Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

This novel tells the story of a near-future revolution that replaces the United States with the Republic of Gilead, an oppressive fundamentalist Christian theocracy. We are vividly shown the dark side of religion, what happens when those beliefs are taken to a tyrannical extreme: women are forbidden to own property, vote, read, or write; homosexuality and heretical ideas are punished by death. Basically, what Vice President Mike Pence would call an ideal world.

I found the book difficult to read not because of the disturbing content, but due to the stilted language: "I walk around to the back door, open it, go in, set my basket down on the kitchen table." The choppy writing gave me fits for some reason; I had to re-read sections often because I wasn't parsing the prose properly. Given the environment I was expecting to discover that the author was secretly writing down her thoughts to explain the odd syntax, but in the epilogue we learn the author recorded everything on tapes—meaning the writing should have been more fluid, not less.

I would have liked to see more about the mechanics of the revolution (an ongoing war is mentioned multiple times, and at one point the Republic of Texas is shown to be an independent country again) but given the author is a woman and therefore forbidden from knowledge and news the lack of detail makes sense. Regardless, this is a thought provoking read and should be required reading for anyone interested in a "fair and balanced" world.

First Sentence:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Masters of Doom, by David Kushner

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

This is a fascinating and well-written history of first-person shooter video games and the two geniuses behind them, John Romero and John Carmack. The "Two Johns" are the gaming equivalent of Apple's Jobs and Wozniak, with Romero being the visionary and Carmack being a programming virtuoso. These two personalities initially combine with great synergy to create some of the greatest games ever made (Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake to name a few) but as success finds them they start to move in different directions. Eventually the conflicts are large enough Romero is fired from the company he founded with Carmack, signaling the beginning of the end.

This book reads more like a novel than a typical corporate history, which keeps it entertaining and captivating throughout. Thoroughly researched, the timeframes cover the rise of personal computers and the part games played in their growth. Hacker sub-culture and government outrage factor in largely as well, giving a holistic look at the rise of immersive computer games. I'm not much of a gamer myself (although I did play a fair amount of Doom back in the day at the office during lunch) but this book does a great job of keeping the subject matter interesting, focusing on the people rather than the games themselves. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the culture of computers or gaming in the 1990's.

First Sentence:
Eleven-year-old John Romero jumped onto his dirt bike, heading for trouble again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dreams of the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn

Dreams of the Golden Age (Golden Age, #2)

Not quite as strong as the earlier outing (After the Golden Age) but still very good. This volume takes place about 18 years after the first, with the next generation of heroes taking the stage. Mostly high school kids, they are trying to figure out both how to use their powers safely and where they fit in the world—all with a healthy dose of teenage angst. I especially liked how some of the powers the kids have aren't as easy to be heroic with as others, and the conflicts that arise as a result. The plot is straightforward with almost none of the mystery of the earlier novel; it was pretty clear who the bad guy was from his first introduction (a bit of the author's political stance on housing shows through here, where the hero has an economic redevelopment plan that adds density and revitalization in the city core and the villain's competing plan enhances suburban sprawl. I approve, but it makes me a bit sad that in my hometown of Austin the villain would be winning...), although the universe expanded nicely with a lot more super-powered people running around. Considering Dreams of the Golden Age was released in 2011, though, I'm sadly not sure if a third volume is forthcoming, but I'm hopeful the world-building wasn't for naught. A lot of fun, this is a nice easy read.

First Sentence:
Celia West sat alone in her office, a corner suite in the family penthouse at West Plaza.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Van Halen Rising, by Greg Renoff

Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal

I do love me some Van Halen. I've seen them in concert with various lineups nine times and own every album (including a four CD bootleg set). Simply put, I believe they changed the sound of rock and roll and are the best band from this country to ever exist. When I found this book I was intrigued; I came late to Van Halen fandom (Diver Down was my first VH album) so when discovering this band history I realized I didn't know a lot about their history before getting signed. The author does a great job with a very well researched history and the story of how Van Halen became Van Halen is pretty damn interesting!

The Van Halen brothers came from a musical family; their dad was a professional jazz musician (he actually plays the clarinet on "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now") so they came by talent naturally. David Lee Roth was a born showman, but early on was a terrible vocalist. In fact, when he first met Alex and Eddie there was a strong mutual dislike amongst the three; this was obviously eventually overcome but even when they finally got together it was unclear if Roth was going to make it as the front man. (In fact, Ted Templeman who produced the first Van Halen albums seriously considered replacing Roth with another upcoming singer, Sammy Hagar!) Michael Anthony was added initially to provide a fuller vocal sound; in my opinion his spectacular background vocals and harmonies are a big part of what made Van Halen special. (I saw the A Different Kind of Truth tour where Anthony was replaced by Wolfgang Van Halen and the band simply doesn't sound the same.) The book ends in 1978 right after their first world tour (largely opening for a soon-to-be-Ozzy-less Black Sabbath) where Van Halen discovers they owe Warner Brothers $1.2 million for costs incurred on the tour.

While very well done, there are a couple of things that detracted from the story. Of the scores of interviews used to compile the narrative, surprisingly only Michael Anthony was included from the actual band. Anecdotes from the other members appear only as cited works from other publications. And yes, this is the story of the formation of the band (the subtitle is "How A Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal") , but there has been so much drama since their debut with multiple singers and bass players I find myself wanting to read the next volume. Again, this was a great book and I recommend it to any rock fan, but it left me wanting an encore.

First Sentence:
It's rare that something so loud comes to life in someplace so quiet, but that's exactly how it happened with America's greatest rock band.

Search This Blog