Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ready Player One: Get Your Geek On

If you owned an Atari 2600, or played Dungeons & Dragons, or can recite every line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, chances are you've already read and loved Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, Ready Player One. It's geek heaven, to be sure — but there's also a liberal sprinkling of other 80s pop culture references ("Don't call me Shirley!"), which often make the novel fun even if you weren't (aren't) a gamer.

The story takes place in 2044 where an online mutliplayer game called OASIS is the obsession of an increasingly stratified, near dystopian society. Our hero, 18-year-old Wade (or Parzival, as he calls his OASIS avatar) spends all his free time in the virtual world looking for an Easter Egg (basically, a buried treasure, if you're not hip to the geek lingo) hidden in OASIS by the game's founder James Halliday. The hunt for this easter egg is the obsession of millions (they're called gunters...egg+hunters) because whoever finds it will inherit billions of dollars and rule the virtual world. The hunt is based on clues Halliday left behind in a video, and because Halliday was obsessed with 80s pop culture, the gunters believe the only way to find the easter egg is to be as knowledgeable about the 80s as Halliday was.

So we follow Parzival/Wade and his friends mostly in both the real and virtual worlds as they try to solve the puzzles and find the egg. Along the way, Parzival has to complete challenges, like beating a wizard in Joust and playing Matthew Broderick's character in a virtual recreation of the movie WarGames.

This novel is mostly good, harmless, fast-paced, and geeky fun. I enjoyed it well enough. But I probably didn't go all-in on this novel as much as many readers. The biggest reason: Many, many scenes with just devastatingly brutal dialogue between Parzival and his buddies. I mean, awful — so bad, they're funny. Here's one of many, many examples, so you can giggle with me.

"That's right, I called  you a poseur, poseur." I stood and got up in his grille. "You are an ignorant know-nothing twink. Just because you're fourteenth-level, it doesn't make you a gunter. You actually have to possess some knowledge." 
"Word," Aech said, nodding his agreement. We bump fists.

It's almost like a geek is trying to be cool by acting out and saying things he's seen on TV. Wait, maybe that's the effect Cline was going for? If so, bravo, Cline. You nailed it!

Anyway, I played my fair share of Atari and Nintendo in the 80s, too — but this novel takes the video gaming to the nth degree, so I couldn't always stay engaged. Yes, the 80s pop culture references are great, but there are long descriptions of Parzival's maneuverings in OASIS which you may only enjoy if you're a fan of online multiplayer games. (And I am not.) Also, plotwise, there are near-constant "ghosts in the machine" — like extra lives and power-up items that suddenly appear. So the rules to the contest (and therefore the novel) seemingly keep changing, but that's okay, because it's in a video game, right? I'm not sure it is.

So if you're an unapologetic geek, and you haven't read this yet, what are you waiting for? If you're not, but just like a good non-cerebral, sometimes funny, often unintentionally funny novel, give this a go. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

May We Be Forgiven: Absurd Comedy, Sobering Drama

(For Book Riot's Tournament of Books rundown, Rioter Rebecca and I recently took on A.M. Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven. As opposed to a straight review, the following, which originally appeared on Book Riot, will actually give you a much better feel for the novel. Enjoy!)

If we’re judging a book by its cover, A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven may seem a tad mundane. But then, within the first 30 pages, a guy named George kills two people in a traffic accident, goes slightly insane, catches his wife Jane in bed with his brother Harry, and bashes her in the head with with a table lamp.

This is not a novel for the squeamish, and not just because of what happens at the beginning. Harry, a middle-aged Nixon scholar, narrates the fallout from these life-shattering events, and carries us through a novel that is a lot absurd, more than a little hilarious, a bit sad, and just a tad revolting here and there. A.H. Homes is known as a “fearless” novelist, not afraid to take chances, or take on any subject, and that’s fairly evident here.

Below, Rebecca and I discuss this Tournament of Books longshot.

Greg Zimmerman: So, before we even jump into Harry vs. Life in the aftermath of his brother’s meltdown, let’s talk about readability. I remember, before I started this, fellow Rioter Amanda tweeted something about how she hated all the characters, but still couldn’t put the book down. I feel similarly — many of these characters are just atrocious to the point of being Sherwood Anderson-esque grotesques. But you can’t turn away. Homes is so smooth, so readable, even when dealing with some icky subjects, it really is hard to close the covers. Would you agree?

Rebecca Joines Schinsky: You know, I don’t really agree. I didn’t love any of the characters, but I did really sympathize for Harry and the kids and came to like them quite a bit. And I wouldn’t call the characters atrocious. Every last one of them has made some Very Bad Life Choices, but they make — taken alone — the kinds of bad choices any of us could make in a moment of weakness or desperation or really-not-thinking-straight-ness. It’s just that they happen all at once here. And isn’t that how life is? Poor Harry thought he was just committing run of the mill adultery (albeit with his sister-in-law, so add in a side of family betrayal); how was he to know his brother was going to go batshit? That’s where Homes’ skill with the absurd comes in. She layers bad choice upon bad choice, weird circumstance upon even weirder circumstance, and somehow, it really works.

GZ: The problem with Harry, though, doesn’t seem to be that he makes bad choices or has moments of weakness. It’s that he doesn’t make decisions at all! Indeed, as the story continues to unfold, it seems more and more that Harry is tugged along by forces beyond his control. That things just happen and he just goes with them. (His wife telling him to “take care” of Jane while George is away is his justification for adultery?!)  And to me, that’s why we don’t put too much thought into the cause and effect of the absurd things that happen — why, for instance, Harry finds himself in a suburban sex club with a married woman, and we think “yep, that seems about right.” Harry does eventually begin to figure things out, though, and as he does, that’s when he becomes more sympathetic. So I think we agree on Harry that he’s not atrocious in the end, we just took different paths to get there.

RJS: That’s really well put, G. Harry is go-with-the-flow passive to a fault. He sorta-kinda-maybe knows what he wants, but he’s incapable of identifying the incremental steps to getting those things, so he just floats along on the tide of other people’s decisions. Jane comes on to him. George leaves him responsible for the children. Cheryl invites him to the sex club, and Amanda starts the thing in the grocery store (and hello, whose wish fulfillment moment is this to meet a stranger in the grocery store and start an affair?), not to mention all that follows with her parents, Cy and Madeline. The kids push and pull him into other critical moments. But he becomes more capable of dealing with them as the book — and the year of life it presents — progresses. The situations he finds himself in don’t become any less absurd, but we buy into it all the way through. How do you think Homes pulls that off?

GZ: You’re right — that’s the best trick of this novel: That we continue to buy into the absurd! Could it be because we simply learn what to expect with Harry, and so the absurd becomes the new normal? Or maybe, because Homes is terrific at distracting us with comedy. I mean, we range from maybe-too-easy-but-still-snort-worthy bathroom humor, like a banner for the kid’s bar mitzvah that reads “Congratulations on the Big BM,” to deadpan one-liners, like Harry’s response to a guy who asks him how he thought the rabbi did: “It’s not my policy to review funerals.”  The humor here was one of my favorite parts of Homes’ writing.

RJS: I loved the humor too, particularly as it played out with Amanda’s parents, Cy and Madeline. And Harry’s visit to see George at The Lodge — the insane asylum where he’s awaiting trial. It was so depressing, but also completely ridiculous. By incorporating humor into the sad things that happen to her characters as they age and do horrible, hurtful things to each other simply because they can, Homes reminds us that they aren’t villains — they are only human, and we are them. That “we” in the title is significant, don’tcha think?

GZ: I’m really glad you brought that up, because I think that’s the main theme of the book — that in order to be well-adjusted humans, we (yes, we are them) have to learn how to love or like or abide or at the very least tolerate other humans that are distasteful to us — especially when they’re family. And the sooner we learn this, the better we can be. I loved that many of the principals in this novel “get better” in one way or another. Harry ruminates on that as he watches the kids be attentive to their guests at Thanksgiving dinner, instead of gluing themselves to their phones, as they did the previous year, when this whole mess started. I think it’s the mark of a good novel — that the characters, who start out odious (though I know we disagree on the degree of odiousness), learn and improve.

This may be a Tournament of Books longshot, but if you’ve never read A.M. Homes, I think we’d both agree that we’d highly recommend this. It’s a lot of fun!

RJS: Tons of fun. And the book is something of a critical darling, so you never know. If Homes goes down in the first round, her zombie resurrection chances aren’t very high, but a first round pairing against something that plays things a little straighter (cough Beautiful Ruins cough), or one of the more ambitious but less-well-executed novels (I’m thinking Ivyland) could mean May We Be Forgiven goes further than expected.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: War Is Hell, and Hell Is Other People

"The war makes him wish for a little more than the loose jaw and dull stare of the well-fed ruminant."
That, in a nutshell, is the main theme of Ben Fountain's fantastic Iraq War novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. The novel is about a company of soldiers, who have distinguished themselves as heroes in a firefight in Iraq, and are therefore trotted out for a two-week "victory tour" in the U.S., culminating in a Cowboys game on  Thanksgiving Day.

It's certainly no accident that Fountain has the soldiers wind up at a football game — it's the perfect contrast for the point he's trying to make about Americans' view of the war in general, and the soldiers who are fighting it, specifically. Because we can't comprehend the horror of war, we often try to liken it to sports (or, more melodramatically, we use silly analogies to try to elevate sports to the level of war). But to try to claim we have even the remotest idea what war is like is disingenuous to the nth degree.

Or, as Billy Lynn, the 19-year-old hero of the battle for which Bravo company is now famous, tells us after a particularly annoying run-in with a "fan":  
"Don't talk about shit you don't know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths."
How powerful is that?!

But there's plenty of fun to be had with this novel, too. It takes place over the course of one day, as the company arrives at Texas Stadium (it's 2004) and meets the cheerleaders and the Cowboys' owner (a particularly odious caricature of Jerry Jones) and his deputies and friends (including a particularly odious caricature of T. Boone Pickens). The fellas spend their day sneaking beers and booze, cracking jokes about which of them will hook up with Destiny's Child, the game's halftime show, and constantly accepting the adulation of adoring "fans," who keep thanking them for the service and explaining how much they support the troops.

All along, a big-shot Hollywood producer is trying to get them a movie deal, and promises them $100,000 a man for their story. So that's the good news. The bad news that haunts them over the course of the day is that they have to redeploy that evening to finish the remaining 11 months of their tour. And Billy has to decide whether to take his sister Kathryn's pleading advice and let a group of lawyers in Austin help get him out of the tour, or whether to be loyal to his company and return. (He's also just met and thinks he loves a cheerleader named Faison, with whom he has formed an impromptu — and what he thinks is real — connection.)

I loved this book, as much for the fact that it's just downright entertaining, as for the fact that it really made me think and question some things that are maybe too easy to take for granted. Without actually doing something about it, saying "I support the troops" is an empty sentiment and perhaps just as disingenuous as pretending we know what it's like to be at war.

But so, if you're looking for a war novel sans any type of blood and guts and battle scenes, this is your book. Very highly recommended. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Angelmaker: What Hath Spork Wrought?

If you feel like maybe you've been too nice to your brain lately, and you want to give it a good, swift kick into gear, Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker is just the thing. What starts as an intricate mystery, continues as a World War II tale of espionage, and ends as a rush to save the world from one of the most dastardly villains I've read about, maybe ever. It's just absolutely crazy — unlike anything I've ever read before. 

What's more, at times, Angelmaker is hilarious (if you're willing to abide a good dose of dry British wit). At times (mostly in the first 100 pages), it's maddeningly slow and detailed. And at times (mostly in the second half), it goes by so fast, you don't even realize you're reading. (I took me a week to read the first 200 pages, and two sittings to read the last 250.)

A day after I finished the book, I sat down to record my thoughts in my reading journal, as I always do. An hour and half and 2,000 words later, I still felt like I'd missed key details and plot hinges. Put it this way: A lot of details are dropped so subtly, that you often forget them, and therefore you have no idea why, for instance, our protagonist Joe Spork, needs to visit a warehouse or visit a friend who lives on a boat. (Or maybe that was just me.) At any rate, the point is that the plot here is as intricate and with as many moving parts as the doomsday device Spork, a clockmaker, is asked to fix, accidentally activates, and then has to save the world from.

Meanwhile, amidst the present-day plot, Harkaway mixes in the story of a British spy named Edie Banister. During World War II, Edie is tasked with disguising herself as a man, and rescuing a French scientist from an evil Asian despot, before said French scientist can build the machine that will make said evil Asian despot a god (at least, that's evil Asian despot's plan).

Of course, the two storylines connect in the present as Joe Spork runs from the law and a mysterious cult of shadowy folk who worship British aesthete John Ruskin. He meets a beautiful, enigmatic woman named Polly, and tries to connect the who, how, and why (as the reader is, too), all which have a more personal bent that Joe could've possibly have imagined.

As if this book itself wasn't enough of a shock to the system, I discovered while reading that Harkaway is the son of British spy novelist John le Carré. That kind of blew my mind.

Anyway, I won't say I totally loved this novel as much as many readers have. I did thoroughly enjoy the second half, but the first half, in my view, is a bit unnecessarily long and detailed. At any rate, Angelmaker is definitely a wholly original work of fiction, and definitely something I'm glad I read. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracle: Sad, But True, Love Story

Ron Currie, Jr. has written far and away the best book of all time...whose title is a reference to nicotine patches. Okay, but seriously, Currie's new novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, is superb — easily my favorite of the year so far! It's deserving of the highest compliment I know how to pay a book: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is exactly the kind of book I wish I could write.

The fun starts even before the beginning — on the epigraph page, where Currie decries the idiotic idea of epigraphs, because too often, they "provide the the author an opportunity to be pompous. To indulge in a little high-lit posturing" — but then he includes one anyway. Even before, on the title page, Currie has included the notation "A True Story," and then given us a paragraph about how everything that follows is "based on real events," and what exactly that means. So we know this is going to be a bit unconventional. Indeed, did everything that we're about to read really happen?

Of course not — but having that question about what is true in a novel in the back of your mind as you read, is part of the point for this book — and becomes very important at the end.

So the story is this: A novelist named Ron Currie, Jr. (ever read Operation Shylock by Philip Roth?), is telling us his tale (in the first person), as if it were a memoir. But despite the fact the tells us it's true — can we believe him? Do we believe him more when he says things like:"Like everybody else, I had trembled my whole life for something true"? Or might we think he doth protest too much?

Currie reunites with his high school sweetheart, Emma, a beautiful, troubled woman, who is just emerging from a failed marriage. But then, after a few months of reunited bliss, Emma again sends Currie away — and Currie reacts by totally removing himself (because he can't trust himself to be near her, but not with her) to an unnamed, tiny Caribbean island. There, he drinks, fights with locals, and continues work on a novel about Emma.

All the while, we get Currie's (the novelist? the fictional character?) ruminations about the future event known as the Singularity, when machines will become self-aware, and then humans will cease to exist, or humans will be gods, or the Singularity is really heaven, or any of a number of other of equally good or bad things might happen. Normally, these interruptions in fiction are annoying. These are not annoying — they're fascinating. They add texture to the story — to Currie's (presumably, the fictional character) increasingly frazzled mind and increasing vulnerability. Additionally, Currie tells us about taking care of his father as he slowly died of cancer — which is sad as hell, and again, adds context to Currie's own sad situation. This is not a happy book, to be clear.

Along the way, there is a buxom college girl, a suicide attempt, a best-selling novel, and ruminations on what truly is true. And it's just simply amazing. I really loved it! And I think you will too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Will the Winter's Tale Movie Be Any Good?

Filming has wrapped on the movie adaptation of Mark Helprin’s much-loved 1983 novel, Winter's Tale. And this one has some real star power behind it — Russell Crowe, Colin Farrell, Will Smith, and Jennifer Connelly all have roles in the movie (release date yet to be announced). But will it be any good? Let’s take a look.

Source Material — This is a tough one. If you count yourself among the approximately 75 percent of readers who loved this book, your confidence is probably much higher than mine is regarding this long, surreal story. I’m in the 25 percent who didn’t love it, so my confidence ain’t great. But I DID love the first 200 pages that tell the turn-of-the-century story of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, and Pearly Soames and the horse Athansor. If the movie focuses more on this part of the story, I’d grade out the chances of success to be much higher than if it tries to include the whole freakin’ book, which is is 700+ pages long. Finally, on the plus side, one of the things that bugged me about the book — its overwrought, often-way-too-flowery imagery — could be a boon for the movie. Could be beautiful.

Cast — This is a definite strength for the confidence index. My hesitation is Crowe as Pearly Soames. I’d read Soames as more of a Bill the Butcher (from Gangs of New York)-type character, not a debonair villain, as it looks like Crowe is playing him. Am I wrong about this? The rest of the cast, again, is fantastic. Farrell (an Irishman) is a natural choice for Peter Lake.

Director — The man at the helm is Akiva Goldsman, who wrote the screenplay and is directing. Goldsman has certainly had his moments of brilliance — he wrote (and won an Oscar for) the screenplay for A Beautiful Mind (directed by Ron Howard), which is one of my favorite movies of all time. (It also starred Connelly and Crowe.) Goldsman also has producer credits for several blockbusters, including I Am Legend (starring Smith). But his directing experience? Winter’s Tale is his directorial debut. (He did direct a few episodes of the short-lived TV series Fringe.) So while screenwriting cred is fairly established, will Goldsman have the directorial chops to handle this cast and this difficult story? We’ll see…

Wild Card — A couple things here: The budget for the movie is reportedly a mere $46 million, cut from an original budget of $75 million. That doesn’t sound good — since the aformentioned imagery/cinematography could have certainly benefited from some fancy effects. Forty-six million sounds like it could be the salaries of the four principal actors alone! Additionally, the film earned the ire of some of Red Hook, Brooklyn residents last year when it continued to film soon after Hurricane Sandy, taking parking spaces and resources from residents trying to recover. Not sure if this will have any effect on its box office, but it’s something.
So, overall, with a great cast, but a rookie director, and source material of debatable quality, I’d say:

Confidence Index: 5.75 out of 10

(This post originally appeared last week on Book Riot. Also, if you're interested in my full take on the novel, which I finally finished last week after nearly a month-and-a-half of reading, it's here.)