Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Fabliaux (book review)

Aug 26 2013 Published by under Reviews

The Fabiluax

The Fabiluax

The Fabliaux is an odd little book, which I bought on a whim because it’s an odd little book.

We’ve all heard of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those saucy stories of pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Some know that Chaucer didn’t invent these stories; he cobbled them together from various stories floating around at the time. Common folk traded these profane little tales in taverns, forming the “reality TV” of its day. These were supposedly true stories, nearly always involving sex, scatology, and/or sinning priests.

In France, these were called fabliaux, and this beautiful hardback of the same name collects dozens of them that cross a wide range of experience. The translator put them into a simple, natural rhyming verse that mimics the French pattern.

(One side note: the translator chose vulgar terms for genitalia, mainly because there’s no English equivalent for the French words, and these are meant to be bawdy, shocking tales. So be ready for frequent uses of the ‘c’ word.)

The stories fascinate for two reasons. On the one hand, naughty stories always carry at least a small thrill, and it’s fascinating to see what was considered naughty six hundred years ago.

Secondly, The Fabliaux provides a window into common life in the Middle Ages. So much of what we know of that time comes from high literature: noble tales of knights and ladies, or official histories written by victors. We read of battles and courtly romance.

While that has its place, in The Fabliaux we see dusty, everyday life. Now this has its own sensationalism; these were stories meant to entertain, after all. I wouldn’t take the preponderance of extramarital sex in these stories as an indication it was that common in medieval times (any more than the family drama in a “reality TV” show is a complete accurate representation of life in America).

Those caveats aside, these stories are delightful romps in bourgeois drama: wives lusting over hot guys, battling spouses, and over-protective fathers.

And the stories are not without shock value. Indeed, the over-protective father has a young daughter whom he has carefully protected from every biological term, to protect her chastity. When he finds a boy her own age as a companion, and who expresses similar horror at such terms, the father leaves the two of them alone, presuming she is safe. She immediately asks the boy about the differences of the male body to the female, and they proceed to describe each others’ most intimate areas using only metaphor. Before long they shuck their clothes and screw with abandon.

Not so shocking, except that their metaphors make it very clear that they are both barely pubescent. Such were the realities of the times.

Other stories deal with bad priests–in fact, can’t recall a single righteous priest in the entire book–and a lot of scatological humor. I found this refreshing; we haven’t changed so much. We’ve always loved to skewer the powerful and joke about poo, for some reason.

Interestingly, the nobility in these stories are treated very much like the common folk: more wealthy, but not inherently evil. They deal with avenging spouses, rebellious children, and fickle friends just like everyone else. In general, they’re doing their best with what they have.

And they fart a lot.

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The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book

Aug 05 2013 Published by under Reviews

Bachelor Brothers' B&B Pillow BookEvery often, you stumble upon a book that precisely fits your mood.

I bought this tartan-covered novel on impulse at a used book store while I was on vacation. I wanted a light book to read. This delivered.

In The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book, Bill Richardson describes a year in the life of two bachelor brothers who operate a small B&B for bibliophiles. Not only is the house stuffed with books; guests bring piles of their own on “reading vacations.” Book clubs schedule annual meetings here.

The B&B sits near a small town in Canada that’s filled with odd characters. These characters wander into the book’s story–more so, I gather, than in the first Bachelor Brothers’ book, of which this is the second.

The main story line is punctuated with “letters” from former guests, telling their own life stories. Some are simply heartwarming; some are unexpectedly sad. Many come with recipes which I’m now eager to attempt.

Comparisons with Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon are inevitable. Both authors chronicle a charming backwater peopled by quirky characters. The difference, I think, lies in attitude: Keillor maintains a sarcastic–nearly sardonic–distance from his characters, while Richardson paints them as lovable, if odd, human beings. It’s the basic human respect that comes from an episode of Community compared to the more sarcastic tone of Parks & Recreation.

As befits its characters, The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book is an odd thing that I’d have a hard time universally recommending. It’s a celebration of simplicity, reading, and the company of others. I read it in two days.

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AttrAction (Game Review)

Jul 29 2013 Published by under Reviews

AttrActionThis cannot be a review of AttrAction, precisely, because AttrAction is so simple.

Imagine a handful of rare-Earth magnets, each a misshapen cube. Spread them out on a table. Now, play a sort of billiards with them: pick up a magnet and flick it towards other magnets. It will slide across the table, pulling other magnets into a chain. Grab the chain, then acquiesce to the next player. When your turn comes around again, pull a magnet off your chain and flick that towards the remaining magnets.

This seems simple, until you discover that the magnets’ unusual shape hides a strategic feature. Balanced vertically, they attract. Once a magnet falls over, though, it repels other magnets unless they carom in unpredictable patterns. As the game continues, collecting further magnets grows hard indeed.

That’s the entire game. The official rules suggest some minor variations, such as re-distributing stones each turn and scoring chain lengths across multiple turns. But in terms of mechanics, that’s it.

AttrAction is a fairly shallow game, but this belies its strength: it’s a perfect game to start people playing something. Pull out a bag of magnets and start fiddling with them, and people will crane their necks and ask questions. Then you can get a game going. Then maybe you can get other games going.

Moreover, you can come back to AttrAction often for a casual game. Break it out occasionally for a simple, easy-to-grasp contest suitable for just about any age (though note that AttrAction should not be played around dogs or very small children; the magnets are very dangerous if inside a stomach. Apologies for the grisly image.)

In any event, I enjoy AttrAction every time I bring it out. It’s an easy game that few refuse to play.

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Oz, the Great and Powerful (review)

Jul 22 2013 Published by under Reviews

Oz movie screenshotA lot of people dislike this movie.

I suspect people came into the theater with inflated expectations. I would instead urge you to go back to the classic film: it told a simple story with a vivid palette of characters in a rich, colorful fantasy world. That is exactly what Oz, the Great and Powerful does.

You likely already know the premise: a young man is swept into the land of Oz, where he must fight a wicked witch.

More importantly, the movie centers on the hero’s choice. Our protagonist gets himself into trouble, then he has to decide what to do. He could turn his back on the whole situation at any time.

The actors admirably and accurately portray their intentionally one-dimensional characters. L. Frank Baum wrote simple characters; he created archetypes. That’s what you’ll get in the film.

The end of a film like this should include at least one moment where the viewer pumps a fist into the air and yells “Yeah!” That happened for me.

It’s a kid’s film, and a beautiful one.

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Cards Against Humanity (game review)

Jul 15 2013 Published by under Reviews

Cards Against HumanityCards Against Humanity has an enviable reputation. Retailers can’t keep it in stock. People rave about it. It’s modular, easy to learn, and quick to play. It’s also very, very naughty.

It’s that last aspect that gives me pause. I don’t mind adult content in games, but Cards Against Humanity encourages the players towards depraved thinking for the entire game.

Quite simply: each player has a hand of cards, each of which contain a noun or noun phrase. Play goes in rounds; in each round, one player chooses a sentence cards that contains a Mad Libs-style sentence, such as “I was so relieved when I saw _____ come through the door.” The other players pass forward a card from their hands; the chooser reads each of them out, chooses a winner, and that player gets a point. Play continues until one player amasses a pre-determined number of points.

That’s the entire game. The fun lies in the nouns, which range from the wacky to the obscene. Pair those with a sentence like “Reaching into my ______, I pulled out ______” and you can imagine how dirty the game can be.

It’s a fun beer-and-pretzels game, only to be played with those not easily offended.

I must say: after playing it for about an hour, I felt my mind training itself to see the dirtiest and most bizarre interpretation of any given sentence. The game rewards depraved thought in a subtle but significant way. I felt vaguely dirty after playing it.

Still, for an evening’s entertainment, it’s hardly going to damage you, and it can be an uproarious good time.

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Forgotten Silver

Jul 08 2013 Published by under Reviews

Forgotten SilverImagine a documentary about a little-known New Zealand filmmaker from the silent era. This is a man who invented the close-up and synchronized sound before anyone else…before his work was tragically forgotten. Imagine that his last work was an Biblical epic, its monstrous, life-size sets constructed deep in the New Zealand jungle.

Now imagine Peter Jackson decides to tell this man’s life.

Sounds amazing, right? A hidden gem, uncovered by Peter Jackson, who tracks through the jungle in search of an immense fantasy movie set. It’s almost too good to be true.

Because it is.

Forgotten Silver is a mockumentary by Peter Jackson himself, with cameos by Leonard Maltin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Weinstein (among others).

Its appeal lies greatly with how much you can appreciate the joke, and how much silent film footage you can take. It’s a masterful fake: all the silent film material really looks it. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie just for that aspect: imagining the creation of those fake film sequences.

And it’s wonderful to see Peter Jackson in full curator mode, talking excitedly to the camera about a passionate project. Now I know why he looks so comfortable in the Lord of the Rings behind-the-scenes videos; he brings to those the same grinning kid energy he has in Forgotten Silver.

The other people in the film echo Jackson’s intensity, which I suspect carried over into the film’s production. Everything about it feels absolutely real, from the acting in the silent movie footage to the artifacts to the celebrity interviews.

Forgotten Silver deserves to stand next to This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show as ideal examples of the mockumentary style.

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The Apex of the Puppeteer’s Art

Jul 01 2013 Published by under Reviews

StringsImagine a fantasy film about the misdirected prince of a dead king, sent out to get revenge against a neighboring nation. A movie of swords, enslavement, armies, and death.

Now imagine this is all done with stringed marionettes.

Moreover, imagine that these marionettes are aware of their strings.

Strings is an award-winning 2004 puppet movie, directed by Anders Rønnow Klarlund with puppeteering by Bernd Ogrodnik. It’s set in a fantasy kingdom of swords (very important for cutting strings) and monsters (cobbled together from leftover bodies).

The plot includes many twists, starting in the first few minutes, which I have no interest in spoiling. This is a dark story, dealing with slavery, child endangerment, mutilation (though it’s just unscrewing wooden limbs, it’s horrifying to the characters), and a few other squicky themes.

It’s also lavishly constructed and presented. The sets feel spacious and lived-in. Outdoor spaces feel like they’re actually outdoors.

The creators clearly thought through the consequences of their premise. The gate to the city is simply a bar raised over the gate. If your strings can’t get past it, neither can you.

Most importantly, only a few minutes into the film, I was completely entranced by it. These puppets act, despite no facial movement. A head dips slightly, or turns, and I could see the character thinking. Amazing.

Puppet theater has existed for many decades, of course, and Strings builds on a rich tradition filled with great skill. This is a film that showcases the apex of the puppeteer’s art.

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Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox

Jun 24 2013 Published by under Reviews

Yobi, the Five Tailed FoxEvery so often, you stumble upon a hidden gem. This is one of them.

Yobi, the Five-Tailed Fox is a 2007 anime film from Korea. It’s a quiet, rural tale of a shape-changing fox that takes on the form of a young girl. A handful of “troubled youths” are being forced to attend a special summer school near Yobi’s territory, and she investigates. These kids aren’t future criminals; they’re just kids who have trouble adjusting to normal school.

As is common in Asian films, forest spirits like Yobi have a special kind of personality. They’re more than animals, but not quite human. Yobi herself, while having the body of a 12-year-old, acts like she’s half that age. She’s curious, petulant, and constantly drinking in new information.

Refreshingly, she’s not threatened by the human world in an environmental sense, although that theme does rear its head. Her interactions with people open her heart to strong feelings, forcing her to make difficult choices in contrast to her care-free forest existence.

And what a beautiful world she lives in. The film’s drawn and animated like a Studio Ghibli film, with lush colors and great attention to detail. If your jaw dropped upon viewing My Neighbor Totoro or Castle in the Sky, as mine did, Yobi will feel just as rewarding.

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Going APE: Guy Kawasaki’s advice for self-publishing

Jun 10 2013 Published by under Reviews


Guy Kawasaki's APE

Guy Kawasaki’s APE

APE is not a book for anyone. This is a book for anyone who wants to self-publish a book in the modern era of electronic publishing and Kindles.

Its author, entrepreneur and investor Guy Kawasaki, writes with a comfortable clarity that must grow out of many years of writing and public speaking. His prose strides straight from point to point, never wandering off-topic except to explore useful side trails (like good books about the actual writing process). Yet it’s never a breathless race to the end; it’s a comfortable stroll with a friend.

Throughout the book’s three sections (Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur; thus the title), Guy remains relentless practical, focusing on the present reality of self-publishing. What are the trade-offs between the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad? Should you format your book as you write it? What are the most commonly used software tools, and why are they favored?

And more importantly, the book doesn’t stop with publishing. Guy also writes about the promotional side of the writer’s life. How do you publicize your name without becoming a jerk? How can you build a true community of fans?

I found APE so useful that, after reading it for the first time a few months ago, I’m now re-reading it carefully. I want to extract and internalize its lessons. If you ever want to publish a book, you will find practical advice here.

APE costs US$10 for the Kindle and $16.50 in softcover.

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Hok the Mighty

Jun 03 2013 Published by under Reviews

Battle in the Dawn coverMany fantasy books are set in a fantastical past, like Conan‘s Hyborian Age: a time of magic and high adventure before recorded history.

What if someone wrote a novel using fantasy adventure tropes–a powerful hero fighting wild creatures, spanning different environments–and set it in the actual historical period before recorded history?

Now imagine it was written by a Pulitzer-nominated author who beat out William Faulkner for a literary award. Manly Wade Wellman, besides having the greatest name for a fantasy writer, was that author.

Battle in the Dawn collects the handful of short stories that Wellman wrote about Hok the Mighty. But rather than write random “adventures,” Welmman advanced every story further in Hok’s life, starting with his adolescence and leading through the establishment of his tribe and his explorations across his world. While this book barely qualifies as a novel, there is a constant progression from story to story.

But more interestingly, Hok is Cro-Magnon, an early modern human. His people have achieved sentience, but they have no technology to rely on (besides stone and spear). Savage–but historical–beasts dominate Hok’s world, from sabre-tooth tigers to mammoths. Neanderthals serve as an orc-like menace, as brutish sub-humans who only know how to kill and eat.

Wellman wrote Hok in the breathless style typical of early sword-and-sorcery fantasy, mostly during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. I found that charming. The stories feel exciting and adventurous and big.

A reading of Battle in the Dawn is a fine way to spend an evening.

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