October 22, 2012

Books! Both audio, paper and electronic...

I've been reading a bunch but blogging little.  For my physical book club I read Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut.  They didn't have it in audio at my library, so I checked out the paperback copy they did have.  Usually I renew books as soon as I get home two times, so  I can keep them for the full nine weeks if I wish.  But this had a reservation on it and I had to turn it in before I was finished.  So I downloaded the Kindle version and read the rest that way.  It was a good, but uneven collection.  Vonnegut himself gives it a B-.  I'd rate it a bit higher but only a few of the stories really stand out.  I'll stick to the novels.

I listened to the audio of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and I'm so glad I did.  It's a book I've heard about for some time but it seemed to me that it was going to be another one of those Oh-look-how-clever-I-am-books like, well, you know who I mean I'm sure.  The Sword & Laser has been reading it this month in anticipation of the movie.  It's funny because a friend loaned it to my wife who was happily reading it until the first section cut off.  Then the movie trailer came out and she was like, "No thanks."  But the trailer actually intrigued me and I picked up the book, then got the audio from the library.  The audio is the way to go because it's actually six different stories nested together.  Think of those nested Russian dolls, except only the big one on the outside is complete, the rest are all cut in half vertically.  Then they are lined up with the smallest left half, the next biggest, the next, the next, then the big, whole one in the middle, then the other halves of the smaller ones in descending order on the right.  So the last thing you read is the second half of the first story you started with, which was cut off mid-sentence.

Only the sixth story is told complete, without any breaks.  They are all told in different formats as well.  The first is an adventurer's journal form the late 1800s.  The second is a set of letters from an aspiring composer in Europe in the 1930s.  The third is the pulpy novelized version of an investigative journalist's attempt to learn the secrets of a nuclear power company.  The fourth is the hilarious account of of a shady publisher who goes into hiding to avoid strong-armed creditors and finds himself, then trying to find a way to escape his own accidental imprisonment in a rest home of sorts.  The fifth is the holographically recorded testimony of a kind of cloned human created for slave labor in the future.  The sixth is an oral account told around a campfire in a post-apocalyptic future.  So yeah, Mitchell is very clever and playing games, but the stories are much more accessible than I expected and the references between and to the other stories, along with the recurring and refracting themes was always fun.  I'm especially glad I was listening because the audio producers decided to have a different narrator for each section.  The sixth story is also told in a kind of pidgin English that I would have probably found annoying on the page, but on audio it wasn't any more difficult than puzzling out a thick Irish accent--you get into the flow of it and it makes sense.  Or at least sense enough.  Problem is, now I don't know if I actually want to see the film.

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One was also a joy to listen to.  It's narrated by Wil Wheaton, which is appropriate since it's a celebration of all things geeky.  It's kind of a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scenario for geeks who grew up in the 80s.  It also takes place in a terrible future.  It's not post-apocalyptic, but post-oil crunch.  The world is not a happy place, but luckily some genius has created a wonderful, immersive, online virtual world that everyone hangs out in anyway.  It's where our main character, Wade, even goes to high school.  The genius that created all this died five years ago and left a video announcing a contest.  Whoever can find three hidden keys, get through the gates they open, and find a final hidden "easter egg" will win and inherit a controlling interest in this virtual world's founding company and the creator's own multi-billion dollar nest egg.  Like I said, it's been five years and our guy is the first one to find something that puts him on the games leader board.  Suddenly he's the most famous gamer in the world and the competition gets stiff.

The fun thing about this one is that the genius creator, and obviously Cline himself, are obsessed with 80s pop culture so to navigate these puzzles and challenges, Wade and the other challengers must have and encyclopedic knowledge of music, movies, books, television shows and especially video games from the 1980s.  It's quite a hoot for someone my age.  I wouldn't put it quite up there with Snow Crash as a novel, but it's pure enjoyment and great fun if you're the right kind of geek.

Finally, I just read a good old fashioned library book.  It was John Wood's Leaving Microsoft to Save the World.  I recently watched the film Half the Sky based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn.  Holy crap is all I can say.  But one of the many great charities the referred to in the film was Room to Read set up by former Microsoft exec John Wood.  They are focused on providing books, libraries and schools to the developing world with an emphasis on the education of girls.  The book is about how he came to make the switch from being a Microsoft exec running himself ragged to becoming a guy who creates a successful non-profit and running himself ragged and trying to save the world.  And unlike that ultimate dingleberry Greg Mortenson (who wrote a similar but mostly fictional book called Three Cups of Tea and mismanaged a whole lot of charity money), Wood really is doing great work and his non-profit is actually doing what he says it's doing.  Think of all the Carnegie libraries in the US.  What a legacy, right?  Well he set up  2500  libraries, primarily in the US (and other English-speaking countries.  Room to Read has already set up more than 12,000 libraries AND built about 1500 schools AND publishes native language children's books AND has provided over 13,000 scholarships for girls.

Rock on, I say!