Tag: books

Paprika [Book Review]

by: Jason Waddell

I’ve long regarded as Haruki Murakami my favorite author, ever since my high school English teacher assigned as to read Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, a novel with a heady mixture of magical realism, disturbing imagery and sexuality. I spent the summer plowing through his works, including the overly protracted IQ84, coming of age tale Norwegian Wood and collection of short stories The Elephant Vanishes.

I was looking to branch out and broaden my horizons, and solicited book recommendations from friends and family. I didn’t branch very far, as my brother sold me on the recommendation of Paprika, billed as a “surreal Japanese book”.

Yasutaka Tetsui’s Paprika follows female protagonist Atsuko Chiba, a psychotherapist who treats patients by entering their dreams through use of devices invented by her unsightly colleague Kōsaku Tokita. The two have been shortlisted for a Nobel Prize, to the ire of certain rivals at the medical institution.

The book unfolds as hospital drama, with the requisite animosity-filled board meetings and political jockeying. Battle lines are drawn. Although Atsuko Chiba is conducting therapy via the dream-entering devices, it’s not clear for much of the book that anything all that surreal is occurring.

Little by little things start to unravel. Therapists go missing and succumb to mental illness. Tetsui deftly cranks the action from a simmer to a rolling boil, as the membrane between dreams and reality begin to fade and disappear altogether. The mundane opening serves to set up the pandemonium of the book’s second act. Paprika‘s ending delivers absurd imagery and surrealism in droves, and, despite the slow opening, the book grows into a genuine “can’t put down” page turner.

Paprika captures the imagination, and has since been adapted as a feature-length 2006 anime film. Further, the novel served as inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s film Inception.

The book doesn’t share Murakami’s meandering pacing and plots, but for a “thriller” take on the surreal Japanese genre, look no further.

A Steaming Pile: Ready Player One

By: Jason Waddell

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is unequivocally the worst novel I have ever read.

Let’s start with flimsy premise: the year is 2044, and the world has fallen into economic decline at the hands of the (not so) creatively named “Great Recession”. Worldwide, people escape from their dreary realities by immersing themselves in a Second Life-esque online game called OASIS. Upon his death, the game’s creator James Halliday releases a video detailing an in-game Easter Egg hunt, the winner of which will receive Halliday’s fortune and control of OASIS.

Ridiculously, the clues to finding the fortune can only be deciphered by those with an intimate knowledge of 1980’s trivia. We have the grounds for a lighthearted nostalgic romp, but Ready Player One never delivers. In lieu of actual character development, the characters that populate the novel are one-dimensional conglomerations of their particular 80’s pop culture vices. The books poseur du jour? A guy who claims to know more trivia than he does. The evil monolithic company? Hacks who dispassionately research 80’s trivia in sole hopes of winning the grand prize. Our protagonist? Enthusiastic 80’s trivia savant.

Rather than imbue the characters with any sense of personality, Klein’s characters stand as little more than a laundry list of Facebook likes. Our hero expresses himself by assembling a vehicle that is a mish-mash of various 1980’s pop culture franchises. It’s a Delorean infused with elements from Knight Rider and Ghostbusters. Even the book’s most laborious attempt at character development plays is tacked-on, forced and irrelevant: our protagonist’s best friend, presumed to be a nerdy white male, proves to be a chubby black lesbian when the two finally meet in person.

The book’s central draw, 80’s cultural references, falls flat as well. The references aren’t cleverly woven into dialogue and exposition, they’re just, there. It reads as a masturbatory laundry list of outdated culture. Hero plays a perfect game of Pac-Man. Hero memorizes the script of War Games. Names are dropped. Wil Wheaton is mentioned for no apparent reason.

The resulting world is one defined exclusively by outdated culture consumption. The characters contribute nothing to the crumbling world around them. Eventually our protagonist (spoiler alert) wins the contest, and receives a video from the deceased James Halliday, Halliday laments devoting a life to a long lost culture. He died alone, without love. He was too busy being an 80’s guy to cure his lone-itus.


Halliday hopes that whoever wins the prize will avoid Halliday’s fate, to find value in other people and not media obsessions. Which must explain why he set up a contest that propelled an entire generation into 80’s cultural obsession in hopes of escaping their crippling poverty?

To add a meta layer to this dynamic, author Ernest Cline ran a contest with the release of the book, the winner of which would win a, you guessed it, Delorean infused with Knight Rider and Ghostbusters. Cline himself drives one too. Halliday serves as the fictional parallel to Cline himself, and is, despite his wealth of trivia knowledge, the most tragic and pathetic character in the book. Maybe Ready Player One is just a cry for help. Perhaps Cline, an Austin resident, should take a page out of neighbor Romeo Rose’s playbook.

Ultimately Ready Play One is an awful depiction of nerd culture, one where its members are little more than a collection of their particular cultural obsessions. If you’re looking for a compelling novel that explores a world captivated by a Second Life style game, stick to Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

Review: How to be Black (Book)

By: Jason Waddell

“Ya’ll don’t know what it’s like, being male, middle class and white.”
– Ben Folds

I first discovered discovered Baratunde Thurston’s How to be Black while doing one of the whitest activities imaginable: listening to an NPR podcast at a bed and breakfast. Thurston, former Director of Digital at TheOnion, was an entertaining and charismatic guest on the trivia gameshow Ask me Another, where he broached the topic of race with an entertaining mix of insightfulness and humor. His charisma piqued my interest, so I recommended How to be Black as the next title for our Skype book club, which consists of these three familiar faces.


The book includes chapters like “When Did You First Realize You Were Black?”, “Being Black at Harvard” and “Can You Swim”. In addition to Thurston’s contributions, How to be Black features the contributions of a panel of “black experts”, which oddly includes the creator of Stuff White People Like. Collectively, Thurston and his chosen panel explore the books topics through use of personal testimonials, and the diverse mix of perspectives and experiences really rounds the book out.

How to be Black is deeply personal, focusing primarily on Thurston’s experience growing up in a world filled with expectations from both inside and outside the black community. Personally, the most eye-opening sections explored the pressures that many black people place on each to adhere to cultural stereotypes.

“This one kid said something that was really bad
He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad
I think that’s kinda sad
Mostly cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that
If you’re a father, you should stick around if you could
Cause even if you’re bad at it, you get Tiger Woods”
– Childish Gambino

Everywhere he goes, Thurston feels the weight of expectation based on his race. It’s a point that’s difficult for me to emphasize with. I’ve never been told that I’m “too white” or “not white enough” based on my choice of food, clothing, education, hobbies, or anything really.

It is an inextricable fact of blackness that one will at some point be referred to as “too black” or “not black enough” by white people, black people, and others. I’ve yet to meet the Negro who is “juuuuuuust right” to everyone.
– Baratunde Thurston

White kids get to wear whatever hat they want
When it comes to black kids one size fits all
– Childish Gambino

Panelist Derrick Ashong, born in Ghana, gives testimonial of being told he was not black enough.

That doesn’t really work with me, because I am African. You’re never going to get me with the “blacker than though.” I’m just not feeling it.

I try not to be chauvinistic with it. I don’t think Africans are superior or anything like that, but when people start to question my authentic blackness, I’m like, “I can trace my ancestry back forever in Africa. You can’t really mess with me on that. I know my language, I know my culture, and I don’t have to hate anyone in order to give myself an identity.”
– Derrick Ashong

The discourse takes place within the context of American society. Since moving to Europe I’ve been shocked by the differences in the treatment of race. I don’t know to what extent racism is institutionalized here, but socially people are shockingly open with their prejudices. During my first month consulting in Belgium, I found myself in the break room in a room full of scientists and statisticians. I was looking for a place to kick a football around, and asked about a park I had driven by previously.

“No, don’t go there, Turkish people go there.”

Nobody in the room took issue with the comment. Even if someone felt that way in America, I can’t help but think they’d be a bit more tactful in their response. “Oh no, that’s a rough part of town.” Although Europe tends to be culturally progressive, the treatment of race and nationality can be quite startling. Educated people openly espouse their distaste for Moroccans or Turkish people or their unfavored group du jour. If you keep your eyes on the news you’ll inevitably come across a report of fans making monkey sounds when an African player takes part in a football match.

Most controversially, I find the Christmas traditions here to quite startling. Rather than using mythical elves as helpers, Sinterklaas’ (the Dutch Santa Claus) helpers are known as “Zwarte Pieten” or “Black Petes”.


Locals defend the blackface as a bi-product of Zwarte Piet accumulating soot from climbing down chimneys, but that doesn’t really explain the pristine white lapels, or why the people playing the roles often resort to using caricatures of African stereotypes.

“It’s not racist,” I’m told. “We love Zwarte Piet.” Sure, it’s easy to love the image of a cheerful and comically incompetent character. To broach the subject is to be written off as an overly politically correct American. The seeds of racism are so deeply ingrained they’re not even seen. It’s accepted to sit in a room full of people with University degrees and make derogatory remarks about Turkish people.

Race is a difficult subject to address socially, and Thurston’s approach is to coat the discussions in comedy to make them more palatable. And while his writing is very insightful and wrapped in an attempted humorous presenation, I simply didn’t find Thurston’s writing to be funny. His charisma from the Ask Me Another appearance didn’t translate well to text. How to be Black is a worthwhile read for the perspectives, but don’t buy it looking for laughs.

Microreview: The Road (Book)

by: Jason Waddell

Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road occupies arguably the most cliched setting in modern fiction: the post-apocalypse. The world has burned to a crisp, and the remaining survivors live on by scavenging for canned goods among long-abandoned houses and grocery stores. Violence rules the land, and just as Ned Stark had warned, winter is coming. The Road follows a nameless father and son dredging southward en route to the promise of warmth and opportunity at the coast.

Although the plot and setting are central to the novel, they primarily serve as a vessel for delivering the relationship between a father and boy struggling to survive unfathomable elements. The book is structured without chapters, presented as an endless sequence of vignettes from their journey. One such vignette:

He’d put a handfull of dried raisins in a cloth in his pocket and at noon they sat in the dead grass by the side of the road and ate them. The boy looked at him. That’s all there is, isn’t it? he said.
Are we going to die now?
What are we going to do?
We’re going to drink some water. Then we’re going to keep going down the road.

The book’s 300 pages flesh out this relationship, and McCarthy imbues the relationship between nameless father and son with exceptional depth. The bond feels intimate, yet the characters are vague enough to afford the reader a great sense of personal empathy. The man is the every man, following his basic instincts to protect his child.

The specific details of the plot are largely irrelevant. The structure is known from the onset.

Ultimately even the journey to the coast is futile. There is no end game, just a haunting display of humanity in the face of unbeatable odds.

The book is well-presented, but is neither a page-turner nor something I would particularly recommend to readers who are looking for plot-based satisfaction. It’s the type of book that makes you hug your children when you set it down. As a childless bachelor I felt like I was missing out on part of the core readership experience.