Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline
Broadway Books     2011
374 pages     Science Fiction
Audio Book

What a marvelous geek fest! My husband and I listened to Ready Player One on our trip to the Alabama coast in February. It got us there and back, and then we had to spend a few breakfast reading days to finish it. What amazed me was that it held the attention of 70-somethings who didn’t quite get all the 80s references the book offered—and my husband has never played a video game in his life. Still, we were fascinated and can’t wait for the movie to come out at the end of the month.

The reality of teenage Wade Watts is dystopian. It is 2044 in Oklahoma, and the world is in near collapse. Wade lives in a high rise of stacked house trailers, but his true life is the virtual reality universe he escapes to every day. He attends school in that universe and spends most of his time in a game called the OASIS, a virtual-reality online game. One reviewer called it Second Life on steroids.

The OASIS was designed by a famous video game designer from the 1980s named James Halliday, who has hidden his fortune (billions of dollars) in the online game. The entire geek world is trying to find the Easter Egg, the last treasure in the game that will release the money, but it has been five years since Halliday died, and no one has made much progress. Wade’s gaming Avatar, Parzival, is racking up points in the game, but it is when he combines forces with four other avatars that the excitement begins to build. Of course there has to be an enemy, and the OASIS enemy is a corporate behemoth named IOI that is attempting to take over the world.

That’s the plot. But it is so much fun. Ready Player One is very visual, because Cline is a screenwriter, but it is also extremely humorous. The references just keep rolling. In order to solve the game, Wade has had to become familiar with as many 1980s references as he can, so lines from movies, TV shows, and songs are abundant. For example, somebody found 88 movie references in the book. (How many times would you have to read a book to document all the references? I told you it was a geek fest!) Wade also has to master every video game from the 1980s and decide which of those games were Halliday’s favorites.

We especially enjoyed the audio reading by actor, Will Wheaton. (I saw him last night on an episode of Big Bang Theory.) He brings the book to life. BTW, he mentioned in an interview that he really likes doing audio books because that’s how he gets his own reading done by preparing for the audio recording. The movie is directed by Steven Spielberg, the biggest name around. Early reviews are encouraging. The movie makers must have had a great time!

My last comment is that reading doesn’t have to be a serious enterprise. Sometimes it just needs to be fun, fun, fun. This is one of those times!

Here is a you tube video of references in the movie.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

We Matter: Athletes and Activism

By Etan Thomas

Akashic Books     2018
320 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

I want to give a shout out for a book that has crossed my desk. We Matter by former professional basketball player, Etan Thomas, is a series of interviews and commentary. Thomas discusses Black athletes and their activism—from taking a knee during the national anthem to forcing the University of Missouri president to address racially-charged incidents on campus. The stories are profound as are the interviews. Thomas’ narrative helps put the Black Lives Matter movement into the long-term perspective it deserves—how we got to where we are now.

The book should serve as inspiration to young athletes as well as the socially and morally conscious who deplore police brutality and discrimination . It also helps put President Trump’s policies in perspective through the eyes of the athletes Thomas interviewed. 

We Matter closes with two poems written by Etan Thomas. One is about the impact of Colin Kaepernick on the culture. The other called “You Matter”  is a call for African American youth to believe that they are important in a culture that disparages them.

But the darkness will come to light
And our strength will surprise you
When your walls come tumbling down just like Confederate statues.

I encourage you to read this interview with Thomas in the New York Times and buy the book for those who will value it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

White Houses

By Amy Bloom

Random House    2018
240 p.     Historical Fiction

I first encountered the author Amy Bloom when I was sent a copy of Lucky Us to review. I loved it, and I couldn’t wait to read White Houses about the great woman, Eleanor Roosevelt and her lover, the journalist and author, Lorena Hickok.

In an essay on Book Page, Bloom says that she first learned about the love affair between Eleanor and “Hick” (as she was called) in a 1992 biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Apparently there are 3000 letters between Eleanor and Hick in the FDR Library in Hyde Park. At first, when historians read Cook’s biography, they were appalled that she had written about the relationship. Even, Ken Burns, in making his documentary about the Roosevelts, thought the relationship was just gossip. Blum says, however, that the letters are so dramatic and love-filled that their relationship could not have been platonic. Other historians have come to accept that as well.  In 2018,  the idea is more dramatic than scandalous, but the thought of a homosexual relationship for a first lady makes for great fiction, which Amy Bloom has brilliantly and tenderly created.

Lorena narrates the story of how they met, how they loved, how they separated, and how they reunited when FDR died in 1945. Lorena is a marvelous character from a very poor background, raped by her father as a young girl, sent to live as a housemaid when her mother died, and found work for a time in the circus. Because of her tenacity and brilliance, she became a journalist, and she met Eleanor on FDR’s first political campaign. She had to resign from the AP because of a loss of objectivity about the first couple, and Franklin helped her get a job within the White House. There, she was able to continue her affair with Eleanor unrestricted and with the full approval of Franklin, who, of course,  was having his own affairs.

What we learn about Eleanor is pretty much what we have already come to know about her, historically. She was gracious, charming, and kind to everyone who crossed her path. During the years of their affair, Lorena was in and out of Eleanor’s life, all while Eleanor became a powerful figure in American culture. Lorena knew Eleanor in a far more intimate way than the world did, and the picture we get of Eleanor, from Lorena’s perspective, is a loving and passionate woman, anxious to pursue a relationship outside the restrictive boundaries of the White House. At the same time, Lorena knew that Eleanor was a woman of principle. “Eleanor thought that if you were a person of advantages and intelligence, you were responsible for every single thing you did or said and every choice you made until the day they laid you in the ground.”  Lorena always knew that Eleanor would never leave Franklin, so, off and on, she pursued other relationships and other homes, away from Eleanor and the pressures of life in the White House. She always loved Eleanor, and when Franklin died, she ran to her home to comfort her as no one else could.

Bloom’s writing is gorgeous. Lorena tells of her infatuation with Eleanor. “And when I was the object of her love, when her eyes lit up across the room, when she touched her fingertips to the pulse at the base of her throat, to mark the spot for me, to mark herself, I thought that there was no sacrifice I wouldn’t make.” I also loved the passage about middle-aged bodies. “Every woman’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.”

What we learn about Franklin Roosevelt is pretty much what we already knew, and other than this secret affair, our understanding of Eleanor doesn’t change much, either. White Houses flows so well, and is written with great style and immense feeling. The Kirkus reviewer says, “Bloom elevates this addition to the secret-lives-of the-Roosevelts genre through elegant prose and by making Lorena Hickok a character engrossing enough to steal center stage from Eleanor Roosevelt.”

 I was a toddler on a train ride with my mother on the day that Franklin Roosevelt died, and even as young as I was, I can remember the chill that swept over the passengers as the news spread throughout the car. It is a moment I will never forget.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death, and Surviviing

By Julia Samuel

Scribner     2017
261 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Grief Works by Julia Samuel is a profound look at the process of grief. Samuel is a grief counselor, and the help she offers comes from the stories of the grieving people she has met. Her approach is to listen and offer guidance only when necessary. In explaining grief, she makes a provocative statement that has stayed with me. “The process is in the movement—the back and forth—between the loss and restoration. Sadness, tears, yearning, and preoccupation with the person who has died alternate with present-day tasks, functioning, having hope for the future, and having a break from the grief.”

Samuel tells stories and imparts the knowledge she has gained in dealing with grief in several categories: when a partner dies; when a parent dies; when a sibling dies; when a child dies; and when we face our own death. The conclusion of the book talks about how we can help those who are grieving around us.

This book came to me at an appropriate time. In the last month, we have lost two people close to us—a dear and long-term friend, and the grandfather to several of our grandchildren. One loss was abrupt and unexpected, while the other was prolonged and anticipated. Then today, a notice came that the husband of a friend was killed in an automobile accident. It reminded me that death is always with us, and we need to be always ready to practice empathy with those who are suffering.

Because of my age, I suppose, I read with interest the stories about facing your own death. They were helpful and enlightening. I recommend this book to anyone, because neither we, nor the people around us, can escape death. Reading Grief Works can serve as a reminder that grief and love go hand in hand.

Julia Samuel is a British grief counselor, and a good friend of Princess Diana and the royal family. Grief Works was published in Britain last year and is now available in the US.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng
Penguin Press     2017
352 pages     Literary Fiction

Occasionally—and unfortunately too occasionally—you begin a book that you realize is brilliantly written almost immediately. That is the case of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng tells us the end of the story in the first chapter, and then, in back and forth chapters, the entire story comes into view. 

The setting is Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy Cleveland suburb, filled with educated, wealthy parents and privileged kids. Two of the three families in focus are the quintessential Shaker Heights families. The Richardsons have four children—all teenagers. The other Shaker Heights family, the McCulloughs, are fostering an abandoned Chinese baby and want to adopt her. Into this established middle class atmosphere comes the Warrens, Mia and Pearl, who are anything but establishment people. Mia is a photographer and artist, and she and her teenage daughter Pearl have lived all over the country. They rent a duplex from the Richardsons, and Mia promises her daughter that they will stay in this community until Pearl graduates from high school. Pearl becomes fascinated by the Richardson family and what she sees as their normal and ordinary life, and she desperately seeks to be part of that kind of life. As the book begins, there is a fire in the Richardson’s house. The rest of the book tells the story of what brought about the fire, who started it, and why.

There are many fires smoldering throughout the novel. One important fire is the controversy caused by the little Chinese baby, and the white family who wants her. In a moment of weakness, the Chinese mother has left her at the fire station, but now she wants the baby back. The McCulloughs, have fallen in love with the little girl, although controversy swirls in the community over whether a white family can successfully raise a child of another race. From my perspective as the grandmother of several adopted grandchildren, I did not find that this was overtly as racist as some reviewers complained. I felt that it was just part of the dialogue.

In my mind, however, motherhood is the major theme of the book—motherhood in many forms. Elena Richardson, for example, is seldom called Elena—always Mrs. Richardson. “She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance…” Mrs. Richardson has a job; she is a reporter for the local newspaper. But she has never made journalism a career—her career is a housewife and mother. She does know how to investigate,  and as she meets Mia, she becomes more than curious about Mia, the photographer, and Mia, the mother. She decides to investigate Mia’s background and what brought her to have such a nomadic life.

Mia has a huge back story, much of it hinging on her motherhood—how she got and kept Pearl. This makes her sympathetic to the Chinese mother, Bebe Chow, and the circumstances by which she abandoned her baby daughter. Mia’s empathy also helps her to mother Izzy Richardson, the fourth Richardson child, who is neither understood nor validated by her mother. She doesn’t fit the mold that her mother has so carefully defined. Truly, Izzy is one of the most interesting characters in the book, and I would love to know more about what happened to her after she ran away.

Other aspects of motherhood play lesser roles, including unplanned pregnancies and abortions, and the overwhelming desire of the childless to become parents. All contribute to the smoldering sparks of fire.

The little fires all become big fires at the climax of Little Fires Everywhere. I loved that Ng didn’t solve everything in neat and tidy ways. The ending is messy, just like life is messy. She has provided us with the moral dilemmas that affect most families to some degree or another. Mia sums it up as she confronts Mrs. Richardson. “It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got? . . . It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.”

The reader is left thinking about the life decisions that she made, the moral dilemmas presented during her lifetime, and the little fires that still smolder. The New York Times reviewer says that Little Fires Everywhere is an “utterly engrossing, often heartbreaking, deeply empathetic experience.”

Little Fires Everywhere has deservedly been on the best seller list for several weeks. I believe that Celeste Ng has a huge career ahead of her. Can't wait for her next book.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

All Systems Down

By Sam Boush
Lakewater Press     2018
229 pages     Thriller

In what looks like it may be the beginning of a series of books, Sam Boush has created a compelling story line that is a real page turner. All Systems Down is an unsettling read because it is very close to reality.

We are first aware that something extremely bad is happening when a military pilot and her copilot suddenly find themselves without a connection to their flight carrier. Then we are introduced to Brendan who is applying for a job online at a business and the computers go goofy. Little by little, the entire infrastructure of the country comes undone. By chapter 3 we know that the cyber attackers are North Koreans operating out of China. (This is the “too close to reality” part.) It takes the government a while longer to realize that there may be a physical attack as well as a cyber attack in the works. A government hacker named Xandra is sent to the Oregon coast to try to stop an anticipated invasion and to try to counter the cyber attack.  All characters converge on the Oregon coastline. It is at this point that the action really takes off. 

This novel is all plot, suspense, and thrills. If you are looking for action, this is the book for you. If you are seeking great character development or eloquent narrative, try something else. The characters are awkward and the narrative is sometimes strange and unreadable. The book's best feature is that several women serve as both heroes and villains. One of the more interesting characters is the villain, Sierra, who appears about half way through the novel. Another major character, the military pilot, is a woman named Kelly. Xandra, the hacker, is also interesting because of the lack of warmth she portrays as she executes acts of heroism.

When All Systems Down ends, the reader is reassured that there will be a sequel.
Kelly shivered, “The war isn’t over.”
“No,” Xandra said. “It isn’t.”
“We have children to worry about, “ Ireana said. “War or no war, we need to find someplace safe.”
“Is anywhere safe?” Annalore said.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t much like this book. I expressed as much to my husband, who was incredulous. “Why,” he said, “would you continue reading a book you didn’t like when you have hundreds of books on your shelf and Kindle?”

I do have to admit that I was put off a bit by the second sentence of the book when I caught a proofreading mistake. The t and the he of the word "the" were separated by a space (t he). Can't separate myself from my editing career, I guess. However, many of the reviewers on Goodreads loved the book so I plugged on. Finally, I was turning pages as fast as I could. One small detail that fascinated me was that when the gigantic cyber attack happened, cars that had a lot of computer chips in them wouldn’t start or were stalled in the middle of the road. Ah---that would be me in my Toyota Prius!  

 Besides it was cold and snowy outside and I was sitting in front of the fireplace. Might as well read on.

This is Sam Boush's first novel. We will look forward to more from him.

Here is the Kirkus review.