Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ready Player One

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is in one of millions of people who live their lives through OASIS, the massive multi-player online reality. Through OASIS, Wade uses an avatar to attend school, make friends, and, along with thousands of others, search for the “Easter egg” hidden in the system’s code. The founder of OASIS left a secret egg hidden somewhere in the OASIS virtual world that, once discovered, will grant full authority of OASIS to the person whose avatar accomplishes a series of mysterious tasks. To locate the egg, OASIS users must decipher clues, seek out hidden gates, and accomplish unknown tasks, all somehow related to 80s pop culture, the pet passion of the founder of OASIS. Working as his avatar, Parzival, Wade and his friends, Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto, compete and cooperate to discover the egg before it falls into the hands of the enemy, the Sixers. The Sixers are a fleet of corporate-sponsored avatars that have real and virtual advantages including cheats, backdoors, and money to support their efforts in reaching the egg. To maintain the integrity of OASIS, Parzival and his companions must outsmart and outmaneuver the Sixers in the most astounding battle ever to occur in OASIS.

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline is an engaging and surprisingly, and pleasantly, thought-provoking novel. Perhaps most important to the success of this story is that Cline makes the world of virtual reality accessible (helpful for the non-technologically inclined) by explaining terms and repeating them throughout the story so the words become familiar and also have context within the world of OASIS. Constant references to iconic 80s movies, games and songs contribute to the sense of reality within a fictional world, and also allows readers to nerd out about special interests without any shame or embarrassment. The most interesting aspect of the novel is the interplay between the virtual world of OASIS and the real world in which Wade physically exists. Although Cline could spend more time philosophizing on the connections and disconnections between the two worlds, he does comment on what is gained and lost in each reality. Altogether, Cline crafts a captivating world within a world that encourages critical reflection on what aspects are most important and most essential to what it actually means to exist.

Being unfamiliar with video games, this book was new to me in most ways, but still relatable and entertaining. I didn’t feel left behind when Cline talked about systems and codes, and I recognized more 80s references than I thought I would. A few parts of the book felt somewhat contrived, but in general I appreciated his effort to recognize issues like race, gender, and sexual orientation and the different impact it has in the real world and the virtual world of OASIS. With enough action, nerdy references, and thought-provoking moments to keep a variety of audiences engaged, I would say this is a pretty good book. Worth the read.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity – Katherine Boo

Mumbai is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the world, heralding globalization, international interest, and the promise of a better future. Unfortunately, many of the people drawn in by hope and possibility instead find self-interested corruption that disparages communities, families, and dreams. Beyond the gleaming airport and shiny advertisements selling a “beautiful forever,” thousands of people live on pavement or in ramshackle huts in the slum of Annawadi, struggling to survive in an “earn-to-eat” lifestyle. Abdul, as the eldest son and primary wage-earner in his family of eleven, first seeks meaning then settles for any small profit in his business of sorting and recycling trash. Manju, the first female slumdweller to attend university, strives to improve the lives of children in her neighborhood and also defy her mother by providing the free education promised by the corrupt slumlords with whom her mother associates. United, the potential political power of everyone living in poverty could possibly have an impact on Indian policy, but larger political decisions are more likely to be forgotten amid personal concerns and neighborly disputes. Life in the slums stands in stark contrast to the hope promised by the city; sometimes that hope survives, and sometimes it is overwhelmed, like everything else, by the sheer reality of life in the slums.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo is a thoroughly documented accounted of life in poverty in Mumbai. Boo focuses on a small group of community members, and knows when to bring in other players to emphasize friendship, family ties, corruption, hope, or whatever other aspect of slum life to which she wants to draw attention. The story of Abdul, Manju, their families and the community unfolds over several years, which Boo condenses into a logical and uninterrupted series of events. Her narrative poignantly captures the sense of hope, desperation, and futility that accompanies life in the slums. Her reporting humanizes life in poverty as a series of daily occurrences and difficult decisions rather than an unfortunate and overwhelming set of circumstances. The overall effect of her narrative reporting results in an intimate portrayal of vulnerability without being overly intrusive, creating a story full of compassion, hardship, and the indomitable human spirit.

This book is fabulous. However, the author’s note comes at the end of the book and I would have preferred some kind of foreword to clarify the context. Boo’s narrative style of reporting confused me early in the book because it easily reads as a work of fiction instead of a nonfiction account of life in poverty (Boo admits to paraphrasing and summarizing when recounting the internal monologue of people in the book). Which also makes for great reading. Her descriptions are vivid and detailed, sometimes graphically so, the people in her book have understandable and relatable motivations, and the storyline progresses clearly with no extraneous points. Easy to read, compelling, and fascinating.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

After a childhood full of unsuccessful foster placements, Victoria ages out of the foster care system to become emancipated, unemployed, and homeless. She lacks job skills, experience, and even a resume, but she does know the language of flowers. One of her foster mothers taught her that each flower conveys a specific message, giving Victoria a secret language with which to communicate when words don’t work. Through a chance encounter, Victoria earns a job as an assistant at a small flower shop, arranging bouquets and centerpieces full of meaning in addition to aesthetic beauty. Her work with flowers also brings an unexpected connection to her past when she runs into Grant, someone she knew from her last foster placement when she was 10 years old. Grant’s persistent presence dredges up memories full of regret, guilt, and shame about how her foster placement ended, and Victoria struggles to address her troubled past while also learning to trust people in the present. Her new reliance on and responsibility to other people threaten to overwhelm her, and she reverts to her old habit of isolating herself from everyone. Gradually, she learns forgiveness and trust, and starts over yet again with a life that has more stability, more direction, and more hope for the future.

“The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh immediately establishes an emotional connection that remains unrelenting throughout the story. Looking objectively at the story, it is easy to feel protective and compassionate for Victoria, considering her life circumstances, but also easy to see how her actions hurt both herself and others. Diffenbaugh’s characters encompass the full range of human emotion and response, and all her characters are continuously loveable and relatable despite that. Or perhaps because of that. Although the plot is somewhat formulaic and the ending is fairly easily surmised from early on in the book, there are so many aspects of the story that make this book unique. With such a strong emphasis on flowers, Diffenbaugh crafts her story with a language beyond words, adding dimension to her characters and enhancing the magic of her novel by perfectly capturing the clumsy inadequacy of words. The story is beautiful – emotionally, aesthetically, and poetically.

I generally love reading books that have been specifically recommended to me for one reason or another, and this book absolutely follows that trend. Although the story was not complex, the characters were, and Victoria’s development throughout the book was amazing and inspiring to follow. I did have some issues with timing (whole days and weeks just magically disappeared, or were repeated!), but that only matters if I’m being really picky about it. The whole concept of the language of flowers was new to me, and I loved learning the meaning of each flower throughout the story (and there’s an appendix in back, so don’t worry if they’re not all defined in the text). Educational, emotionally gripping, and unique – what else could you want from a story?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen – Christopher McDougall

Ultrarunning (any distance beyond that of a marathon) is a somewhat unusual sport with an unbelievably dedicated cult following. Nonetheless, ultrarunning shares many traits of mainstream sports including elusive superstars like the Tarahumara. The Tarahumara are a tribe of indigenous people living in treacherous canyons in Mexico (due to both geography and sociopolitical upheaval in the region) known for their ability to endlessly and tirelessly run the trails traversing the steep canyon walls. Despite unsuccessful attempts to integrate Tarahumara talent into mainstream Western races, scientists, distance runners, and enthusiasts alike remain undeterred in efforts to learn from Tarahumara tradition. Whether analyzing gait, replicating diet, or speculating about the “heart” of running, much can be learned from the generational talent of the Tarahumara tribes. As Christopher McDougall prepares himself for the race of a lifetime – a one-off 50-mile race between a handful of elite endurance runners and the most renowned tribesmen – he tells the story and legend of the most fundamental human trait: the ability to run.

“Born to Run” is the sensational story of the peak of human ability in the most unbelievable circumstances. McDougall tells a lively story, integrating his own running triumphs and travails with legendary stories of runners suffering excruciating breakdowns and overcoming insurmountable obstacles. Although the stories often border on grandiosity (or spill over entirely), McDougall also roots his investigation in scientific endeavors and explanations. His attention to the technical aspects of training, nutrition, stride, and every other aspect of running that can possibly be analyzed is absolutely captivating for anyone with even the slightest interest in running. His tone throughout the book is that of the capable athlete who has accepted that he will never be elite, so instead he focuses on the love of the sport, infusing his descriptions with humor and sarcasm. The end result is enthralling, entertaining, and inspirational.

This book was a bit hard to get into because McDougall’s writing was a bit hard to swallow at times, but once I got about 50 pages in, it was almost impossible to put down. His approach to telling stories and overall tone were definitely the hardest parts about reading this book. He also makes some inaccurate statements. When discussing diet, he remarks that it would be best to “eat like a poor person,” by which he means that people should eat lots of fruits, veggies, and whole foods (not the store). What it actually means to “eat like a poor person” is to eat lots of cheap processed foods full of sugar and fat. When I wasn’t hung up on his writing, though, the book as fabulous. The stories about races, runners, and technique make running seem as riveting as it feels to me, and I really connected with the spirit of running that he describes throughout the book. Well worth the read, whether you run 50Ks, 5Ks, or not at all.