Category Archives: American

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

Harlem



I really don’t know the best way to write about this book. As usual I don’t want to give away to many plot details for those that have not yet read it. In addition, it takes place in an environment that is completely foreign to my experience. I will do my best.

A Rage in Harlem takes place as you would expect, in Harlem in the 1950s. It is part mystery, part detective story, part black comedy and part farce. It centers around a character named Jackson who is a bit of a rube, and who despite the nastiness around him and a willingness to bend the law to get what he wants, is generally a decent person with simple motivations. He is an employee of a funeral home, but desiring more money to support his girlfriend, Imabelle who he loves, and about whom he harbors no doubts as to her sincerity in her feelings towards him, Jackson agrees to put his life savings into a scheme to raise ten dollar bills into one-hundred dollar bills. From there things go down hill for him.

After the failure of his counterfeiting scheme Jackson moves from disastrous decision to disastrous decision that only makes his situation worse. He robs his boss, steals a hearse, enlists the help of his junkie twin brother who impersonates a nun to make money, has two cops on his tail with the very cool names of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones (protagonists in later books by Himes). seeks absolution from a preacher friend, and finds out Imabelle has been involved in a scheme of her own that Jackson was a pawn in.Yet no matter what happens to him, and no matter how far he sinks,  Jackson never loses the certainty that Imabelle is in love with him and that somehow everything will work out. The story takes improbable twists and turns, is interspersed with brutal violence, darkly funny observations of life in Harlem and of the types of personalities that live there.

In the end, Jackson and Imabelle…well…I will leave that to you to find out…don’t want to give away any important plot details.

As a story I really quite enjoyed this book. But, as someone raised in a lily white suburb of Minneapolis the culture of 1950s Harlem is completely foreign to me, so different than anything I ever experienced in my own life, that I cannot help but think I am missing a whole subtext to this book that goes deeper than just the plot. I have to believe there is a social message Himes is trying to get across that I just am not able to tease out of the story. I am really  afraid I am missing something important here.

It could be about race, but there were very few white characters in the book. One did get the sense from Himes’ descriptions of some of the locales in the story that there was an implicit negative comparison with white neighborhoods, and resentment at the way society had restrained black progress…particularly economic progress. I’m not sure, it is entirely possible this feeling of mine is just latent, liberal white guilt. In any case, I will spend more time trying to understand this aspect of the book as I would like to read his other works, but want to get the most out of them.

Oh well…I have finished the book but still feel like I have work to do to completely understand it. I actually listened to the audio version of this. It was read by Samuel L. Jackson who really made it a pleasure. He is very good at character vocalizations such that each personality was informed, at least a little bit, by his performance. His vocal characterization of a white police detective was particularly funny, only because it was coming from Samuel L. Jackson.

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

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:
5.0 rating

Moreau

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Bucket Source (Personal Addition)
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My Rating:
5.0 rating

MiceandMen

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Bucket Source (Personal Addition)
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My Rating:
5.0 rating

LordoftheFlies

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My Rating:
5.0 rating

1984

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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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