Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)

My bookclub (go DAFFODILS!) decided to read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011) after reading the glowing review of the book on Boing Boing. We had been talking about reading something genre-y, and Cline is from Austin, so it seemed like a nice idea to support a first-time local author. I can't say I loved it as much as Boing Boing did, but although it has a few flaws, this is overall a solid piece of science fiction with nicely drawn characters and a fast-moving plot.

Ready Player One is set in a mid-century America (the 2050s not the 1950s) that is feeling the dire effects of a failing economy, environment, and social structure. Unemployment is off the charts, there is hardly any fuel, and crime and drugs are everywhere. No one seems to mind all that much, though, because everyone is plugged into the OASIS, an immersive virtual reality / Internet / gaming world that was invented by James Halliday. When Halliday dies in 2044, he surprises everyone by leaving his entire fortune and the control of the OASIS to whomever can solve the game he created (filled with references to the 1980s, the decade he grew up in) and find the Easter Egg he has hidden in the OASIS. People go crazy trying to solve his first riddle and find the first of the three keys, but years pass and soon most people lose interest or start to think that the whole thing is unsolvable. A sub-set of super nerd egg hunters (or "gunters") obsess over the puzzle and fill endless message boards with their research. And a giant evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries, puts together its own team of ringers to try and win the contest so it can subvert Halliday's intentions and use the OASIS for its own evil purposes. Then our hero, the 18-year-old orphan, Wade Watts, finds the first key.

Wade is a classic underdog: he has no parents, no money, lives with a mean aunt in a giant slum of stacked trailers outside of Oklahoma City, was beat up at school until he got hooked up with one of Halliday's projects to provide public education in the OASIS (and got free equipment to access his account), and spends most of his time in his hideout (a van deep inside a giant pile of abandoned cars). Wade focuses as little of his energy as possible on the real world and spends all of his time watching 80s movies, playing 80s video games, and reading about everything that James Halliday was ever interested in. He has one friend, Aech, who is a fellow gunter, and an unrequited crush on a girl gunter/blogger named Art3mis. When he finds the first key, his avatar becomes famous, and things really start rolling.

Cline does a good job of giving his reader enough context that even a non-geek can read through the reams of 1980s geek culture references in Ready Player One and keep up, but I think I would have gotten a lot more out of this book if I had that video game experience in my past, and if I had some kind of World of Warcraft-esque contemporary multi-player questing experience. I have a little bit of geekiness in my background -- my dad was always into computers and we had a VIC-20 while I was growing up that I would type programs into from a little book. As our computers got better, I got really into freeware games that I could order through the mail, especially text-based adventure games, and I spent many high school evenings logging into a local BBS (shout out to Cyperspace in Lincoln, NE!) that could host 20 people at a time on its message boards, chat rooms, and extremely popular trivia contests. No pictures back in those days, kiddies, just words! The local modemers would have midnight coffee meet-ups once a week, and once I was 16 with a job and a car, I would join the group. I was easily 10 years younger than everyone else there, and one of only a few women, but the modemers were always gentlemen and I got some more exposure to the world of the geek while watching them play Magic, prepare for Renaissance Faires, and have exhaustive debates about Star Trek. But while I was sitting right next to the ultra geek culture, I never really embraced it. I haven't really watched the shows and movies, I never played Dungeons and Dragons, and while I have sci-fi inclinations, they are rather unfocused. The big hole in my geek experience is video games -- beyond the text-based adventure games, I really have never played any video games seriously at any point in my life.

Beyond the slew of references, I don't always like Cline's writing style which sometimes seems to simple for his subject matter and can get a little ham-fisted when addressing larger social issues -- a friend mentioned that this might have worked better as a young adult novel, and I really agree with that. Cline also suffers from what I like to call Cory Doctorow-itis. I like Boing Boing too, but there is a certain holier-than-thou / know-it-all geekiness factor that oozes from those guys, and I can draw some parallels between the things that irked me about Cline's books with the things that irk me about the Doctorow I've read.

Style issues aside, Cline sets up a classic good vs. evil plot with a dash of young romance, coming of age, and rags to riches, that all builds to a satisfying conclusion. His vision of the future is inventive and smart, and as a reader I was never bored. Definitely recommended for science fiction fans, and fans of Cory Doctorow.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)

The always amazing Corie lent me this copy of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) quite some time ago, but even though I'd read it back in college, I decided I wanted to read it again. And I'm glad I did, because it is awesome and I didn't remember all that much about it. Atwood is an author that I read so much of in high school and college but not that much of for the past dozen or so years. I think I might need to rectify that...

In Alias Grace, Atwood gives us a literary true crime novel based on the real story of Grace Marks [archives connection: check out the neat interface on a digitized copy of their "true confessions" from the Toronto Public Library]. Marks was an Irish immigrant who came to Canada with her family when she was 12. Her mother died on the ocean voyage over, and her drunk father wasn't much of a provider for her and her many brothers and sisters. When she was almost 13 she took a job as a servant, her father and siblings eventually left Toronto for the west, and she was on her own. She worked through several positions, accepting an offer to serve as a maid at Mr. Thomas Kinnear's country home when she was almost 16. Mr. Kinnear was a wealthy bachelor, and something of a dark sheep in the neighborhood. His staff was very small, just Grace, the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (who was suspiciously close to Mr. Kinnear), and a recently hired man named James McDermott who saw to the horses and other outdoorsy chores.

Some facts are unarguable: in 1843 both Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear were murdered and their bodies hidden in the cellar. James McDermott and Grace Marks took valuables from the home and went to Toronto where they caught a ferry over to the United States. They were arrested the morning after they arrived, tried, and sentenced to death. McDermott was hanged, but Grace Marks had her sentence commuted to life in the Kingston Penitentiary. She also spent some time in the asylum.

In Atwood's book, we learn Grace's story through a mixture of contemporary newspaper clippings, the published confession, letters from the main characters, and Grace's own narrative, both inside her head and what she decides to say to Simon Jordon, a young psychiatrist who is studying her case. Grace claims that she has no memory of what happened during the time of the murders, and Simon hopes to cure her memory and find out the truth. Really, though, Simon is kind of a dilettante. He is an American who comes from money, and instead of taking over his father's company, he has decided to dabble in the emerging science of psychology. He spends some time in Europe, and then returns to North America but still can't face his clinging mother and her solitary goal of getting him to marry and settle down.

Grace is hard to figure out. By this time she has been in prison for 16 years and has learned how to read people and how to keep things to herself. She manages to seem both very innocent and straightforward and extremely dangerous and duplicitous. Atwood pitches Grace's voice just right so that even the reader (who is often inside her head) can't really tell what she has done and what she knows:

I am sitting in the sewing room, at the head of the stairs in the Governor's wife's house, in the usual chair at the usual table with the sewing things in the basket as usual, except for the scissors. They insist on removing those from within my reach, so if I want to cut a thread or trim a seam I have to ask Dr. Jordon, who takes them out of his vest pocket and returns them to it when I have finished. He says he does not feel any such rigmarole is necessary, as he considers me to be entirely harmless and in control of myself. He appears to be a trusting man.

Although sometimes I just bite the thread off with my teeth.
(p. 62)

Alias Grace is a satisfying fictionalization of a true crime and a well-researched piece of historical fiction, but it also engages issues of gender and class in meaningful ways, dips its toes into psychology, sex, the penitentiary system, mesmerism, quilting, journalism, immigration, and the occult. All that and it also manages to be a fascinating read that is hard to put down. Definitely one of my favorite of Atwood's novels, and a great place to start if you haven't read any of her books.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Baby Cat-Face by Barry Gifford (1995)

I bought this copy of Baby Cat-Face by Barry Gifford (1995) right after I finished an omnibus collection of Gifford's seven Sailor and Lula novels and read that this one also had some Sailor and Lula in it, even though it wasn't included in the collection. The wonderful Sailor and Lula are indeed in this novel, but more as a side show than the main attraction, so I can see why Gifford and his publishers don't include this one with the rest of the Sailor and Lula canon. But never fear: Baby Cat-Face is just as wild and weird and funny and awesome as the Sailor and Lula novels -- in fact, it might even be weirder.

Baby Cat-Face is a woman who has a cat-like face and who was nicknamed "Baby" since she was the baby of the family. Her real name is Esquerita Reyna, and she ends up in New Orleans hooked up with Jimbo Deal. One night while Jimbo is at work, Baby goes down to the Evening in Seville Bar on Lesseps Street to have a drink (rum and oj, which the bartender calls a "Rat Tango, as in 'I don't need no rat to do no tango at my funeral'") and ends up witnessing a murder. This freaks her out so much that she catches the first bus to North Carolina to get away from things for awhile and visit her aunt.

Things quickly veer out of control when Baby's bus is hijacked by a woman named Daylight DuRapeau who forces the passengers to watch an interpretive dance / poem performance put on by DuRapeau's spiritual leader. Baby and the friends she meets on the bus are rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of teenage Sailor and Lula out for a joy ride while Lula's mama is out of town. But it's when Baby goes back to New Orleans, sanctifies herself, and joins Mother Bizco's Temple of the Few Washed Pure by her Blood that things start getting really weird.

I won't give much more of the plot away since, in true Gifford fashion, the plot is a bit of a chaotic roller coaster and the meat of the story is the characters, the names, the one-sentence back stories, and the dialogue. Anyone who liked Wild at Heart or the other Sailor and Lula stories, who likes Southern literature and greasy gritty New Orleans, or who just likes to have a tornado of messy creativity bowl them over, should check out Baby Cat-Face and the rest of Gifford's novels.

[Gifford is apparently also an extensively published poet and non-fiction writer. I might have to get me some of those as well...]

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The World's One Hundred Best Short Stories, Volume 3: Mystery, edited by Grant Overton (1927)

I recently won this exciting pile of old books through a giveaway on the Forgotten Bookmarks blog (and if you don't follow that blog, you should, because it is awesome). And rather than just put them on my shelf and gaze at their pretty spines, I thought I'd read them. I know that is unusual behavior for me, but just bear with it.

Starting off the pile is one volume of a multi-volume collection of short stories edited by Grant Overton: The World's One Hundred Best Short Stories, Volume 3: Mystery (1927). The title page doesn't do this adorable 4"X6" book justice -- it was physically fun to hold and in great shape, with clear type and a nice binding. Oh, and the stories were pretty great too.

Overton's definition of mystery is broad and includes some authors who are still very well known today, and others that I'd never heard of. A very worthwhile collection, and most of the stories are available in full-text online since they were published before 1923 -- just Google them, fools!

Here's the line up:

"The Doomdorf Mystery," by Melville Davisson Post (1918)
A brain twister where two friends try to figure out how the town meanie was shot when he was locked in a room by himself that could only be opened from the inside. Everyone wanted him dead, but no one could actually have done it!

"The Three Strangers," by Thomas Hardy (1883)
During a christening celebration in an isolated cottage in rural England, a stranger comes knocking on the door to get out of the rain. A few minutes later, another stranger does the same. And while he entertains the company with a song about his profession, a third man comes to the door asking for directions, takes one look inside, and runs away as if his life depended on it.

"The Gold Bug," by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)
Probably the most famous story in this collection -- William Legrand and his former slave Jupiter live alone together on an island off the coast of South Carolina. While walking one day, they find an unusual gold colored bug that bites Legrand as he tries to catch it. Legrand soon starts acting very peculiarly, and sends Jupiter for his good friend, our unnamed narrator, who joins the pair on what turns out to be an extremely profitable expedition.

"The Guilty Secret," by Paul de Kock (1910)
A funny mystery of romantic misunderstandings, tobacco, and protective uncles who like to play backgammon.

"Out of Exile," by Wilbur Daniel Steele (1919)
Possibly my favorite story in the anthology -- a moody story of two brothers in love with the same young woman. When she makes a flippant comment at a party that the first to sail to the mainland and come back with a golden ring will be the one she marries, both brothers head out in a violent storm but only one returns. She refuses to believe that the missing brother has died, and won't marry until he can attend the wedding. Told through the eyes of a teenager in the village, and its the distanced but character-based narration that make this one so great. [Read it here -- do it!]

"The Knightsbridge Mystery," by Charles Reade (1896)
This is the most detective-y of all the stories in this collection. Tells the story of a British boarding house whose tenants include a down-on-his-luck retired Captain and a substantial business man. On a night when the Captain's fortunes have fallen further and the businessman has a bag full of all his collected rents, the businessman ends up murdered in his bed and all his money stolen. The murder is pinned on the drunken horsemaster, but a police detective finds too many doubts in the story and tests all the honest tenants with another irresistible set-up.

"Silence," by Leonid Andreyev (1910)
A heartbreaking story of a stern minister whose daughter kills herself without an explanation, and whose wife then has a stroke that leaves her unable to speak or move. Beautifully written, lonely, and harsh.

"The Doll's House," by Katherine Mansfield (1923)
Three young sisters receive a marvelously huge dollhouse from their aunt and savor the attention it brings them at school, hand selecting no more than two girls a day to come and see it. Everyone gets a turn except the little Kelveys, whose mother takes in laundry, and whose father is out of the picture. No respectable family will let their children play with the Kelveys! A wonderful balance between the open-minded excitement of the youngest sister (who really really loves the tiny lamp in the dollhouse) and the hilariously biting asides and descriptions of the "proper" adult society.

"A Terribly Strange Bed," by Wilkie Collins (1852)
An Englishman who has amazing luck at a seedy French casino soon finds himself exceptionally drunk and checked into a room at the gambling house for the night. But then he runs up against a terribly strange bed, and his night takes a turn for the worse. This one was great fun.

"The Bamboozling of Mr. Gascoigne," by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1925)
This one wins the award for most exciting title -- an American swindler in Monte Carlo hooks up with a local man and his niece when they try to swindle him out of the cost of their lunch. Together the three team up to bamboozle the titular Mr. Gascoigne.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann (2011)

The latest pick for me from the algorithms of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program was The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann (2011).

Alfred Buber does indeed live a double life, but he lives each half of his life at such a distance from himself, that even his double life doesn't seem to equal a whole person. Buber was born in Rhodesia, the son of a Jewish Communist and a British woman. He was sent to the U.S. for college, first living with his uncle, then in a boarding house while he completed law school. He never wanted to be a lawyer, but found that he was pretty good at it, and got a position with a prestigious firm. He spent almost no money on anything except the dream house that he was building in a commuter town outside of the city. He fills the house with artwork, and has the grounds impeccably landscaped. Then he moves into it alone.

Buber is a lonely guy. He had a brief fling in law school, but the only other time he spends with members of the opposite sex are the lawyers and secretaries at work, who mostly respect but ignore him, and the prostitutes that he visits habitually. It is that second interest that leads Buber to tell his boss and uncle that he is going on a trip to Paris while he really boards a plane for an un-named city in Southeast Asia, well known for its prostitutes. Once he is there, however, he is disgusted with the whole procedure, locks himself in his hotel room, and books a flight for home. But not before venturing down an ally off the main street and making his way into a small bar filled with beautiful young women in open robes. There he "meets" Nok, a young girl from the country, as she gives him a perfunctory blow job. He buys her a book to help her learn English and promises he will come back to her. Then he heads back home, but he can't stop thinking about Nok.

Buber is a liar. He lies when it is important that no one find out the truth about his secret life, and he lies when it is of no importance at all. He lies to himself, and he lies quite a bit to his reader (who is us, obviously, but also someone quite specific in Buber's life). Many reviews have called The Double Life of Alfred Buber Nabakovian, and the combination of self-delusion, self-awareness, and isolation definitely owe a debt to Humbert Humbert. But where Humbert's obsession has a strength and power to it, Buber's seems to result in half-hearted actions, eternal doubt, and more inconsequential lies. Schmahmann brings it all together in a well-earned exhale of an ending that is satisfying for its utter Buberness. This slim character study is worth reading if you like you unreliable narrators mixed with a little humor and a lot of discomfort.