it even MORE entertaining & amusing because they've actually lived it & probably catch a bunch of stuff I didn't.

So yeah. It was super entertaining, & complex & clever in terms of all the riddles/tasks/challenges, & it's clear that the author put a TON of time & effort into getting all that right & making it work out. The story, characters, etc., though, are not super deep or complex (predictable plot points, fairly tension-free, ending never in doubt), which probably makes it kind of perfect as a "beach read for geeks." I enjoyed it & was glad I finally gave it a shot.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee

To quote literary agent Janet Reid (whose blog I adore), "I read the book this week (it was a necessity since so many people were talking about it)...I knew that lightning doesn't often strike twice. My expectations were reasonable to low." In fact I feel like I can write almost this entire review by quoting other people, because now that I've finished it, I keep running across things other people have said much more eloquently than I would have & thinking, "Yes, that."

Reid again: "I can see very clearly how an editor reading this suggested the revisions that became Mockingbird...Mostly though I think someone thought 'hey we can make a boatload of money here' and didn't give a single thought to whether it was something that should, rather than could, be done."

Christian Lorentzen of The Vulture: "It’s structurally clunky...Jean Louise’s disillusion is overdone...and it defies plausibility." To be fair, "For stretches, especially in the nostalgic passages, Lee’s charm is evident on the sentence level, and this is surely what made her editor believe in her." But still, "Go Set a Watchman is a lousy novel. Boring, sentimental, trite, and a bit ugly."

To the point of its being published purely to make a boatload of money, "The appropriate publication of Watchman would have been a scholarly edition issued a few years after its author’s death. The only person who comes out of this affair looking good is Tay Hohoff, the Lippincott editor who told Lee to start over...Had Go Set a Watchman arrived as a scholarly curiosity, however, rather than as a preposterously overhyped publishing 'event,' it would have taken its logical place in the ongoing debate about the racial politics of To Kill a Mockingbird."

Reid: "I don't think it's an accident that this novel came to light only after the death of Miss Alice, Harper Lee's sister, and after the author herself was clearly disabled by age and infirmity. Honest to god, this is as clear a lesson in why you don't publish trunk novel as I've ever seen."

In spite of all that, I actually did enjoy reading it for the historical interest, and I just can't get too worked up about people weeping over how it "ruined" Atticus / Mockingbird for them, because HI IT'S FICTION. You know, PRETEND STORIES about MADE-UP PEOPLE who are NOT REAL? Lee abandoned Watchman & started over with Mockingbird. That's the whole point. Enough with the melodrama already.

Besides, The Vulture article makes an interesting point about that as well: "For a generation or so, a contrarian club made up of a minority of Mockingbird readers...have been arguing that Atticus Finch was less a saint seeking a political miracle than a man invested in the maintenance of the southern Establishment...The Atticus skeptics were at first angrily dismissed by the book’s many, many partisans devoted to the novel’s fairy-tale elements...As it turns out, the people who claimed to love the book most were wrong, and the ones who took issue with it were right. All along, Harper Lee had a more tortured view of the racial politics of the era, and the region, than her readers did...The inevitable conclusion is that she diluted the political complexity of her novel for us...We weren’t ready for an honest picture of a character based on her father...To judge by the first outraged response to the news that Atticus was all along, in Lee's mind, a white supremacist, we still aren't ready."

(Update: I thought this article from LitReactor in which Truman Capote reviews Watchman made some excellent points as well.)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Books Update: Quarter 2(ish)

BEHOLD, for it is time to speak of books.

The year is now half over (I will dispense with any melodramatic amazement regarding this fact, I'm sure you've had your fill already) and lo, it is time to pass judgment on the May & June selections of my 2015 Year of Classics. (January through April selections reviewed here.)

MAY: The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy (1997, 340 pages). For a long time I avoided reading any books about India because I know nothing about it and was afraid none of it would make sense to me. But now, having read this one plus two Salman Rushdie books in the last 12 months, I think I'm over that. This book was depressing as hell, yes, but still a beautifully written story about the complications of families, good and bad intentions, and children making sense of a complicated world as best they can. The narration of the story is not linear but jumps back and forth in time and between points of views of different characters. It begins at the end and ends in the middle, revealing more and more details about people and events and their histories and futures each time it circles around, and still keeps you guessing almost all the way to the end. Not a light, happy, fun read, but not a long one, packed with gorgeous language, & brilliantly written all around.

JUNE (Russian Heritage Month): Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866, 545 pages). Though it was a slog at times, I'm glad I stuck this one out because the ending was actually kind of good. Also, most of the beginning was good, too! The middle 2/3, however, were just kind of rambling & difficult to follow. I was expecting this book to be at least semi-awesome because HELLO IT OPENS WITH AN AXE MURDER, but after that I kind of felt like I'd been tricked into reading a parlor book. Just way, way, WAY too many scenes of people sitting around expounding on various class issues & the like whilst throwing shade at each other. Can't bring yourself to read the whole thing? Read parts 1 & 6 & call it good. You'll get the dramatic/interesting parts without missing too much (besides some only semi-relevant subplots).


I have read a lot of stuff lately but here are the titles I most highly recommend:

Reamde, by Neal Stephenson (2011, 1044 pages). 5 stars. Like much of Stephenson's other work, Reamde is ambitious, complex, and features a veritable legion of three-dimensional characters. As with most Stephenson books, I was principally amazed by his ability to keep approximately nineteen bazillion balls in the air in terms of plot & character arc. Likewise, I'm always incredibly impressed with how well researched every single aspect of the story is. But what really made this book for me were all the kick-ass female characters. Like, more than one! With actual distinct personalities! Who, like, do badass stuff to move the plot forward and serve as more than love interests for the male characters! So yeah. Like Neal Stephenson? You will not be disappointed. Never heard of Neal Stephenson but like a really smart, complex, well-written action/thriller/international espionage story? Give it a shot.

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993, 249 pages). 5 stars. I remember loving the movie when it came out & have always wanted to read the book, and I was not disappointed. Cleverly & poetically written, dark without veering into morbid/depressing, and utterly engrossing from the first page all the way to the end. (Also, now I really want to watch the movie again.) My first Jeffrey Eugenides & now I am curious to read more by him.

The Cider House Rules, by John Irving (1985, 973 pages). 5 stars. Fantastic. To me, this is exactly what young adult literature should be, except it never will be, because the idea of teenagers reading books about other teenagers dealing with actual, real teenage issues in a way that is not soft-focus or whitewashed or pulling its punches makes a lot of adults really, really uncomfortable. I mean no, I would probably not give it to my middle schooler as there is some pretty frank discussion of sex, abortion, & rape/incest (& a fair number of f-bombs), but having taught high school for many years, I don't think it's in any way beyond what most teens in the say 15+ range can handle. In spite of the sobering topics that it treats, the book isn't really about those things. At its heart, it's an absolutely beautifully written story about love (friendship, romantic, parental), finding one's place/"belonging," rules (of all kinds--explicit, unspoken, laws, etc.), and who gets to make what kinds of decisions for who, based on what, and why. Beautiful, meaningful, and tragically sweet in a thousand different ways.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. (2015, 290 pages) 5 stars. A great read for anyone who's into the intersection of sociology and the media (particularly online social media). Jon Ronson explores the recent phenomenon of epic public shaming, wherein a person makes a joke that comes across wrong or commits some kind of deception and then essentially has their career, life, and online identity soundly annihilated by the masses. Using as case studies such pilloried figures as Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Mike Daisey, Lindsey Stone, and Hank of the Adria Richards developer conference fiasco, Ronson explores how the semi-anonymous group-think nature of the latest technology has essentially brought back a punishment that was decommissioned in the US hundreds of years ago because its effects on the guilty were deemed too horribly cruel. If you're at all interested in the how-is-tech-changing-our-society question, you'll absolutely want to give this one a read.

Night Angel (trilogy), by Brent Weeks. (2009, 1392 pages) 4 stars. I probably only gave this 4 stars because I'm one book away from finishing is more recent series, Lightbringer, which so far is an utter masterpiece of epic fantasy. Night Angel can't help but suffer a little by comparison, but was still a fantastic read. Deft writing. Solid, three-dimensional characters that you kind of love and kind of hate. Complex and clever storytelling that artfully weaves together all kinds of political and personal and mythological history and keeps you guessing throughout who is a reliable source of information and who is not (and to what extent). Dialogue that is smart and witty and tight, and just poetic enough at the right times without getting flowery and cliche. Some of the most intriguing & well-written female characters I've ever read in a book written by a man. And once the thrills start, they're relentless to the end.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King. (2014, 436 pages) 4 stars. This book was my first non-Dark Tower Stephen King experience. It didn't strike me as the type of thing I would typically pick up on my own, but the reviews were glowing & coming off of Crime and Punishment I was really feeling the need for something sort of beach-read-y. You guys, I could not put this book down! That almost never happens to me. At every moment, I just had to know what happened next & felt truly put-upon any time I was forced to tear myself away to, like, go to work or whatever. Apparently that Stephen King knows a thing or two about book writing! Who wouldda thunk!?! I don't want to say it's "light" reading (it does open with a psycho killer in a Benz mowing down a crowd of people), but it's not depressingly dark or overly violent or graphic. There are some tense moments but probably nothing that will leave you feeling sick or give you nightmares. Yes, there are predictable moments and more than a few tropes, but it's clearly trying to be a certain type of story (think "NCSI" or "Criminal Minds"), and that, it does exceptionally well.

Where'd You Go Bernadette?, by Maria Semple. (2012, 330 pages) 4 stars. This book is mostly told as a collection of emails, letters, notes, reports, etc. about a high-up fancy tech man, his brilliant, formerly phenom-of-a-young-architect turned stay-at-home-mom/wife, and their precocious thirteen-year-old daughter. Hijinks, crises, and coming-of-age-type situations ensue. At first it struck me as just sort of cute but fluffy YA, but somewhere between maybe half & two thirds of the way through, The Plot Thickened, as did the characters and their personalities and situations. At that point, I had two thoughts: 1) Hm, this is maybe a little too intense in the f-bomby / mid-life-crisis-ey sense for the middle school set, which is too bad, because 2) suddenly the characters & their situations go from kind of flat & banal & boring to multi-dimensional and considerably more interesting, & some really complicated themes are introduced. I feel like a lot of YA books tend to steer clear of darker, tougher, more adult themes (because kiiiiiiiids), which is deeply lamentable in my opinion. Give teenagers a little more credit, huh? Also, hilarious if you've ever been involved with a private school.

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. (2003, 500 pages) 4 stars. The premise seems relatively straightforward at first: Claire's husband Henry occasional becomes "unstuck" in time and spontaneously disappears, materializing into the past or future for minutes/hours/days at a time. The twist, though (not a spoiler), is that Henry first met Claire when his thirty-something self materialized in a meadow near eight-year-old Claire's childhood home where she'd often go to play. Because Henry's travels seem to sometimes latch on to particular places and times, he ends up visiting her in the meadow at different ages every few months or so between the time that she is six and eighteen. At age twenty, Claire meets twenty-eight-year-old Henry for the first time in his own timeline--her with twelve years of memories of visits with Henry at various ages and the knowledge that they end up married, and him knowing nothing at all. The author has clearly done a good job of thinking through even the most minute details and weaving all the questions (and answers) about Henry's time traveling that arise into the story. Some of the relationship stuff was kind of cliche & felt a little bit like a fourteen-year-old's naive ideas about what grown-up dating/sex/marriage/etc. is like (see: the entire wedding sequence, BARF). But, by and large I enjoyed it, even if some parts of it are depressing as hell.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hakins. (2015, 336 pages) 4 stars. I can see why this book appeals to people who enjoyed Gone Girl: the disappearance of a woman under odd circumstances, multiple first-person narrators, palpable tension regarding which ones may or may not be reliable, and more and more criss-crossing secrets hinted at and/or revealed as the story goes on. It's a good mystery and I thought the author did a good job cleverly weaving the storylines, timelines, and points of view in a way that kept me guessing for a good while. Most chapters involved some kind of dropped hint that made me go, "Okay, hold up, what was THAT about?" And sometimes she'd just let it sit for a few chapters while I was all like, "YES BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ____ IN CHAPTER ___???" If you like that sort of book (murder/missing persons mystery, multiple potentially unreliable narrators, cleverly jumping around time in time and point of view to weave an intriguing story), you'll probably enjoy it.

* * *

Currently Reading: Consider Phlebas, by Ian. M. Banks

Currently Listening To: A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

Up Next: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, and either The Ocean At the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman, or Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami (haven't decided which yet)