Category Archives: Fiction

My Rating:
4.0 rating

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

 

Ready Player One is included in the Young Adult section on Amazon.com. In many ways this is an appropriate categorization. Most of the book takes place inside a video game, and the main characters are teenagers with dialog that reflects that fact. However, like the Harry Potter books, there is plenty here for adults to get excited over, especially for those of us who came of age during the 1980s, an era most young people would have little familiarity with. The  themes implied in the story including the dangers that arise in an information culture, globalism, corporate power, and an exploration of the “real,” vs the “virtual.” None of these are exclusively the concerns of the young.

The story centers on Wade Owen Watts, who in the real world of 2044 America, lives with his alcoholic aunt, and her abusive boyfriend. They live in Oklahoma City in  a trailer home, part of the “stacks,” literally stacks of trailers and mobile home welded together into multi story structures. Like most of humanity however, Wade spends the vast majority of his time in the “OASIS,” or “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”, a massive, immersive virtual space that doubles as both an MMORPG (Massive Multiple Player Online Role Playing Game) and a virtual society in which people live, work and even go to school. Wade attends High School from within the OASIS. Currency traded in the OASIS is the most stable and valuable, and while in the “real” world society still functions, it is sliding into a corporate run dystopia.

Within the OASIS people are identified by their avatars, alternate identities which each person creates to reflect how they would like to be seen by others. Wade Watts is known Parzival, and his best friend as Aetch. Along the way we are introduced to Art3mis, Daito and Shaito, and several others. These identities may or may not track closely with their real world personalities.
The story surrounds the death of one of the inventors of OASIS, James Donovan Halliday. In many ways modeled on Howard Hughes, Halliday and his partner Ogden Morrow (avatar Og), invented OASIS and formed the company that operates it, “Gregarious Simulation Systems.” After his death, rather than leave his wealth and company to a specific person, it is revealed he immersed within OASIS a game, a quest to find an Easter Egg, the finder of which would inherit Morrow’s riches, thus becoming one of the most powerful people in the world. Those who took up the challenge became known as Gunters (short for Egg Hunters).  Besides the individual players, and groups known as clans that formed to find the egg, another corporation, IOI (Innoative Online Industries) also joins the hunt. IOI is one of those classically evil corporations, using its vast resources to try and rule the world; in this case, by inheriting the riches of their main rival. Along the way they have no compunction about using bribery, coercion, kidnapping and murder to achieve their ends.

I won’t go further as I do not want to give away any important plot elements. The book is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg.

For folks like me, mid fifties with a nostalgia for the 1980s, Ready Player One is a feast. It is infused with the pop culture of that decade. References to classic video games (Pac Man, Tempest, Joust etc), music, movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games etc),and literature, form the clues and the simulated tasks Gunters must follow to find the egg. Like Steam Punk, it is an interesting and unique way to fuse past and future. For those younger folks unfamiliar with the origin of video games it is a fun way to connect that continuum – Pong to OASIS.

Besides being an fun and entertaining story, it also forces one to ponder the possible effects of increased reliance on virtual reality. Are they really the same as some assert, merely being different ways to stimulate the same areas of the brain? Or, does it represent a real threat as people become more isolated from each other? Or, does it bring people closer together as people virtually interact with others they never would have met in the real world. What are its implications as a few large corporations take over the industry, and become in many ways, more powerful than the government we elect to lead us? The author doesn’t really answer these questions, though the ending implies which way he is leaning.

This book was really a lot of fun. It was well written. The author has a gift for teenage dialogue, as I can attest being the father of a recent teenager myself. He does a great job keeping the story going and infusing suspense at just the right times. He has successfully fused a very entertaining and accessible story with larger questions about the future of human interaction within a virtual world. I am anxious to see what Steven Spielberg does with the film version.

Highly recommended!


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My Rating:
4.0 rating

masterandcommander



For a reason that I don’t quite understand my agnostic, science loving, computer geek of a father really loved the “Aubrey-Maturin” series of novels. It seemed quite out of character for him. He liked history, but more from a reasoned approach, as a way to understand how past solutions could be applied to modern problems. Reading a rip-roaring historical yarn really just never seemed like his style. Anyway, before he passed away three years ago, knowing of my love of history, he passed along his collection to me. I just finished reading the first of this 20 book series, Master and Commander.

The “Aubrey-Maturin” series is a sequence of twenty novels that take place during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and centers on the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the British Royal Navy and his ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, an Irish born doctor and naturalist. This is the series the excellent Russell Crowe movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, is based on. The first book in the series Master and Commander introduces us to the two characters, goes through their initial meeting and how they came to serve aboard Captain Aubrey’s first command the HMS Sophie, and fleshes out their back stories and personalities. And then…high adventure!!

‘Nuff said on the plot…as usual I don’t want to ruin it for anyone that hasn’t read the book.

After getting through about 20% of the book I began to understand what my Dad saw in them. The level of detail is incredible, especially  the minutiae of running a naval ship in the early 19th century including extremely detailed descriptions of every part of the ship, its rigging and sails, its configuration and how it propelled itself. My Dad had the kind of mind that could take in this information and retain it which I am sure enhanced his enjoyment of these books. For me however it was kind of tedious. There is no way I can keep up with that much new information without either constantly looking it up to refresh my memory or just letting it flow by assuming the momentum of the story would carry me through. I chose the latter option which worked well in this case, as in the second half of the novel, having gotten  through all of the preliminary description of the characters and naval jargon, it finally transformed into the adventure I had anticipated. So, by the end I had really gotten into it.

The reputation of the these novels as literature is quite high, with many comparing the author, Patrick O’Brian, to Jane Austen and C.S. Forrester. I can see why. The writing is superb, character descriptions are very vivid, and the arc of the story really compelling. I will definitely be reading more of these as time goes on!!  Highly recommended!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Gilead

Beautifully written with compelling characters and effectively situated in a time and place easy to envision, Gilead still felt very ephemeral for me. By the end I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to have gotten from it, or even what the author was trying to get across. The book is an epistolary, essentially a series of interconnected letters, written by John Ames, a 77 year old preacher in the fictional small town of Gilead, IA, to his 7 year old son. Ames has a weak heart and doesn’t expect to live long, so he decided to write to his son with ruminations on his family including his abolitionist grandfather and atheist brother, his second marriage to a much younger woman, his view of life, death, religion, his ministry, and about the family of his best friend, another preacher named Boughton and his son John Ames Boughton who reappears after being away for many years.

The most compelling parts of this book for me were the sections dealing with Rev. Ames’s family history. His grandfather, also a preacher, was a rabid abolitionist and collaborator with John Brown and others during the time before the Civil War when the fight over whether Kansas would be a slave or free state was occurring. Known as “bleeding Kansas” this time saw a number of atrocities committed by both sides trying to assert control in the state. The implication in this story is that Ames’s grandfather was involved in these atrocities which placed a strain on his relationship with his son trying to reconcile what must have been a disconcerting juxtaposition of his father as a preacher, with the violence he apparently committed. Placing the narrative in relation to an historic event like this, one  that dovetails with the religious ruminations of Ames, is very effective.

Setting the book in the Midwest during the 1950s had some resonance for me as well. Much of the book is devoted to the history of the town of Gilead. Having grown up in nearby Minnesota, much of it reminded me of the small towns I have visited tracking down my own family’s history. Descriptions of the people, the geography, and what daily life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries felt familiar to me, though of course I didn’t experience them first hand.

The major issue I had with the book was its overall theological theme. I think the author was trying to explore the deeper questions of existence, life after death, the nature of grace and forgiveness and the notion that our five senses cannot possibly comprehend all that exists. The implication the author wants us to conclude therefore, is that one has to have faith that an eventual revelation of this wonder would be made known to us by a higher power (God). Put into modern day terms Ames would be considered a relatively liberal Christian, willing to take seriously the opinions of atheists and others who did not subscribe to his beliefs. I did appreciate this. However, I have always believed that religion, no matter how deeply felt, cannot help but limit ones world view. No matter how one tries to interpret it, the documents and traditions of religious belief will always put a limit on the scope of knowledge – and limit the interpretation of discovery. Freeing ones mind from religious restrictions for me opens up many more possibilities for comprehending the universe than any belief system can possibly provoke. As Carl Sagan famously said, “We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it…you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.

So, as Ames tried to wend his way toward finding the answers to questions he was asking through the use of scripture and the interpretive work of others, it seemed like he was looking for gaps that might let him expand his view, when to me freeing himself of those texts altogether would have enabled him to do so more quickly and more effectively. By the end I was not really sure if he had elevated his understanding or not. I found this somewhat frustrating, though I recognize I come from a place in terms of faith that most who have read this book probably do not.

I can see why this novel has received so much praise, it really is compelling writing. So despite the let down I felt at the end I would still recommend it very highly!

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Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner – Fiction, 2005 | National Book Critics Circle Award, 2005)
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My Rating:
3.0 rating

breathing

This is definitely not a book I would normally have picked out for myself. And while it was very well written and kept my attention throughout, in the end I found it kind of disappointing. I kept waiting for something to really engage me and in the end nothing ever did.

I can see why this was so popular when it came out. It is easy to read. The average person, especially those like myself that are approaching middle age and are going to more funerals than weddings, can definitely relate to the way the two main characters view their lives. I am finding as I get older regrets over paths not followed occupy my thoughts more and more, and that is well reflected in this book. I know it sounds trite but in the end the book is about relationships; between husband and wife, parents and siblings, friends and coworkers. I recognized very clearly the nature of all of these as I have experienced them at one time or another. So in those terms the book hit its mark. However, it didn’t go much beyond that.

First, some parts were simply not believable. The author spends a great deal of time making what I have described above very relatable, yet in order to illustrate those she  puts the characters in very unbelievable situations., situations I can honestly say I have never been in and in which I am certain the average person has probably never been either. So there was a real disconnect there in my mind.

Second, the characters seemed to display the exact same character flaws their entire lives, like they are just incapable of learning from past mistakes. It became frustrating to read, and made the book pretty predictable in places.

Lastly, and this is a  function of the time in which it was written, but so much of what happens in the story is the result of the characters not being able to quickly communicate with each other. I can’t help but think that had this same story taken place in 2014 it would have lasted all of ten pages as virtually every crisis could have been  resolved with a quick cell phone call.

Overall quite enjoyable but not overwhelmingly interesting, which given the acclaim (and awards) it has received, is a minority opinion.

 

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Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction)
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My Rating:
5.0 rating

HuckFinn

Yes, yes…this is another instance of not having yet read a book virtually everyone in the English speaking world had read when they were young. Yet it is true…I had never before this past week read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In this case I am glad I hadn’t read it before. Having grown up with the Disney-ification of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I am convinced had I read this as a youth, it would not have made any more an impression on me than any other book of adventure. Having now read it as an adult I can appreciate the biting social and political commentary contained within the story. Themes of slavery and freedom, gender roles, the role of religious worship, class and regional distinctions, and competing economic systems are all contained in the prose….wrapped within  a humorous, and exciting adventure story.

I would absolutely love it if a movie were made of this that was actually true to the book; one that explored all of these themes and didn’t shy away from the ugliness Huck and Jim encounter on their adventure. Coen brothers…are you listening? 🙂

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Bucket Source (World Library list of 100 greatest books of all time)
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My Rating:
5.0 rating

7354

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx is a book I had never heard of until I started my Bucket List project. However, everyone I talked to about it seems to have read it. This realization reaffirms the necessity of my taking on this reading project. As with the other works of fiction I have read recently I am not going to go into a whole lot of detail as there may be a very few of you that has not read it.

In a nutshell, after a rough start I ended up really enjoying this book quite a bit.

The main problem I had at the beginning was the writing style. A lot of short clipped sentences with no transition between them caught me off guard at first. In some cases years in the life of the main character are related in less than 20 words. After a few chapters however I  found myself getting used to the style, and by the end really enjoying how it made the story flow. Had I read Sophie’s Choice after this book rather than just before, I am certain I would have found the writing style in that work ponderous by comparison.

In the end this is a lovely story of a man, generally a failure, who finds himself and his niche in life by moving to Newfoundland – the ancestral home of his family. There he finds his place in life living among a very quirky and eclectic group of people.

The author stated in an interview the inspiration for this work was a book about knots…specicially knots used by those whose livelihood is based on the sea. Most chapters start with a brief description of a knot and its purpose; that description becomes the theme for what happens to the characters during its course. A very cool way to tell the story  of the main character – Quoyle – whose name is a form of the word coil; an integral part of all of the knots described in the book.

If it sounds on the surface like this book recounts a sort of bland, feel good, “back to my roots” type story free from the tragedy and depravity that is endemic to our species, fear not…. Murder, rape, accidental death, crime and punishment are all a part of the story. Yet, by the end I think you will find yourself uplifted.

Highly Recommended!!

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Bucket Source (National Book Award Winner)
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My Rating:
5.0 rating

sophies choice

I’m not going to write much of a review here as I don’t want to ruin the book for the (very) few folks who haven’t read it. I will say it is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Styron expertly weaves different strands of the story into a whole more efficiently and seamlessly than almost anyone I can think of.

The message of the book is not particularly subtle, nor should it be given the subject matter. It almost requires you to realize within the first few pages what he is getting at in order to understand and appreciate the rest of the story. So don’t go looking for a lot of hidden meaning. If you received an adequate history education in high school, and paid attention during sections on the Holocaust and the Civil War, you won’t have any trouble.  However, if you  are one of those folks who were taught the Civil War was not about slavery, but about state’s rights or northern aggression, or some other lost cause nonsense, then you may find yourself wondering what the heck Styron is getting at.

The only complaint I have, and I hesitate to mention it, is the way sex was portrayed in the book. First, there is a lot of it. I have no trouble with that. But the way Styron writes these scenes, I just could not help but think I was reading the script from a pornographic movie with pretensions of seriousness. Some of it was laugh out loud weird.

Also, after reading the book I decided to watch the movie. Bad, bad, bad…but a topic for another day!

 

 

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Bucket Source (National Book Award Winner)
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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Shining

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I don’t read many books in the horror/supernatural genre. The reason for that is I simply do not believe in supernatural occurrences, ghosts etc. I am a skeptic (in the best sense of that word). I have to believe that something is at least plausible before I can enjoy it. Or, the world constructed has to be so divorced from the world we live in that I can construct a whole new reality in my mind that allows me to “turn off” my skepticism. This is why I can enjoy the Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series. Those works don’t even pretend to take place in a world we are familiar with.

It did take a while but I was finally able to disassociate my normal skepticism from the story I was reading –  to the point I could really enjoy this book. And, as I was deep into it I realized that everything that happened in the book could potentially be explained without resorting to the supernatural.

Without revealing too much for those that have not read it, The Shining deals with a family (father, mother, son), who move to an isolated Colorado resort where the father will act as the winter caretaker. The premise is the characters and the hotel itself have back stories that begin to manifest themselves in some very horrible ways. Eventually the hotel takes over the mind of the father who it convinces must kill his family in order to complete his reintegration with the hotel. The son has a special ability called “the shine” that allows him to see into the minds of others, and to experience past events. In many ways he is the central character of the book, it is he who sees that horrible things will happen before anyone else is aware something is wrong, it is he who realizes the hotel itself is attempting to control them, and it is he who is ultimately responsible for saving he and his mother’s lives.

I began to realize though, as I got deeper into the book, that everything described  is from the perspective of one of these three characters. Everything that happened to them was experienced by them alone (with one exception…the in season cook who also has “the shine”). It is entirely plausible that everything described could be the result of a psychosis that affected them as they became more isolated in the hotel. One of the lingering mysteries for me is whether the supernatural was “real” (within the parameters of this world), or were simply created in the minds of three people sinking deeper into mental illness..

I won’t go further so as not to ruin it for those that have not read it…but I found it to be a very deeply layered book, with complex and interlocking story lines that really made it a pleasure to read!!!

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Bucket Source (Amazon.com list of 100 books to read before you die)
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My Rating:
5.0 rating

WutheringHeights

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Wuthering Heights is often derided as “Chick Lit,” a work that mostly appeals to women and barely a step above dime store romance novels. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I was stunned actually at how deep and dark this book was. Emily Bronte challenges virtually every norm of Victorian England, including gender roles, class, wealth, and decorum. I can really see why it caused such an uproar when it was published.

No character in the book was painted in black or white..they all had flaws, they all acted despicably, and they all had redeeming qualities. Within ten pages of the end of the book I was ready to classify the main character, Heathcliff, as an irredeemably evil personage. The last ten pages changed all that.

What a great book….all the more so because I had low expectations of it when I started. I love being surprised!

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Bucket Source (World Library list of 100 greatest books of all time)
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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Neuromancer

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I’ve read this twice now, once for a graduate class in the history of science, and once because I didn’t really understand or appreciate it the first time. I have friends who tell me this is one of the great Science Fiction book written in the “Cyber-punk” genre and so I decided to give it another go. The first comments below were written after my second reading.

Dec 2013 re-reading:

Since I had so much trouble with this the first time I decided to give it another go. I was able to understand what was going on much better this time and found myself enjoying it more as I went along. I think my problem with it the first time (a problem I still have), is that I read mostly non-fiction. The writing style here is so foreign to anything else I am likely to read that I had a lot of trouble understanding much of it. The clipped references, the lack of direct explanations for terms and concepts, and the often sudden transition between what was real and what was “cyber” really threw me for a loop sometimes. I still think I am missing some of the subtleties in it but I think I have a good sense of the “world” Gibson was trying to portray!

Would be cool to see what could be done with this as a movie

Original review:

Someday someone will have to explain this book to me. I read this for a class I took and although I didn’t particularly enjoy it I recognize its importance so gave it a higher rank. If anyone out there is a fan perhaps you could explain some of the subtleties I’m sure I missed!!!

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Bucket Source (Hugo Award for Best Novel )
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Current Bucket Status

Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Current Audio Book: The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum

On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

Last Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


From Bucket Authors


New Bucket Books

An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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