Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Listen Up!

When I read John Schwartz' NYT essay about the audio books that he listens to while exercising, I immediately added Ready Player One to my TBR list.  According to Schwartz, Ready Player One was "the perfect marriage between author and reader".   The author, Ernest Cline, is a self described geek who is obsessed with '80s pop culture. The reader, Wil Wheaton, was one of the stars of the movie "Stand By Me", an 80s classic, and he is actually mentioned in the story.

Ready Player One is set in the 2040s in the Midwest United States.  The Great Recession has completed its third decade, and people desperate for a safe place to live have flocked to cities.  There, trailers, campers, and vans are stacked, 20 or 30 high, with a metal framing keeping them in place, and with several families occupying each.  Inside these trailers, each resident is voluntarily hooked into the OASIS.

The OASIS is the invention of James Halliday, and was said to have been launched in December of 2012.  The OASIS is something like Facebook, or if you have kids the age of mine, the Webkins' world, on steroids.  Each OASIS user would create an avatar, and do things through their avatar like explore outer space, go to school, or even fall in love with and marry another avatar, who he probably has never even met in real life.  Like a drug, the OASIS is addictive, and given the bleak state of reality, millions of users log into it each day to escape their lives.

Halliday was a reclusive billionaire who, like Cline, was obsessed with 1980s pop culture.  When he died, Halliday revealed a giant game in the OASIS, where people could try to piece together clues to solve riddles.  The ultimate prize for solving all of the riddles is control of the OASIS and Halliday's multi-billion dollar fortune.  The protagonist, who I haven't even mentioned yet, Wade Watts, joins the hunt for clues and spends every moment of his free time studying 1980s books, sitcoms, TV commercials, and especially video games in order to prepare for the challenge.

Wheaton's reading of the story is excellent.  He uses "up talk" so perfectly that although I was listening to the book on CD, I wanted to see the paper version to see if Cline actually had inserted  question marks where commas should be in his characters' conversations.  He did not.  I went on every extra errand that I could think of so that I could drive more in order to keep listening, but it still wasn't enough.  Yesterday, I checked the book out of the library so that I could read it too.

Now mind you, I have not spent more than $10.00 playing video games in my entire life.  I don't consider myself to be 80s obsessed.  But I could not get enough of Cline's book.  Cline has thought through the OASIS so thoroughly that I am wondering if he has applied for patents.  If he is half the geek that he claims to be, then he surely has.

I agree with Schwartz that sometimes the reader makes the audio book.  I've mentioned before that I thought I might not have liked a book as much if it hadn't been read in the right way.  With this in mind, I'm adding a new "label":  "Awesome Audio".  Just in case you haven't figured out how labels work yet, by clicking on "Awesome Audio" at the top of the column to your right, every review that I have tagged with that label will show up.  You can tell which labels I have used the most by the size of the font.  There are many more "NYT Notables" than there are "Recipes Included", for instance.

One thing that the audio listener will miss out on is Cline's own game.  Like Halliday, Cline is said to have left clues in both the paperback and hardcover versions of the book.  If the astute reader collects the clues and figures out the puzzle, there will be a video game challenge, and a DeLorean will go to the winner.  I did spot a couple of words or letters that appeared to have been marked.  Given my gaming skills however, I'm out.

As Schwartz mentions, writer John Scalzi has referred to Ready Player One as a "nerdgasm."  I couldn't agree more, and consider myself totally fulfilled.   Go. Get. It. And. Read.  Or better yet, Listen.  I'm also tagging this one as a Favorite.

One more down for the Support Your Library Challenge!

And Now, Back to Reading:  The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali.  At first, I was rushing through this one, because I wanted to be able to read Ready Player One instead.  Then I finally realized that I could put this book down, pick up RPO, and then return to this (approximately 36 hours later) when I finished RPO.

Next Up on CD: Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Another Guilty Pleasure

A couple of Augusts ago I told you about a few of my guilty pleasures.  Now I have one more to add to the list:  Jodi Picoult books.   I can't help liking them more than I want to.  In theory, I am opposed to reading any book that one can pick up at a grocery store.  However, there is something about Picoult's books that keeps me coming back, even though it's embarrassing to my inner literary snob.

Picoult books generally follow a formula.  A child does something wrong, or has an illness.  The family is traumatized dealing with it.  A lawyer gets involved.  A doctor gets involved.  There are predictable twists and turns, and the pages keep turning.  I talked about this formula earlier this year when I was wishing that This Beautiful Life  by Helen Schulman had been written by Picoult instead.  Change of Heart is another Picoult formula follower, and another page turner.

In Change of Heart, a woman, June, loses her husband and daughter in a double murder for which a handyman working at her home is convicted and sentenced to death.  Of course, June is pregnant at the time of the murders, and her baby is born with a defective heart.  One of the jurors is so affected by the death sentence that he helped to impose that he becomes a priest.  An ACLU attorney gets involved to challenge the death sentence, but the whole case gets complicated when the convicted killer decides not to fight the death sentence, and that he wants to donate his heart to June's child after his death. 

Did I mention that everyone thinks that the killer is performing miracles and may in fact be The Messiah?  I know, I know, that's too hokey.  But it worked.  Picoult takes the opportunity to inject a religious debate regarding one of my favorite subjects:  How can we take the Bible as the truth, if we don't know who edited it or translated it, or what they chose to omit or change?  She introduces the Gospel of Thomas which didn't make the final cut, and persuades me that I should really be Gnostic instead of Presbyterian.  All that from a book I could have picked up at a 7-11.

Someone who has read Picoult before will know that she doesn't waste words, and that if she is telling you something, it is for a reason.  Sometimes obvious foreshadowing shows that the author is an amateur, but Picoult foreshadows in such a way that the reader can feel smug about figuring out what is coming, and then keep reading to be rewarded for their good guessing.  It is somehow not disappointing to figure out the twists in advance, and in fact, it increases the tension as the reader waits for the characters to catch on.

Change of Heart is a great book, and I'm sure it would be a very quick read.  I listened to it on CD, which took about 15 hours, but that was due to all of the dramatic pauses.  I'm glad that I picked this up at last year's Typical Book Exchange - Thanks Laurie!  Oh, and this is another double-countsie for the challenges since I owned the book to begin with, but then listened to it on CDs that I check out of my library.

Next up on CD:  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  I have already listened to the first disc and I am loving it so far!

Still Reading:  The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Monday, August 20, 2012

Growing Bored

OK.  I'm quitting The Grown-Ups by Victoria Glendinning.  It is the story of a man, Leo, his first wife, his second wife, his mistress, his son, his second wife's friend who is in love with him, and his second wife's friend who married his son because she could not marry him.  111 pages in, I know nothing about Leo that would make him attractive to any of these people, other than that he is supposed to be a famous philosopher.  As if that's believable.

I picked up this book because I had read Electricity by Glendinning, and really liked it.  I looked back at Electricity when I was disappointed by The Grown-Ups, and my son's ultrasound from my second trimester of pregnancy fell out.  It's obviously been a couple of years since I read it, since my son is just getting ready to start his first trimester of high school.  Both The Grown-Ups and Electricity are set in England, but The Grown-Ups is set in the present day (of when it was written in the late 1980's) and Electricity is historical fiction.  The historical fiction may be a better fit for Glendinning, since she is better known for her biographies.  The Grown-Ups was actually written before Electricity, and maybe my mistake was reading something earlier by an author that I liked, rather than something more recent.

If I had taken The Grown-Ups with me on vacation, and I didn't have many other choices, I am sure that I would have finished it, and possibly grown to like it.  But with a house full of books waiting for me to read them, I just don't have time to waste on something so-so.

At least that's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up:  The Muslim Next Door:  The Qur'an, the Media, and That Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Almost Done Listening to:  Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult.  I think I'll be writing about this one tomorrow.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lions, and Gorillas and Asperger's, Oh My!

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman is a great summer book, and I'm not sure why more people aren't reading it!  I almost skipped it myself, because I though it sounded too much like State of Wonder  by Ann Patchett.  Like State of Wonder, Three Weeks is about a woman researching new medicines in a jungle.  But really, the similarities end there.

Three Weeks alternates between the story of Max, the woman referenced above, which is set in 2000 and the story of Jeremy, an engineer who is trying to build a railroad bridge, which is set in 1899 and 1900.  Both Max and Jeremy are from Bangor, Maine, and both travel to Africa for their work.  Max and Jeremy face the challenges of Africa in their times, and find themselves acclimating more than they expected.

When we read State of Wonder, the Friends Book Group discussed whether or not the character, Dr. Swenson, had Asperger's Syndrome.  I, personally, ruled out Asperger's, and declared her a psychopath.  In Three Weeks, Max is open about the fact that she is "an Aspie".  She has spent a lifetime studying the behaviors of  typical people, who she calls "normals", in order to figure out what she should do in every situation.  Max's mom has helped her to fit in, while accepting her as she is.  There is one touching scene in which we hear that since Max can't hug people, when she wants to hug her mom, they sit near each other on the couch, each hugging the other's empty winter coat.  Schulman does a great job of explaining Aspergers though Max's actions, and Max's declarations to others.  In that sense, this book had a little of the feel of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, where Genova educated the reader about early onset Alzheimer's.  For Max, her Aspergers' becomes an advantage when she begins to study the gorillas who are said to chew on the plant that she came to Africa to find.

Jeremy's story starts off as a story of American arrogance, reminding me of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  Like the father in Posionwood, Jeremy is certain that if he could just bring enough American tools, techniques, and determination to Africa, the continent could be transformed.  As with the father in Poisonwood, the jungle fights back, establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with.  Jeremy also struggles to fit in with society, both in the US and Africa, and occasionally looks a little "Aspie" himself. 

In Max's time, there is a group of child soldiers, called the Kutu, who are armed with weapons, and rumored to be cannibals.  Throughout the story, they are constantly creeping closer and closer to Max's research station.  In Jeremy's time, there are man-eating lions who are hunting and eating his workers.  Jeremy becomes an unlikely hunter, but is also aware that the lions are on his trail.  The reader is always wondering whether both Jeremy and Max, one of them, or neither of them, will make it out of Africa alive.

All told, Three Weeks in December is a page turner, full of action and ethical issues.  It would be a great book group book, because even at the end there is a lot to discuss.

That's one more down for the Support Your Library Challenge!

Next up:  The Grown-Ups by Victoria Glendinning

Still Listening to:  Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult.  I am liking this one much more than I expected!  You'll hear more about it soon . . .

Monday, August 6, 2012

Next Year in Jerusalem

So why, exactly, did I read New American Haggadah?  Because Jonathan Safran Foer edited it.  That's why. 

A Haggadah is a book of readings for the Seder dinner during Passover.  As a Presbyterian, I first learned about a Haggadah when I read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.  That book is about the very famous Sarajevo Haggadah, which has survived since around the year 1350.  There are many Haggadahs, and my assumption is that most Jewish families probably have one that they bring out year after year. 

At first I was put off by the size of JSF's Haggadah.  It is the same size as my daughter's hard cover middle school yearbook, to give you an idea.  That made it inconvenient for taking with me to read in spare moments.  But then it occurred to me that a Haggadah is really not meant for reading in random minutes, and that the size is probably very suitable for positioning on a Seder table.  Additionally, the art work on the pages is in watercolor, mostly in jewel tones.  After reading just the introduction, I learned that it is common for the pages of a Haggadah to become wine stained, which will blend in perfectly with the art.

New American Haggadah has commentary every few pages, with sections titled "Playground", "Library", "Nation" and "House of Study".  The Playground sections were the best, with wisdom aimed at children.  For instance, here the child is advised how to respond to the four kinds of parents at the Seder table, in parody of the four kinds of children referenced in the reading.  The Simple Parent will say "'. . . stop slouching at the table.' In answer to such statements, the Wise Child will roll his eyes in the direction of the ceiling and declare, 'Let my people go!'  The Parent Who Is Unable to Inquire has had too much wine and should be excused from the table."  The Playground also points out how Elijah has it much better than Santa, since Elijah is welcome to eat anywhere and Santa only gets cookies if he bribes children with presents.

As a new comer to the Haggadah, I learned a lot, though admittedly, I skimmed some of the readings.  The three things that I like about the Haggadah (not just this one, but the Haggadah as a whole) are:

1.  The whole point of the Haggadah is to help Jewish celebrants to remember.  As such, there are step by step instructions as to who should say what, and what should be consumed when.  No one is expected to remember on their own, and the directions are clear. 

2.  The Haggadah changes over time, and for the intended reader.  For example there's Haggadah for Jewish Buddhists, a feminist Haggadah, and an optional orange added to the Seder in recognition of marginalized members of the community.

3.  It is a do-it-yourself project.  The Open Source Haggadah is an online software framework that makes it easy for a person to make their own Haggadah.

So, should you rush out and get New American Haggadah?  If you are in the market for a Haggadah, absolutely!  However, if you, like me, are looking for something Jonathan Safran Foer-ish, you won't find it here. 

Next up:  Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman

Still Listening to:  Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Trabi vs The Groundhog

When we first meet Vladimir Girshkin in The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart, he is cast as a pathetic character.  The only child of Russian immigrants, Vlad is working at an "Immigrant Absorption Society" at a low level desk job in New York City.  We get the impression that Vlad is a sort of stunted guy with not much going on, even though his girlfriend is a dominatrix.  That a guy who lives with a dominatrix can be portrayed as a boring loser is just one of the many twists that Shteyngart incorporates into this story of post-Communist chaos.

Despite the dominatrix, Vlad is living a somewhat normal life, until he falls in love with another woman, and realizes that he will need to supplement his income.  Being inventive, Vlad comes up with shady schemes, which eventually make it unsafe for him to continue living in New York.  Taking advantage of an opportunity that first presented itself at the Immigrant Absorption Society, Vlad flees America for Prava, "the Paris of the 1990's."

Like Absurdistan, the city where Shteyngart set his later novel by that name, Prava is entirely invented.  It is vaguely somewhere in the former Soviet Union, and I imagine it being closer to Germany than Kazakhstan, but that's just me.  Also like Absurdistan, Prava is full of Russian gangsters trying to take the city over from the long time citizens, here known as "Babushkas".  "Babushka" is actually the only word that I remember from my high school and college Russian classes, meaning "Grandmother".

In Prava, Vlad quickly reinvents himself into a person of great status.  He has read something about a Ponzi scheme, and thinks that he can pull one off.  A gangster named "The Groundhog" sets Vlad up with a generous allowance, which he is supposed to use to lure in American ex-pat investors.  To everyone's dismay, it works.  Of course, all good criminal enterprises must come to an end, and Vlad again finds himself on the run.

Shteyngart is clever with his characterizations, and the mood of the period.  Although the book was published in 2002, the story is set in 1993, fresh after the Berlin Wall's collapse.  One of my favorite parts was where Vlad met Morgan, and was surprised that she would actually say what she thought, rather than relying on the things one is supposed to say to be thought of as cool.  "Was she, perhaps, a stranger to hipness?"  Vlad asks himself, feeling a little protective of her. 

Shteyngart relies on the stereotypes of the Russian gangsters being dressed in track suits, driving black luxury vehicles, and acting like trigger happy alcoholics, reminding me of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  In The Corrections,  an American character, Chip Lambert, finds himself, like Vlad, cast as an unexpected gangster.  Could it be that the stereotypes of Russian entrepreneurs of the 1990s are so accurate that it is OK to use them? 

The unsung hero of The Russian Debutante's Handbook  was the Trabant, which allowed Vlad to reach his final destination.  The Trabant, or Trabi, was something of a staple in Eastern Europe, especially before the fall of the Soviet Union.  Trabis were utilitarian cars, which would get a person from point A to point B, but not much else.  However, since there weren't a lot of choices, they were as good as it got for most people.  Here is what one looks like:

My sister, like Vlad, found herself in Eastern Europe in the early 1990's.  She was teaching English to residents of the former Eastern Germany.  While she was there, she bought a Trabi, and when she came home, she disassembled parts of it to take with her and make into something of a collage. It is easy to cheer for Vlad and the mighty Trabi when the Groundhog and a fleet of BMWs are in pursuit.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook was a NYT Notable Book for 2002.  For me, it's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and a double countsie that counts for the Support Your Library Challenge too, since I listened to it on CDs checked out from my library.

Next up on CD:  Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

Still Reading:  New American Haggadah by Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer

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