Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Review, 11/18/11

Friends, I am sick. The cold that I've been trying to dodge for a month now (a MONTH!) has finally caught up with me. My throat is raw, and I have a cough. I do not, yet, have the head full of snot - that may come later or it may not. My sinuses are odd that way. I'm dosing with vitamin C and zinc. My students have requested movies
for the Monday before Thanksgiving break next week, and I may well accede, since I don't know if I'll have a voice to teach with. Updates as warranted.

That being said, I did complete three books this week. Two are even oddly related, for all that they are completely different.

Jon Scieszka, ed. - Guys Read 2: Thrillers

Scieszka is editing a series of books to entice middle school boys who don't like to read into the wonderful world of reading. This is the second - the first was Funny Stuff. This is what the box says on the cover - thrillers. A collection of stories featuring robbers and ghosts and detectives and villains and pirates, and people tied to rail road tracks.

This was not aimed at me. I am so far from being the target audience that I may as well be behind the shooter. I found most of the stories to be trite and predictable, and largely lacking in complexity. But, having worked in a middle school library and talked to the literacy teachers struggling to find material that a) enticed their reluctant male readers to read while b) being written to their literary level, I can say that this book might well be a hit with the intended audience. The writing is simple, without being condescending. The stories are straight-forward without being cute (mostly). A couple were even pretty excellent. The characters were uniformly male (because middle school males tend to have trouble identifying with female characters) and they do things - they get into trouble, they climb things and then jump off of them, they find stuff. All good.

The three standout stories were:

Matt De La Pena - "Believing in Brooklyn" - a story of a young boy who, for some logical reasons, believes that he has a wishing machine in his bedroom. (but he doesn't. Or does he?)

Walter Dean Myers - "Pirate" - a story from the point of view of an 11 year old Somali pirate (great for prompting discussion of current events, perhaps)

Gennifer Choldenko - "The Snake Mafia" - a story about exotic animal smuggling (more current events, maybe).

I would include Bruce Hale's "Nate Macavoy, Monster Hunter," except it doesn't end, which, given that this is a collection of short stories, I would consider a significant flaw.

If you have reluctant reader males in your acquaintance, this might well stimulate some reading. All of the authors are established, so if one of the stories peaks their interest, they can be assured that there is more like it available.

Earnest Cline - Ready Player One

Are you a child of the '80s? Do you like video games from the '80s? How about dystopian visions of the future, with a strong dose of cyberpunk? Then this book is probably for you. Frankly, I think Cline hits it out of the park with this one.

In the future, OASIS, a vast virtual universe, created by James "Anorak" Halliday, has taken over from the internet. People all over the planet log into OASIS to work, go to school, play, and generally interact with each other. For the vast majority, OASIS provides a viable alternative to life off line, which is overwhelmingly bleak - the Great Recession has stretched on for many decades, leaving most of the population stranded in slums while the few live in opulence. When Halliday dies, and leaves his billions, and control of OASIS, to the winner of a deeply complex treasure hunt through OASIS (and the decade in which Halliday grew up - the 1980s), a new "sport" emerges. People all over the world pore over Halliday's creation to find easter eggs - hidden bits of code which allow them to interact with the system in unexpected ways. Vying for the prize along with the citizen hunters (or Gunters - for Egg Hunters) is IOI, a multi-national corporation which seeks to take control of OASIS and run it for a profit; squeezing out the small users in favor of those with vast sums of money.

If you are a geek child of the '80s, the book is a nostalgic trip, full of references to iconic geek movies, music, and games (video and otherwise). No reference to Princess Bride, or the Karate Kid franchise, oddly enough, but otherwise an exhaustive collection - a joy for those readers who enjoy hunting for obscure and not so obscure references to favorite media. If you are not a geek child of the '80s, I can imagine that the constant references and name dropping might grate a little - but the book is clearly not aimed at you.

I loved the book, and my wife loved the book. If you share our (excellent) taste, you will probably also love the book.

Nnedi Okorafor - Who Fears Death

This book was deeply disturbing, and not a little depressing. Set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Africa, the narrative draws heavily on African stories. However, with the exception of the magic, which seems rooted in fairly deep narrative traditions, the stories which the novel draws on are recent stories. The narrative revolves around female circumcision, rape as a weapon/tool for genocide, conflicts between tribes, and the use of child soldiers. Overlayed with the mystical elements of the magic, and the strong mythic elements of the heroine's quest to restore her land, the whole is deeply uncomfortable, while being eminently readable.

Okorafor offers a compelling collection of deeply complex characters who drive the plot with their conflicts - often petty, but always very real. Up to the last chapter, the book is also deeply satisfying. I found the last chapter to be unnecessary; it almost cheapened the preceding narrative, perhaps. At the same time, however, the last chapter added something to the sense of myth, and possibly allegory. So, I don't know.

In the end, the book was difficult to read, because of it's subject matter, but so compellingly written that it transcended the unpleasantness. I suspect it is an important book, the sort of thing which might well end up on reading lists at the better colleges and universities in the future. The sort of book which makes anti-genre critics shake their heads and hold their noses through the magic elements.

The link between this book and Ready Player One? Both make reference to the School House Rock song "3 is a Magic Number". I was deeply surprised.