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01 November 2015

Book Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ok. I would have loved this book even if it didn't remind me that the old Atari Joust video game existed. I had entirely forgotten about it but as soon as Cline described it, in all of its oddity, I gasped. Man! I LOVED that game! I haven't thought about it since 1983 but suddenly there I was in an arcade in a mall in Miami, my braces newly tightened and my pockets stuffed with quarters. Later I would go to the Camelot Records to grab 45s of the Billboard top 5 to pack in my suitcase and haul back to Jamaica, where I was living at the time. Our American culture came shipped in duffle bags when any of us went to the states. No satellite TV, certainly no internet. Music on vinyl smuggled through customs, hidden along with our M&Ms and our soft toilet paper. NPR in the mornings over shortwave radio. A VCR as big as an ottoman on which we would watch tapes of movies pirated from HBO while someone was in the states (I still get giddy when I think of the feature presentation flyover intro; that music meant something NEW, something exciting! Cannonball Run!) D&D games played on someone's veranda. Epic sword wars and treasure hunts waged through the hills and dales of our fenced-in ex-pat compound. Once, when lighting struck near the pool we were swimming in, we all scrambled out and then my pal Jocko pulled his dice out of the pocket of his swim trunks and rolled to see if we were dead.

This book took me right back to those years. It made my heart warm. It is a deftly crafted combination of dystopian search for justice and hard-core nostalgia, all wrapped up into a cohesive package by a creative and wholly original story line.

Of course, these kids of 2044 know more about the 80s than I ever did, or ever will. I'm no expert. But I lived through it, just like the nice old lady Wade knows, so I've got cred!

I do worry about something like OASIS becoming our actual future. I worry about complete immersion in a world that isn't real. I see the possibility of it very clearly; Facebook is a primitive version of where I fear we're going. On FB, we create a version of ourselves that isn't quite honest. It's an entire online community of people attempting to find meaning by narrating and documenting their meaninglessness. It's only a short step to finding meaning by creating a new person to live in a different world where we might do better than we're doing in the real world. That idea is attractive. It's addictive. But it isn't real. As Groucho Marx once said, "I'm not crazy about reality, but it's still the only place to get a decent meal."

But that alternate unreality also lets people overcome physical disability, racial stereotyping, and gender stereotyping. Wouldn't it be nice if we could present a physically perfect version of ourselves for people to know? Because if we can control everything about how we look, we can all be physically perfect. Then what creates difference, what creates depth and connection, is what we say. What we do. Who we are. Cline plays a bit with this part of it with his characters. None of them are what they seem to be online. But the best parts of themselves still show through. And the best parts of themselves have nothing to do with what they see when they look in the mirror. Or what they look like online.

I wish Cline had been a little less pat with the ending. It seemed like an easy way out. But maybe he did that because he's going to use a sequel to dig into the unanswered what ifs. I hope so. Because I want to know what happens next.

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Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I was reading this one, my 11 year old son was halfway through The Name of the Wind. He and I were sitting on the couch, both reading, when I gritted my teeth and sucked in my breath.
"What?" he asked, alarmed. "Did something awful happen?"
"No," I replied. "There's just a sex scene and I'm wondering whether I can let you read this book now."
"Oh," he said. "Felurian? I already guessed about her. It's on the back of this book, see? 'I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life.' I'm ready. I already know they have a lot of sex."

Oh. Ok. Well. Carry on then, not-yet-12-year-old.

I liked this book. Not as much as the first book, but enough that I read it quickly and found myself thinking of the characters and the story-line when I wasn't reading.

I've read some reviews that complain about the tangential nature of the story. But that's life, isn't it? Wandering from thing to thing without a clear path, though a path sometimes reveals itself in hindsight. Kvothe is on such a circuitous path. He has cunning, strength and a hell of a lot of luck. He is also curious and dedicated to justice, which causes all of his tangents.

I was fascinated by the Adem; to imagine a society where facial expressions are discouraged and physical movement instincts are always wrong. It was like Bulgaria writ large; in Bulgaria, shaking your head means yes. Nodding it means no. I did not realize how often I unconsciously move my head when assenting or refusing; one night, I ended up three sheets to the wind because I kept accidentally telling the waiter I wanted more wine. My words said no, but my head said yes. With the Adem, I imagined trying to navigate learning a whole new way to express what we tend to intuit. Respectful Fascination.

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19 October 2015

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well that was fun!

Not since the Harry Potter series have I been so excited to sit down and dive into someone's story. And a rather ingenious way of telling it.

Much like Rowling, Rothfuss has created an original world that intrigues and inspires. And characters that you ache to know better. Much like Pullman, Rothfuss refrains from over-explaining. There is no long discourse about who Tehlu is, but eventually, you figure it out, through context. There are still things I'm not sure of, words or concepts I don't understand. There's the wiki, of course, but I choose to just keep reading and, perhaps, discover the definition of the meaning within the writing itself.

But Rothfuss is far from derivative. His story, his ideas, are fresh and original. And entirely compelling.

Bits of wisdom and gotcha writing (meaning "gotcha thinking, didn't it?"):
"The difference is between saying something to a person, and saying something about a person. The first might be rude, but the second is always gossip."

"It's not as if I expect you to bound off looking for Haliax and the Seven yourself. 'Small deeds for small men,' I always say. I imagine the trouble is in finding the job small enough for men such as yourselves. But you are resourceful. You could pick trash, or check brothel beds for lice when you are visiting."

"The truth is this: I wasn't living in a story. Think of all the stories you've heard, Bast. You have a young boy, the hero. His parents are killed. He sets out for vengeance. What happens next?
"He finds help. A clever talking squirrel. An old drunken swordsman. A mad hermit in the woods. That sort of thing."
"Exactly! He finds the mad hermit in the woods, proves himself worthy, and learns the names of all things, just like Taborlin the Great. Then with these powerful magics at his beck and call, what does he do?"
"He finds the villains and kills them."
"Of course! Clean, quick, and easy as lying. We know how it ends practically before it starts.. That's why stories appeal to us. They give us the clarity and simplicity our real lives lack."

"But when you came down to it, nothing really frightened him, not storms, not tall ladders, not even the scrael. Bast was brave by being largely fearless. Nothing would turn him pale, or if it did, he didn't stay pale for long. Oh, certainly he didn't relish the thought of someone hurting him. Stabbing him with bitter iron, searing him with hot coals, that sort of thing. But just because he didn't like the thought of his blood on the outside didn't mean he was really afraid of those things. He just didn't want them to happen. To really fear something you have to dwell on it. And since there was nothing that preyed on Bast's waking mind in this fashion, there was nothing his heart truly feared."

"Imre offered what every artist needs most--an appreciative, affluent audience."

"We talked through the long hours of the night. I spoke subtle circles around the way I felt, not wanting to be overbold. I thought she might be doing the same, but I could never be sure. It was like we were doing one of those elaborate Modegan court dances, where the partners stand scant inches apart, but--if they are skilled--never touch. Such was our conversation. But not only were we lacking touch to guide us, it was as if we were also strangely deaf. So we danced carefully, unsure what music the other was listening to, unsure, perhaps, if the other was dancing at all."

"...accent so thick and oily you could almost taste it."

"Using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself. Impossible. Confusing. Frustrating."

"No. Cruel is a good word for her. But I think you are saying cruel and thinking something else. Denna is not wicked, or mean, or spiteful. She is cruel. Denna is a wild thing. Like a hind or a summer storm. If a storm blows down your house, or breaks a tree, you don't say the storm was mean. It was cruel. It acted according to its nature and something unfortunately was hurt."

"There's a fundamental connection between seeing and being. Every Fae child knows this, but you mortals never seem to see. We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be."

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13 October 2015

Book Review: Fates and Furies

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 A golden boy. A statuesque goddess. United in a young marriage--and a marriage of the young--that their circle of friends and family simultaneously idolize and criticize.

The story of the golden boy is told first. Then the story of the meeting and the marriage. Lotto (the boy) is fully described but never fully clear; Groff allows the reader to see him through different eyes and through different moods. At once he is handsome and tall and cartoonish and giant. His wife, Mathilde, is beautiful and stark and tall and grotesque. Shades of where Groff is going with exploring the dirty work that goes on inside a psyche while the world sees only what we allow them to see.

Which leads us to the story of the girl; her life without the lens of the boy's idealized vision of her perfection and impending sainthood. This section is labeled "Furies" which made me go back and realize that the whole first section, the story of the boy, was labeled "Fates"

Fates and Furies; Greek mythology. The Fates decide one's destiny. The Furies punish those who deserve punishment. The Graces make several uncredited appearances in the guise of the endless parties of friends that encircle the boy and the girl in the early years.

Analogy writ large here. And mostly constructed well.

I will stop short of calling this a work of genius. But it made me think. About marriage. About truth. About lies. About omission. About relationships. About the nature of hurt and abandonment. About the nature of revenge. About the gentle padding towards oblivion that we humans can either make pleasant and wonderful or a death march. Or, mostly, somewhere in between.

In the NPR review of this book, the reviewer wrote "The book is a master class in best lines; a shining, rare example of that most unforgiving and brutal writer's advice: 'All you have to do is write the best sentence you've ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something.'"

Usually, I dog-ear pages where there is a particular word combination or idea that gives me pause; finding deep meaning in a pull-quote. But I didn't dog-ear many pages in this book. Is that because, as this NPR reviewer claims, that the whole book is a pull-quote? That the thoughtful-clever-amazing is so constant that it doesn't stick out enough for me to dog ear?

I didn't feel overwhelmed by literary brilliance while I was reading and maybe that's the brilliance of this book. In re-reading my dog-ears, I realize that most of them are not as pull-quote-worthy as I thought while I was reading, which probably means that more context is needed, which is the mark of a well-constructed book.

However, one of my dog-ears, early in the book, encapsulates, and foreshadows, the entire story. This description comes at the end of a party scene; during the party, the inner monologue of the main characters was alternately dark, hopeless and graceless. But they partied anyway, bathed in light and drink, singing carols to banish the inner gloom;

"A stranger hurrying as fast as he could over the icy sidewalks looked in. He saw a circle of singing people bathed in clean white from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children, who were already sleeping in their beds, to his wife crossly putting together the tricycle without the screwdriver that he'd run out to borrow. It remained long after his children ripped open their gifts and abandoned their toys in puddles of paper and grew too old for them and left their house and parents and childhoods, so that he and his wife gaped at each other in bewilderment as to how it had happened so terribly swiftly. All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, became the very idea of what happiness should look like."

A microcosm of the lesson of the book--things, and people, are never what they seem. A lesson that becomes ever-more important in today's social media saturated society, where we are all given tools--more tools than we have ever had before--to pretend to be more, or less, than we are. And get away with it.

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01 October 2015

Guns don’t kill people. People (with guns) kill people

It’s my favorite ridiculous counter-argument to the idea of gun control; “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Let’s apply the same logic to something else. "Cars driven by drunk people don’t kill people. Drunk people who drive cars kill people." That sounds ridiculous, right? And, fairly universally, we, as a society, have tried to take cars out of the equation when people drink too much. We don’t always succeed, but at least we are trying.  In 1982, there were over 26,000 drunk driving fatalities. In 2013, there were just over 10,000. We’ve made progress. We haven’t eliminated drunk driving fatalities but we’ve made giant strides. And it helps that there’s not a high-powered, impressively-financed lobby group dedicated to citing driving drunk as one of their constitutional freedoms and fighting like hell to keep allowing people to kill people due to their skewed perception of what freedom is.
  • (addendum - 5 October 2015 - it has been pointed out that the paragraph above is unfair. Agreed. It would have been a better analogy had I written "And it helps that there's not a high-powered, impressively-financed lobby group dedicated to citing driving as one of our constitutional freedoms and fighting like hell to keep that right, to the point of patently ignoring that drunk driving is a problem."  I don't think it's an unfair analogy to imply that the tactics and views of the NRA often seem outrageous to those of us who advocate for better laws and procedures governing access and control; just as a lobbying group designed to protect our right to drive, regardless of whether we are fit to drive, would seem outrageous.)
Yeah. I don’t usually speak so candidly. But I’m pissed off. 
There was another mass shooting today. I don’t know anything about it because I try to keep myself on news blackout where mass shootings are concerned. But I can only assume that some messed up kid took his gun to campus and opened fire. The Onion lampooned shootings like this in May of 2014; “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” reads the headline. “At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless.’” Helpless. I’ve remained quasi-underground since my own experience with a mass shooting. I haven’t told very many people my story. Nor have I been open about the toll it’s had on my own life. But if I could describe my overall angst in the aftermath of the shooting, “helpless” might be the word I’d choose. Or impotent. I feel impotent. I felt impotent on April 13. Even as I ran through the building doing things to try to keep hundreds of people safe, I felt impotent. It’s a feeling that haunts me. Nothing I did that day changed the outcome for anyone who was there. Nothing I can do now will change what happened then. Nothing I can do will prevent it from happening again. And it seems nothing we can do will prevent it from happening again. But we have to stop it from happening. Or at least take steps to reduce the frequency. Because each mass shooting has more victims than you hear about in the news. You know what goes through my mind when there's a mass shooting? I certainly don’t think about the shooter. I don’t even think about the victims. Or their families. Sound callous? Maybe. Yet I am not invalidating the horror that sits on the top layer of tragedies like this. Not at all. But I know, all too well, that the horror goes so much deeper than that top layer. Layers upon layers of secondary, indirect victims. Layers upon layers. We will never really know how many lives change each time a person uses a gun to make a point. My life changed. I have spent a year-and-a-half struggling with what I went through that day and the ongoing aftermath. And “struggle” is a term I’ve chosen deliberately. I once had a boss who told me that he didn’t struggle, he “engaged challenges.”  "Engaging a challenge" makes it seem like you have a choice in the matter. I didn’t have a choice. So I "struggle." Mightily. It could be said that nothing really happened to me. I was not hurt. No one I’m close to was physically injured. I didn’t know the victims or their families personally. I just happened to be there that day. At work. Like I was most days. Read all the coverage of the April 13 shooting. You’ll never see my name. Or the names of the hundreds of other people who were unwilling witnesses to that horrendous moment in time. But I struggle. They struggle. In our own ways and at many different levels, we all struggle. Our lives were changed. From now on, when you read about a shooting, imagine the layers. For every victim who makes the news, there are tens or hundreds of people who witnessed, feared, panicked, cried, helped, cared, and responded. Their lives were changed. Knowing that more American die in gun homicides and suicides every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined should be enough to get us off our collective asses and do something about it. But it's not, apparently. So think of the layers; the silent victims. We need to do something. We shouldn’t be able to buy our ammunition at Wal-Mart, along with our Cheetos and our super-sized packs of toilet paper. We regulate toys, food, TV, radio, mutual funds, school lunch, fuel economy and how big your Coke can be. Shouldn’t we regulate guns? We shouldn’t be in love with an antiquated version of the right to bear arms that was developed when guns were not the weapons they are now. If we see someone descend into the darkness, we should be able to help them find help. Or, at the very least, take away their ability to hurt others. What? Am I threatening to take your guns away? Damn right I am. I’m going to take your gun if I am worried you’re going to hurt someone with it. Just like I’d take your car keys if you were drunk. When I was in high school, I was at a party where everyone but me was three sheets to the wind. I took all the keys. Every set. One of my more strident friends yelled at me. He sloppily accused me of turning a fun party into an after-school special. He slurred that I should just leave him alone, for fuck’s sake. But I didn’t leave him alone. I took his keys and drove him home. For fuck's sake. And maybe he’s alive today because I did that. Because I did something. For fuck's sake. Now we, the collective we in this great United States of America, need to do something. For fuck’s sake. You can love your guns and still see the need to do something to stop this. Just like you can love drinking at the bar but know that there’s a sense of societal responsibility that comes with your freedom to drink yourself into oblivion. We need to do something. And the first thing we need to do is be able to have a conversation about gun control without it degenerating into a tug-of-war about rights and freedoms. Because freedom won’t do you a damn bit of good if you’re dead. For fuck’s sake.

Book Review: The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The magic of this book is that it is simultaneously nebulous and unequivocal. While you're never quite sure what's going on, you know exactly what it all looks like. And smells like. And feels like.

The magic of this book is that it doesn't over-explain itself. It just immerses you and expects you to figure out a way to get it. To see magic where you were unaware magic existed.

The magic of this book is that it makes you pine for a place like the Night Circus even as you know that such a place cannot possibly exist.

The magic of this book is feeling the guilt of wanting the Night Circus to survive even while knowing that, to do so, characters have to be in peril and make sacrifices. Do you care more about the characters or about the circus?

The magic of this book is lines like, "He was seeking immortality, which is a terrible thing to seek. It is not seeking anything, but rather avoiding the unavoidable."

And lines like, "The past stays with you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it's still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now."

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07 September 2015

Book Review: The Killer Angels

The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I've never liked historical fiction; putting words and actions into people who have become icons of history. Imagining conversations and personalities. Molding happenings just a little to fit your narrative line. Shaara does all of this in The Killer Angels. The two most egregious maybe/maybe nots; Did Chamberlain really order the bayonet charge on Little Round Top? Did Longstreet really disagree with Lee ordering Picket's Charge? No historian I've found seems to be sure of the real truth. But Shaara has written it thusly. Then they made a movie out of it. So now it has become true. But is it? No way of knowing.

And the problem with questioning some of the history in this book is that it makes you question all of the history, which makes it readable but impossible to trust.

And readable it was, for sure. It made me want to visit Gettysburg and look at the terrain (I have a horrible time envisioning things like troop movements, despite the many maps Shaara included) It made me want to fine a history of the battle and read it. It made me want to know more about Longstreet and the Mexican War. So as a jumping-off point for learning more about history, this was a good book.

But it's not a history. It's a fiction.

Which makes one of the most revelatory things about it just as questionable as the rest of it.

Like when Fremantle, a British Army officer who rides with the Confederates to observe, thinks;

"The great experiment. In democracy. The equality of rabble. In not much more than a generation they have come back to class. As the French have done. What a tragic thing, that Revolution. Bloody George was a bloody fool. But no matter. The experiment doesn't work. Give them fifty years, and all that equality rot is gone. Here [the South] they have the same love of the land and of tradition, of the right form, of breeding, in their horses, their women. Of course slavery is a bit embarrassing, but that, of course, will go. But the point is they do it all exactly as we do in Europe. And the North does not. That's what the war is really about. The North has those huge bloody cities and a thousand religions, and the only aristocracy is the aristocracy of wealth. The Northerner doesn't give a damn for tradition, or breeding, or the Old Country. He hates the Old Country. Odd. you very rarely hear a Southerner refer to "the Old Country." In that painted way a German does. Or an Italian. Well, of course, the south is the Old Country. They haven't left Europe. They've merely transplanted it. And that's what the war is about."

This is a pretty brilliant angle. And one I'd never seen expounded on so clearly before. But because Shaara put it in the thoughts of a real person in history, without telling the reader whether or not these thoughts had been expressed in a letter or a memoir written by said real person in history, makes it less brilliant, somehow. Perhaps I'm splitting hairs, but I'd rather this sentiment be placed squarely in a fictional observer. Or I'd rather Shaara footnote the original source, if such a thing exists.

Just like when Longstreet, a Confederate general, thinks, "The war was about slavery, all right. That was not why Longstreet fought but that was what the war was about, and there was no point in talking about it, never had been."

Did he really think that? Did most of those fighting for the Confederacy think that way? Engage in that kind of massive cognitive dissonance?

I had the same reaction when Robert E. Lee is credited with the following thoughts;
"When Virginia left the Union she bore his home away as surely as if she were a ship setting out to sea, and what was left behind on the shore was not his any more. So it was no cause and no country he fought for, no ideal and no justice. He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were, wrong as they were, insane even as many of them were, they were his own, he belonged with his own. And so he took up arms wilfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his own sacred oath and stood now upon alien ground he had once sworn to defend, sworn in honor, and he had arrived there really in the hands of God, without any choice at all"

Or when Chamberlain is credited with these words of wisdom;
"So this is tragedy. Yes. He nodded. In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question."

I had to put down my book for several moments and let that one sink in. Because it's the best description of tragedy I've ever come across. Is it weakened by the fact that it was put in the thoughts of a real person without any provenance? No. And yes.

I shouldn't read historical fiction. But I'm damn glad I read this one, if only for that quote.

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