Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel

A Humument: A Treated Victorian NovelA Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is possibly the most beautiful book I own. It may also be one of the most beautiful pieces of art I own. Oh, and, in a strange way, it's a sculpture, as well. I strongly doubt, however, that you will hear an audiobook version of this work. It just doesn't lend itself to auditory appreciation (unless one likes the sound of pages flipping, which is, I must admit, one of the more pleasing sounds to my ears). And describing the work doesn't do it justice at all. This is an artifact that one must see and handle for one's self. I won't demean the beauty of this work by trying to explain the mechanics of its creation. That story is well-documented and, yes, intriguing. But reading A Humument is more about the experience of interfacing with Phillips' incredible creation (or reincarnation?) than about appreciating the history of the book's construction. And it is not really about the "plot," if you can even say it has a plot. "Reading" is not even an accurate term to describe one's interfacing with this work. "Breathing" might be more appropriate, or "meditating" or "absorbing" or even "melding with". As I think about it, I like the last description best: one melds with A Humument. I wish I could adequately relate the grandeur of this work, the monumental TREASURE that it is. Alas, all I can do is to hope to allure you into finding a copy for yourself so that you can meld with it, as I have. Sorry, everyone, but you're on your own this time. You and the book. Just the two of you. I can't help you. Besides, I'm a bit busy melding with this treasure myself.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Blind Owl

The Blind OwlThe Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What started out to be a slow book found its pace and took off about a quarter of the way in. Normally this sluggish start would knock a star off my rating for the book, but the remainder was so fantastic it made up for the beginning. At first, I found the narration fairly clean and clear, somewhat akin to Calvino's prose, but with too much treacle and self-absorbed whining. Before long, however, I learned that Hedayat was merely setting a baseline that led into the narrator's more winding, abstruse voice and his even more surreal perceptions of the people around him.

One is never quite sure if the narrator's opium dreams give him relief from his own unreality or whether it is because of his distorted perceptions and feelings about reality lead the narrator to escape into narcosis. Dreams, opiate-laden and "sober," are so interlaced with the narrator's version of reality that the work is phantasmagoric throughout.

Hedayat captures these fever-dream meanderings and conveys their feeling to the reader by effectively using a sort of literary call-and-response that revisits events and insights with very slight variations that simultaneously move the reader along and tie the book together. Note that I did not say "move the plot along". "Plot," in The Blind Owl is a slippery thing. Events come and go and come again in slightly different form and with one character's visage projected onto another's to the point that there is little in the way of linear plot. If you're a stickler for clear beginning, middle, and end, this book is not for you. If, however, you want to become lost in another world, this definitely is for you.

One example of this call-and-response is found in the narrator's journey in a horse-drawn hearse. As the driver sets off, the narrator reports:

The whip whistled through the air; the horses set off, breathing hard. The vapour could be seen through the drizzling rain, rising from their nostrils like a stream of smoke. They moved with high, smooth paces. Their thin legs, which made me think of the arms of a thief whose fingers have been cut off in accordance with the law and the stumps plunged into boiling oil, rose and fell slowly and made no sound as they touched the ground. The bells around their necks played a strange tune in the damp air.

After the hearse driver has dropped off his passenger, he leaves:

With surprising nimbleness he sprang up and took his place on the driver's seat. The whip whistled through the air, the horses set off, breathing hard. The bells around their necks played a strange tune in the damp air. Gradually they disappeared into the dense mist.

And again, a few pages later, he encounters the hearse driver again:

The old man sprang up with surprising nimbleness and took his place on the driver's seat . . . The whip whistled through the air; the horses set off, breathing hard. They moved with high, smooth paces. Their hoofs touched the ground gently and silently. The bells around their necks played a strange tune in the damp air. In the gaps between the clouds the stars gazed down at the earth like gleaming eyes emerging from a mass of coagulated blood. A wonderful sense of tranquility pervaded my whole being.

This layered referencing continues, in many guises, throughout the book, lending it that quality of dream that leaves one confused, upon waking, as to when certain events took place and in what context.

Hedayat also portrays a back-and-forth emotional state within the narrator himself. In one paragraph, he experiences "a kind of agreeable giddiness," while in the next, his "heart was filled with trepidation," with no change in circumstance other than that of the narrator's emotional state of mind.

One feeling that is consistent throughout, however, is the feeling of shame experienced by the narrator, along with a paranoid reaction to laughter, as if anyone who laughs is mocking him. In fact, one gets the sense that the narrator feels mocked by life, and death, itself. The Blind Owl is undergirded by a strange form of existentialism that embraces fear of, and hope for, the oblivion of death.

Throughout our life death is beckoning us. Has it not happened to everyone suddenly, without reason, to be plunged into thought and to remain immersed so deeply in it as to lose consciousness of time and place and the working of his own mind? At such times one has to make an effort in order to perceive and recognise again the phenomenal world in which men live. One has been listening to the voice of death.

Ten years after the serialized publication of the book, the author committed suicide. I am not privy to the author's internal struggles and am not familiar with his emotional landscape, but I can see the seed of his suicide in this work. In fact, the forward notes that many in Iran who read this work themselves committed suicide. Like so many other books, this is not for the emotionally unstable. This is not a happy book and, in fact, it might even be categorized as "horror" on par with Brian Evenson's dark literature. The seemingly unending river of nightmare sequences in The Blind Owl are reminiscent of scenes from a David Lynch or Brothers Quay film. Frankly, I'm surprised that they haven't tried to do a film version, as their style would be perfect for the dark ouvre of this book.

So now you have fair warning. If you really enjoy the first 30 pages or so of the book, stop. Don't go any further. But if you are intrigued by the grim promise that this book holds, please don't start 30 pages in. Give yourself a chance to draw in your breath and hold it through the rest of this suffocating work. You're going to need it.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen, #1)Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me state right at the beginning that I am typically not a fan of fiction series. Too often, I have begun a series or made my way through the first two books in a series only to find that the writer ran out of steam (and new ideas) somewhere along the way. Being a writer, I understand this. Sustaining the intensity required to write one novel for any length of time is difficult. Being a reader, I've been bitten one too many times by this lack of staying power on the part of several authors. Needless to say, I picked up Gardens of the Moon only after carefully reading dozens of reviews here on Goodreads and elsewhere. Seeing the blurb by my friend Paula Guran under the front cover clinched it. Paula has discriminating tastes in fiction and won't pin her name on a book that doesn't deserve it. And so, I ventured forth.

For a book of 657 pages (of story), Erikson's novel read very quickly. This author has a good handle on how to keep the pages turning and how to move from character to character without seeming too choppy and without getting bogged down in one person's story. That isn't to say that Gardens was entirely glitch-free, particularly when it came to characters' actions or reactions. In fact, this is the first of my two criticisms of the novel: because so many sub-plots are being juggled here, and since we have such infrequent contact with all the players, there seem to be gaps between some characters motivations, reflections, and action. The most blatant example of this was manifested in Lorn, who takes a sudden swing from the disciplined, hardened Adjunct to a melancholy brooder on the self-destructive nature of human society on about page 427. I see where Erikson is trying to go with this - showing the struggle within Lorn's heart between loyalty to the Empress and feelings of responsibility for harm she has caused and the terror she is about to unleash. But it all seems so sudden, without precedent and without enough jarring of her experience to even cause her to consider questioning her past, present, or future actions. Whiskeyjack is also forcibly turned (by no other agent than the author's whim, it seems) toward a previously-absent sense of hope in humanity around page 500. This (newly-discovered?) sense of optimism just sort of pops out of nowhere. It's far too intense a feeling for the words and thoughts that preceded it; thus it feel disingenuous.

I suppose that Erikson felt he must show some kind of foil to the fatalism that permeates the work. There are no paladins in this book and very few heroes. Even those whose actions are informed by a sense of duty are often twisted by the service they give. And no one is quite what he or she seems. Masks abound, figurative and literal, and some of the characters are even masked from themselves, which creates a nice feeling of dramatic tension throughout the book.

The second flaw in the book is the muddled identity of the many non-human (more appropriately, "quasi-human") races that play key roles in the book, whether as individuals or as entire peoples. I had a very difficult time separating them out from each other. Maybe, after repeated readings, I'll get it all straight. But even the glossary was of little help and, in fact, added to my confusion regarding which races were which. Other than a few mentions here and there, racial characteristics were rarely mentioned. When they were, they were so far removed from other mentions of these characteristics that I found myself thumbing back through to try to find where that race had been mentioned before. I failed miserably. Frankly, the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the novel and the Glossary at the end were not enough. I even went to the Malazan website to try to get enough information about the races to be able to visualize them in my mind, but to no avail. This book needs an index.

Now, given those two flaws, I hasten to say that these are the main reason that I gave this book only four stars instead of five. This is one of the better fantasy books I've read in some time. Yes, the characters could have used some more fleshing out, but I'm expecting to see some of them in later volumes in the series. Overall, I quite liked them. I was particularly enamored of Kruppe, whom I really hated when he was first introduced, not because he's a despicable person, but because the syntax of his dialogue ran counter to everything that preceded it. As the story went on, I saw why Erikson had portrayed Kruppe in this way and, in fact, learned to appreciate it. I also liked the outright wickedness of Hairlock and the conflicted internal struggle that Tattersail went through (which seemed much more believable than Lorn's internal struggle, mentioned above). I have to say, though, that Circle Breaker, one of the more mundane of the minor characters, was my favorite. He filled the role of "everyman," a working-class character who is eventually rewarded for good, old-fashioned hard work . . . of a sort.

The world of Malazan is a fully-fleshed out world, and Erikson does a good job of presenting its richness to the reader by using the dialogue between characters who have obviously known each other for some time to open windows to past events and cultural history. Some characters are famous enough that it is assumed that anyone in this milieu will know of them and their exploits. Casual bits of information about these characters are thrown about in bars or in private conversations, almost as an afterthought. But since no one is quite what they seem, it is only through seeing the characters' actions that these larger-than-life heroes'/antiheroes' legends are verified. Anomander Rake is a prime example of this. He definitely lives up to all the hype.

And so does the novel.

I am a man of limited time. I don't enter into a series lightly, and I will bail out at the first sign of fundamental weakness I detect. I simply don't have the time to waste on bad books. For now, though, Erikson has me hooked. Time will tell if he stands the test of time: timelessness. So far, so good.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Death-Ray

The Death-RayThe Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found The Death-Ray intriguing in its main conceit, compelling in its design, and frustrating in its hipster aloofness. I'll spare the plot outline (see the summation under the book's description on goodreads - it's adequate enough) and only say that the main superhero tropes are old enough and trite enough to just be acceptable at face value by anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the superhero genre. And perhaps it's this blase acceptance of the fantastic that led me, ultimately, to feel so depressed by the time I was finished with the book. The lack of focus on the superpower itself forces the reader to concentrate on the main character's failed relationships, the failed relationships of those around him, and the general cruelty of human beings to one another. Not a recipe for a good time, to say the least.

I will say one thing: Clowes' use of word bubbles is brilliant and lends itself to supposition and inference on the part of the reader. That is, word bubbles that are partially off-panel and only show some of the characters' dialogue make the reader dig in order to catch the full import of what is happening, what is being said, and what is not being said. Clowes pulls the reader into the story by giving just enough visual and narrative information to start the reader off, but the reader must supply the finishing touches that spark off understanding in her or his mind. Clowes also uses the trick of giving past narrative (the characters' words) in present panels (the visual representation of the characters' actions). One often wonders if the characters are acting in the present or the past and if their words are to be taken as something that arises from represented action or if they are completely disjointed from the events shown in the illustrations. This keeps the reader sharp, alert, and engaged. It should be noted that these tricks simply could not be pulled off in any other medium. Bravo, Clowes!

Ultimately, the story is about justice and one's right (or not) to mete out justice on those one deems "guilty". Andy, the main character, is the arbiter of said justice, though one never really knows how he internally arbitrates in passing judgement. What is guilt? What is innocence? Who gets to decide? The burden of absolute power forces the question of whether or not absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps the seeds of corruption are already inherent in those that inherit power. If that's the case, then how can our judgement of power-wielders be just? Or is justice blind to predisposition and only executed against those who engage in unjust action?

The Death-Ray did do one thing for me: it made me think. That's usually a good thing, but the arbitrary nature of Andy's judgement, either guided by his maladjusted friend, Louie, or arising from within himself, left me feeling emotionally empty. I'm still undecided as to whether Andy was pathologically narcissistic or simply emotionally paralyzed by the stunning discovery of his superpower (augmented by the death ray of the book's title). Either way, he's not the kind of guy I can feel for and definitely not the kind of guy I'd want to be around for any length of time. I value my safety far too much to endanger it by hanging out with people that don't feel empathy or regret, which seemed to be at the core of Andy's problems and was also at the core of my problems with the book itself. Clowes' The Death-Ray was simultaneously brilliant and draining. In some ways, I finished the book feeling that I had turned the gun on myself.

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Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom

Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen KingdomHoward Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom by Bruce Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bruce Brown's Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom has a long reach, but stops just sort of grasping its potential. Renzo Podesta's artwork is beautiful, simultaneously cute and sinister, somewhere between Winsor McCay and Brom with a smidge of Ben Templesmith thrown in. In other words, the art was fabulous. I've got to hunt down more of Renzo Podesta's work.

The story itself, however, leaves a lot to be desired. In brief, Howard Lovecraft is given a mystic book by his institutionalized father which, the crazed parent says, young Howard must destroy. Of course, being a disobedient and very curious child, he does not. Eldritchery ensues. Tentacles happen. Deception. Friendship is tested. Then an ending.

I review the book in such a choppy way in order to illustrate the beginning of my problems with Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom. Graphic novels run the risk, because of the media itself, of being too "sudden". By this I mean that certain plot elements seem either too foreshortened or they feel like infodumps disguised as a small panel within the comic. When repeated, this sly form of Deus ex Machina gets tedious, and that's what happened here. The book could stand being another 5 pages or so long, allowing for a more careful, more soothing transition to and from important bits (or, sometimes, chunks) of information. As it is, however, a couple of key elements feel like they've been wedged in after the fact, making one doubt that the author genuinely understood his own story. It's fine to put things in after you've drafted, but please knead them in, don't let them stick out.

Finally, the author has claimed that this is an all-ages introduction to the Cthulhu Mythos. I can appreciate the desire to introduce a new generation to Lovecraft's work, but I sometimes felt that the work went too far in the "cute" direction. Again, some of these cute episodes stuck out from the rest of the story like spinach caught in a lingerie model's teeth.

Still, I recommend the book. Read it once, don't take it too seriously, and don't worry about the story again. But do take in the artwork again. There is some real quality work here. Drink it in! Oh, and, important safety tip: Never trust a child who can properly pronounce "R'yleh". Just don't.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Remembrance

If you haven't figured this out already, I'm an old school gamer. Since my early introduction to role playing games in the late '70s, I've been an on and off gamer for around 35 years now. I think I may be the only person I personally know who owned (and subsequently lost) the Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Coloring Album. Before that I had been introduced to the many Metagaming Microgames by a co-worker of my dad's named Bill Walters. Since those early days, I've been involved in gaming groups in several different states and two continents. From my first adventure as an ill-fated magic user who, against his high intelligence score, stupidly attacked a giant spider with his dagger to being the dungeon master for a pair of half-orcs hunted by seven dwarves (yes, those seven dwarves, albeit hardened by their post-disney lives) to DMing my own kids and their friends this upcoming week as a band of Svirfneblin, I've done a lot of D&Ding (and Gamma Worlding, and Top Secreting and Tunnels and Trolling and Villains and Vigilanteing and Calling of Cthulhu and so forth).

In that time, I've gotten to know a lot of great people, people with whom I've shared good times and heartache, people with whom I've laughed and even cried and, many times, with whom I've laughed until I've cried! But there's one group I will always, always remember. When I came here to Madison to attend graduate school, I knew I'd need some sort of "out," some way to decompress from the stress of a very rigorous program in African History. I don't drink, and I have a wife and kids that I love dearly, so that limited my de-stressing options significantly, at least the de-stressing options that are so popular here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So I posted a notice on a board at the old Pegasus Games on State Street (now, sadly, located on the West Side - friends don't let friends live on the West Side, we East-siders like to say) stating that I'd like to be involved with a local gaming group. A few days later, I got a call and arranged a meeting with Cisco Bradley, an undergraduate student at the UW. He was forming a gaming group and asked if I might be interested in joining, which I was. I met Cisco and we hit it off quickly. We exchanged contact info, talked about our gaming history, and I felt like I had an instant friend. To make a veeery long story short, our gaming group consisted of a few core members, of which I was one for quite a while. After a couple of years my family, grad school, and subsequent work made my appearances less and less frequent until some of the core group moved out of state (or even out of the country) and the group was moribund. We were able to "meet" again online a few years ago, with Cisco again as DM, and engage in a different medium online in a sort of play-by-mail online game using Yahoo groups. Things have been quiet for the last year or so, for reasons I will share forthwith, but it's still out there, just very quiet at this time.

It was in this gaming group that I created and played my favorite character, Pheelanx Durrowphael, a half-elf magic user/thief who eventually migrated to a career as a wild mage, or a magic user who embraces the barely-controlled chaos that is called wild magic. The two other players who formed the core of our group were Branden Disch, who played Sharth, a drow-elf, and Bradley Kendall, who played Thoraim, a noble dwarf fighter, a dwarven paladin, really.

Brad was a little taller than me, but thick, beefy. He looked like a heroic dwarf, and I mean that in the best way possible. He was a person who I sensed felt deeply about others and about life. He had a hearty laugh and was, by all means, the very definition of a "good" person. In terms of his D&D character, his noble, loyal, chivalrous and upstanding dwarf, Thoraim, couldn't be more far removed in temperament from the whimsical, chaotic, and, some might argue, insane Pheelanx. Branden's Sharth, I suppose, was the intermediary, though Sharth and Pheelanx liked to go off and create a bunch of mischief whenever they thought they could escape Thoraim's watchful eye. There were other players who came and went in this party (a centaur with a penchant for kicking doors in, a hedonist-swashbuckler, a legless elf who carried prodigious amounts of rope on her back, and a psionicist who took himself way too seriously for the likes of Pheelanx, among several others whom I'm forgetting), but the three of us, me, Brad, and Branden, served as the core of this group under Cisco's fantastic dungeon mastering for some time. We had a wonderful time together. Those are some great memories.

Now, last night, I went out with my family to see The Hobbit. We have this tradition, around Christmas time, of splurging and going out for a movie (not cheap when there are six of us, all of whom count as "adults"). For awhile it was Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and now we have The Hobbit to keep us going. I quite liked the movie. I loved the book, I like the movie. Yes, the movie contradicts the book on key elements, yes, Peter Jackson took liberties, no, it's not the book. Until you have millions of dollars to fund an exact cinematic replica of the literary original, get over it.

One thing that surprised me about The Hobbit (the movie) was the feelings I felt while watching it. As a D&D geek, I was never really partial to dwarves. And, even having read The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy all in a row, I never really warmed up to dwarves. So I was surprised by how . . . comfortable they felt as I watched the movie last night. It sounds corny, but I felt like I was among old friends. I'm an emotional guy, I get that, but why would a movie, mostly about dwarves (sorry, Bilbo - I'm sure your time will come in the next two movies) cause me to feel what I felt there?

Then it dawned on me. My friend Brad was gone. Gone for good.

You see, just over a year ago, on December 13th, I missed a phone call from Cisco. At first, I was amused. Cisco hadn't called in over a year, though we'd kept in contact via email. He was in New York City working as a professor of History. Why would he call me, other than to gab about old times?

When I listened to his voice mail, my amusement fled in the face of heartbreak. Brad, under great emotional duress, had taken his own life. I was stunned. A year later, I still find it difficult to reconcile Brad's usually happy countenance and his sense of chivalry (for lack of a better term) with the depression that must have dragged him down to the point of committing suicide. There were circumstances that pushed him into a very bad emotional place, but I can't pretend to ultimately know why Brad did what he did. But he did it. And he's gone.

Now, I am one of those religious freaks who believes in an afterlife. Your mileage may vary. I think that I'll see Brad again sometime and be reunited with him. No, we weren't as close as family, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Brad. I think I liked him more than he knew. His loss was heartbreaking for me.

I don't want to downplay the seriousness of what happened and trivialize the death of my friend by mentioning the anniversary of his tragedy in the same breath as I ruminate on a Hollywood (or in this case, New Zealand) movie. But I couldn't help but think of Brad as I sat in the movie theater last night. I thought of Thoraim and how he (and, by extension, Brad) would have fit squarely into that narrative. Noble Thoraim, noble Brad. My, how Brad would have loved to have played one of those characters, or even been an extra in the movie. And I bet he would have nailed it. Yes, I'm sure he would have nailed it.

Miss you, Brad.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Houdini: The Handcuff King

Houdini: The Handcuff KingHoudini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suppose that when I read a book wherein the structure of the story itself reflects the tone, I should be appreciative. In this case, I'm just annoyed. The artwork in Houdini: The Handcuff King is sparse, not very structured, and, honestly, a bit trite. The story is much of the same. It's a little slice of biography about Houdini's chained and handcuffed jump at Harvard Bridge. One of Houdini's minor feats, though he plied it as a marketing opportunity, which, as the book relates, he was always seeking. Unfortunately, I felt that this was only a minor graphic novel that acts as a (rather expensive) advertisement for The Center for Cartoon Studies, which holds the copyright.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. The foreshortened story was stilted, even jarring sometimes in its incompleteness. This shoddy storytelling wasn't, unfortunately, made up for by stunning artwork. Outside of the panel of Houdini jumping from Philadelphia's Market Street bridge, the artwork was pedestrian and uninspiring.

This is a book that could have breathed and been full of life. Instead, I felt much like Houdini must have while he was sinking into the cold water, struggling to be free of the claustrophobia of the story in which he found himself. He escaped. I didn't.

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Persepolis: The Story of a ChildhoodPersepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I intentionally avoided the movie version of this book. I wanted my reading experience to be unspoiled, even by trailers. Now, having read the book, I shall have to go see the movie.

I am the same age as Marjane Satrapi. As I reflect the events of this book, I remember my perception of events in Iran: the revolution, the hostage crisis, the war with Iraq. Having lived in Italy from 1977-79, I feel a little closer to these events than I would have, had I been "buried" in American concerns at the time. My father was a military man, and we were living in a foreign country. While I never will know how Satrapi felt about the events in her own country (nor would I want to know), I can at least more closely approximate the emotions she must have felt at the time than if I had been born under other circumstances, in a different place, in a different time.

Persopolis has faint echoes of Maus. Satrapi's voice even sounds similar to Spiegelman's. If you liked Maus you will probably like Persepolis.

I was amazed by how much I didn't know about events in Iran at that time. I consider myself a pretty well-informed person, when it comes to history (flashes MA in History from UW-Madison), but I was unaware of the sheer complexity of the Iranian situation in the late '70 and early '80s. This book doesn't just outline these issues, but goes into some depth regarding how difficult it was for one girl and her family to navigate the fluid and quickly-changing political and social landscape of Iran at the time. There are lots of lessons to be learned here. Satrapi fancied that she would grow up to be a prophet when she was younger, and I think she might well have succeeded with this work. Not a prophet who foretells doom, but a prophet who recounts the errors of the past and puts them up as a warning to the world.

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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Whilst Pondering Svirfneblin . . .

In a previous blog entry, I noted that, once a month, I frequent the route from Madison down to Lake Geneva and on to  Chicago and back. Today, on the way back from Chi-town, I was well ahead of schedule. I was driving along, thinking about my oldest son coming back from school next week on Christmas break and planning, in my head, a little AD&D session wherein he and a couple of his brothers and maybe a friend or two will take the role of a party of Svirfneblin investigating an Underdark ziggurat recently vacated by a lich (way too powerful for the party I've envisaged - of course, other denizens have taken up residence since the lich was vanquished. Real-estate in the Underdark has a quick turnover rate).

In that state of mind, what would be more natural than stopping in Lake Geneva for a drive-through. You know you'd do it, too, if you had the time!

This time, however, I decided to go a different route than my usual downtown foray. This time, I turned left!

I figured that I could eventually hit Lakeshore Blvd, the main snake around the lake. And, eventually, I did - more on that later. But before I got my bearings straight, I stumbled upon (well, almost drove over) Lake Geneva Games. "How cool is that?" thought I. "I'll stop in and see what's happening." So I did.

In all honesty, I was disappointed. There was a small group of teenagers playing Magic the Gathering and a store-tender that gave me that "You don't belong here" look. Nothing wrong with that, per se. I had a tie on, what should I expect? The shop was small. Much smaller than I would have expected from the birthplace of Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the real estate seemed to be taken up by miniatures for Warhammer 40K, though their selection was not nearly as impressive as the Games Workshop store in the mall down in Schaumburg, IL. So I really just peeked in and left.

Now, I've been gaming since 1977 when Bill Walters, a friend of my dad's (he might have been on the same flight or worked in the same building as my dad, I don't know) introduced me to Ogre and GEV when I lived in Italy (where my dad worked for the 6917 ESG).  Two years later, while living in Minnesota, my mom bought me the AD&D Players Handbook for Christmas. Thanks, Mom! Many of my teenage years were burned away playing D&D with friends. So Lake Geneva was always a sort of Mecca for me when I was younger, though I didn't make the pilgrimage until we moved to Madison, back in '96.

After my disappointment with the gaming store, I decided to continue my drive around Geneva Lake. I didn't make it all the way around. I had time to burn, but not that much time! Still, as I drove part-way around the lake, I noticed a few things that might have sparked the imagination of a young Gary Gygax and possibly served as inspiration for his (and Dave Arneson's) creative minds.

First of all, the topography around Lake Geneva is different than that of the surrounding area. It's more hilly, and the lake itself seems to foster some sort of micro-climate. I'm no scientist, but it feels different around the lake then it does beyond the hills that surround the lake. I get the feeling that Geneva Lake (the lake) and Lake Geneva (the town) had to have somehow served as inspiration for the Greyhawk setting and, specifically, Nyr Dyv and its environs.

Then there's the architecture. It's eclectic, to say the least. The large, fortress-like mansions on the lake shore could very well have spurred a young man's imagination. And on the south shore of the lake are an inordinately high percentage of homes modeled after English thatched roof houses, as well as a number of places that mimic Swiss alpine sensibilities. I'm not sure that all of these existed before D&D, or if wealthy geeks had them built that way, but if even half of them were standing there in Gygax's younger years, they could not have been ignored.

I also noticed that there were several abandoned houses in the area. Big abandoned houses. Houses that could hold a catacomb underneath, or a lich within its walls. Even the trees were a bit mysterious. I can see why the Treant was one of the earliest D&D creatures in the original game, and it wasn't just because of Tolkien's influence.

Lake Geneva is a tourist town. There are always far too many people there for such a little town. The streets are always packed with people, the traffic sucks (who's idea was it to shut off all the stoplights in town the past couple of weeks, anyway?), and the bars are hoppin'. There are a lot of interesting people there, and a few strange ones (me, for instance) to boot. It's the kind of town that breeds adventure.

I came back home feeling satisfied that I had discovered the open secret of D&D: No matter where you are, no matter what your circumstances, chances are pretty good that your imagination, prompted, at times, by little things in your surroundings, can be expansive enough to carry you beyond the confines of your town, your county, your state, your country, even your world. You don't even need a good game shop. A few good friends, a set of dice, and a rulebook or two - or maybe none at all - are all it takes to enjoy the wonders of the fantastical and to set off on adventures that are far more rewarding than any you'll find in this droll world. D&D didn't necessarily need Lake Geneva, but it didn't hurt. And the fact that Gygax and Arneson's creation became so much more than a localized phenomenon, a worldwide movement, won't stop me from enjoying access to the cradle of roleplaying games just down the road.

PS: If you'd like to know the sordid history of the corporate side of TSR and Gary Gygax, you could do worse than to read this old article from The Believer.

PPS: There's a drive on to build a statue of Gary Gygax on the shore of Geneva Lake. Information here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Land of the Snow Men

Land of the Snow MenLand of the Snow Men by George Belden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A hallucinogenic romp through the antarctic. Disturbing. This book jams itself into the crevices of your brain like ice-climbers in a glacier's chasm. This may be the perfect "little book" - thick with meaning and madness, hauntingly illustrated, short enough to be enjoyed in an evening, yet utterly immersive. This book is an "all in" work that requires your concentration and rewards an un-rushed reading, despite its short length. I wish there were many more books like this in the world. But, alas, the masses want their mega-novels, and they will have them.

Lock's faux-history is a darkly surreal account of one George Belden, quartermaster to Scott, though Belden was only present in Antarctica after Scott's tragic Terra Nova expedition. This information is given up front, in the foreword, immediately serving notice that this book is not to be easily grasped. It is, in a word, elusive. And this elusive quality adds a sort of surreal fog to the thoughts expressed by, and events experienced by Belden.

The underlying conflicts are those of madness versus sanity and of poetic man versus practical man. In a fit of rage, Scott bursts out and establishes himself as the paragon of practical reality:

Scott was angry. "I want no poetry here! I came to Antarctica to escape interpretation." He sank into his chair, his hands betraying his frustration. "A stone is only a stone until it's thrown through a glass house; then it becomes an adage and admonition. Antarctica has no ulterior meaning. There is nothing beneath the ice except more ice."

But Scott's men are of a different mind. They are as eager to explore as he is, but they are not so closed to the strange wonders of the antarctic. It becomes apparent rather quickly that they are tottering on the edge of sanity, yet they seem more mentally healthy than their leader, who insists on logic and order, despite the crew's desire to embrace the bizarre. For example, Ponting, after being assigned to collect rock samples, brings back something entirely different: Frozen shadows.

They were those of birds mostly. And one that looked as if it had been cast by an iceberg. And one that was unmistakably that of a man. The man's shadow was long, evidently made when the sun had been low in the sky. All were thin as paper. Ponting handled them like delicate glassware, afraid they might shatter in his hands.

Ponting goes on to explain to Belden his theory that they must have been formed in an area of absolute zero, where light itself freezes. But Belden is unconvinced.

He was put off by my apparent lack of enthusiasm for his earnest hypotheses. But what had seized my imagination was the man who had cast the shadow! Was he one of Amundsen's men? Or Shackleton's? Or Gerlache's? Or had he belonged to one of the much earlier expeditions - Borchgrevink's, Davis' or Weddell's? Might that shadow have been left by an outcast - a Frankenstein's monster, who had taken up a wretched exile in this most desolate of kingdoms only to be lost?

In time, Scott's crew embrace their hallucinations:

Besieged by constant necessity, each of us was making an outpost of the imagination in order to escape.

One unanswered question that the narrative continually implies (but never asks outright) is "who, in these extreme circumstances of isolation, is truly sane?". This begs the further question of whether or not it is desirable to wander the realms of insanity in order to preserve, ironically, one's sanity? By only alluding to these questions, but never asking them, Lock leaves the decision wholly up to the reader. There is no pedantic condescension that sometimes permeates dark surrealism. Lock provides a map, but doesn't tell the reader where to go.

Norman Lock deserves much more exposure and recognition for his wonderful work. I discovered Lock many years ago, and only in one instance have I been really disappointed by his work (I'll save that for a different review). Derek White's nearly abstract collages provide what I will call "symbolic tattoos" to this body of Lock's work. It is a beautiful, though disturbing, thing to behold, this Land of the Snow Men. I strongly recommend it.

I've thought that this work, along with HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams might make a good Winter's reading troika. Though you'll want to have plenty of hot chocolate on hand. Stoke up the fireplace, and enjoy!

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