I’m back from a long trip, and have taken a week to dig myself out from under my piles of correspondence, tv, and dirty laundry. I wanted to swing back into action with something a little more meaty, but, well, wishes and fishes. Instead, as I so enjoyed my year-end review of media back in December, I thought I would inaugurate the practice as a quarterly thing. Writing this has left me plenty of time to finish my laundry for real (but I still haven’t).
Rest assured that I have plenty of topics in mind for the coming weeks--Snowden and the NSA! “Information scientists”! Being civil in the course of criticism! What’s a guy gotta write to go viral around here? If none of that works I’ll have to pretend I’m an adorable moppet doing a social media experiment, and nobody wants that.
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson--book 2 of “The Stormlight Archive”
I feel about Brandon Sanderson as I do about Patrick Rothfuss, but with less venom. I think both are weak writers who get way more acclaim from the fandom than they deserve, and I don’t always understand why, except that they offer certain surface-level satisfactions to fantasy fans. In Sanderson’s case, it’s uber-clever magic paired with eye-bleeding action. In this, the second volume, of his great epic, the self-indulgence afforded by all that acclaim continues on into bloat.
What’s more, Sanderson gives the impression of never having really lived. As a result, he replaces any human sensibility in his work with an approximation of the adrenaline rush you get from the last level of your favorite video game. He’s often praised for his cinematic writing, and I would agree, with the caveat that he fulfills only the most shallow definition of the term: he provides motion and spectacle with none of the visualized heart that good filmmakers perfected in the nineteen-aughts. Plus, he continues to double down on humor in his writing that just...needs to stop.
So that’s more of my review of Sanderson than of this book, but I think it fits.
Dune by Frank Herbert
I hesitated to read this sci-fi classic for years; the genre is not my favorite, for one, but I also feared its space opera themes would fly over my head. (Ah, pride!) Well, it’s definitely a challenging read, but it’s also an extremely rewarding one, as well as just being beautifully written and thrilling to experience. You’ll wonder why modern Americans can’t think about the ecological future of the planet as cogently as the Fremen do about Arrakis. Now, I’m pleased to have finally rounded out my exploratory tastes of sci-fi classics--the others being Foundation and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy--and look forward to continuing with the Dune series and beyond.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
A rollicking, romping, compulsively readable look at a particular moment in American history, one that aptly reminds us how interrelated seemingly distant happenings can be--in this case, flight, baseball, natural disasters, and more. It makes me wish Bryson would similarly treat every season of every year in world history, to tease out the fascinating connections between events. What a project that would be. For now, it’s enough to soak up this volume, and enjoy the sketches provided of Lindbergh, Ruth, Hoover and others--by turns hilarious, enlightening, and disturbing. (Try not to get choked up at Calvin Coolidge’s account of his early loss.)
Most everything I watch is still in the thick of things right now, but this HBO series provided a compact, muscular character study of two broken men. Now, I wasn’t too dense to notice the meta-narrative going on here, with the detectives’ exploits framed by their own sometimes guarded (to say the least) reminiscences in a contemporary police interview. But, to be honest, I was too enthralled by Harrelson and McConaughey's bravura performances to worry too much about that, as well too busy keeping my eyes peeled for Lovecrafty references. But the show rewards deep thinking and subsequent rewatches, which I intend to undertake soon. And that opening credits scene is worth the price of admission all on its own.
I haven’t seen a one yet this year! That’ll change with the next installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe next week, though--Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I’ll report back at some point.
Here’s a weird fluke: I played the board game version of a famous novel before reading it. Only barely, in this case, but still. My lack of skill with this 70s cult classic (and rather early example of the high-concept board game trend) ensured a speedy defeat in only three or so rounds, but from what I saw of the game--its network of competing factions, its sandstorm and sandworm mechanics, and its built-in capacity for betrayal--whet my appetite for more playing and more reading.
Classic. Just ignore the optics of importing little brown meeple to work your estates. (Hey, points for historical accuracy, I guess?) This game was interesting in that players don’t seem to be competing with each other within the framework of the same representation of the island colony, but rather across separate versions of Puerto Rico, each little ‘god’ vying to make his or her version the most optimized. But then you work with the same shipping mechanic, so maybe not. It’s a little garbled that way, but it’s a lot of fun.
I so enjoyed Citadels, the previous game by this designer, and Masquerade did not disappoint as a follow-up. This game has the remarkable mechanic of hidden identities--even from yourself. Each turn consists of three basic actions--you can either peek at your own face-down character card to ascertain your own identity, declare yourself to be a certain character to claim that character’s special ability, or--fun!--blind-swap your card with another player’s, ensuring that you can rarely be sure who you or your opponents are. If you opt for choice 2, though--”I am the bishop!” for example--one or more of your opponents can chime in to challenge you--”No, I’m the bishop!” Then you check, and whoever was right (if anyone) gets to use the power, and whoever was wrong has to give up some coin. I wouldn’t delve so deeply into the minutiae of these simple-enough rules, except that I think they’re delicious. It was a great fun time, and it’s the kind of game that stays competitive throughout.
Another hidden-identity game (only this time you get to know who you are, at least). I liked this one, especially because it takes a genre I don’t usually care about--wild west--and got me invested. Before playing, I fell into the trap of thinking that mechanics for a rusty, old-timey genre would be equally dated-feeling, but Bang straddles the line between feeling thematically appropriate and happily universal. The sheriff is the only players whose identity begins open, and the first few rounds are concerned with ferreting out who his deputies are and who the outlaws are (and don’t forget about that pesky renegade!), with each side pursuing its own victory conditions. The scads of cards that modify your weaponry and range, heal your wounds and dodge fire lead to action-packed rounds. Friends take hits and justice hangs in the the balance. It also comes in a giant bullet-shaped container, so it’s really more fun that you can shake a cactus at.