And we’re back!

So…. You may or may not have noticed that Bethany and I haven’t been posting much on our blog lately.  Today we are having our annual board meeting at the Vacaville Panera and feeling like we don’t know how to write about books anymore and having guilt about how many books we’ve failed to write about over the past couple of years.  Well, I’m feeling guilty.  Bethany may not be.  So, without further ado, we present you with Snapshots: Book Reviews in One Sentence (or perhaps one short paragraph).

 

I Regret Nothing, Jen Lancaster (Read in September 2016).  This may be the last Jen Lancaster memoir I will ever read.  I don’t remember much two and a half years on, but I know that Lancaster’s books are not what they used to be.

The Awakening and other Stories, Kate Chopin (Read in November 2016).  I remember loving this short story collection with The Awakening as its anchor.  I read The Awakening back in my school days and quite enjoyed it.  The other stories in this collection were new to me (there may have been one that I had read before) and they painted a wonderful portrait of a place and a people (the South in the late nineteenth and I think early twentieth century).  Definitely recommend.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Read in November 2016).  My husband had been after me for years to read this book so I finally did.  I liked it okay but didn’t love it.  I think it would have been more enjoyable when I was younger, before the advent of the Internet.  The technology was just too dated to be believable.  I mean, how could Ray Bradbury have known that the printed word was not going to be around for that much longer?

In Twenty Years, Allison Winn Scotch (Read in November 2016).  I read this one on my Kindle.  It’s about a group of college friends who have been varying degrees of estranged for the past twenty years, but are reunited for a week (or a weekend) in their old college town after the death of the woman who was the glue that held them together even in college.  I remember enjoying this book for what it was (a quick beach read), but don’t remember any of the characters’ names or much of the plot beyond the bare bones.

Trail of Broken Wings, Sejal Badani (Read in November 2016).  I also read this one on my Kindle, and remember very little other than there were two sisters and an abusive father.  It was sad and gripping, but I blew through it and now remember very little other than what I just said.

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick (Read in November 2016).  Now this book I remember.  I also read it on my Kindle, and I really had a hard time with it, which really bugged me at the time because I was so excited about it.  And since the book was such a disappointment I have never gotten around to watching the show that is based on the book.  The premise is that Germany and Japan won World War II and divided up the United States between them and it seemed like a great idea.  I love speculative fiction but this one just didn’t do it for me; it just left too much out, almost like it was going to be the first in a series of novels that never came to be.

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, Emily Carpenter  (Read in December 2016).  Another Kindle book.  My recollection of this novel is also vague.  I remember finding it entertaining and fast-paced, but not as well-written as other books I have read in the past.  The main character has a family history of all the women she is related to going crazy at a certain age, like women do in the South, and she is rapidly approaching that age.  There are plot twists and cliffhangers aplenty, definitely good for a weekend read, but if I’d written a real post about this one I think I would have ended up summarizing the plot more than I waxed philosophical about the writing or the hidden meanings in the events of the novel.  Except that men in the South seem to hate women a lot of the time.

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller  (Read in March 2017).  An Indiespensible book.  Now this was a weird one.  Girl is kidnapped by her survivalist father and taken to a cabin in the woods.  She is told by her father that the world has ended, and that everyone is dead but them.  They live in the woods for many years, and the girl (whose name is Peggy) meets a man in the woods.  Or she hallucinates him.  And then she escapes from the cabin and goes home.  She may murder her father in the process of escaping.  Bizarre but well-written and thought provoking.  Peggy was definitely not a reliable narrator/point of view character.  I can’t remember if it was first person or third person limited.  The atrophied book blogger inside of me is very disappointed in herself.

How to Start a Fire, Lisa Lutz (Read in March 2017).  Read on Kindle.  This may have been the first book I read on Kindle that I bought for my Kindle because I couldn’t wait for it to come out in paperback and didn’t want to buy in hardcover.  Of course I didn’t read it until long after it was available in paperback.  My book buying rules are so messed up.  Also I am pretty sure it was on sale for Kindle.  I remember really enjoying this book and that it’s about a group of female friends who meet in college and then follows them into adulthood.  I think one of the women is a drunk or addict and may at some point start setting fire to buildings, either on purpose or accidentally, but that may not be accurate.  I love Lisa Lutz because of her series of mysteries about the Spellman family, and will gladly read anything she writes.  This book definitely didn’t disappoint me, I just wish I could remember more about it.

Secondhand Souls, Christopher Moore  (Read in March 2017).  I really enjoyed this book but remember wishing I had reread A Dirty Job before diving into this one.  Christopher Moore can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned, especially as long as he keeps putting out funny Sci-fi-fantasy novels that take place in San Francisco.  Secondhand Souls continues the adventures of Death Merchant Charlie Asher (in Christopher Moore’s world there is more than one Grim Reaper) and his quest to save the world from…. Someone.  I remember being so excited to read this book and then to write about it.  And then all of a sudden it was 2019 and this is all I’ve got.

The Drafter and The Operator, Kim Harrison  (Read in March – April 2017).  This Kim Harrison series does not take place in the same world as The Hollows and that is unfortunate for it.  While I enjoyed Harrison’s take on industrial espionage in the future, I kept missing Rachel, Ivy, Jenks, and the other denizens of The Hollows novels.  Peri Reed, the protagonist of these novels, is a Drafter, which means (if memory serves) that she can turn back time (only by a few minutes I think) but won’t remember what happened, so she has a partner who is supposed to fill in the gaps for her.  These novels ask the question: what happens if the partner isn’t always forthcoming with the truth?  I’ll definitely read more books in this series as Harrison writes them, but maybe not with as much excitement as if she releases another Hollows novel.

A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy  (Read in April 2017).  This was an anthology of short works by Pat Conroy – essays and things mostly, no fiction (but what that he wrote was ever really fiction).  It was released after his untimely death in March, 2016, and I wish I could tell you what I read in the pages of this collection, but I have no idea.  But I know that when I read it I felt like I was at home.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida  (Read in April 2017).  An Indiespensible read.  This was one of those books I read because I knew it would be good for me (and because I spent $39.95 on it), but I didn’t love it.  I found the conceit of writing an entire novel in the second person very annoying.  Because I don’t like being told what I would do.  I would never do most of the things the protagonist in the book does, like take off for Morocco and engage in identity theft.  But as her story unfolded I got used to the second person narration and kind of forgot about it.  But it’s the first thing I remember when I think about this book and it still annoys me.  I know it’s a good book because Bethany liked it, but I never liked those Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid (I got too hung up on choosing the “right” path and it caused a large amount of stress) and this book reminded me of those.

It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis  (Read in May 2017).  This book got some attention back in early 2017, when Trump took over as the USA’s CEO, because it seemed like everything in it was going to come true.  This book is speculative fiction at its finest and documents the rise to power of a dictator in 1930’s America.  It was creepily well-done.  It took me forever to read because it was pretty slow-paced, but it was eerie how democracy was whittled away at, so slowly that many people in the novel didn’t even realize it was happening.  Definitely not a novel for the faint of heart—it takes work to get through this one.

Best Boy, Eli Gottlieb  (Read in April 2017).  An Indiespensible selection.  The protagonist is, I believe, based on the author’s older brother, who was institutionalized as a young man because that’s what people did in the sixties with people with learning disabilities.  I believe Todd Aaron has some form of Autism, though he seems pretty high functioning, and would, I’m sure, do just fine in the world these days.  This book made me sad and angry, but I definitely think it’s worth reading.

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay  (Read in June 2017).  I am pretty sure Bethany and I made up a reading challenge and this was the first book in that reading challenge.  We, as is traditional, didn’t finish the reading challenge.  Our plan was to both read one book the same each month and then talk about it on the blog.  That never happened.  I had read a ton about this book before starting it, so was excited to get into it and then write about it.  Oh well.  I really enjoyed this novel about a Haitian woman who lives in Florida with her husband and young son.  She goes home to Haiti and gets kidnapped and held for ransom, like happens all the time to the children of wealthy parents in Haiti.  It was difficult to read at times because horrible things happened to Mireille during her captivity, but Roxane Gay is an amazing writer and I am looking forward to the day I can get back to her work.

Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg  (Read in June 2017).  Another Indiespensible pick.  In this book, the protagonist’s entire family is killed in a gas explosion the night before/the morning of her daughter’s wedding.  So she does what any sensible woman would do—she picks up what’s left of her life in Connecticut and moves to a hotel on the Oregon coast.  The novel goes back and forth in time a bit, and tells the stories of the protagonist, June, and various other people both in her new family in Oregon and in the community she leaves.  I really loved this book, though it was at times like a knife to the chest.

Glass Predator, Craig Schaefer (Read in June 2017).  Kindle book.  This is a sequel to Harmony Black and Red Knight Falling, which in case you don’t remember is an urban fantasy series that I got introduced to because of Kindle Unlimited.  I’m not a member of Kindle Unlimited anymore but I did buy the sequel to this book when it was released a few months ago (editor note – this book was released in October 2017 and I bought it in November 2017.  A few months ago, indeed.), which I think means that I like this series.  I don’t specifically remember the events of Glass Predator but I think it was a good addition to the series.

Posted in Reviews by Jill, Snapshots | 1 Comment

Two Years of Reading, in Snapshots

So Jill and I are in the Vacaville Panera again, contemplating blogging. For a while, reviewing every book I read felt perfectly natural, but that has changed. But she had a great idea: let’s go back through all the books we haven’t reviewed and write one sentence about each one – whatever we remember about the book now, however many months or years later.

I thought it was a great idea – so it begins. This list covers late 2016 through September of 2017, right around the time that I started teaching full time again and my reading schedule declined. You’ll see that I gave up on the one-sentence rule after while, but I still manage to keep them brief. I’ll most more later on.

And also, here is a picture of my enormous 7-month-old kitten, otherwise known as The Reason I No Longer Knit:

fullsizeoutput_2ad5

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I loved the satire of modern-day liberal affluent parenting and progressive education; also there was something about Antarctica.

Richard Yates’ A Good School. A boarding school novel like many others; I barely remember the details.

Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” When I was originally planning a review of this book in early 2017, I wrote the following on the back of a receipt: “Her PARENTS had cell phones. When she was a KID.”

Blake Crouch, Dark Matter. Fun with quantum physics; I remember wondering if Crouch meant it to be a re-telling of The Odyssey (because whether or not he meant it that way, that’s what it is).

Margaret Peterson Haddix, Found. Compelling story for the preteen set, capitalizes on kids’ fears that they were secretly adopted. The dialogue is terrible.

Pat Conroy, A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life. It pains me to condense this to a single sentence, but here goes: at one point he implies that he singlehandedly brokered the peace between the U.K. and the I.R.A. while peeing at a urinal next to Gerry Adams. That is all.

Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road. As mortifying and compelling as God’s Little Acre, but with less beauty. I hated the human race after I read this book, but in a good way.

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower. A fantastic dystopian quest novel in which a band of survivors leaves Los Angeles after the walls around their neighborhood are breached and travels north along the California coast, building a small community with other migrants they meet on the road. A futuristic Grapes of Wrath. I seem to recall that the protagonist has magical powers of some kind, though I don’t remember what they are. Highly recommended.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Egypt Game. A decent story for elementary school readers about imaginative play and female friendship. I got the impression that this book was meant to seem quite edgy when it was published in 1968 because one character is African American – and that this edginess may be the sole reason the book was written. It feels not at all edgy now.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Narrative poem cycles for preteens are not usually my favorite thing, but this one was good. Excellent, actually.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. So in one of my alternate lives, I am a professor of evolutionary narratology, or literary Darwinism, or one of the many other names used to describe the idea that the development of fictive language (talking about things that are not strictly “real”) was of the primary factors that led human beings to evolve into their dominant role. In real life, I just read books about this topic sometimes. And this one was good.

Roxane Gay, An Untamed State. Jill and I read this book as part of a blog challenge of some kind, but then neither of us wrote about it. I remember admiring this book and being totally engrossed by it, in spite of the brutal rape and captivity scenes. Not an easy read, but a very well-written novel.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There’s a white rabbit in it, and I’m pretty sure it’s secretly about math. That is all.

John Steinbeck, The Red Pony. I read this book on the advice of an old guy I met at an alumni event at the school where my dad taught. Just stepping into his old elementary school at the age of 70-ish shot him right back in time to his fourth-grade classroom, when he was introduced to The Red Pony. On his recommendation, I read it and loved it. The long first story is perfect – an absolutely flawless example of traditional narration. The ending of the final story, and therefore the book, is odd and not very satisfying. Last year I read it with my 4thand 5thgraders, though I secretly suspected it would be over the heads of many of them. It wasn’t. They loved it, reading way ahead beyond their nightly assignments. They recommend it and so do I.

Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine. This is a slim, spare novel about Japanese internment, told in five longish chapters, each from a different point of view. I remember admiring this book’s artistry without really liking it. It makes effective use of the strategic lacuna, as I recall.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I read this book in one afternoon and evening, right after I quit a job as a summer camp because the place was so poorly structured that I became overcome with anxiety that there would be some catastrophe and it would be my fault. I was mortified (though grateful) that I had done this and remained in sort of a hyper-alert anxiety state while I read this book. I liked it. It was beautiful and sad.

Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins. A compelling imaginative retelling of the San Nicolas Island Genocide, meant for elementary school readers. Like Castaway without the volleyball.

Roxane Gay, Hunger. I read this book in one sitting – an absolutely brutal examination about how a brutal rape at age twelve led Roxane Gay both to self-loathing and also to a sort of courageous self-protection that took the form of overeating until she weighed over four hundred pounds. Gay sees her body as a fortress that no enemy will ever want to overtake again, and there is a sad but impeccable logic in this. Recommended, but don’t make any plans for the weekend while you’re reading it. You’ll want some time to yourself when you finish it.

Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev. This marks a central turning point in my reading life: it’s the first book I finished after I returned to teaching full-time. Overall this has been a positive change in my life, but it has not been great for my blogging career. My Name is Asher Lev has long been a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed reading it with my eighth graders. Even the kid who hated me liked it. I thought about doing a related art assignment where I had the kids paint pictures of their mothers being crucified like the protagonist in the novel, but I chickened out. I may or may not have actually purchased canvases for this project. And they may or may not still be in the trunk of my car.

More snapshots to come…

Posted in Reviews by Bethany, Snapshots, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Bill Buford’s Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

img_7032

As food memoirs go, this is a good one. The premise is that New Yorker staff writer Bill Buford “accidentally” invited celebrity chef Mario Batali to a dinner party at his home in 2002 (Batali was a friend of a friend of Buford’s), and Batali staged a bit of a coup in Buford’s kitchen. This humiliating takeover prompted Buford – an ambitious but oft-frustrated home cook – to ask Batali if he could apprentice with him in the kitchen of his restaurant, Babbo. This book tells several parallel stories: that of Buford’s training both in and out of Babbo’s kitchen, of course, but also that of Batali’s education as a chef and those of the other culinary maestros that Buford learns from over the course of his self-imposed odyssey. Published in 2006, this book is also a cultural artifact of sorts, in that it showcases (and excuses) many of the problem behaviors that led to Batali’s fall from grace in the winter of 2017. If it isn’t already, I suspect that excerpts from this book will be studied in gender studies classes and in other places where people gauge the complicated relationship between gender, power, and license.

Some aspects of this book are predictable. Life in the kitchens of trendy restaurants is stressful and intense. Buford’s experiences vacillate between boredom and awkwardness at not being allowed (due to inexperience) to do much of anything and, at the other extreme, “lining up pitchers of water” (85) at the grill station, knowing he would have no relief from the nonstop seasoning, grilling, and plating of meat and fish for eight or nine hours. Chefs are screaming, swearing assholes; the people who work under them either become inured to the abuse or bide their time, waiting until it is their turn to become screaming, swearing assholes themselves.

According to Buford, Batali was less of an asshole than many chefs. He was an exacting boss – rifling through the trash and berating employees for throwing out the leaves at the ends of celery stalks, for example – but he wasn’t verbally abusive. Buford seems inclined to praise Batali for this restraint, contrasting him favorably to both Batali’s own mentor, the British chef Marco Pierre White, and to an underling named Frankie who took charge of Babbo’s kitchen when Batali moved on to a new venture. But his tone is flatly neutral when describing Batali’s obnoxious advances on waitresses: “It’s not fair I have this view all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, could you take off your blouse for the others?” (313). On the very next page, Buford refers to a medieval French king as a “philandering scumbag” (314); couldn’t he have set aside some of that level of criticism to serve up to his mentor and boss?

This book is also a travelogue. Buford wasn’t content to learn only what Batali himself could teach him; he also made multiple trips to Italy to learn from some of Batali’s early teachers and also branch out on his own; when he trains under the Dante-quoting butcher of the title, he progresses well beyond Batali’s own expertise in the preparation of meat. The travel sections of this book were some of my favorites; Buford does a great job of bringing to life the eccentric characters he met in rural Italy and detailing the minutiae of their culinary traditions. He also delves into Italian history, studying medieval cookbooks and fact-checking the lore he hears from his Italian mentors. One research question that proves especially elusive is the question of when exactly eggs were added to pasta dough. Buford never arrives at a clear answer, but following along on his research journey was quite engaging.

Buford also does an excellent job of conveying the physicality of cooking and butchering: the incredible heat of the grill station, the large, sweaty bodies crashing into each other in the tiny kitchen, the experience of thrusting one’s arm into a dead cow in order to sever one specific muscle or tendon just so, without even the benefit of seeing the darn thing. This physicality has got to be at least part of the reason that the culture of professional cooking lends itself to inappropriate talk and actions. Intimacy breeds intimacy – when one’s job requires one to spend nine or ten hours a day in a hot kitchen in constant close proximity to other hot, sweaty people, it makes sense that sooner or later, someone will try to add sex to the occasion. Since professional cooking (unlike home cooking) has historically been a male-dominated field, the result is the kind of “locker-room talk” (and worse) that pervades other subsets of our culture, including entertainment, the military, and, well, politics. I don’t excuse Batali’s behavior or Buford’s dismissal of it, but I recognize it as something that’s so ordinary as to be mundane. In some ways, the fact that Buford, as a white male who is sympathetic to Batali, documented this behavior at all is a gift. Future historians and sociologists will have no shortage of #metoo memoirs written by victims; a source like this, which condemns Batali even while trying to pay him homage, will provide a valuable alternate perspective.

Batali’s toxic masculinity is no reason not to read this book. If you enjoy well-written food memoirs – or if you just want to spend a few days in your apartment drooling over Italian food that exists only in your head, as I just did – I recommend this book highly.

Posted in Authors, Bill Buford, Fascinating Cultural Artifacts, Nonfiction - Food and Cooking, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Avi’s The Button War

IMG_5229

Summer is here and I’m reading like a maniac. At least half of the books I’ve read this month are for kids, since I just finished my first year teaching elementary and middle school (after ten years at the high school level) and still feel very behind the game in children’s literature published since 1990 or so, and I believe I’m about to do something I’ve never done once in the six years since Jill and I have been blogging: I am going to write a review of a children’s book that is 100% positive.

I hold children’s books to the same standards I hold books meant for adults. I expect them to show rather than tell, to feature well-rounded characters, to avoid weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and to avoid being didactic and moralistic. I expect their plots to emerge subtly from character and conflict and be guided but not overpowered by narrative voice. Before I started blogging, I didn’t realize what a tough customer this made me in the world of children’s books. But slowly I’ve discovered that children’s books that meet these standards are out there, and Avi’s The Button War is one of them.

This novel is set in a tiny village in Poland in the early months of World War I. The protagonist and first-person narrator is a twelve year-old boy named Patryk, and he’s part of a group of seven friends that are “nothing like a club, or a gang – more like a flock of wild goats” (2). Patryk’s community is so isolated that he doesn’t even know where the roads that leave his village go. He has been told that if you travel along one of them for a very long time, you will reach a city – but this fact holds the quality of myth. He doesn’t seem to know anyone who has visited that city or contemplate visiting it someday himself. The boys don’t even entirely agree that their village is located in Poland. Of his six friends, the one who occupies the most space in Patryk’s mental and emotional landscape is Jurek. Jurek is an orphan who lives with his older sister, who often kicks him out of the house when he misbehaves. For that reason, Jurek is semi-feral. He spends a lot of time in the woods hanging out at some ruins. We don’t know what kinds of structures these ruins used to be, but they are clearly a sign of some kind of past violence and – it soon becomes clear – a harbinger of violence to come. Jurek insists that these ruins are “his” because he is a descendant of “King Boleslaw,” whose palace Jurek believes the ruins to be. Patryk knows this story to be untrue, but he also resents it. It’s as if he knows that Jurek is a pathetic unloved kid who salvages his pride by claiming to be the descendant of a king but at the same time can’t help resenting Jurek for the little bit of pride this delusion allows him. Based on both my memory of being a kid and on my experience with kids as a teacher, this seems plausible to me. Kids have little patience with other people’s emotional defense mechanisms.

One of Patryk’s few connections with the outside world is the presence in his village of Russian soldiers. The boys accept the soldiers as part of their landscape and don’t seem to give them much thought – though Patryk notes that some of the adults in town “don’t like Russians.” One day, when the boys are hanging out near the ruins, Patryk finds a button on the ground that fell off of a Russian military uniform. Jurek insists that the button is his property because the ruins are his; Patryk will have none of it, and they both get their hackles up about this button and everyone goes home angry. Then one day, out of nowhere, the Germans bomb the local school. Patryk sees it happen. He has never seen or even heard of an airplane before, nor does he entirely know who Germans are or that a world war has begun – so this incident is enormously shocking. Not only that, but the village teacher is killed in the bombing, as is one of the boys’ classmates. In the aftermath, Jurek explores the rubble and finds the cane that the teacher used to beat the boys and declares that whichever of his friends can find the “best” military button will win the cane as a prize.

All of the boys – but especially Patryk, who is determined never to be one-upped by Jurek – get really invested in the button contest. And by invested, I mean that things get out of hand and some of them die. I won’t go into details, because this book is truly riveting and I do think readers deserve not to know too much about where things go – but the stakes are high, the button war is simply one theatre in a larger and entirely real war, and the boys are not spared. What makes this novel so heartbreaking is the fact that even once some of his friends have been killed, Patryk can’t force himself to stop caring about defeating Jurek in the button contest. He knows he should stop and has long talks with himself about how he must stop hunting for buttons, but he can’t do it. His rivalry with Jurek always wins out. One of the reviewers on the book jacket compares this novel to Lord of the Flies, and the comparison is apt. Both novels are equally compelling, though this one is for a somewhat younger audience (I will be reading it with my sixth graders this fall, and they will love it). However, it reminded me more of A Separate Peace, in which Gene remains constantly focused on his rivalry with Phineas and on what he thinks Phineas is thinking and feeling, unable to get out of his own head even as the war encroaches closer and closer to his once-safe world.

I recommend this novel to middle schoolers – especially to those dreaded “reluctant readers,” and, of course, especially to boys – though I enjoyed it in and of itself and recommend it to teenagers and adults too. If you plan to read it, clear your schedule. You won’t want to do much else until you’re through.

Posted in Authors, Avi, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Typo of the Month Award Goes To…

… “he upholstered his pistol.” Instead of “unholstered” – get it? I don’t remember where I read it, but it was in a published source somewhere, and I laughed and laughed.

Also, it’s official. I’ve forgotten how to write book reviews. I tried so hard last weekend and I just couldn’t. But my school year is winding down and my shoulders are slowly unclenching themselves and maybe soon I will remember how such things are done.

Happy June, everyone!

Posted in Glimpses into Real Life, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Yosemite, again

IMG_4382.jpeg

Take a look, friends.  This is beautiful Hetch Hetchy, the source of the best-tasting tap water on earth.  Say what you will about the environmental impact of damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley, it sure is beautiful there.

And here is the O’Shaughnessy Dam, with a bonus rainbow.  It’s not nearly as big and impressive as the Hoover Dam, but the scenery around it can’t be beat.  But then I’m partial to all things Yosemite.  IMG_8020.JPG

Have a good week, everyone!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Ready Player One Cover Image

I didn’t time my review of this novel with the weekend of its film adaptation’s release on purpose. I started this book in December but put it down after a hundred pages for some reason, in spite of the fact that I was mostly enjoying it. I picked it up last weekend and was able to get re-invested in it quickly, but I didn’t know until two days ago that the movie was coming out yesterday. You didn’t KNOW? one of my students asked. How is it possible not to know?

Of course, on many levels this book is Not My Thing. Not My Thing at all. My reaction when I first learned of its premise years ago was something along the lines of puh-lease. A novel about a fictional video game based on the pop culture of the ‘80’s? It sounded like the sort of thing a Baby Boomer would write – or, more specifically, the sort of thing many Baby Boomers did write: all the Woodstock-worshipping, appalled-by-Nixon, I-remember-where-I-was-when-Kennedy-was-shot tripe that has been making me puke since The Wonder Years – and the idea of an author of my own generation jumping on this bandwagon was disappointing. And before I go on and explain why I really did enjoy this novel quite a lot, let me just mention one thing that no one else talks about when they talk about Ready Player One: when they say that this book revolves around ‘80’s pop culture, what they really mean is that it revolves around ‘80’s BOY pop culture. No joke: in all of this novel’s 372 pages, there is not a Cabbage Patch Kid in sight. Not a single fucking Care Bear.

Have you noticed that women don’t memorialize the ‘80’s as much as men do? Boys had Star Wars and heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons and Knight Rider; we had Get in Shape, Girl! and Pretty Cut ‘n’ Grow and Punky Brewster. I never really thought about it until now, but the ‘80’s were kind of a shit decade to grow up in if you were in possession of Fallopian tubes. Someday when I have infinite time and resources, I might try to write a parody of Ready Player One where a female video game designer decides to create an infinitely complex virtual world based on her childhood in which players can compete for wealth and world domination, but even with those high stakes no one wants to play because doing so requires one to memorize which Strawberry Shortcake character smells like which fruit and consistently keep straight the names and personalities of the Sweet Valley Twins’ clichéd friends.

What this novel does really well, in all seriousness, is dystopian world-building. This is the reason to read this novel even if the ‘80’s video-game premise doesn’t appeal to you. There is no shortage of dystopian fiction out there, and all of it gives me an icky feeling in my stomach these days, this novel included. The protagonist, Wade Watts, is an orphan who lives in “the stacks” – a housing project in Oklahoma where RV’s and other mobile homes are stacked precariously on some scaffolding, forming a terrifying new incarnation of the high-rise. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend, and he sleeps in the laundry room, his circumstances not too different from those of Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs.

The year is 2044. The U.S. economy has fallen flat, and like most people in his world, Wade spends most of his time inside the OASIS, an all-encompassing virtual-reality world that is clearly meant to have evolved from both today’s video games and today’s social media. By the time the novel starts, the OASIS has expanded to include public schools (Wade attends school using a VR headset, crouched in an abandoned pickup truck in a junkyard that he thinks of as his “hideout”) and has its own economy and currency. Wade’s real-world life is claustrophobic and smothering – and limited by the fact that he has no money and no support system – while in the OASIS people who can afford to do so jet from planet to planet on a variety of fantastical space vehicles. The creator of the OASIS was James Halliday, who embedded a contest into his VR world that was launched after he died. Whoever follows a series of clues to find the “Easter egg” Halliday hid in the OASIS will win some unfathomable amount of money and inherit control of the OASIS. Halliday is sort of a Steve Jobs figure – brilliant and bold in his designs but socially maladjusted and self-destructive in his personal life – and it amuses Halliday to force everyone who wants to be rich and powerful to study every last detail of every movie, TV show, song, and video game that he loved as a child.

This novel follows a standard “quest” narrative structure: there are three of everything, the villains are horrifically over the top and awful, and it is clear from the outset that the hero will win the contest in spite of the impossible odds he faces. There’s even a “descent-into-hell” component that takes the form of a terrifying foray into the world of corporate indentured servitude, which is how debt of more than $20,000 is handled in 2044. And as in most quests, the “real” reward is not the money and power that come from finding the stated object of the mission but some other intangible and unexpected prize that emerges from this journey; in Wade’s case, this takes the place of real-world love – a prize that seems almost impossibly rare in the world of the stacks and the OASIS.

I’ve mocked this novel more than I’ve praised it, but most of the mockery was in jest. I did enjoy this book – the characters are well-drawn, the plot manages to surprise occasionally while also adhering to form, and Cline’s vision of a dystopian near-future U.S. will intrigue you even as it gives you the willies. I recommend this book even to people like me who never played Pac-Man or D&D; this is a novel that transcends its subject matter. I suspect I missed a lot of inside jokes and private references to video games, of which I know almost nothing (I got most of the movie and TV references, I think), yet I still enjoyed the book and felt a connection to its characters.

Posted in Ernest Cline, Fiction - Dystopia, Fiction - general, Fiction - SciFi, fiction - thriller, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment