Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Slade House

This is the first David Mitchell book I have read. I saw the Cloud Atlas movie, and was kind of underwhelmed. His fans tell me this book is an extension of the world he created in The Bone Clocks, but I don't really know anything about that. But despite low expectations I really did enjoy reading this little book! I first spied it's intriguing cover at a Barnes and Noble, and then at some other chain bookstore, but when I happened to be in Aardvark Books in San Francisco, and there it was again, I decided it was time to buy it.
I love stories based on rules, and this is definitely one of those. I can't tell you almost any of them without giving spoilers, because learning the rules is a big part of the fun of the book. It was darker and creepier than I expected -- but only until I understood the rules, and then it was just interesting. The narrative mechanic is very clever, and it is one that I can't believe hasn't been used by more authors. It is kind of like an excellent Doctor Who story, and I suspect someone will make a movie out of it -- in the right hands it could be absolutely charming. That is, for a terrifyingly horrific nightmare story. I was glad I read it, and was sorry when it was over. I guess I'll have to check out his other books!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Probe

Probe is an old (1964) Parker Brothers Game that is a kind of four player Hangman with various ornaments hung on it. What separates it from Hangman:

  1. You can include "blanks" at the front and back of your word, to make things more difficult for your opponents.
  2. It is up to four players, and on your turn, you can guess a letter from any of them. 
  3. The slots you put your letters into have different point values, and you get points each time you guess a letter correctly. 
  4. On each turn, you first draw an "activity card" which activates various random events "deduct 10 from your score", "opponent to your right exposes a letter", "add 25 to your score", "take an additional turn", etc. 
  5. After your word has been guessed, you can continue to play and earn points. 
It would seem that Probe is trying to draft off the success of Scrabble "The 384 cards in this game provide more combinations of letters than any other word game." 

Our playing experience was kind of "meh." The drawn cards are kind of irritating, and much of the game is spent trying to remember what letters have already been guessed for each player... and you feel kind of dumb if you reguess one that you didn't remember. It also involves no new skill that Hangman didn't already have. Rounds are relatively short, and setup is kind of a hassle... so, in all, it wasn't something any of us wanted to play again. But if you *love* hangman, this is an interesting four player twist. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In the Surgical Theatre

I found my first Dana Levin poem in an issue of Poetry magazine, and I was really struck by the fluidity, the clarity, and the cleverness of her poetry. So, I picked this up, her first book of poems, since it seemed to be her highest rated book, as well. Unfortunately, I mostly found it too disturbing to read! Most of the poems are about surgery, both real and metaphorical, and as a result are full of gory imagery. They were beautiful, nonetheless, but I have a low tolerance for gore. They weren't all gory, however. One weirdly poignant poem was about the sexual frustration of a teenage boy, and the one that was by far my favorite was just called "Movie." Some excerpts here:
EXIT,
   blood-red beacon in the dark.
The screen gray like smoke, gray
   as a scrim of ash,
the red curtains furling round it like flames.
   Red curtains, red walls, red seats and carpet, even our faces
under red reflected shadows--
   Me and two kids and a man.
...
   I went in, I waited, for the flashes and burns
of another blockbuster, for the requisite explosions
   and hip bon mots,
for the red aesthetic
   slaughter--
   And the two kids: what did they want?
A little chaos, a little blood
   to make their day, their unpredictable fragmented day--
And the man,
   what did he want?
O long tunnel out of despair, distraction of someone else's
   story---
...
Arnold, Disney, Mafia two-step, make us, make us
   be--
something else for awhile.
...
To give up the burden awhile.
   To be an eye.
Perceiver.
   God of the Kingdom
It is much longer than that, but those are the parts that most resonated with me. The notion that a film lifts our burden of existence by letting us be something else, someone else is a powerful idea.... but it ends with an even more powerful idea -- that watching a movie is to become God. All-seeing, all-knowing, but powerless to interfere. I've never heard anyone make this comparison before -- it simultaneously elevates the role of the viewer, and questions the role of God. Would would it mean if God felt as powerless, as frustrated, and sometimes as moved watching us as we do when we watch a movie?

Anyway, I certainly plan to seek out more Dana Levin poems... for her poetry has a beauty and a power and a whole living quality feels somewhat unique. I just hope it all isn't so gruesome!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Roger Ebert once suggested that "little boxes" on the movie poster with pictures of the cast members was usually a sign of a bad movie, but this must be the exception that proves the rule. It's a simple, clever, and charming story about a stressed out teen who checks himself into a psych ward and gets a dose of the realities of mental illness. It has some great performances in it, with Zach Galafianakis mostly stealing the show. Lots of other familiar actors and comedians are in it as well -- Jim Gaffigan, Aasif Mandvi, and Jeremy Davies (Dr. Faraday from Lost), for example. In short, it is fun, touching, a pleasing 13+ family film that has me curious to read the book.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Croquet Player

I picked up this weird little book by H.G. Wells at Amazing Books in downtown Pittsburgh. It is a peculiar story -- a thing that starts out as a ghost story, but morphs into a philosophical diatribe on the nature of civilization. If that were all that were there, I could hardly recommend it. But what makes this worth reading, I think, is the way Wells handles his characters. There are only three, really, but they are each so interesting, and each written with such a vivid quality that they seem quite real, as strange as each one of them (a croquet player, a doctor, a psychiatrist) is. He wrote it quite late in his life, and the maturity of his writing is in full evidence. I haven't read Wells extensively, but I certainly don't remember his writing being this clear and interesting in the books I did read -- I was younger though, I think I'll go back and try some of them again.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Nelson

I picked this up from the gift shop of the London Cartoon Museum a couple years ago. It's a remarkable effort initiated by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. It's a collection of comics from 54 UK comic artists. Each comic (there are 43 of them, some artists teamed up) is set in a different year, running from 1968 to 2011. Most interestingly, all the comics are about one person, so we get to watch a life unfold through manifold lenses. I can't say it is a masterpiece -- it swerves and wobbles quite a bit, as you might imagine it would, with so many cooks in the kitchen. But it does, somehow, manage to hold together, partly because the comic artists are mostly excellent. I'll go so far as to say it is a landmark in the history of collaborative storytelling, because I've never seen anything executed quite like this. And did I mention? It's very very British. I mean, crikey, it's called Nelson. If you are considering any kind of serious collaborative storytelling effort, this is a must read. Kudos to everyone involved!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

7 Wonders

I'm not always a fan of points-building euro games... But I really like this one! Lots of fun choices, very little head-to-head competition, and relatively simple mechanics. Things I especially liked:
  • Everyone plays at the same time, so there is little waiting on other players
  • A fixed number of turns (18), so there are no game-suddenly-ended surprises, nor a worry that the game will go all night
  • A three-act structure that allows for richer and more interesting things to happen late in the game
  • Cumulative economy, so you can never find yourself bankrupt
  • A simple system for trading with your neighbors, so who you sit next to really matters
  • A very simple military system that never really feels cruel
In short, it is rich, and while it has some level of inherent complexity (military actions, scientific development, industry, building wonders) it all happens by playing simple cards, and so the complexity is wide, not deep, allowing for a lot of emergent gameplay because there are a lot of verbs, but the verbs are each simple and of the same form. I look forward to trying it again. No wonder this has so many awards -- it is very interesting and steamlined.