Monday, June 30, 2008

GuysLitWire Teen Survey: Myles

"I don't read books with girl protagonists, unless the girl is kicking butt."

That quote comes courtesy of Myles, a sixteen-year-old boy who has read everything written by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. When he was younger, he read the Animorphs series regularly. Now, Myles tends to read horror novels about vampires and shapeshifters as well as historical fiction set in Ancient Rome.

Myles and I have had many, many conversations about books. When I asked him if he'd fill out a survey for GuysLitWire, he grabbed the pen and paper I offered and started scribbling away.

Books recently read for fun: The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, Virtues of War by Steven Pressfield, Snakehead by Anthony Horowitz, Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, Wyvernhail by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

Books recently read for class: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, 1984 by George Orwell

Books you want to read: The sequels to all of the books already listed and/or the next book out by those authors

Books you read as a kid: The Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate

Why do you like to read? Because it's fun.

Favorite book genres/topics: All except romance.

Favorite authors: Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Steven Pressfield, Anthony Horowitz, Barack Obama, J.K. Rowling, Sharon Draper, Margaret Peterson Haddix, D.J. MacHale, Stephenie Meyer, K.A. Applegate, Annette Curtis Klause, Robert Muchamore

Favorite movies: The Kingdom, The Patriot, Last of the Mohicans, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Jumper, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter movies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Transformers, Disturbia, Cry_Wolf, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, 21

Favorite musicians/music genres: Smooth jazz, house, R&B

Myles told me that he plans on reading a lot of books this summer. The Pressfield books have furthered his interest in ancient history, and he's on a roll with those. He is going to check out some more fantasy and horror books as well.

Thanks for being our first surveyed teen, Myles!

Click here to catch up with Myles two years later, as a senior.

Looney Tunes Poetry

Via Midori Snyder, I learned this weekend how American poet laureate Billy Collins was inspired by Bugs Bunny and friends:

As an early devotee of Looney Tunes cartoons, I was fascinated by the strange freedoms of these characters, especially their ability to shape-shift -- like Ovid on speed. Clearly, Bugs Bunny knows as much about leaping, not to mention whirling, zooming and, of course, hopping, as any of the great Spanish poets whom Bly credits with the knack of slipping through walls from one room of the psyche into another. Bugs can be in two places at once, which he is whenever Elmer Fudd points his shotgun down one of the two holes of the rabbit's underground residence. And just as Pirandello and other modern dramatists sought to break down the actor/audience barrier, so Looney Tunes allowed an animated character to talk directly to the movie house audience or to criticize the very hand of its animators, thereby betraying the text itself. In one cartoon which mixes animation with a live action sequence, Porky Pig barges into producer Leon Schlesinger's office demanding to be let out of his contract. Another cartoon opens quietly with the figure of Elmer Fudd in full hunting regalia tip-toeing left to right through the woods. Then, as if noticing a noisy late-comer to the theater or the sound of a shaken box of candy, Fudd stops, turns to face the audience, puts one of his four fingers to his lips and says in a seething whisper: "Shhhh! It's wabbit season." Ah, Elmer, you unlikely modernist! What were your creators reading? Was animator Chuck Jones curling up at night with a volume of French surrealist poetry?

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Chat with Artist David Small

A quick note to say that over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, there's an interview with the one and the only David Small. If you're interested in illustration, this is an interview for you, as David's been making picture books in his singular style since 1981---and received many awards and accolades for his talents.

In the interview, David also discusses Stitches, his upcoming graphic memoir about his "problematic youth," his first work for adults to be published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2009. This page at David's web site tells us more about the memoir. Here's an excerpt:
"In STITCHES, he relates the bizarre and deeply disturbing story of his 1950s childhood in a family where free expression was forbidden and where abuse was both emotional and physical in the most unusual of ways. As the son of a radiologist, Small grew up looking at x-rays and drawing on x-ray paper. Small
has remarked that it was his exposure to x-rays, at the hands of his father,
that developed his talent for depicting the human figure but also gave him
cancer at age 14. In a family where silence reigned supreme, David Small awoke from supposedly minor surgery to find that one of his vocal cords had been severed. STITCHES chronicles his physical trauma as well as his miraculous escape from home at age 16."
The 7-Imp interview is here. Happy reading.

When basketball is more than just a game

It's the championship game of the Rucker Park basketball tournament. Mackey and J.R. have dreamed of winning it since they were kids. But now Mackey is the only one with a shot at winning the legendary event, because a few weeks ago, J.R. was stabbed and killed on the Rucker Park basketball court. The very court the championship game is being played on.

The entire story of Rucker Park Setup is told during the championship game, with action scenes of the game alternating with flashbacks and recollections of earlier events. And with every flashback, we're left wondering. Does the game have anything to do with J.R.’s death? Will Mackey's team win the tournament? Why does Mackey feel guilty? And what is he hiding about the murder of his best friend?

Rucker Park Setup by Paul Volponi is short and fast-paced, yet still satisfying, with enough twists to keep you guessing and turning the pages. As soon as I finished the book, I immediately wanted to reread it, looking for clues I had overlooked or mistakenly fallen for the first time around. The basketball scenes are authentic enough to satisfy even the most demanding fans and exciting even if you're not much of a basketball fan.

Take me, for example. I like to watch sports, but I can't honestly claim to be a basketball fan. So I have to admit that I picked up Rucker Park Setup largely because I had enjoyed Volponi's first novel for teens, Black and White. As for why I picked up Black and White when it's also about two basketball players, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe it's the fact that it's about race and crime. Or perhaps because it's about two guys who are so close to achieving their dream, but who screw up. Really badly.

It's about Marcus Brown and Eddie Russo.

Everyone in Long Island City knew them as Black and White because of their skin color, but they got over the race thing a long time ago. Stars on their high school basketball team, they had college recruiters coming to their games to check them out.

But senior year wasn’t turning out the way they had hoped. $150 for dues for senior class activities? $150 their families couldn’t afford. They started saving their money, but then these new shoes came out, Nikes that all the other guys on the team were getting, and so the two best players on the team had to get them, too, right?

Now they have their shoes, but nothing for their class trip to amusements parks, and how can they miss out on that? That’s when Eddie remembers his grandfather’s gun. The plan is to hold people up, wave the gun around, and they’ll have their money. They don’t plan on shooting anyone, and it works the first couple of times, but one day Eddie accidentally shoots a man. Just a flesh wound, nothing fatal, but still. What are they going to do? Turn themselves in and they lose their chance at a college scholarship. Their last victim can’t remember what his shooter looked like, but he got a good look at Marcus, and now Marcus is arrested. The police know he had an accomplice, are pretty sure it was Eddie, but they have no evidence and can’t arrest Eddie unless Marcus gives him up, because there’s no way Eddie will turn himself in.

Two people committed the crime, but how many will pay?

Whether you're looking for a book about basketball or friendship, or a suspenseful story about the aftershocks of crime, look no further than these two novels by Paul Volponi.

Rucker Park Setup
by Paul Volponi
149 pages
published by Penguin (ISBN 9780670061303)

Black and White
by Paul Volponi
199 pages
published by Penguin (ISBN 9780142406922)

Brief Round-Up

A couple of links for your weekend reading:

Jen Robinson has an excellent list of Speculative, Science Fiction and Dystopian Fiction for teens. Some of these books were actually published for adults but as Jen notes have definite teen appeal. Do give it a look.

Also, Carlie has an engaging list of "Guy-centric YA Romance" at the Libraries Unlimited quarterly newsletter. I'm never sure if this is a genre that works with guys as much as it does with girls - or even works for guys at all. To some degree I wonder if guy-centric YA is really a slight variation of the genre that is still going to be predominantly read by female readers, just written from a different perspective.

Any thoughts on guys reading romance, I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Airman Takes Off

Reviewed by Steven Wolk

So, imagine that you are 14 years old and have been unjustly imprisoned. It is the 1890’s and you live on the Saltee Islands off the coast of Ireland. You are in a hellhole of a prison, and the guards are under orders to break you, to make you obedient; so they hire a human grizzly bear by the name of Otto Malarkey. Each day he comes to beat you. Your cellmate gives you one bit of advice: You must kill him. And this cannot wait. Tomorrow, when Otto pays his visit, it must be his last. So, what do you do?

This dreadful quandary befalls Conor Broekhart in Eoin Colfer’s magnificent Airman. Fourteen years old, his heart beating wildly for his lifelong best friend, Princess Isabella, Conor falls victim to the leader of the Saltee military, Marshall Bonvilain, who has been plotting for years to take over the islands. I give Colfer tremendous credit because of all the challenges Conor confronts, including his impending date with Otto, this boy uses his head more than he uses his fists. Don’t get me wrong; Broekhart does not shy away from a fight. But he’s also got a heart and he’s got a brain, and he uses them both.

Conor was born to fly. In fact, he was born in a hot air balloon. As the story begins his scientific brilliance saves the princess and he is rewarded by King Nicholas – a kind and cool king if there ever was one – to have the same private tutor as the princess. After years of education from tai chi to fencing to physics, he is set-up by Bonvilian as a traitor and tossed into the dark and dank diamond mine prison on the Little Saltee Island to slave his life away. Well, needless to say, this boy does not accept his fate. Secretly, he spends his time in prison designing a flying machine – an aeroplane. Can stonewalls imprison a boy who is meant to fly?

I’m a sucker for history, and while Colfer creates an entirely fictional history of a fictional country (the Saltees actually exist, but they’re uninhabited), he peppers it with real history, like the Civil War and real people, like Leonardo da Vinci and Queen Victoria and Darwin, and he makes that place come alive. This book is in the rare genre of historical science fiction. While most of the book reads like adventurous historical fiction, many (but not all) of the flying machines are imaginary. This all makes for a fabulous ride. It is a book that good social studies and science teachers should get excited about and have in their hands on the first day of school. It takes fighting, flying, fencing, and a love for science and wraps it in a story that makes the reader appreciate history. This book – a work of adventure fiction – puts social studies textbooks to shame, because Colfer knows that history really is adventures into the unknown. Just maybe, if I had read this book as a kid I would have had my eyes opened to the thrill of the past and the joy of science and the delight of thinking. And I would have seen that a book could be both exciting and intelligent.

While many books that pass their 400th page could have used an editing trim (The True Meaning of Smekday, hysterical but too long, comes to mind), Airman does not waste a word, and what wonderful words they are. Walk into a bookstore and peruse the kids’ and young adult shelves and you will be practically assaulted by the number of adventure books. And while some of them certainly have plots full of gusto, not many have the words. So I’ll be blunt: Airman is chock-full of gorgeous writing. It flows, man, like a kid with wings, sailing above the clouds. Read it. Devour it. Fly with it. Airman soars.

Nicholas Christopher's Bestiary

Following up on Justin's post yesterday, Nicholas Christopher wrote an amazing novel about one man's search for an ancient bestiary. Here's a bit from my review last year of The Bestiary:

There is a lot more in store for Lena and Xeno as they travel in and out of each other’s lives, but before that relationship can unfold Xeno has to discover the Caravan Bestiary and begin his long personal journey to recovering it. He is introduced to the book while at school, at the age of 15. His history teacher tells him about it after Xeno professes an interest in imaginary animals (this follows the interest generated by stories he was told by his grandmother). He learns that bestiaries are a category of books devoted to imaginary animals. In printed form, the subject dates back to the Middle Ages, and Christopher draws strongly from the known facts about such books, including real titles and histories, when detailing Xeno’s growing interest in the subject. The Caravan Bestiary is fiction, however. As his teacher explains it was, “an incendiary work, at one time known only to the powerful -- princes and churchmen -- who believed in its latent power, and to scholars who secretly passed it among themselves.” Its contents were, “the animals lost in the Great Flood.”

In other words, as Xeno exclaims, “The ones that didn’t make it onto Noah’s ark.”

According to an interview on his site, Christopher based the Caravan on existing bestiaries such as the one found at the Abbey of Revesby in Lincolnshire, which was compiled by 13th century monks. He also used the lives of true researchers over the centuries who have hunted bestiaries to imbue Xeno’s own hunt with an air of authenticity. This attention to detail, and the namedropping of recognizable historic figures like Lord Byron, add another layer to Xeno’s story, and make it far more believable than other literary mysteries.

Nicholas Christopher is one of my favorite writers; if you have an interest in bestiaries, then you should certainly check out Xeno's adventures.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Make your own monster manual...

Seeing Monday’s interview with Rob Heinsoo, the architect of the new Fourth Edition of D&D, I got an old thrill. I never played 3rd edition—I moved around too much for the last ten years to find a group to play with. But Dungeons and Dragons is embedded into my brain, my way of thinking—for instance, I’ve just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s forthcoming The Graveyard Book, and immediately I saw the possibilities of playing whole campaigns in that world. It’s a way of absorbing and making your own some of the awesome things we read, especially the creations of incredible world-building authors.

And from the interview, it looks like it will be easier than ever to adapt the ideas of folk tales, myth, and fiction to this new edition. I thought I’d write a little about two books on my shelves, two amazing bestiaries, and then toss it out to everybody out there.

First, the classic Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges is an amazing find. I love it just for the depth of Borges’ research (I mean, he includes the Simourgh, a mythical bird from the classic 12th century Persian mystical poem The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar) and for the sense of whimsy he has about these creatures, what they are, and their ultimate significance. In other words, the books gets you thinking about the monsters and beasts in ways that stretch and tantalize your imagination.

The other bestiary I love is the recently published Beasts! edited by Jacob Covey and published by Fantagraphics. Each entry has a small paragraph of mythology or folklore followed by a full page painting or illustration by some of today’s most exciting cartoonists, illustrators, and graphic artists. We’re talking Art Chantry, Brian Ralph, Tim Biskup, Colleen Coover, Mat Brinkman—artists who’ve done some of the coolest comics, rock posters, grafitti, and graphics around today. The first edition sold out, but the paperback will be available in October, about the same time as the second volume comes out.

So, what’s your favorite catalog of strange creatures and mythical things?

How to Rule the World

Evil: When I have the map, I will be free, and the world will be different, because I have understanding.

Robert: Uh, understanding of what, Master?

Evil: Digital watches. And soon I shall have understanding of video cassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have understanding of them, I shall have understanding of computers. And when I have understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being!
-Time Bandits

So you want to rule the world. Is that it?

The old way of getting started would have been to read Sun Tzo’s “Art of War,” but really you’re not going to get anywhere with spears and not even with guns or F-15s. Look at Google, do they have guns? No, but they’re pretty close to ruling the world, so you better step on in it.

The first book you need to read is...

“Macromedia Flash MX Game Design Demystified” by Jobe Makar.

It is true that people are doing some cool stuff with digital watches, but really I think it's safe for you to skip to computers.

So, you’re going to need to program, right? Personally I like Flash. Everybody’s got a Flash plug-in installed on their browser these days. You don't have to worry about jamming your message down the world's throat only to find that the world got an error message instead.

And just look at what a Flashmaster can do.

Programming in Flash can drive you nuts sometimes, but it handles all sorts of the really annoying stuff for you. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage from “Macromedia Flash MX Game Design Demystified” by Jobe Makar. (This is actually a newer version than I used.) The book came with a trial version of Flash MX. When you’re ready to really rule the world, you may have to cough up some dough for the official version.

Starting with a book like this is the way to go. The CD has many of the sample programs on it, so you can rip out code and use it to jumpstart your own programs. If you run into something that's not in the book, you can probably find help online to get you over the hump.

Makar takes you through the geometry behind the games. The Pythagorean Theory is at the heart of a video game and he shows you exactly how and why to use it. It's mind-expanding stuff.

The work in here on tile-based worlds is incredible. I used it to create this faux 3-D train simulator (at my wife's Website). And remember, I'm just a rank amateur. Or I was until I read this book.

In addition to making games, banner ads, web apps, etc..., writing programs is going to make you smarter. You'll become a problem solver. A thinker-arounder. A Gordian Knot cutter.

And you're going to need to be all that when you do rule the world and mortals come to you with their petty problems.

Next time on How to Rule the World: Attracting Minions.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Claws That Catch

Leave it to artist Christopher Myers to remind us that not all children’s books are merely the “products of wild imaginations and unfettered flights of fancy,” as they are often made out to be. “{M}y books are, more often than not, products of painstaking research,” he writes in the closing author’s note of Jabberwocky, Myers’ re-imagining of the classic nonsense verse by Lewis Carroll, published last year by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion.

And leave it to Myers to present us with another example of a picture book that appeals to teens. Myers takes this legendary poem---written over one hundred and thirty years ago and published in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There by Carroll, the pen name for the Reverend Charles Dodgson---and sets it on the basketball court in a contemporary, inner-city setting: “The slithy toves” who “did gyre and gimble in the wabe” are jump-ropers, looking over their shoulder to see the Jabberwock’s entrance onto the basketball court. He’s a basketball behemoth, a cyclopean man with seven fingers, looming on the court, ready for a face-off. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

In Myers’ world of monsters on the court, “the claws that catch” take on an entirely---and most ominous---new meaning, at least for the young boy who has decided to take on the Jabberwock. His “vorpal sword in hand”? His tennis shoes. The “tumtum tree” he rested by, standing a while in thought? The metal fence surrounding the court. “The vorpal blade” going “snicker-snack”? The slam-dunk that defeats the towering Jabberwock. And the “galumphing” of the victor, as he heads back with the Jabberwock’s head? The thumping of the basketball as the young boy dribbles away from the game, triumphant.

Myers’ vibrant, shimmering art work is stunning. It is a bold palette he uses (dark blacks, deep reds, bright yellows), an electric heat emanating off these players, dripping off the Jabberwock in the dramatic “jaws that bite” image. Even the large, stocky, multi-colored text yells with its own magnetic energy. Myers’ many instances of toying with perspective in the book, as evidenced on the book’s very cover, manage to be both playful and terrifying at the same time, what with the seven-fingered basketball monster with “eyes of flame,” burbling and whiffling through “the tulgey wood.”

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “{t}he choice of setting is brilliant, allowing the reader to join the artist in seeing the heroic possibilities in play.” And for those curious as to why exactly Myers did choose this setting, there is a “short note on the origins of this book” closing the tale. Evidently, Charles Dodgson had an interest in “sport as a moral battleground,” Myers writes. Myers also describes stumbling upon the word “ollamalitzli” in the margin of one of Dodgson’s many diaries at the British Library:

“It refers to an ancient Mesoamerican game of religious and ritual significance played by several cultures, including the Olmecs and Aztecs. The object of the game was to manipulate a rubber ball though a stone hoop affixed high on a wall. Dodgson surely had read about the game, much the same way that James Naismith, ‘inventor’ of basketball, had read about it, in one of the many missionary journals that were popular in that day, especially among doctors of divinity (which both men were). Clearly, a basic familiarity with this nascent form of basketball is central to understanding the work.”

This title, published last Fall, is hardly brand-new, but if you haven't seen it yet, it’s more than worth a look, especially for those interested in the work of contemporary artists, as well as those interested in classic poetry revisited in striking ways. Publishers Weekly wrote, “{w}hile the merit of imposing a narrative logic on a work celebrated for its nonsense remains debatable,” this is still a one-on-one game on the basketball court to be celebrated. O frabjous day!

{Quoted excerpts from JABBERWOCKY: THE CLASSIC POEM FROM LEWIS CARROLL'S THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, AND WHAT ALICE FOUND THERE, reimagined and illustrated by Christopher Myers © 2007, published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion. All rights reserved.}

ADDENDUM: Here's a quick addendum, since---as Monica pointed out in the comments section---URLs cannot be posted in comments.

I want to briefly link to the New York Times letter-to-the-editor and response from Myers of which Monica spoke. It is here. Registration should be required to read, but it is free.

Back to your regularly scheduled reading . . .

Tracking trash in the Pribiloff Islands

I was very impressed with Tracking Trash by Loree Griffin Burns, an in depth look at just what we dump in the ocean every year and how it affects marine wildlife (and the water itself.) Here's a bit from an interview I had with her for the Winter Blog Blast Tour last November:

To be honest, the environmental part of this story snuck up on me. I was still very focused on the science of ocean currents the first time I interviewed Curt. At some point during that interview I asked him how many containers fall off of cargo ships each year, and his answer shocked me: between one thousand and ten thousand. Ten thousand! That was the moment I began to wonder how much trash was actually in the ocean, and the direction of my research changed dramatically.

The very real impact of trash in the oceans (including literally tons of abandoned or lost fishing nets and gear, is felt every year on St Paul Island where the fur seals congregate between tens of thousands of pounds of debris. The pup population is on a steady decline in the Pribiloff Islands and all this trash is considered one of the problems. The Anchorage Daily News reports:

Meanwhile, concerns about fur seals becoming entangled in debris and dying are increasing. From 1998 to 2005, there were 795 sightings on St. Paul Island of fur seals that appeared to be entangled in debris. Of those, 337 capture attempts were made and 282 fur seals were disentangled, according to the island conservation office.

"There is a culture that has abused the oceans for decades and decades and that has got to stop," said Bob King, debris coordinator of the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation.

Cleanup efforts are one way to attack the problem. Last year, 20,000 pounds of debris were removed from 2½ miles of St. Paul Island beaches -- enough to fill two 20-foot truck trailers. Cleanup organizers expect even more this year.

If you want to have your mind blown, go read Loree Griffin Burns' book and then see what you can do to clean up the area in your hometown.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Interview: Rob Heinsoo, lead designer of D&D Fourth Edition

Rob Heinsoo has been lucky enough to take his passion growing up and turn it into his career. This demigod of gaming has worked on everything from trading-card games to board games to miniatures games, as a freelance designer and now working for Wizards of the Coast. Most recently, he led the team behind Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition--a new installment of the game with a faster, more fun play-style that's likely to pull in new players. Rob talked to us at Guys Lit Wire about the new D&D, how he got involved in gaming, and what books got him inspired as a teen.

What was your first experience with role-playing games?

In 1974 I was 10 years old, living in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I’d just read the Lord of the Rings. I was already interested in wargames, and I read in a military miniatures magazine that there was a game that was about elves and orcs and dwarves. I ordered D&D from a wargames catalog and received the original three booklets in the brown box.

The system went way over my head, but I loved everything about D&D’s feel. I couldn’t understand most of the rules and didn’t realize that polyhedral dice existed, so I put together my own system adapting the melee rules from a Napoleonic miniatures wargame book my father had bought for me earlier, basically rolling six-sided dice and adding bonuses for things like magic weapons.

I drew three levels of a dungeon and ran games for my friends. I know I ticked everyone off pulling a cheap stunt with a werewolf that changed shape and ambushed the characters. And I killed a few other characters in a room that was based on the Lord of the Rings scene outside the gates of Moria, with a tentacled Watcher in the Water. My friends hadn’t read the Lord of the Rings and the monster in the water came as a surprise.

Those first games in Kansas ended when my friends found the most interesting part of the dungeon, something I’d labeled as a School for Dragons. I loved the idea, probably because I was reading Anne McAffrey’s Pern books by then, with humans and dragons cooperating to preserve their planet’s ecology. But my imagination wasn’t up to actually envisioning what would be going on in a school for dragons, much less what would happen when my friends’ characters went there. About the same time, I realized that we weren’t actually playing by anything like the real rules. So we went back to playing the Napoleonic wargame and took turns telling each other fantastic adventure stories that were similar to what we thought we might be able to play using D&D if we could actually understand the rules.

So did you keep on trying to play D&D and eventually get it right?

Yeah, by 1977 in Oregon, when I was 13, I’d figured the rules out, and put a sign up in an actual game store saying that I had a dungeon ready and would be happy to run a game for players. I had two grown-ups answer the ad, graduate students at the University of Oregon. When the gargoyles in my dungeon attacked and I started drawing slips of paper out of a blue plastic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cup, these guys said, “Wait, what are you doing? Let’s just use dice,” and brought out twenty-siders, which I’d mentally filed as mythological objects.

What else were you into at that age? Were you a big reader in your teens?

I got into soccer because we had been in Germany during the 1974 World Cup, so when we moved back to the States I started to play organized soccer and loved it. My brother and I played a lot of other sports just for fun, and a couple of neighborhood ball-combat games that I’d invented the rules for and managed to get everyone else to play. I had a good voice and sang in choirs and musicals. The other 60% of the time I was into reading and gaming.

Who were your favorite authors?

If we’re still talking 1974 through 1975, I was into Edgar Rice Burroughs, all the Tarzan books and all the John Carter of Mars books. I even made a board for the Martian chess game that was in one of the books, it was called Jetan, on an orange and black board, and it wasn’t terrible. I read a lot of Andre Norton then too, my favorite of hers was called Star Guard. But my favorite book at that time, along with the Lord of the Rings, was Watership Down.

I transitioned steadily toward authors I’m still fond of today. Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories were huge for me, I read them a long time before I read Moorcock’s Elric. My favorite author was Roger Zelazny (Nine Princes in Amber, Lord of Light, Jack of Shadows).

And it’s no accident that a lot of these books had some echo or wandering splinters in gaming. I’d read Watership Down before I started playing the game it inspired, Bunnies and Burrows. But Monsters! Monsters!, an RPG in which the monsters attacked human villages and cities, was the first place I’d seen Roger Zelazny’s name, since they’d borrowed his "shadow jack" concept for a monster, so I started reading Zelazny because of the monster-RPG based on Tunnels & Trolls, one of the early D&D alternatives.

The list goes on. Andre Norton’s Star Guard led me to a science fiction miniatures game of the same name by McEwan Miniatures. The game had no relation to Norton’s book, instead it owed a debt to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which turned out to be a much better book, and got me reading Heinlein.

The other strand in my reading was military history. My dad had a huge military library and I read shelves of it before I was in junior high.

So gaming had a big influence on you growing up? Even in just shaping how you thought about things?

Yeah, a huge influence. Especially when I discovered Greg Stafford’s brilliant Glorantha, the world for the game Runequest. Glorantha simultaneously led me away from D&D and more or less away from my family’s religion, because it got me reading anthropology and comparative religion and starting to question reality, which I hadn’t managed on my own before then. I ended up majoring in social anthropology in college as a direct consequence of attitudes shaped by reacting to Glorantha and the strands of the real world woven into it.

Working on Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, has that fulfilled any dreams you had about what a game should be—especially a role-playing game?

I’m really happy with Fourth Edition because it ends up being a lot closer to those crazy stories my friends and I were telling each other as kids, back before we understood how the rules were actually supposed to work! I think there have been a LOT of people over the years who wanted to like D&D, and tried to play it once or twice, but bounced off it because the rules were too picky and esoteric or the groups they tried to play with had been taught to value simulation of a potentially slightly tedious fantasy reality over having fun.

One mission of Fourth Edition is to make it easier for players to find out what’s fun about role-playing immediately without taking away the Dungeon Master’s ability to invent new worlds and adventures with their own creative vision. For experienced players, Fourth Edition is designed to stay fun over all its levels, so characters you love and enjoy playing won’t have to drop out of your gaming life when because they’ve risen to levels where the system breaks down. This is the D&D I’ve dreamt of playing.

How does the new D&D stack up as an experience against other games—whether a trading card game, World of Warcraft, or a multiplayer console game?

Playing any tabletop role-playing game is a lot more like doing a blend of cops ’n’ robbers and improvisational theater than the other gaming styles you mentioned. You get to make your D&D character, then you role-play to try and see the world through their eyes, speak their words, and choose actions that make sense for what they’re experiencing.

The pacing of the tabletop game gives you time to let the scene unfold in your imagination and to react to the interesting elements that the other players and the DM are adding to the mix. The interaction between multiple imaginative people is why I say it’s a bit like improv theater, not that most other people involved in gaming think of it that way.

Compared to earlier editions, Fourth Edition will seem a bit more familiar to people who know trading card games. In a sense, Fourth Edition is an exceptions-based game like most TCGs. The actual key rules required to play Fourth Edition occupy around 20 pages in Chapter 9 of the Player’s Handbook. The rest of the stuff in that book are all the cool exceptions that you get to choose from as a player to build your character, the powers that make your character different from other characters, that control what you can do in the world against enemies who are trying to put the hurt on you. TCG players are used to sorting through cards to see what they want to use, Fourth Edition players sort through powers and feats. And in Fourth Edition, Dungeon Masters can also choose to sort through monsters and encounter ideas, so DMing may have a bit more in common with skills you can learn in TCGs than it did in the past.

World of Warcraft doesn’t let you change the world you’re interacting with, nor does it let your DM craft their own game world and set stories in motion. D&D characters always seem much more like real people than WoW characters, and you’re likely to remember them as such. WoW players coming to Fourth Edition will probably be comfortable with the idea that Fourth Edition player characters get to make an interesting choice of a new power or ability every time they go up a level. That was missing from earlier editions of D&D.

Any words of advice for someone growing up, hoping to become a game designer?

The culture is changing, gaming is changing. So I won’t try to address future social trends I don’t have a handle on, nor can I fully account for the intersection of game design and computer gaming. Instead, I’ll paraphrase the best writing advice I ever read, from Stephen King. He said something like, “Anyone who spends three hours a day writing for ten years will be a good writer when the ten years are up.”

Game design compares well with writing. Anyone can be some sort of writer by writing. If you want to be a game designer, you need to design games.

Your best bet is to design the games you want to play but can’t, because no one else has designed the game yet. Think about the type of experience you want players to have. Think about which players you want for the game. Then aim at ways to give those players that experience. Check your work by playing to find out if the game is fun. If it isn’t fun, few people will play it, no matter how elegant or clever it is, so you shouldn’t hesitate to muck up an elegant design that’s no fun.

Don’t get stuck on your first good idea. Writers who get stuck on a good idea can end up with dead end stories, dead manuscripts, because they can’t scrap a good idea and look for something better that would enable the entire piece to work out. Game designers who don’t scrap an ultimately fruitless good idea may be in worse shape than writers in the same position, because one fruitless game mechanic can screw up everything about a game. The good news is that changing one fruitless idea might be enough to turn such a design around. In this sense, game designs are more like mathematical proofs than short stories.

Which brings up math. You don’t need to be a math wizard to design games, but you (or a friend or three) should have some grasp of probability, or you may not be able to balance your designs well enough to know whether their problems are due to bad design or terrible balance.

Play games from all sources and all genres. It’s fine to spend most of your time playing good games you really enjoy, but you’ll learn a lot by trying things you wouldn’t experiment with if you weren’t interested in improving your art. If you have wider experiences than other game designers, you’ll find that ideas you take for granted may not be understood by everyone else, allowing you to come up with surprising systems or insights.

And finally, use your opportunities to learn and practice other creative skills. Game design is a bit of a chimera and talented designers come from all over. If you love drawing, writing, painting, mapping, sculpting miniatures, DMing, designing levels, designing web sites, or doing graphic design, don’t hold back. Confidence gained from any creative work you love and do well can serve you well when you’re wrestling with other creative work.

The Fourth Edition Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual were released earlier this month.

Rudyard Kipling and The Cub Scouts

Via an email from the fabulous Midori Snyder, I found this fascinating article in the WSJ on Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book and - bizarrely - the creation of the Cub Scouts:

Another fundamental reason "The Jungle Book" has maintained unsurpassed prestige in the competitive jungle of children's books is that it was literally institutionalized in 1916, when Robert Baden-Powell created the Cub Scouts based on "Mowgli's Brothers," the first story. The largest captive audience of boys ever created still adopts the names of Kipling's animals in their games, and recites a promise to do their best to do their duty to God and country, to help other people -- and to obey the Law of the Pack.

In tone, Baden-Powell's version of "The Jungle Book" veers closer to Beatrix Potter than to the original; yet the most significant departure of the Cub Scout's Promise from Kipling is its declaration of duty to God. Although Kipling routinely (in every sense) invoked the Christian God in his patriotic verse, he himself was an atheist. This passionate champion of the British Empire was just as hostile to Christian missionaries as he was to Hindu pandits; if there was a religion he admired, it was Islam. In conversation, he habitually referred to the deity as Allah.

God plays no part in Kipling's jungle; more crucially, neither does Empire, the principal theme of Kipling's life and work. Writing about animals, ironically, enabled him to observe humanity (for the animals in the stories are plainly people) without the strictures of nationalism, which eventually strangled and embittered his thinking.

Kipling is an incredibly powerful and significant Western writer whose real life was no less interesting than what he wrote about. For a look at the great tragedy of his life, the loss of his son Jack in WWI, I strongly recommend Geert Spillebeen's novel, Kipling's Choice. Read my review for the many reasons why I love this book.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

If the Pacific Ocean isn't your thing

(Even though Kristopher's post on Kon-Tiki made me want to read the book.)

Ever heard of the book Canoeing with the Cree by Eric Sevareid? I hadn't, until this NPR interview with Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte.

In 1935, a seventeen-year-old Sevareid and his nineteen-year-old friend made the 2,250 mile journey from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay. By canoe. Inspired by Sevareid's memoir, which Sean's father gave to him when Sean was in seventh grade, Colton and Sean "just decided that we're just going to do it." So, after graduating from high school early, they set off this past spring on their own journey by canoe.

As for their inspiration, you can read parts of Canoeing with the Cree at Google Books.
How much easier it is to sit in a chair at home and read about "the things to do when camping." Things look so easy in print, but when the tent won't go up, when the beans tip in the fire, when the water won't boil and when it suddenly begins to rain in the midst of supper, then all the directions in the world won't help and it's every man to his own method. (12)

Friday, June 20, 2008

More on boys, girls and literary heroes

A follow-up on my initial post about the Glenn Beck/Ted Bell interview and heroic literature is at my site, Chasing Ray.

Some folks are not so happy with me. Imagine that?

Keeper: Serious Soccer Magic

Last summer, after I read Mal Peet's tremendous WWII novel, Tamar, I promised myself I would read everything he's written. This was before I knew he'd done a book about soccer. It's not soccer that's the problem, exactly. There have been moments when I've enjoyed watching soccer. Honest. By the end of the last World Cup, I had just about figured out the whole offside thing. I just don't do sports books. So when Keeper showed up at my library with bare-chested soccer boy on the cover, I wondered if there was any way this book could actually be about art or wizards or a mystery or something. Nope. It's a soccer book. A promise is a promise, though, so I started reading. As it turns out, Keeper is a story for soccer fans and for nerdy, non-sporty types too. I guess that makes it a book for the whole world.

Keeper tells the story of El Gato, one of the most gifted soccer players in history, tracing his humble beginnings in a small logging community in South America all the way to the World Cup. Peet frames his novel as an exclusive interview of El Gato by sports reporter Paul Faustino. As a kid, El Gato wasn't exactly the one getting picked first for soccer games in the town plaza. He was completely hopeless, nicknamed "The Stork" for his long skinny limbs and clumsy movements. By thirteen, he'd given up on the game, taking to wandering off on his own into the fringes of the jungle surrounding his town, in spite of the dangers and wildness within. One day, he breaks his own rule, stepping off the forest track for the first time, towards sunlight deep in the trees. What he finds that day is remarkable - magical - and it changes his life.

What does he find, you ask? If I tell you, you'd better not think this book is just plain weird. You'd better still read it because in this case, it's the strangeness that makes Keeper really get inside your head. That day in the jungle, El Gato finds a clearing, covered in turf, with a goal set against the trees. He also finds his mentor, a ghostly soccer player he comes to call: the Keeper. The Keeper trains El Gato, and like the best teachers out there, helps him to find his talent and let it grow. In this way, El Gato heads towards his destiny.

One of the best parts of Keeper is its strangeness. I spent a lot of time wondering what I was supposed to make of the magical element of the story. Just who is this Keeper character supposed to be? Is he symbolic? Does he exist only in El Gato's mind? Is El Gato crazy? What gives? This questioning really keeps you engaged in the story and builds tension. Not that the story isn't already packed with action and compelling circumstances. There are some fantastic recaps of El Gato's most dramatic games, sure to please any soccer fan. You'll also learn a great deal about goalkeeping strategy. Don't start snoring nerdy-types! You'll be loving those soccer sequences too. That's because Mal Peet can't put a word wrong. This guy is to writing what his character is to goalkeeping. I'm convinced that you could open to any page in this book at random and find at least one beautiful sentence. As a side note, I like the fact that Keeper gives readers something to think about beyond soccer too. The background against which much of the story unfolds is the logging camp where El Gato's father makes his living. You can't read this and not consider the complex connections between deforestation, poverty and life in small communities in South America. It's not a banging-you-over-the-head issue book, but these stronger themes are certainly important to the book's power.

So as it turns out, Keeper has its share of magic and mystery and it certainly convinced me that world-class goalkeeping is a true art form. A sports book convert? Stay tuned. I'll let you know after I've read Penalty, the companion novel to Keeper.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cool mystery series from dramatic classics

Bloomsday was a few days ago, the day people celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses and Leopold Bloom, the hero of that book. In Dublin, Ireland, they have a huge festival every year, with tourist events, pub crawls and theatrical re-enactments of whole chapters of the book. The book is about a single day in the life of Bloom, and the book is titled Ulysses because the events of the day match up against the decades long travails of Odysseus (or Ulysses in Latin), the hero of the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey.

I’ve never read it, but I have multiple friends who have—they love the book, call it a modern masterpiece and try to get me to join them on Bloomsday for a 36-hour nonstop joint reading of the thousand-plus page tome.

Lots of contemporary writers have taken to revisiting classic tales. One current popular theme is myths, Greek (the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan is incredibly popular) and Norse (both Joanne Harris’s Runemarks and Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls come to mind) being probably the most common. Novels or even series that retell fairy tales are also big. So it should come as no surprise that somebody would take on Shakespeare.

Beginning with Something Rotten, and continuing in the soon to be released Something Wicked, Alan Gratz turns classic Shakespearean tragedies into hardboiled detective novels.

The Hollywood movie pitch meeting would sum Something Rotten up like this: “This is Hamlet as written by Raymond Chandler starring hot young actors like a teen Ryan Phillippe or Shia LaBeuf.”

And, crass and cynical as that sentence reads, there’s some truth to it. Hell, I’ve handed the book to lots of folks telling them something similar (minus the “hot young actors” part). It works—people’s eyes light up. They get the idea, and the idea of it excites them enough to read it. But something about that summary bugs me, and it’s because it does feel like a pitch. Like it sums up the book, or worse.

You know when people try to remake a classic in the hopes of tricking teens into liking it? They try to make it hip and the whole thing comes out stupid? Which happens because they don’t have enough faith in the classic or in their audience, and it falls flat because it’s cynical and tiresome and insulting. And that’s why I don’t like talking about Something Rotten in terms of a simple equation or formula, because it’s not formulaic.

Yes, Something Rotten has the plot and characters of Hamlet as its skeleton. Horatio Wilkes is best friends with Hamilton Prince, of Denmark, Tennessee, a rich kid whose uncle Claude possibly killed Hamilton’s paper magnate father and married his potentially complicit mother. And was Hamilton’s ex-girlfriend Olivia involved? And is Hamilton going off the deep end or is he faking the whole thing in hopes of tricking people into revealing more than they know?

The book is narrated by Horatio, in a voice both hardened and hopeful, punchy and philosophical, matching the hard-boiled lyricism of Raymond Chandler’s most enduring creation, the private detective Phillip Marlowe. So now you hold pieces of this puzzle, elements that make up the novel, and you think you’ve got a handle on it. But it’s more than all this.

These characters live on their own, they lift out of the references and knowing nods to history and literature and become their own creatures—which is where Something Rotten gets exciting. Because then the play Hamlet recedes but never quite falls away, becoming instead a looming fate with which the novel shadow boxes to a standstill, with which the characters dance and weave in and out of until you aren’t sure if they’ll be able to escape the bloody, bloody ending of the play. And you hope they will because they’ve earned it, they live and breathe on their own.

And isn’t that part of what makes James Joyce’s Ulysses great? Leopold Bloom’s small triumphs of daily life become epic triumphs as they echo the travails of Odysseus’s journey home. So too does the mystery of who killed Rex Prince take on more meaning and urgency, because Horatio is trying to beat two clocks: both the burning deadline of his present moment—can he solve this murder before his best friend, or the ex-girlfriend, or even he himself ends up dead?—and the ticking time-bomb that lies in the deep structure of the novel, that history of which Horatio isn’t even aware, but which we, as readers, are.

With Something Rotten, Alan Gratz has stretched the novel beyond the snappy idea of “What if Raymond Chandler wrote a YA novel based on Hamlet?” His writing has a life of its own, not merely a mirror of hardboiled phrases and patterns, but full of energy, describing a world, and, in hero Horatio Wilkes, a character with enough verve and life you are excited to follow him into as many novels as Gratz wants to write in this series.

As a bonus, check out this interview with the author at

Something Rotten
by Alan Gratz
Published by Dial Books

Thoughts from prison on Cry the Beloved Country

From The Nation, Joseph Cooper on teaching Alan Paton's classic to prisoners:

After reading Cry, the Beloved Country, a particularly thoughtful and articulate 41-year-old inmate wrote, "I can't begin to express the quiet storm that stirs inside me every time I find myself comparing a father-son story with my own."

This inmate went on to write:

"It's an almost indescribable emptiness of being disconnected. More often than not, the father-son relationship is one I can't relate to, for the father-son relationships in so many books and movies somehow resolve themselves favorably. And that resolution is something I can't relate to--it's the opposite of what continues for me, it's the opposite of my contact, my lack of contact.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, we read of Absalom's plea, his consistent plea, that though he did commit the terrible crime, he did not intend to commit the crime. Those words echoed my plea eighteen years ago.

But that is where the comparison stops: Thankfully, I did not receive Absalom's sentence. Sadly, I did not receive the compassion he did from his father.

Though brief, the interaction between Absalom and his father is actually fascinating despite the prison setting, despite the dire circumstances--maybe all the more fascinating because of the setting and the circumstances. Their reunion stirred feelings and thoughts--sadness and regret. I didn't really want to be reminded of my particular snapshot of a father-son encounter. But at the same time there was something between Absalom and his father that I've longed for just an ounce of. It was the love and the concern Stephen Kumalo still had and showed for his son, Absalom, even though the father had been so disappointed and hurt by Absalom's conduct in Johannesburg. For me, those scenes are as profound as the Pacific Ocean. Stephen Kumalo was there for his son, and that is what matters most, despite--especially since--Absalom had fallen so far from living the life his father had hoped, expected."

Christopher Golden on summer

Little Willow has been running a series of interviews with Christopher Golden, this bit of a recent one has really stayed with me:

When you think of the summers you spent as a kid, what comes to mind?

Freedom, of course. We spent a ton of time at friends' houses, or walking in the woods, building tree forts. It was the late 1970s, and though horrible things happened to children then, people didn't know about it the way we do now, and didn't talk about it when they did. Child abduction and that sort of thing seems far more common now, but maybe that's an illusion, I don't know. All I do know is that we were NEVER home. We rode our bikes, had adventures in the woods, found gullies that seemed otherworldly to us, stole bags full of corn from a local cornfield and cooked it up at home. And we walked. Boy, did we walk. The movie theatre was six miles away, and by 7th or 8th grade, we would walk there and back if we couldn't get a ride. We walked to McDonald's, or to get pizza, or wherever we felt like going. We roamed. Honestly, it was glorious.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kon-Tiki and the heroic nerd

"Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.

If, for example, you put to sea on a wooden raft with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning out at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinary, and begin to think about it."

Years ago, I found a yellowed copy of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft among the crammed, cramped shelves of a strip-mall used bookstore. Giving it a second glance--mostly just wondering who would name their kid Thor--I read those first lines and found myself drawn into a very odd situation.

Kon-Tiki tells a true story. In 1947, Heyerdahl, a Norwegian ethnographer, was studying Polynesian culture. Noticing similarities between the crops, sculpture techniques, and myths of Polynesia and South America, he got the idea that, around 500 A.D., refugees fleeing a war in Peru populated Polynesia.

But no matter how much evidence Heyerdahl gathered to build up his theory, his colleagues insisted it would have been impossible. 4,300 miles of rough ocean separate Peru from Polynesia, and at the time, the sailors wouldn’t have had ships, just balsa wood rafts held together by hemp rope.

Finally, Heyerdahl was left with two choices: either give up on his theory or build a stone-age raft himself and prove it could be done.

The Kon-Tiki expedition was a balls-out adventure, no question, but it's the men who took it on that really fascinated me. None of Heyerdahl’s crew had experience sailing or ship-building. They were scientists and wanderers, linguists and radio operators, all risking their lives for a theory. Specifically, a theory based on the global distribution of yams.

They were a type of character I’d never encountered before: the heroic nerd, men so driven by the urge to know, to see and understand, they make bold, mad leaps into uncharted territory.

The creed of the heroic nerd is, No experiment is so insanely dangerous that it can’t be made slightly more insanely dangerous with a side experiment. Over the course of their 101-day journey, storms howl and the sun beats down, two men are almost lost at sea, and they must fend off a whale shark that nearly capsizes their raft. And when all that gets boring, they decide to try catching sharks with their bare hands.

"When the shark turned quietly to go under again, its tail flickered up above the surface and was easy to grasp. The skin was just like sandpaper, and inside the upper point of the tail there was an indention which might have been made solely to allow a good grip. Then we had to give a jerk and get as much as possible of the tail pulled in over the logs. For a second or two the shark realized nothing, but then began to wiggle and struggle in a spiritless manner with the fore part of its body, for without the help of its tail a shark cannot get up any speed."

This man has doctorates in zoology, ethnography, and total badassery.

For the purposes of this article, I ran the numbers through multiple computer simulations. It turns out that the only thing more macho than catching a shark with your bare hands would be storming a Nazi machine gun nest using you own lit farts as a flamethrower.

Heyerdahl doesn’t waste time bragging, though. He’s a scientist, and through the book, he writes with the steady observational eye of a scientist, a genial, almost disturbing calm better suited for detailing the mating habits of the golden-rumped elephant shrew. Even when describing the lonely beauty of the ocean, Heyerdahl keeps verbiage to a minimum, letting the scene speak for itself.

"The sea curved away under us as blue upon blue as the sky above, and where they met all the blue flowed together and became one. It almost seemed as if we were suspended in space. All our world was empty and blue; there was no fixed point in it but the tropical sun, golden and warm, which burned our necks."

The author’s copy of Kon-Tiki, scrawny chicken leg.

A couple years ago, while re-reading Kon-Tiki, I decided to get a tattoo of the Tiki image painted on the raft’s sail. I wanted to think that I had a bit of heroic nerd inside me, that wild urge to see and know. I’ve never been to Polynesia or caught a shark with my hands, but I’ve made expeditions to the west Texas deserts, the Louvre, and elsewhere. I’ve worked on an ambulance and in a mental hospital, glimpsed sights as awesome as the blue upon blue sea, and once spent a long night in Heathrow Airport with four stitches in the back of my head.

And every time, sooner or later, the words come. Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation...

Working retail can be really really awful

I have a post up at Chasing Ray highlighting some interesting fall books from Counterpoint & Soft Skull Press. One in particular struck me as very appealing The Customer is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles. Here's an excerpt from Colson Whitehead's contribution, "Eat, Memory: I Scream":

Mine is the story of a man who hates ice cream and of the world that made him.

I was once like you, always quick with a “Two scoops, please” and a “Whipped cream, damn it, whipped cream!” I loved a Breyers vanilla-chocolate-strawberry rectangle straight from the freezer. Never mind if it was a bit long in the tooth, nestled in there next to a half-empty bag of carrots-and-peas medley — scrape off the icy fur and it was good to go. Orange sherbet? Cool. In Baskin-Robbins, I used pure will power to persuade the red digital lights of the Now Serving machine to announce my number, which was a sweat-smudged blob on the pink paper strip in my quivering hand. You can keep your Kiwi Mocha Bombasta: the nuclear green sludge of mint chocolate chip was as exotic as it got, and that’s how I liked things.

Then I went to work in an ice cream store.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

readergirlz welcomes GLW

readergirlz diva Justina Chen Headley cordially invites GuysLitWire over to their forum. She says, in part:

We at readergirlz are so thrilled that you’re online, helping guys find great books!

As you know, we girlz are complicated. Okay, make that waaay complicated. On this thread are books that we wish guys would read to understand what's going on with us.

She then asks the readergirlz to list YA novels they wish all guys would read to understand girls. She starts off with Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, and others have added more titles by the likes of Maureen Johnson, Louise Rennison, and Stephenie Meyer.

Please join us and make it a two-way street - Tell us what YA novels you wish girls would read to understand guys, and vice-versa! Also tell us what YA novels "get" BOTH sides of the story.

The coolest man who ever lived

From Vanity Fair: "Actor, juvenile delinquet, Marine, lumberjack, auto racer, producer - all the incarnations of Hollywood's King of Cool are captured in Henri Suzeau's new book Unforgettable Steve McQueen, a collection of quotes, anecdotes and archival images."

The book is silly expensive ($60) but still - you could do a lot worse this summer than watch Bullitt, or The Great Escape, or any single episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive.

Oh - and from Formula 1 champ Kimi Raikkonen: “Steve McQueen gave a new meaning to coolness.”

National Geographic is censored

From the Wall Street Journal:

Readers of the 5,000 copies of the English-language edition distributed in China have reported that pages 44 and 45, which show a map of China, were stuck together. These pages didn’t make the often-censored slip-up of treating Taiwan as a separate country, but the concern might have been labeling several borders disputed with Pakistan and India. Another map, on pages 126 and 127, showing the distribution of China’s ethnic minorities, was also glued, perhaps because of recent sensitivities over the country’s Tibetan population.

Pages 100 and 101, which feature controversial artwork, as well as pages 128 and 129, on dissent, were also censored, presumably for more obvious reasons.

Beth Foster, the magazine’s director of communications, says, “It appears that someone connected with local magazine distribution in Asia glued together a few pages of the May English-language issues of National Geographic magazine that were shipped into China. We have not gotten to the bottom of the specifics of this isolated activity, but we have had no communication from or with the Chinese government about this matter.”

Higher Learning #1

Welcome to our very first Higher Learning interview. In Higher Learning, College Guys talk about what they're reading, what they read in high school, and what books are important to them now. Today I sat down and talked to Matt (aka Tiny) at Saints Rest Coffee in Grinnell, Iowa, about books and reading.

Matt graduated from Grinnell College in May 2007 and is headed off to Law School this fall. He was a Political Science major at Grinnell and plans on studying Intellectual Property or Corporate Law in Law School. Matt played football in high school and in college, and lived in Ohio until seventh grade when he moved to Wyoming. Thanks for talking to Guys Lit Wire, Matt!

Kelly Herold: What are you reading at this very moment, Matt?

Matt: I'm reading 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. It's historical Non Fiction by a former submarine commander in the British Royal Navy. He uses his knowledge of physical evidence from the oceans to prove the Chinese discovered the world.

Kelly: Is 1421 typical of the books you like to read?

Matt: Yeah, I tend to read historical Non Fiction. I especially like reading American history through the Civil War. I'm also reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, right now. It's about how Lincoln transformed his political opponents into allies after he was elected. Also, I just read Joseph J. Ellis's Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation which reexamines America's historical myths.

Kelly: Okay, let's go back to Middle School. What were you reading in, say, sixth or seventh grade?

Matt: I was in honors English in Ohio and we got to choose our books as a group. I remember reading The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) which was cool. I was reading a lot of Science Fiction at the time. Going into the seventh grade I read The Time Machine and 1984 over the summer.

Kelly: What was the first life-changing book you read? A book that made you think 'Wow' for the first time when reading?

Matt: Probably The Time Machine. It was the first "real" novel I ever read and it made me want to read good stuff, real books, not like the books we read in elementary school.

Kelly: What about High School? What did you read for school and what did you think about required reading?

Matt: I went to a small high school, so they stuck to the basics: lots of Shakespeare, Brave New World, the Inferno, Kenneth Clarke's Civilization (English was part of a Humanities course). As with all required reading, some of it was good, some of it wasn't.

Kelly: Did you do much reading for fun when you were in high school?

Matt: Between football in the Fall and Speech and Debate in the Spring, I didn't have much time for fun reading. I did have to read a lot of articles for Speech and Debate, so that's what I read outside of school.

Kelly: What do you read for fun now when you're not reading historical Non Fiction. You don't take those to the beach, do you?

Matt: Um, yeah. But I've also been reading Terry Goodkind's fantasy books forever. Those are my fun reading.

Kelly: Okay, last question: Young Adult literature--ever heard of it? What is Young Adult literature?

Matt: For some reason it makes me think of Romance novels. Well, I know there are some sports-like books, like Bleachers (John Grisham), but I've never really read Young Adult books.

Kelly: Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to meet with me.

See you all next month for more Higher Learning.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Do teenage boys need books with weak female characters?

Author Ted Bell has a new YA adventure story out now, Nick of Time. He was on Glenn Beck's show talking about books for teenage boys and Beck makes a point of saying that all books out there for teen boys today are emasculating. He is particularly impressed with Bell's book because the boy gets to be the hero (he goes up against pirates, Nazis, etc.) and - here's the kicker - at one point the hero's little sister is in trouble and she tells the bad guys to just wait, her brother is going to come and get her and they will be sorry. (I've embedded the interview behind the cut.)

In Beck's words, it is wonderful that the girl gets saved by the boy and specifically, that she doesn't save him or herself.

That's what he says - how great for boys that the girl does not do any saving.

There are a couple of things that bother me about this discussion (between two adult men without a teenager in sight by the way). First it is that for a boy to feel heroic he must rescue a girl - and the girl also needs to be rescued. I'm sure the sociologists would have a field day over all this but I can't believe that anyone in the 21st century would believe that such antiquated notions of what it means to be a hero have any place in a worthwhile discussion. Save the world - yes! Save the animals, save the environment, save whatever needs saving in your books. But the girl MUST be saved by the boy for the boy to feel powerful? How do these gentlemen think it makes the girl feel to have to wait to be saved? Have they ever thought about that at all?

Here's the problem that Misters Bell and Beck don't give a moment's thought to - sometimes the boy doesn't show up and the girl is all alone. As I wrote last year, remember Dua Khalil, the victim of a so-called "honor killing". This is part of what Joss Whedon had to say about her death:

Because as the girl was on the ground trying to get up, her face nothing but red, the few in the group of more than twenty men who were not busy kicking her and hurling stones at her were filming the event with their camera-phones.

Sometimes the girl is not going to be rescued, sometimes there just aren't any heroes around, and that's why it is so important that we all - male and female - know how to rescue ourselves. That's why no one should have to wait, ever.

Beyond this issuing of rescuing though, I am completely stunned by Beck's assertion that all current books for teenage boys are inferior to those in the past and - I can't believe I'm writing this - emasculating. I am second to none in my hope that more adventurous books for teens will be published (and more mysteries!) but I have read a lot of adventure type books that I am quite confident include strong and heroic boy characters. Just off the top of my head:

Darkside by Tom Becker - werewolves, vamps etc. (sequel due out shortly)
Operation Red Jericho & Operation Typhoon Shore by Joshua Mowll - pirates, mad inventors, etc.
Corbenic by Catherine Fisher - a fight to save the Fisher King
London Calling by Edward Bloor - time travel back to WWII in London
The New Policeman by Kate Thompson - travel to Faerie to save time itself
The Seiki & Judge Ooka series by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler - a series of murder mysteries set in early 18th century Japan where the hero goes up against all sorts of greedy devious bad guys

And then there are all the wonderful realistic dramas in which boys do some heroic things not in the grand adventure model, but very significant in many other ways:

King of the Pygmies by Jonathon Scott Fuqua
No Castles Here by A.C.E. Bauer
The Blue Helmet by William Bell
Into the Ravine by Richard Scrimger
At the Firefly Gate by Linda Newberry
Knights of the Hill Country by Tim Tharp

I have not read the Percy Jackson series although it seems like it would fit in here as a big adventure and I'm still reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and Sunrise in Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, but in both those cases young men seem to be making heroic decisions. It could be that these two books do not fit into Glenn Beck's moral framework however, as they challenge issues of freedom and patriotism in ways that are beyond the classic vision of unquestioning loyalty to "king and country".

But then again, part of the point of the 21st century is just what it means to be a patriot and beyond that, what it means to be a hero.

Does the boy have to rescue the girl and follow the traditional path to be a true hero in fiction? You tell me - please. I want to know what you think.

EDITED ON JUNE 22nd TO ADD: I want to make clear that this larger discussion is about the interview itself and not the contents of Bell's book. In his book it is a little girl who is saved and he is making a big brother/little sister plot point. It could all be fine for this book but that is not what the two men were discussing in this video. Watch it, and you will see that it is generalizations they were making about being a boy, what it takes to be a man, and why weak female characters are a good thing for boys. Their points, not mine.

Watching a Family Fall Apart

Life can be full of troubles. Sometimes these troubles are the result of parents making a mess of their lives—putting their worries, scrapes, fears, and anger on display for their sons or daughters. When a family bond starts to show cracks, very often a person within this shake up learns things about human character that are surprising, maybe frightening. These things one can carry on as burdens, shake off like a bad habit, or learn to endure. Still, it is rarely something forgotten.

In Richard Ford's Wildlife, we read a story narrated by sixteen-year-old Joe Brinson as he watches his parents' marriage and lives unravel. The story takes place in Great Falls, Montana. It's a small town, with not much going on, except for a wildfire burning out of control just outside of town. With smoke on the horizon, obscuring the nearby mountains, people in town go about their day with some normalcy; though, everyone has a tingling sense that something dangerous is nearby. The year is 1960, but there isn't much in this book to place it squarely in that period.

Joe's dad, Jerry, is a gifted athlete, despite little dedication to practice. Jerry is a golf instructor, which has led for a somewhat itinerant life for his family. Joe's mother, Jean, has worked as a bookkeeper and a substitute teacher in the past, but she isn't working in Great Falls. She's pretty, and kind to Jerry and Joe, but she is longing for something that seems to be missing in her life. Joe's parents both graduated college, but the choices they have made about work and where they are is a disappointment to both of them. They've just moved to Great Falls, hoping for a little luck to come their way. As the story begins, Joe is okay with where his parent's lives have taken them. He doesn't have any friends in Great Falls. High school is just a place to go, and maybe a place where someday he'll figure out how to find his place. Joe's thoughts about high school and how to navigate his personal life are put on hold when his dad gets fired and his parents start to pull him into their difficulties. Soon, everything Joe believed or understood about his parents will change.

What makes this book such a great read is the quality of the writing, the exquisite details that grab you by the shirt collar and catch your breath. For example, these are Joe's thoughts as he begins to tell this story, thinking back on the years of his parent's difficulties:
The life my mother and father lived changed. The world, for as little as I'd thought about it or planned on it, changed. When you are sixteen you do not know what your parents know, or much of what they understand, and less of what's in their hearts. This can save you from becoming an adult too early, save your life from becoming only theirs lived over again—which is a loss. But to shield yourself—as I didn't do—seems to be an even greater error, since what's lost is the truth of your parents' life and what you should think about it, and beyond that, how you should estimate the world you are about to live in.
There are some books that seem so real, so full of life, that when you read them, you're amazed that a writer can have the power to reveal raw emotion on the page with such clarity. You learn something about life because a window into a character's mind and guts has been opened for you. Wildlife is that kind of book, and Richard Ford, that powerful of a writer. Many other books, in comparison, seem thin and shallow. If you have ever thought about or have experienced a family break up, this book will offer a clear-eyed perspective on how one lives through that kind of drama.

The last part of this book is riveting. You won't be able to put the book down. I can't let you in on the details, as it would ruin the climactic finale. You'll read what goes down and be reminded of how strange, challenging, and sometimes wonderful it is to watch parents navigate their challenges.

Richard Ford is well known for writing books that pulse with sharp realism. His prose is rarely fast paced. Ford writes like a skilled fly fisherman, expert and precise casting, again and again, and then, suddenly, the line snaps with life on the end, and he carefully reels you in to his brilliant point. Ford was born in 1944 in Oxford, Mississippi. He has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award (in fact, his novel Independence Day was the first to win both). He now lives in Maine. Read more about him at Wikipedia, the Mississippi Writer’s Page, or a Google search.)

is oddly not a well-known book, even among fans of Richard Ford, but it is one that I highly recommend.

by Richard Ford
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Vintage (June 4, 1991)
ISBN-10: 0679734473