Thursday, August 30, 2012

I'm Not Game: Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One"


There's a marked difference between reviews and hype, with a few exceptions, I don't read as many book reviews as most people, especially ones about books I'm reading or plan to get to in the future. Even then, I'll limit this to one or two samples, and only if it's the occasional instance of me being confused on a certain plot point or theme. Hype, however, is a different animal, and in the book world, it generally seems to revolve around trashy bestsellers and, far too rarely, remarkable works. For example, I went into Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding with a wary attitude, since it was surpassing positive reviews and getting into the hype atmosphere, but I ended up loving it. For the last year, there's been a lot of hype surrounding Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, and while I heard much about it, I went into my reading with only a general preconceived notion of the plot, and knowledge of two divergent opinions from people with whom I have shared book tastes. An old co-worker (and current independent bookstore manager) gave the book enthusiastic praise on his store's website, and Terrance Terich, my former Borders manager in Washington, wrote a very detailed, explanatory critique on his blog back in January. I had read Terich's review when he posted it, since he was so shocked with the enthusiasm surrounding Ready Player One, but with so much time passing between his reading and my own, I had to read it again following my completion of the book.

The book is set in the year 2044, and the world is a grim place with an increase in violence, ghettos, and general instability. Citizens pass their time in OASIS, a sprawling virtual world created by the late James Halliday, who in a posthumous video explains that he has hidden an (Easter) egg within that world. Finding it requires a complex knowledge of 1980s pop culture, details of Halliday's life, and a series of daunting challenges to uncover the three keys to get to the egg. Finding it grants the winner Halliday's fortune, and millions of "gunters" (egg hunters) attempt to decipher the clues to get the keys. Wade Watts (known by his avatar name Parzival), the teenage protagonist living in a futuristic trailer park in Oklahoma, is one of the gunters, having obsessively read the history of Halliday's life and spending hours and hours familiarizing himself with caches of 80s TV shows, music, and games. In his virtual world, he's friends with Aech, and in the progression of the book becomes friends with a love interest (Art3mis) and two Japanese gunters, Daito and Shoto. Evil corporate egg hunters working for IOI (a monopolistic internet service provider), collectively known as the Sixers, are also on a full-scale hunt for Halliday's egg, with the goal of monetizing OASIS and turning into a paid world full of advertising, going against the mission of Halliday's original creation. Wade becomes the first person to find the first key, becoming an instant OASIS celebrity, but also getting himself into a world of danger and complications, as the whole "world" is following his exploits and attempting to navigate the riddles, games, and puzzles to find the other keys, as well as getting closer to Halliday's fortune. This is just a basic sketch of the plot, but if you read it and follow your gut instincts, the outcome of the book has been spoiled. That was my feeling throughout my reading Ready Player One.

Halliday's obsession with the 1980s becomes the source material, the driving force of the novel as readers wade through references to films such as WarGames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, arcade games like "Pac Man," and cultural figures like Max Headstrom. As Terich points out in his review, it far too often stops being a novel and reads like a detailed list of Cline's favorite items in pop culture. Combined with tired dialogue, it becomes grating almost right away. For example, here's a sample of dialogue between Wade and Aech:

"'It's not really up for debate, Homer,' I said. 'Ladyhawke is an eighties classic.'

'It's fucking lame, is what it is! The swords look like they were made out of tinfoil. And that soundtrack is epically lame. Full of synthesizers and shit. By the motherfucking Alan Parsons Project! Lame-o-rama! Beyond lame. Highlander II lame.'

'Hey!' I feigned hurling my Intellivision controller at him. 'Now you're just being insulting! Ladyhawke's cast alone makes the film canon! Roy Batty! Ferris Bueller! And the dude who played Professor Falken in WarGames!' I searched my memory for the actor's name. 'John Wood! Reunited with Matthew Broderick (Cline 48)!'"

This shouldn't matter, but I'm not the book's target audience. There are bits and pieces of the 1980s that I enjoy, but I'm not one for the intense nostalgia of the era. The best example I can think of is one not included in this book. When I was a child, I was obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--I watched the show religiously and was a one-child storm of consumerism, collecting the toys and posters and cherishing my TMNT backpack. I devoted a lot of my childhood to this, but as I grew older, the show became a memory. I don't relish it like some people do--for instance, if a rebooted TMNT movie came out this year, I wouldn't see it. I'm not at all disparaging people for loving and fondly remembering the 1980s, but after awhile, Ready Player One stops being a novel and starts being Cline's personal list of 1980s awesomeness. The outcome of the book is never in doubt, and reading it like I do with any book, with an eye for literary criticism, I found myself annoyed with Cline's dialogue, transitions, and reliance on easy plot devices to carry the story. Items magically appear, characters make rash decisions at the last minute that quickly carry them out of harm's way, and some of the characters mysteriously vanish. A nemesis named I-rok appears, and one assumes he's a challenge to be overcome:

"That afternoon, I-rok sent e-mails to Aech and me, attempting to blackmail us. He said that if we didn't tell him how to find the Copper Key and the First Gate, he would post what he knew about us to every gunter message board he could find. When we refused, he made good on his threat and began telling anyone who would listen that Aech and I were both students on Ludus (Cline 138)."

This plot point is what brings Shoto and Daito into Wade's consciousness, but I-rok disappears shortly thereafter, replaced by a new villain named Sorrento. Og Morrow, a former associate of Halliday, appears in an interview, sharing vital information about Halliday's life that factors into the egg hunt, and then magically appears yet again to further the plot. Little things also jumped out at me. Wade makes more than once reference to YouTube, which struck me as odd. OASIS is a virtual world with seemingly endless resources, platforms, video feeds, and information. In this high-tech, futuristic plane, a website like YouTube would seem quaint. No other real websites are mentioned, therefore making this reference stick out as an odd inclusion.


I'm genuinely trying to be constructive with my critiques of this novel. Ready Player One feels like a young adult novel, and that itself is not a bad thing--this would be a great read for a younger person curious about 1980s media and sources, but for adults, the fact that this is a novel seems to be besides the point. Cline's eye for details and emotions feels juvenile, and sometimes comes across as embarrassing. For the most part, Wade is constructed like a confused, hormonal teenager, but his narration is full of these tics as well as his supreme intelligence, and this balance doesn't work. Cline's descriptions are sometimes banal and repetitive, with far too many cliches and overused metaphors:

"I might never escape from this place. I felt buried under an avalanche of self-doubt. Had my dual obsessions with the egg and Art3mis finally driven me insane? Why would I take such an idiotic risk to win over someone I'd never actually met? Someone who appeared to have no interest in ever talking to me again? Where was she right now? Did she miss me? I continued to mentally torture myself like that until I finally drifted off to sleep (Cline 296)."

Cline does an excellent job of creating the virtual OASIS in all of its details, but I get the feeling that the novel's praise is not because of that, but because of his references. It reads like being in a video game, which I'm neutral about, since as an adult, I've neither hated or loved gaming, having sporadically played the occasional video game since my teens. Frankly, I would have preferred an essay collection by Cline, since he obviously has his share of genuine passions and opinions. The outline of the book, in addition to its easy transitions and constant cliffhanger chapter endings, also reads like a screenplay treatment. Ready Player One's film rights have already been sold, and I definitely see the video game aspects forming an enjoyable film in the right hands. Going through all of this, my biggest complaint is that this shouldn't have been a novel. The book's ending, for example, contains a passage about embracing reality over virtual reality, but the entire book is set up to show how the virtual has become accepted and commonplace. There are far too many small details referenced for the sake of pop culture winks, and Cline would have been far better off exploring his loves in a different format.

Internet criticism lends itself far too easily to snark and the ability to criticize while hiding behind a personal website, blog, or avatar. Granted, we all have our opinions about certain pieces of media and creativity, and like Terich, I'm in a minority, since most of the people who have read this book absolutely love it. I'm definitely going to read some of Cline's non-fiction, and again, he's obviously intelligent with a terrific attention to details. However, I just cannot buy him as a novelist, when this book is merely his curated list of 1980s cultural touchstones. While I'm not the book's target audience, Terich states at the beginning of his piece that he is the type of person to whom Ready Player One would greatly appeal. I'll close with his thoughts, which articulate some of the feelings I have, but from the point of view of someone with a much better understanding of where the desire for this novel was coming from. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, but a fixation for its own sake with no revelations is far too common. I wanted Cline to be more engaging. He needs other formats. Terich's view:

"The novel is floor-to-ceiling full of what I am consistently weary of, the unending abyss of nostalgia. At one time, writers, artists, and filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard introduced the idea of the pop culture reference as a reflection of modern society and consumerism. While this was certainly meta-commentary, much of today’s culture lacks a dimension of reflection. We now live in a world in which movie studios and record labels prey on a consumer’s unnaturally exploded sense of nostalgia, with artifice playing a far greater role than substance, in examples such as the films of Transformers, G.I. Joe, Speed Racer, and others based on board games and theme park rides, as well as an eternal parade of nostalgic band reunion tours. (For more on this, Simon Reynolds has a book that deftly explores this subject, called Retromania). We continually seek to please ourselves with mere dog whistle reactions to the things we grew up with, instead of seeking out original, challenging, and contemplative material."

Work Cited:
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Copyright 2011 by Ernest Cline.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Burning At Both Ends: Christopher Hitchens and "Mortality"


Earlier this year, I read and explored Arguably, the most complete collection of the essays and criticisms by Christopher Hitchens, and since his death in December of 2011, I wasn't anticipating (or rather, thinking about) any posthumous publications. That massive tome seemed to be more than enough to satisfy any admirer of his works. However, an exact opposite (in size and form) has recently been released. The slender volume Mortality contains thoughts and observations written by Hitchens after his cancer diagnosis, during his chemotherapy sessions, and right before his death. In my piece on the previous collection, I wrote out two thoughts that manage to apply to Mortality: 1.) "I never got the feeling that it was published to capitalize on his expected passing" and 2.) "I really wish I could have had the chance to meet Mr. Hitchens, and while this might seem like a trite cliche, it's comforting to have access to his writings." In his introduction to this posthumous volume, Graydon Carter offers a very true assessment that seems (again) to be a trite cliche, but is anything but: "You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone."

In the face of death, Hitchens managed to use his stunning writing skills to explore his condition and thoughts without any mawkish generalizations or sentimentality; that just wasn't his style in any subject. Even though these words are so personal, there's almost a bemused detachment at times, as if he's observing himself from afar. In the opening chapter, he explores what it's like to be a "citizen of the sick country:"

"The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own--a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication--as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to (Hitchens 3)."

In another example of his previous writing style, he manages to reflect on his own lifestyle (a lifelong love of cigarettes and fine scotch), quote Edna St. Vincent Millay, create a beautifully personal reflection, take a swipe at people in power, and infuse his own take on the stages of grief, all within the span of a few words. There are few writers who can balance all of those areas into a single piece of prose.

"In one way, I suppose, I have been 'in denial' for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can't see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it's all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I'd worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read--if not indeed to write--the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger (Hitchens 5)?"

Of course, the revelation that he had cancer caused quite a stir in religious communities, with some worshipers feeling he brought his illness upon himself for blasphemy, and some insisting on praying for him to "see the light" before his demise. For someone whose international fame is partly due to his writings on the evils of religion and a belief in gods, the book will let some people down. There's no deathbed conversion, nor any smug, self-righteous insistence. Rather, as always, he covers his jabs with genuine philosophical study, allowing his new mentality (or rather, his new awareness of death), to continue to debate religious beliefs. He explores the mentality behind prayer in relation to a "Pray For Christopher Hitchens" day that took place after his diagnosis:

"Many readers are familiar with the spirit and the letter of the definition of 'prayer,' as given by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary. It runs like this, and is extremely easy to comprehend:

Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.

Everybody can see the joke that is lodged within this entry: The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling. Those of us who don't take part in it will justify our abstention on the grounds that we do not need, or care, to undergo the futile process of continuous reinforcement. Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not: At any rate they do not require standing in a crowd and uttering constant and uniform incantations (Hitchens 21-22)."



There are genuinely moving and touching sections of Mortality, not that this comes as a surprise: for all of Hitchens's intense convictions and lack of patience for stupidity in the world, he was always a man who genuinely appreciated his readers, loved his family and friends, and maintained a steadfast hope for change in an increasingly scary, unstable world. His scoffing at religion does not mean that he was without fear in the face of death; part of the human condition is a fear of the unknown and a realization that things taken for granted can be taken away very quickly. He analyzes the changes in his voice, which leads to a fear of his means of communication breaking down. Like the majority of the passages in the book, it's an intricate combination of themes, equal parts personal and worldly. He explores, educates, and moves. None of his words are saccharine--there is nothing but pure emotional honesty in his thoughts:

"In the medical literature, the vocal 'cord' is a mere 'fold,' a piece of gristle that strives to reach out and touch its twin, thus producing the possibility of sound effects. But I feel that there must be a deep relationship with the word 'chord:' the resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowds to pity and mobs to passion. We may not be, as we used to boast, the only animals capable of speech. But we are the only ones who can deploy vocal communication for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining it with our two other boasts of reason and humor to produce higher syntheses. To lose this ability is to be deprived of an entire range of faculty: It is assuredly to die more than a little (Hitchens 53-54)."

The final section of Mortality is a collection of notes and jottings that were uncompleted at the time of Hitchens's death. Generally, items like these would appeal only to completists, but the fragments are a fascinating look at a side of writing that many readers don't see. For every completed page, there are always more pages of half-finished ideas, notes, and sketches that are left behind. A reader can only imagine the directions Hitchens would have taken these sketches, but by themselves, there's an eerie, beautiful poetry to them.

"The nice men with the oxygen and the gurney and the ambulance very gently deporting me across the frontier of the well, in another country.

The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death.

Now so many tributes that it also seems that rumors of my LIFE have also been greatly exaggerated. Lived to see most of what's going to be written about me: this too is exhilarating but hits diminishing returns when I realize how soon it, too, will be 'background.'

Julian Barnes on John Diamond...(Hitchens 86-87)."

There are so many other passages I've left unmentioned: a hilarious exchange between a woman and Hitchens during a book signing; a stunning recap of a religious zealot 'explaining' how god was smiting Hitchens for his atheism; and more touching reflections on what he was going to miss after his passing. There are so many books on death, written from certain angles: an outsider's perspective (Meghan O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye, written about her mother's death), and an insider's perspective (Edouard Leve's Suicide, sent to his publisher before he took his own life). But Mortality, despite its title and honest thoughts on looming demise, can be viewed as so much more: an artist statement, a final reflection of personal philosophies, and a unique perspective on death, knowing it is closing in. I'm sure this could have easily been rushed to publication immediately after Hitchens's passing, but having it available a few months later allows for some better perspectives. Readers are reminded of his talents, and there's a sadness that we'll no longer have a steady stream of books and essays. However, this isn't merely a posthumous work, it's a necessary part of his canon that, for its small size, still manages to contain a variety of ideas. Even if he was still alive, his bibliography demands multiple readings, and Mortality is no different. Even at the end, he was steadfast in his production, and future readings of this work will undoubtedly remain fresh and educational. Thank you, Christopher.

Work Cited:
Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. Copyright 2012 by Christopher Hitchens.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Unrestricted: Jack McCallum's "Dream Team"


Until my recent reading of Jack McCallum's Dream Team, I had never given much thought to the USA men's basketball team from 1992. At nine years old, I was a fairly studious (read: nerdy) child, and my fascination with basketball didn't happen until I was thirteen or so. I've also never been one for watching the Olympics, but my girlfriend was hooked on the swimming, gymnastics, and volleyball games, so I found myself watching more coverage from London this summer than I had for any previous Olympic games combined. McCallum's book coincided with the 2012 Games and the twenty year anniversary of the formation and domination of the original Dream Team. I tend to go into sports books with a fairly heavy dose of skepticism, since I've long been annoyed with the majority of sportswriters in general. However, my scattered readings of McCallum's work have been enjoyable, and he's one of my favorite NBA writers (along with Sam Smith and J.A. Adande). I was curious to read more on the history of the players and the back story of the 1992 games, and at worst, I figured Dream Team would be my kind of breezy summer reading in between longer projects. Upon completion, I was fascinated by the angles McCallum focused on, and highly enjoyed his style, which strictly avoided what a lot of other writers would have done: he doesn't showcase the team with any needless grandeur, but rather allows the details, personalities, and game styles to provide their own mystique.

Up until the 1992 Olympics, professional basketball players were barred from participating for USA basketball, until a handful of influences worked to change that ruling: Boris Stankovic (the president of FIBA, or Federation Internationale de Basketball), NBA commissioner David Stern, and NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik first met in 1985 to discuss the potential for NBA players participating. McCallum details this meeting and also highlights the hypocrisy of American professionals being ineligible for the Olympic games.

"After a few get-acquainted moments, Stankovic went right to the point. 'I don't believe in these restrictions about who should play and who shouldn't play,' he said. 'The best players in the world should be playing in everything, including the Olympics. But I can't do that alone.'

In some revisionist histories, Stern--all-seeing, all-knowing--instantly grasped the importance of aligning with FIBA, envisioning a day when NBA players were the toast of the Continent and the league was flooding Europe and Asia with sneakers, T-shirts, and hoodies. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Stern, to his credit, has never claimed otherwise. It wasn't that the idea of NBA players in the Olympics slipped onto the NBA's back burner; it wasn't even on the stove. Yes, Stern saw the hypocrisy in the rules against competition--Germany's Detlef Schrempf, who played in the NBA for about $500,000 a year, was considered a professional, while Brazil's Oscar Schmidt, who played in Italy for about $1 million a year, was considered an amateur and eligible for Olympic play. Everyone saw the hypocrisy except the empty suits who ran the Olympics (McCallum 16)."

With much financial and loophole finagling, the sanctions were lifted, allowing NBA players to compete. However, a lot of questions remained: who would be the best fits (besides the obvious inclusions of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan)? What should the ratio of NBA and college players be (Christian Laettner ended up being the lone NCAA representative)? And would professional basketball players really be willing to give up their summers? The selection process did have some challenges. Then-Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly was named head coach of the Dream Team, and McCallum devotes a lot of exploration as to why Isiah Thomas was excluded (as it turns out, one of Jordan's requirements for participating was that Thomas not be on the team). The worry about NBA players being cajoled into joining the team quickly turned into players being upset about being last-minute selections (Clyde Drexler being the main example, being a phenomenal guard but not a guarantee to be included). With the exception of a play-by-play of a private practice game between the Dream Team, McCallum devotes most of the book to past memories of the individual players (as a writer for Sports Illustrated, he traveled with the team to Barcelona), as well as recent interviews conducted in conjunction with the book.

The Olympic games themselves were blowouts, and only a handful of pages are devoted to recaps of those matches. Instead, the reader is given insights into the careers and lives of the team members. With so much documentation and analysis already available, McCallum wisely attempts to create more rounded descriptions without any needless hyperbole. For example, the 1992 Olympics followed Johnson's revelation of his HIV-positive status, and it's handled honestly and emotionally. In a 2011 interview, Johnson explores the magnitude of his announcement and how it's still with him today.

"'The blessing was that I came out and announced and everybody started talking about AIDS openly, maybe for the first time,' Magic says. 'Then came the curse because kids started saying, 'Oh, I can get it and still be like Magic. He's all over the place. He's doing fine (McCallum 138-139).'"

Granted, given the spectrum of the team's singular personalities, some players were more fun to cover than others. Even today, McCallum's fascination and affinity for Charles Barkley is strong. As a writer, he's never openly in awe of his subjects, but Barkley's personality is such that a random night on the town in Barcelona seemed to be something out of a movie.

"The best beat for any reporter in the '92 Games was the Charles Barkley beat. I was on it for a couple of nights, trailing him down Las Ramblas, where I would've been in any case, getting paid for hanging out, the journalist's dream. Other players visited Las Ramblas--that's where [John] Stockton found the tourist in the Dream Team shirt who didn't recognize him--but rarely in darkness, when the place was teeming with night crawlers and the potential for trouble everywhere. On the nights I followed Barkley, there were some strange moments. An older man, speed-freak skinny and crack-pipe crazy, walked in front of him for a while, pointing and laughing like a hyena, but Barkley kept going, sipping his cerveza and eventually outlasting him (McCallum 242)."


This seems to be the closest McCallum comes to appearing like a fan rather than a writer, and even so, it makes for vivid imagery. Again, the historical implications of the best players in the world coming together on one team has so much potential for a writer to explore in mythical, other-worldly tones, but McCallum works like a storyteller. The facts and the outstanding dominance of the team doesn't need emphasis. McCallum comes close in his assessment of the little-seen scrimmage match between two teams of Dream Teamers, and this is completely understandable. Johnson and Jordan co-captained teams for a legendary practice, the game film of which has never been released to the public. This mythical, dramatic game is told in a sort of breathless tone, and McCallum does so to highlight the rarity of such a game, especially since it was closed to outsiders as a way to get the team truly focused on the upcoming Olympic games. It's a story of lead changes, a hapless Italian referee, and stunning trash talk between the two sides. It reads like a well-written screenplay, and McCallum's imagery makes imagining this contest somehow even better than seeing it live or on tape. In an age with instantaneous access to videos, Tweets, and low attention spans, it's great to see a writer engaging a reader's mental imagery.

"Michael Jordan's White Team 31, Magic Johnson's Blue Team 26.

Now mostly what you hear is Jordan's voice, exhorting his team, sensing the kill. Magic backs into the lane, Malone guarding him on a switch. The gentleman from Italy blows his whistle...and the Mailman blows his top.

'Oh, come on, man,' he yells. 'Stop calling this fucking bullsheet.' Jordan comes over and steps between Malone and the ref.

'Forget it, Karl,' says Jordan. 'Don't scare him. We might need him.'

'Fuck him!' yells Malone.

As Magic lines up at the foul line, the whistle in [assistant coach] P.J. Carlesimo's mouth actually moves. That's because his face is twisted into a grin.

Magic shoots the first, which rolls around as Jordan, hands on shorts, yells to [Patrick] Ewing, 'Knock it out!' Too late. Magic swishes the second.

Michael Jordan's White Team 31, Magic Johnson's Blue Team 28.

[Scottie] Pippen pops out from behind a Ewing screen and swishes a jumper. At the other end, [Chris] Mullin loses his grip on a Magic pass and Bird recovers. Jordan begins a break, motions Ewing to join him on the left side, and watches in delight as Patrick takes a few pitty-pat steps and makes a jumper.

'That's a walk!' a couple of voices yell. But no call is made (McCallum 224-225).'"

Some of the later sections of the book were uninteresting to me. There are details of the Dream Teamers hanging out in their hotel, playing cards, ping-pong, and forming cliques based on their championships, and trash talking. As has been detailed countless times with Michael Jordan (and detailed again in this book), this is done to emphasize singular competitive nature, with the players unable to handle losing off the court as well as off of it. With very rare exceptions, unless it's a detailed look at a significant event, I've always been uninterested in the private lives of athletes. However, even off-the-record and private details in this book aren't done with any gossip or "juicy revelations" in mind: McCallum is merely detailing the excitement and the everyday actions of what was the most famous team in the basketball world. I don't feel the need to offer citations of the Olympic game recaps (as I mentioned, McCallum rightfully offers only brief synopses rather than needlessly expansive ruminations), and I doubt that a citation about the life of John Stockton is relevant to this review. I'm happy that I read this, since I'm more interested in that team now than I was when I was a child. McCallum later explores the biggest aftereffect of the Dream Team's international recognition, that of international players, children themselves at the time, being inspired to work on their games and become NBA players in their own rights. And much like today's technological world allowing access to information and video clips, the 1992 Olympics was the first worldwide exposure for American professional basketball. The historical context was felt in unexpected ways, and McCallum's documentation shows this without being obvious or spending too much time on subjects that even casual basketball fans already know. I'm relieved that good sportswriting can still flourish today, with a good balance of reporting and rational opinions.

Work Cited:
McCallum, Jack. Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever. Copyright 2012 by Jack McCallum.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Balancing Acts of Violence: Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood"



There are two different reasons why I recently read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: The first reason: my older brother loaned it to me and was anxious to get my opinions on the book, and it turned out we shared the same general thoughts on Capote's writing style. The second, more complex reason: I like to think I read a good variety of writing, from fiction to nonfiction, from older works to contemporary ones. However, there's a fairly large number of "Capital-C Classics" that I haven't yet read. Some of these I'll admit freely: Pride and Prejudice, Native Son, and Slaughterhouse Five are still unchecked. There are other, more glaring omissions that I'll keep private and write about down the road without actually admitting to having not read them before. Of course, every piece of classic literature has its critics. In fact, I wrote this back in February: "[Of Human Bondage] proves the point that every work of art has its detractors, and labels such as 'classic' or 'canon' are not always to be taken seriously, or rather they shouldn't always be assumed." In Cold Blood is sometimes more regarded for the story of its foundation rather than the actual writing. What struck me, weeks after completing it, is how it manages to show how random acts of violence are not a new phenomenon. With the air of the recent Colorado and Wisconsin shootings still heavy, the documentation of the Kansas murders and their aftermath feel sadly and oddly contemporary. Also, such a work might not be possible today. National and social medias make for instantaneous accounts, opinions, and theories within hours of an event's happening. The idea of a writer reading about a work and having near-complete access to the witnesses, citizens, and ultimately the killers seems impossible, since today, were this to happen again, the national media would descend on a small town and report on it to the point of a single reporter being unable to be the primary source.

For anyone who hasn't read the book, the basic outline should be at least somewhat familiar. In 1959, in the town of Holcomb, Kansas, the Clutter family (father Herb, mother Bonnie, and children Kenyon and Nancy) was shot dead with no apparent motive. There were potential signs and suspects, but not until later were the killers (Perry Smith and Dick Hickock) apprehended, tried, and convicted. After reading a brief account of the killings, Truman Capote went to Holcomb and began interviewing citizens and investigating the murders. After Dick and Perry were arrested, he conducted interviews with them, with the primary emphasis being on Perry (leading to still relevant rumors of Capote being infatuated with him). In Cold Blood is referred to as a "true life novel," with fictionalized conversations and accounts mixed in with primary journalistic reporting. Almost any reader can pick up on what's imagined and what's real, and this balance is part of Capote's apparent desire to create a complete picture. This has its pros and cons, however. While there's no doubt or question that years of research went into this book, one has to weigh the consequences of the fictionalized sections. Sometimes this is good, when creating background sketches of the town and the victims. The prose is beautiful, making some of the scenes as vivid as a photograph. Perhaps Capote included too many details, but at times, the book lulls the reader into a sense of calm, even with the murders looming or described.

"The river lay in this direction; near its bank stood a grove of fruit trees--peach, pear, cherry, and apple. Fifty years ago, according to native memory, it would have taken a lumberjack ten minutes to axe all the trees in western Kansas. Even today, only cottonwoods and Chinese elms--perennials with a cactuslike indifference to thirst--are commonly planted. However, as Mr. Clutter often remarked, 'an inch more of rain and this country would be paradise--Eden on earth.' The little collection of fruit-bearers by the river was his attempt to contrive, rain or no, a patch of the paradise, the green, apple-scented Eden, he envisioned (Capote 12-13)."

The travels and interactions of Dick and Perry receive the most embellishments, and again, one has to weigh what is consistently good writing with a wonder of whether Capote was trying to write a true crime account or his own novel of sorts. With so much factual evidence present, there are still many scenes of imagined suspense. Capote knew how to capture an emotional scene, but even without his physical presence in the book, we can imagine his physical act of writing. Since the story behind the writing of In Cold Blood is just as familiar as the work itself, it's hard to not see Capote in the background, so to speak. But sometimes this goes away in suspenseful moments:

"Mountains. Hawks wheeling in a white sky.
When Perry asked Dick, 'Know what I think?' he knew he was beginning a conversation that would displease Dick, and one that, for that matter, he himself would just as soon avoid. He agreed with Dick: Why go on talking about it? But he could not always stop himself. Spells of helplessness occurred, moments when he 'remembered things'--blue light exploding in a black room, the glass eyes of a big toy bear--and when voices, a particular few words, started nagging on his mind: 'Oh, no! Oh, please! No! No! No! No! Don't! Oh, please don't please!' And certain sounds returned--a silver dollar rolling across a floor, boot steps on hardwood stairs, and the sounds of breathing, the gasps, the hysterical inhalations of a man with a severed windpipe (Capote 110)."

Even with intense, gritty passages like these, In Cold Blood's reputation as the first regarded true crime book is slightly misleading. In today's book world, true crime tends to refer to mass market paperbacks detailing the most perverted, grisly acts of sadistic crime imaginable. While the idea of a family being shotgunned to death is shocking and painful, Capote wasn't interested in the details of the crime in order to shock or provoke, but rather as part of the bigger picture. The Clutter family's death created a ripple effect through an otherwise random small town and forever affected the citizens and the investigators. Capote's profile of Kansas investigator Alvin Dewey is again imagined and reported. The reader is given details of his home life and the strain of the investigation, as well as meticulous accounts of how he and the other agents went about trying to find a motive and apprehend the suspects.

"Actually, at this time, on this subject, Dewey was undecided. He still entertained a pair of opinions--or, to use his word, 'concepts'--and, in reconstructing the crime, had developed both a 'single-killer concept' and a 'double-killer concept.' In the former, the murderer was thought to be a friend of the family, or, at any rate, a man with more than casual knowledge of the house and its inhabitants--someone who knew that the doors were seldom locked, that Mr. Clutter slept alone in the master bedroom on the ground floor, that Mrs. Clutter and the children occupied separate bedrooms on the second floor. This person, so Dewey imagined, approached the house on foot, probably around midnight (Capote 81-82)."


Films like Bennett Miller's Capote have examined a potential sexual aspect to Capote's link to Perry Smith. Smith is presented as the more sympathetic of the two, more or less along for the ride, with a rough childhood and a bum leg on top of that (this was my major critique of Capote's writing--Perry's leg is given so many repetitious mentions that it becomes a distraction). Granted, Capote's homosexuality is separate from his writing, but he consistently hints, via language, to something more between Dick and Perry. At the very least, they talk like a married couple, using pet names and having consistent arguments. Reading between the lines, one can't help but wonder what Capote was trying to suggest about their relationship.

"A week in Mexico City, and then he and Dick had driven south--Cuernavaca, Taxco, Acapulco. And it was in Acapulco, in a 'jukebox honky-tonk,' that they had met the hairy-legged and hearty Otto. Dick had 'picked him up.' But the gentleman, a vacationing Hamburg lawyer, 'already had a friend'--a young native Acapulcan who called himself the Cowboy. 'He proved to be a trustworthy person,' Perry once said of the Cowboy. 'Mean as Judas, some ways, but oh, man, a funny boy, a real fast jockey. Dick liked him, too. We got on great (Capote 117-118).'"

In a reading today, this isn't a major deal, but taking Capote's imagined dialogues into account, along with the hints of his attraction to Perry, one can't help but wonder if these pieces are a sort of fantasy on Capote's part. In the 1960s, some readers might have used these hints as "evidence" for their crimes, but coming from a gay writer, the more likely hypothesis is Capote's desire to humanize them, even as murderers. There are more examples and hints of Dick being a rapist and a pedophile, and Capote writes those accounts with a genuine air of disgust. Overall, their sexual makeups are simply part of their personalities; Capote's own life aside, there's also a very real potential for the two men to be engaged in a relationship that wasn't sexual, but merely a need for closeness and understanding before and after the killings.

Despite my earlier reference to the recent shootings in this country, I don't see In Cold Blood as an encompassing study on American violence. It's a much more personal look at the two seemingly random men who got caught up in an escalating, horrifying scenario. However, the reporting aspect is unique. For example's sake, there very well could be a book written in the future on the Colorado theater shooting. But in today's world, that hypothetical book would be just one piece of a larger trail of documentation. Capote read a brief account of the killings in The New York Times, which led to his visiting the town to start his own investigation. Today, there would be countless national news reports, opinion pieces, Tweets, cable news show discussions, and a general avalanche of material from which to draw sources. In this sense, In Cold Blood is almost quaint, despite the subject. The idea of a lone writer being able to encompass all the notes, interviews, and materials by him or herself would be generally impossible today. Also, gun control wasn't an issue at the time--shootings like these happened without national coverage. Rather, In Cold Blood is a sociological look at how a horrific act came about, and how it affected such a close-knit community. Even with Capote's embellishments and repetition, the plots and subplots all tie together without an attempt to forgive or impart explicit opinions. In that sense, it's standard journalism. With the blend of the imagined and the actual, Capote compiles the evidence and lets the reader decide how to interpret it. His own life was so public and fascinating that it's impossible to separate him from his text at times. Even with knowledge of how Capote went about the book, In Cold Blood is a fascinating work that still succeeds on the strength of his writing. As long as there's an understanding of Capote's imagination, readers can accept his fictionalizations, even if this would be impossible for a contemporary writer to pull off.

Work Cited:
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Copyright 1965 by Truman Capote. Copyright renewed 1993 by Alan U. Schwartz.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Scientific Revolutions: Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Space Chronicles"


While I don't do this on a level that would result in a Jonah Lehrer-esque scandal (even if this platform was bigger), I do have a tendency to repeat myself occasionally with some of my posts. I've made more than a few mentions of a passion for small presses, my general disdain of the phrase "write what you know," and my lack of a voice for poetry critiques, to name a few. I bring this up because this review of Space Chronicles, Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest collection, follows a trend of coincidental readings, in the sense of my inadvertent readings that manage to connect to another piece of writing or a story in the news. I even went so far as to do a search on this blog for the word "coincidence," and thankfully, I haven't used it as often as I thought I did. My first reading of a full collection of Tyson's work came just days before the Curiosity rover landed on Mars and dispatched new images of the planet's surface. Dr. Tyson's essays continually reaffirm the reasons why space travel and exploration is necessary--he documents reasons from the practical (inventions meant for space travel tend to have everyday applications), to the philosophical (a limited world view shows a serious lack of human ingenuity). I've occasionally caught his interviews on television, but sitting down with one of his books has highlighted a lot of things I never knew, and I found myself especially taken with his balance of academic science and thoughts on the contemporary world.

I've long deplored the tendency for some writers to "dumb down" material, either to make a subject more palatable or to condense what should be longer thoughts into a sort of soundbite. Dr. Tyson doesn't do this, at least throughout the essays featured in Space Chronicles: anything that's scaled back is done so out of necessity, since astrophysics in its complete form is a challenge to even the most studious people. However, even when equations and ideas are put into lay forms, Tyson doesn't hold back on the bigger pictures, nor is anything changed to make it "more exciting." In his view, space and science are exciting enough in their own right, and anyone who needs the subjects to be made more compelling is seriously lacking in imagination and scope. We need more emphasis on education and study, not less. The beauty of Tyson's writing is ability to take any area of science and tie it into both cosmic and human-based areas. While I'm sure he and other scientists get tired of being asked about the possibility of life on other planets, the subject does have real world applications. Even the potential for our earth-based communications being intercepted by other life forms is explored logically, even if we still don't have any proof of this happening:

"Time for a reality check: We live within ten light-years of the nearest known exoplanet--that is, a planet orbiting a star other than the Sun. Most catalogued exoplanets lie more than a hundred light-years away. Earth's brightness is less than one-billionth that of the Sun, and our planet's proximity to the Sun would make it extremely hard for anybody to see Earth directly with an optical telescope. So if aliens have found us, they are likely searching in wavelengths other than visible light--or else their engineers are adapting some other strategy altogether (Tyson 28)."

Within these essays, there's a lot of discussion about space exploration as a political act. Tyson makes a few references to John F. Kennedy's speech about putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. It would be nice to think that this was done out of a need to educate and explore outside Earth's orbit, but really, it was politically motivated as a move to win the Cold War (note: the book is a collection of previously published articles and transcripts of Dr. Tyson's speeches, so while some ideas are repeated multiple times, it's due to the format, not out of faulty writing or editing). This is a grim reality check, but the atmosphere at the time made this so. The idea of colonizing and exploring space for military or political purposes is saddening, but there's hope that the future will bring said exploration out of common, humanity-based mission. In a podcast transcript with Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci, Tyson explains the reasoning behind Kennedy's speech.

"NDT: A few paragraphs earlier in that same speech, Kennedy says 'If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.' This was a battle cry against communism.

MP: It was a political statement.

NDT: Period. He could have said, 'Let go to the Moon: What a marvelous place to explore!' But that's not enough to get Congress to write the check. At some point, somebody's got to write a check (Tyson 79)."

He also debunks a lot of myths about the cost of NASA. The average citizen assumes the organization eats up a lot of tax dollars. This is true in theory, but the money is generally spread out over several years, even decades, and amounts to a fraction of the country's spending. However, as the Curiosity rover attention has shown in recent days, the majority of Americans are very supportive of the technology and goals of NASA, since, even subconsciously, it represents a collective need to explore and a desire to know what's out there. And as far as costs? Samples from Dr. Tyson's Twitter feed (@neiltyson) are placed throughout the book, including this one:

"The entire half-century budget of NASA equals the current two year budget of the US military (Tyson 209)."


And going further, the history of space exploration is fraught with setbacks from political and religious mindsets. When Tyson's writing becomes opinionated, it's not out of a desire to rile anyone up or cause friction, but rather to highlight the realities behind regressive beliefs. While some of his statements will surely tick off some, his words are a plea for education and discovery instead of humanity remaining in the dark on what's possible. He doesn't single out a specific belief, but after explaining how the Arabic world used to be the pinnacle of discovery before fundamentalist religion took over, he states:

"Today among fundamentalist Christians as well as Hassidic Jews, there is a comparable absence. When societies and cultures are permeated by nonsecular philosophies, science and technology and medicine stagnate. Putting warning stickers on biology books is bad practice. But if that's how the game is to be played, why not demand warning stickers on the Bible: 'SOME OF THESE STORIES MAY NOT BE TRUE (Tyson 206).'"

The majority of the pieces in Space Chronicles are very educational, especially for someone who genuinely wants to learn more about the various subjects. It's not all about the political and sociological side of space exploration. For example, Tyson devotes a chapter to the study of ballistics, a word used quite often outside of scientific circles, but given new meaning with a look at the physics and reality behind it.

"Whenever you're going ballistic, you're in free fall. Each of the stones whose trajectory Newton illustrated was in free fall toward Earth. The one that achieved orbit was also in free fall toward Earth, but our planet's surface curved out from under it exactly the same rate as it fell--a consequence of the stone's extraordinary sideways motion. The International Space Station is also in free fall toward Earth. So is the Moon. And, like Newton's stones, they all maintain a prodigious sideways motion that prevents them from crashing to the ground.
A fascinating feature of free fall is the persistent state of weightlessness aboard any craft with such a trajectory. In free fall, you and everything around you fall at exactly the same rate. A scale placed between your feet and the floor would also be in free fall. Because nothing is squeezing the scale, it would read zero. For this reason, and no other, astronauts are weightless in space (Tyson 119)."

Tyson has made a name for himself in the last decade for his rare position of being an astrophysicist with a large public following. However, while reading these essays, I found myself forgetting about him as a commentator and focusing on his exploration of scientific ideas and hypotheses. This goes to show that he's not coasting on his status as a public figure, and, as he notes, when he's recognized in public, people always engage him in discussions about space, which proves that the human need for discovery and knowledge outweighs his "celebrity." Granted, not all of us can comprehend and understand the mathematics and physics behind his field, but Tyson is still doing everything possible to promote education. America is still seriously behind most of the developed world in producing scientists and engineers, and Tyson's mission to keep science and astronomy in the public eye is partly done to inspire younger generations to keep the passion alive. Tyson's words are powerful, and there's always going to be a bigger picture. I'm closing with the final statements of his epilogue, which have been making the rounds on a few internet memes. However, I've read this passage multiple times, and it manages to highlight the diverse implications of knowing more about the galaxies. This review of Space Chronicles provides a mere sample of where Tyson's vision and beliefs go, but physics is not always limited to academic fields--there are so many other implications that can be made, and there's so much more education and progress to be conducted. But we as a species need to act faster and get our priorities straight.

"During our brief stay on planet Earth, we owe ourselves and our descendants the opportunity to explore--in part because it's fun to do. But there's a far nobler reason. The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us. In that bleak world, arms-bearing, resource-hungry people and nations would be prone to act on their 'low contracted prejudices.' And that would be the last gasp of human enlightenment--until the rise of a visionary new culture that could once again embrace the cosmic perspective (Tyson 261)."

Work Cited:
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Space Chronicles. Copyright 2012 by Neil deGrasse Tyson.