Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pac-Man Fever

On the back cover of Ready Player One, the reviewer blurbs are full of people I’ve never heard of, who have written books I’ve never seen. But, the first review is from Charlaine Harris, who wrote the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood books. I don’t have the book in front of me, but her blurb says something like, “I don’t know anything about video games and I loved this book!” It’s an obvious bid to woo the ladies to read the book, but I’m with Charlaine.

The book focuses on a not-so-distant future, when everyone is plugged into a virtual world for most of the day and the real world has become a Mad Max kind of place. The creator of the virtual world, James Halliday, has died and his fortune is held in escrow until a gamer manages to find three keys and go through three gates. Halliday is obsessed with the 1980’s, so almost everyone in the world has become an expert on the decade. That, of course, was the hook for me. I wasn’t lost during the focus on gaming, but I certainly wasn’t enough of a geek to know programmer trivia or cheat codes for Pac-Man and I really don’t know much more about Dungeons and Dragons than the basics.

I’m going to tell you that the book was pretty long, and it focused on one main gamer who didn’t go outside for weeks at a time, his best friends who he’s never met in person, and an evil corporation determined to win Halliday’s inheritance and control of the virtual world. There’s endless 80’s pop culture references and the vast majority of the book is descriptions of a virtual landscape or games within the game. Ignore all that and read it anyway. It’s as engrossing as any adventure movie and moves just as fast.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dancer

She was only two-foot eight-inches tall, but her legend reaches out to us more than a century later. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and transformed into the world’s most unexpected celebrity.

                                           - from the Goodreads summary

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: A Novel was outstanding. Using the bare bones of Mrs. Tom Thumb’s actual memoir, Melanie Benjamin turns tiny Vinnie Warren into a fully articulated person. Far from being an exploited sideshow attraction, Vinnie actively pursues a life on stage, joining forces with P.T. Barnum to create insatiable public interest in her life. Benjamin’s thesis is that Vinnie is deeply in love with Barnum and, understanding that they will never marry, is mostly content to be his confidante and equal. For Barnum, she is willing to marry General Tom Thumb, whose fame and size are his only recommendations. Vinnie persuades her shy and na├»ve sister Minnie to join her on tour, completing a quartet of “little people” for the public’s amazement. Smarter than almost everyone around her (with the notable exception of Barnum), Vinnie convinces herself that what she does, she does for the good of all, but she, like Barnum, has an addiction to manipulation.

Vinnie and Minnie were both born normal-sized, and grew normally until the age of two, when they simply stopped getting taller. They were perfectly proportioned, just tiny. I knew from the prologue that Minnie had died in childbirth, and that was one of the most interesting parts of the story. Vinnie had always refused to consummate her marriage to Tom Thumb, fearing that pregnancy would likely produce a full-sized infant, since she was 6 pounds at birth. Minnie convinced herself that two small people would certainly have a “fairy-sized” baby and got pregnant. She weighed less than 30 pounds and stood less than 30 inches and carried the baby to term. Doctors only attempted C-sections after the mother was past saving, so Minnie labored until she died and then they cut the baby out of her and it didn’t survive. The doctors had recommended that Minnie abort the baby and she had refused. I boggled at the logistics of carrying and delivering a baby that weighed 1/5th of your body weight and was more than 1/2 of your length. I do believe that YIKES is the only correct term I can use in a family-friendly spot like this. (Yes, C-sections, giant baby heads and little tiny pelvic areas, and little cows being torn apart are totally family-friendly, so hush.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Papa Don’t Preach

When I was a teenager, Norma Klein wrote Young Adult books featuring savvy New York kids who were about 15 years more sophisticated than anyone I knew. These kids talked like the people in Woody Allen movies, and talked about stuff that the teenagers I knew wouldn’t have said out loud even for the promise of a new Benetton sweater. They talked frankly to each other and their parents about the decision to have sex and, since we’ve firmly established how repressed I happily am, you guys know it was always awkward even to read. I don’t think these super-literate and rational teenagers really existed outside of Norma Klein’s head and I watched enough NYC Prep to confirm that. There’s a veneer of sophistication to these kids, but they still have bad skin and a ladleful of hormone soup to swim through.

I just finished Catherine Greenman’s Hooked and she might have grown up on the same Norma Klein books as I did. Thea falls in love with Will in her junior year of high school and gets pregnant as a senior. They decide to keep the baby and move in together. Sounds simple, right? This book is so foreign to anything I can imagine happening if I had gotten pregnant in high school that it feels like science fiction.

Will’s parents only care that he stay in college. Thea’s mother doesn’t care much about any of it and her usually distant father is the only one who seems to care about Thea or the baby. The parents all kick in money to allow Thea and Will to sub-let an apartment while Will goes to school and Thea stays at home with the baby. An accident happens with the baby (nothing too traumatic, I promise) and all the people drift back apart as if they had never met. It’s a strange story, with some subplots written clearly and movingly and other, more major plot points half-drawn and abandoned before they develop real meaning. I still don’t have any idea whether Greenman meant to portray Thea as a good mother or as a little girl making a grownup mistake.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Young Turks

When I was annoyed about Divergent ending on a cliffhanger the other day, it was probably the equivalent of complaining about names with extra Y’s and apostrophes – the trend appears to be sticking.* I just finished Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go and it ended even more abruptly than Divergent. Literally, it stopped the middle of a scene, with a preview from book two. Dudes, you’re not writing Harry Potter. She earned those cliffhangers. I almost put down The Knife of Never Letting Go early on, because large pieces of the dialogue were written in dialect. I’m not a fan of accent dialogue in any case, it’s usually a cheap character marker, but a lot of this stuff was completely unnecessary. The lead character, Todd, doesn’t have much education and is barely able to read. So why, exactly, would that make his thoughts misspelled? Especially when they are spelled out phonetically, so they would be pronounced exactly the same. Direkshuns? Really? Were you writing The Color Purple of teenage dystopian novels?

I’m glad I stuck with it, because it totally is a roller coaster of a book. The energy builds from the introduction of Todd, the last “boy” in a village of only men. Todd’s village is the last in the world and viruses have killed all the women, given animals the ability to speak, and made it so that all thoughts are audible. Todd will turn 13 in one month and become a full-fledged member of his group, but his discovery of a girl in the woods turns everything he thinks he know upside down. The action is relentless and one character is seriously more resilient than Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th. I guess there’s a whole generation unclear on the concept that you always make sure the villain is really dead.


*And as soon as I wrote that, I looked at the book on Amazon and saw that it came out 3 years ago. So really, this is more like me complaining that video killed the radio star. In any case, I blame it all on Stephanie Meyers and Twilight.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Blame the Machines

I’m dabbling in the idea of getting  a real Kindle. I haven’t stuck much of a foot in yet, right now I’m just working with the Kindle app on my phone. I’ve played a little bit with the free classics on Amazon, but I’ve read most of what I want off of that list. (There are several classics I would like to have already read, but am not willing to actually put in the effort to read, Moby Dick.) Anyway, my beloved library has started loaning out e-books, so I’ve eased into the experiment with an Amanda Quick trashy book. (I was sure to tell the library that I was checking it out for my mother.) I had high hopes that I wouldn’t just wander away in boredom and forget about the book altogether. It’s okay, but I’m not sure yet that I’ll love it $200 worth. (Or $79 or $139 – There are so many choices and what if I pick wrong? The first-world would come screeching to a halt!) It’s harder to pick up and start reading at a stoplight, but according to my local policemen, that might be a good thing. Anti-continuing-education spoilsports.  I am a lot more worried about dropping my expensive phone in the tub than I ever was a book, so there is that drawback.

I’ve always been a fierce supporter of paper. I like the feel of them in my hands, the fresh woodsy smell of new books and the slightly musty smell of used ones. But then I get a giant book like Everybody Loves Our Town and my hands get so tired. Stephen King has a new book coming out and that thing is 849 pages long. My hands are hurting in anticipation. I want to support authors and publishers, but I don’t have any idea of the economics of e-books. Are they more profitable for authors & publishers than print? It seems crazy how constricted the ability to loan an e-book is right now, but I’m sure they’re still feeling their way in the darkness. I’m going to be a little ugly now, but there is one thing I hate about e-books. It shouldn’t be this easy to self-publish. You had to pay a chunk to self-publish a print book and then you didn’t have a way to market it, so it stayed in boxes in your garage where it belonged.

Julia Child once said something along the lines of “If you’re the first person to ever think of putting those ingredients together in that way, there’s probably a reason why it’s not already been done.” Asparagus applesauce may well become the next big thing, but there probably is an outstanding reason why your debut novel about a vampire hamster who shape-shifts into a pollution-fighting pigeon was turned down by the one publisher you sent it to. Your book isn’t good. Apparently first books rarely are and “debut” novels are often the 3rd or 4th books written. I feel bad that authors who work for years and get proposals approved, rewrite, edit, and rewrite again are lumped in with the idiots who complete National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) and decide that they have created a complete and perfect book.

A bunch of the authors at the Texas Book Festival named their editors as the most important partner in the success of a book, and it makes sense. An editor can see the details inside your big story, but has enough of a remove to ruthlessly cut the parts that don’t work. Self-published means self-edited and that’s not a good thing. That’s never a good thing. I think self-published should have a disclaimer prominently displayed, but they could pick which one applied: 1) The American Publishing Industry has become a staid monopoly, interested only in blockbuster series and unable to see the untapped genius of works like Raging Hamster & Dirty Bird; 2) I choose to disassociate myself from big business, refusing to alter my vision or dilute the twin messages of animal rights & pollution; 3) I just wanted to tell chicks I was a published author.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Page in My Diary

There is a section on Goodreads where you can enter to win books and the only thing better than a book is a FREE book, of course, so I enter often. I was lucky enough to win a copy of Post-it Note Diaries: 20 Stories of Youthful Abandon, Embarrassing Mishaps, and Everyday Adventure,  edited and illustrated by Arthur Jones. The idea for the book started when Jones used drawings on post-it notes to illustrate a story he was presenting at a literary event. The event took off and became a series, and the stories in the book are from those readings.

I like graphic novels, but I’m always afraid that I’m not getting my money’s worth. I read so fast that books + illustrations usually mean that I’m done in an hour, and it’s hard to justify a $15 list price for an hour of reading. Post-It Note Diaries was a little different, though.

I found myself going back to certain stories several times. There’s a poignant story called “Big Black Bird” by Jeff Simmermon about testicular cancer that brought me close to tears, but was in no way maudlin or tear-jerky. Jones doesn’t say if the story writers have input into the illustrations, but I’m hoping that the Indian man in the story had a grin just like he’s pictured. Oh, and Mary Roach’s behind-the-celebrity-interview story How to “Not Have Sex with Nicolas Cage”? The perfect blend of funny words and funny illustrations elevate both to something much higher than thought possible. I can’t show you the illustrations, but one part of her story reads, “For the first time since we’d met, Mr. Cage seemed happy. Though without actually smiling.” I love this. I equally love her hope that she and Nicolas might stay up all night talking, illustrated by Nicolas Cage braiding her hair, cigarette hanging out of his mouth and hairy chest on full view in his undershirt, while she chatters happily.

I’ve pulled the book out three or four times to show someone a story since it arrived in the mail and I’ve talked enough about the story and the concept to know that it would be worth the cover price. Fans of This American Life will love Post-It Note Diaries.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Santa Baby*

I heard the first Christmas carols of the season today and realized I would have to make my wish list. I’m so filling the list with books! Here are a few of the ones I’m longing for – We’ll see if I make it to Christmas without snapping them up.

*Okay, I name all the posts after song lyrics or titles, (Just like Degrassi!), but I so hate Santa Baby. Why in the world would mothers dress their little girls up and have them sing this? Trashy.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Come As You Are

When I was in high school, a chunk of my friends were skater boys. In the mid- 1980’s, skater boys in our town were typically middle-class and generally pretty sunny in disposition and future. They were going to college and going to wind up lawyers and doctors just like their fathers. One of my friends, with red hair and the sweetest boy smile I had ever seen, went to Seattle and he died.

We’ve never quite known what happened to John. I’ve always had a hundred, thousand questions about his last two years, but there’s no one to ask. His family shut that door firmly, not even posting an obituary that any of us can find, so all that we have is speculation and rumors. I’ve always wanted to know if he was in college or working, was he a junkie? We’ve always heard that heroin was involved, but that can mean too many things to be any answer.

I’m reading Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge this week and I’m not sure why. I mean, I really will read an oral history on almost any topic, but grunge is not my music. Grunge really isn’t a music at all, just a label slapped on bands from a specific place and time. And, while I am from that time, I’m not from that place.
Seattle in the 1990’s is a dark, violent place. The musicians profiled in the book talk a lot of about how fun it was in the early days, in the 1980’s, but by the time the Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden are getting big, the scene doesn’t sound so fun anymore. (Guns ‘N’ Roses toured with Soundgarden and nicknamed them Frowngarden.) 

I guess when a handful of your friends get famous, it’s normal to think that it should be you getting the money and the record deals. And by the time Nirvana has come and gone, everyone is a cannibal. A surprising number of people in the book blame all the problems of Seattle on Courtney Love, which is kind of fascinating to read. It’s like she’s the Yoko Ono of an entire region, creating factions and isolations and death. She could have gone so many ways with her widowhood, becoming the beatific saint of musicians gone too soon, but I guess she really could only be what she is – too damaged and self-promoting and angry to do anything but lash out.

Oh, the deaths. The first few are shocking to Seattle musicians and they still remember that rawness these 20 years later. As the ‘90’s wear on, the scattered names of the dead become a roll call, with no surprise left. There are only a small handful of musicians profiled who didn’t die at some point. Apparently there are lots of ways to revive a dead man and the people in Seattle learned them all the hard way. They didn’t all come back to life, though, and I’m reading this account thinking that there must be dozens of dead audience members for every dead musician. There are people just like my friend in every concert photo. Kids who though moving to Seattle would fill some empty space in them and didn’t get to grow up. I guess that’s why I’m reading intensely - I’m looking for John on every page.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Here’s Your Future

I finished Divergent this week and I thought I really liked it. Silly me. The more I thought about it, the madder I got. (As mad as I can get about a free book from the library that took me a day to read, I mean, so mildly irked and shaking my fist a little.) The book was pretty tightly written for a first novel, and the plot was enough different from The Hunger Games to keep me interested.  Veronica Roth’s creation is a community made up of factions, essentially the brave, smart, honest, self-sacrificing, and those who value peace & harmony are separated into separate groups. It’s a little Harry Potter, in that you know they’ll eventually learn that they have to band together to survive. (Dum. Dum. Duuuuummmmm.)

The main character fits into more than one category, and that makes her dangerous to the leaders, since they won’t be able to suppress her instincts into a single faction style. There are obvious influences to contemporary Y.A. literature in Divergent, with a heavy sprinkling (“sprinkling” being like those giant chocolate chunks in the cookies at the mall) of the dystopian themes of The Hunger Games. The part of Roth’s premise that I think might actually be better than the separation of districts in Hunger Games and houses in Harry Potter is that it has nothing to do with your birth or training.

The world had a mighty battle and if you thought that wars were caused by selfishness, you joined the faction that values self-sacrifice and service to others. You could make your own choice and choose a destiny, based on your natural inclinations and talents. As the years went on, the original reason for the factions to train and were twisted, until factions became more important than family and group-think was the only thought allowed. So, the people who fit equally into more than one faction, who could see more than one side to a situation, became increasingly dangerous.

The book was well-written and the premise was thought provoking, so why am I complaining? It’s written with a sequel in mind. And not like Harry Potter, where the book ends and the story is wrapped up, but further adventures await! No, this one just ends, leaving all kinds of trailing story lines behind it to get caught in the door. Could she not figure out how to end the thing? What if something happens to her and she can’t write more books? Are we going to end up with a Twin Peaks thing where they have to come back with some summary later to tell you who dies? Really, that’s just bad practice and I’m hoping it doesn’t become widely accepted. Each book needs to stand alone as it builds to a rich series, not end like an episode of Knot’s Landing.