A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Perfumes are Strange and Confusing...

My grandmother and I used to have a bimonthly tradition before common sense got the best of her.  We would climb inside our dump truck full of money and drive to the mall to visit our local Belk.  The employees would hold open doors so I could make a couple hassle free trips with a wheelbarrow to the makeup counter and dump the money in a pile at the clerk's feet.  She would then hand my grandmother a thimble full of facial cream, which then she used in demonic rituals to preserve her youth.

Thankfully, grandma has given up Satan these days for a more righteous "bargain brand" path, but I remember rolling that wheelbarrow through Belk one day and seeing a men's cologne titled something like Dark Fantasy and thought out loud that I, a man, would never be caught wearing a cologne named Dark Fantasy.  If I'm going to be wearing a scent, I'd want it to be something that I enjoy.  There are a lot of scents that I like and none of them smell like dark fantasies... They smell like flowers or spices.

Abandoning my duties, I wandered over to examine a bottle of Dark Fantasy and check the ingredients on the back.  As anyone could guess, Dark Fantasy was made from an assortment of unbelievably hard to pronounce chemicals, which for some reason made me hungry.  I asked the clerk about it and she told me that she didn't really know what any of them were either, but many of those ingredients were probably things that came from flowers.

That made sense, but I wasn't sure why they couldn't just say that on the bottle - Dark Fantasy: Made from Lilies and Lilacs.  Since no one was going to tell me, it was time to do some research and find out what those ingredients actually were.  So I did what any self-respecting adult would do.  I snuck into my grandmother's bedroom while she slept and stole from her.  Not really sure what I wanted or where she hid her feminine beauty products, I swiped a couple things from Estee Lauder out of her bathroom.  Both were covered by a thick layer of dust, assuring me that they would not be missed.

One was a teeny-tiny perfume sampler called Estee Lauder Pleasures Bloom.  On the inside of this item's cardboard jacket it stated, "Fresh violet flower and vibrant pink peony sparkle in a field of colorful petals and luscious fruits" in seven different languages.  On the back it said...
"Ingredients: Alcohol denat, Pleasures Bloom Fragrance (Parfum), Water, Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Citronellol, Hexyl Cinnamal, Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone, Limonene, Geraniol, Linalool, Citral, Hydroxycitronellal, Eugenol, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Alcohol, and Ext. Violet 2"
I smelled it, and it smelled like soap, but it smelled like a really good soap.

The problem with trying to figure out what those ingredients are is that most of them are synthetic.  We all know what water is, right?  Most of the human body and the planet are made out of water, and its make-up is probably the only thing we all still remember from high school science class.

Other ingredients like Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane are a tad harder to figure out.  I know that Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane is also called Avobenzone and is used largely as a sun screen, and I know that it is derived from dibenzoylmethane.  The problem is figuring out where that comes from...  It's never as simple as finding out what plant produces Butylphenyl Methylpropional.

One thing I've read is a large majority of the chemicals used in perfumes come from petroleum, but I want to heavily emphasize that I do not have a particularly flawless source for that information.

Dark Fantasy was probably not delicately extracted from lilies and lilacs.  It was forged atop bunsen burners in boiling beakers and filtering flasks.  The odd sentence on the Pleasures Bloom jacket about violets and peonies has nothing to do with the actual product.

In fact, that sentence intentionally avoids comparing the product to that nature imagery, creating a strange disconnect.  It's as if this company desperately wanted to convince us that there was some nature left in our beauty products, so Pleasures Bloom gave us a pretty idea of what nature would look like.  Others, like that Dark Fantasy, probably avoid it all together.  Then we, the consumer, are left to scratch our neanderthal heads and wonder what the heck "Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone" is supposed to be.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Go Play Gone Home

Gone Home is one of those video games that deserves a lot of neat, little superlatives to accompany it.  But to keep things simple, let's just say it is a fantastic game and well worth playing.  You don't have to take my word for it.  You can go to this website: scroll down to where it say "Gone Home" and read any number of articles penned by talented writers about virtually every aspect of the game.  Alternatively, you can visit The New York Times, Slate, or one of the many other non-video game press sources that adored it too.

There's a lot I can't say about Gone Home.  Most details end up tainting the experience, and what I really want is for people who haven't played this game to go do it.  Right now.  All you need to know is that you're a woman visiting her family's new house and discovering no one there and no immediate explanation for their mysterious absences.

Go investigate.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

From One Second to the Next

Normally, when a company tries to send a message to young people, they are tempted towards ham-handed hiptitudes.  "How do reach the youth of America?  Let's make a rap about not smoking!"  But there was no condescending from AT&T when they asked the brilliant filmmaker Werner Herzog to create a short documentary about the harm done by texting and driving.  Werner Herzog is not "hip," but he makes some of the most incredible films and fascinating documentaries.

A word to the wise, if you want to live in blissful ignorance, From One Second to the Next is not for you.  It will probably leave you unable to even consider texting while driving ever again.  The documentary begins with a girl describing how her younger brother was swept out of her hand by a car before she even knew it was there.  And as each story unfolds, there is an overarching senselessness about the accidents.  The text messages were insignificant compared to suffering they caused.

At times, Herzog's documentary can be a real challenge to sit through.  And that certainly separates it from other company-sponsored PSAs.  Unlike the purity ring style "It Can Wait" pledge that is AT&T's other attempt to discourage texting and driving, this film does not act young.  It does not pander to one's age demographic.  It does not pull punches, and that is precisely why it should be viewed by as many people as possible, especially teens.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Watermelon Babies!!

While I was sitting around considering whether or not we should be eating children, Chinese mothers were dressing their kids for dessert!

This is apparently some kind of hip, new trend circulating throughout Chinese internet culture or... something...

Okay, we can safely assume that Chinese parents en masse aren't dressing their children in watermelons.  We can safely assume that these are an incredibly small minority of people that saw a picture of a one baby dressed in watermelon-wear and thought it was adorable, so they copied it.  But I want to believe that it is possible this will take the nation of China by storm and that millions of children will grow up only knowing watermelons for clothes.  Someday, they will look back and wonder how primitive man survived the summer heat without wearing a cool, refreshing watermelon...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Onion Van Gogh

This magnificent work of art was discovered in the Tower Restaurant of Lake Placid, Florida.  It's a painting of onions.  Down the hall to the left and across from the women's restroom is a similar painting of asparagus.  While absurdly mundane, they are unarguably beyond any shadow of a doubt, one-hundred percent perfect for a nice, sit-down restaurant.  Why?  Well... they're pictures of food...

Still lifes rarely receive a great deal of credit in the art world.  They can be as complex and detailed as portraits, or landscapes, or random dreamspun images straight from the imagination, but a bowl of fruit tends to represent little more than a bowl of fruit in the mind of your average passerby.  Often times, the poor still life is delegated to the role of "exercise."  It's good practice for artists, though its probably not going to be considered their masterpiece.

You may look at these onions or their asparagus counterparts (not pictured because I don't like to stand outside women's restrooms in public wielding a camera) and say, "Why would anyone paint an onion?"  And you would be both reasonable and unfair.  Onions are not exciting models, but in no way do they offend the senses.  A simple still life of food is aesthetically pleasing and in good taste...especially considering location.  Sitting in a restaurant where food is served, this image represents moderation, cleanliness, and healthy eating.

If one were to change the location, the meaning of the artwork would change drastically.  Placed inside a Wendy's, it would be completely inappropriate and at odds with the large portions of mostly unhealthy foods.  It would act as a grim sentry in the household of a bulimic eater.  It could be a positive reminder kept by an enthusiastic vegetarian.  And that shifting identity is something that makes a still life special when compared to some more famous or classic works.

Simple art has a much easier time being judged with its surroundings than let's say...The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.  When you look at The Starry Night, you are looking at a famous piece of art, a masterpiece, one of the greatest works in the whole of human history.  If it was hanging in a restaurant however, it would probably contribute little or nothing to the actual surroundings, because when you look at it, you typically judge it in abstract.  It's The Starry Night, not part of a restaurant.  The onions are more easily identified with the restaurant than their creator or clout.

Most works like still lifes tend to go unnoticed in their surroundings and that's okay.  You're probably not going to see many still lifes being displayed as the centerpiece of a room.  They'll be part of the decorations.  Something like that onion painting adds to the scenery without dominating it.  Not every work of art is meant to be closely studied, but that doesn't take away its value.

Onions by Van Gogh. My entire argument is moot...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Mythical National Animals

I'm about to spoil the answer, so google it now if you don't want the surprise ruined...

It's a unicorn.  Yep, Scotland's national animal isn't even real.  Let's not be negative-nellies here, the unicorn looks damn fine on a crest, and this fiction animal as the symbol of Scotland is just as legitimate as a lion being the national animal of England.  England is so known for their lions.

Just browsing through the list of national animals on Wikipedia, I'm happy to say that Scotland isn't the only country to use a fictional animal.  In fact, Scotland isn't the only country to use a fictional horse!  Enter North Korea with the Chollima.  The Chollima is the East Asian equivalent to Pegasus.  The winged horse was originally a Chinese fabrication, but became North Korea's national animal during reconstruction after the Korean War.  I'm not interested in giving too many compliments to the extremely oppressive dictatorship, but they picked a great national animal and they've turned it into an amazing statue.

Most countries with fictional creatures as national animals have had long histories with them.  Dragons and birds seem to be the most common.  A few European countries like Serbia and Russia have emblems with two-headed birds.  China and Wales both use their own versions of the dragon.  Meanwhile, Greece chose the phoenix.

These are terribly limited fantasy creatures: birds, horses, dragons.  Sure they're steeped in culture and tradition, but I wish at least one country would have picked something outside the box.  One could use a hydra, cockatrice, or tarasque as their symbol...  I know, those are just more dragons and birds...  Well, how about Shoggoth, an amorphous horror from H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness:  
"It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter."

I think this would be a terrific national animal for Antarctica.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Brothers: An Intimate Tale for Two Players

Literature and storytelling have come a long way since early man painted horses on cave walls, but our desire to hear and tell tales has not changed one bit.  The hero's journey, in particular, has been a consistently told and retold epic.

That is how the recent game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons by Starbreeze Studios, plays out.  The player is given the task of guiding two boys on an odyssey across a beautiful and massive mountainous world, encountering incredible and deadly creatures along the way, in order to find a cure for their father's illness.  The game begins in a fairly lighthearted mood, but as the boys go deeper into the unknown and farther from home, the world grows bleaker.  Eventually, one is left wondering if the cost of the journey was really worth that final reward.  But while it lasted, it was a grand adventure.

What may stand out to the player are the vignettes.  Every area the player explores seems to provide him with a whole new experience.  The brothers will climb mountains with the help of a heartbroken troll, who seems to have stepped straight out of a John Bauer painting.  They will creep through a wolf infested forest at night with only a small, burning branch to guide them.  They will ride on mountain goats leaping across cliffs and then scale the steps of a giant's tower.  With two lead characters, both controlled by the player, one would think that these experiences would be something to be shared.

But Brothers is advertised, on Xbox Live at least, as a single player game.  The brothers can only be guided by one controller with the elder brother acting on the left D-Pad and trigger button and the younger brother on the right.  It can be a bit of a hassle trying to direct both boys in different directions simultaneously, and annoyance with those controls can feel like the game's only drawback.  But here's a thought: Why does a game that uses only one controller have to be a single player game?

The controls are designed perfectly so two people could share the controller, much in the same way the two brothers share an adventure.  The game is filled with intimate and emotional moments, and why should those moments be squandered by adventuring alone with slightly awkward controls?  Two people seated closely next to each other, controller between them, could experience the game in a way that a single soul could not.  Together.  Each one guiding a brother and working with one another, helping one another.

Brothers is an old epic, we've heard time and time again, but delivered to us in a way that is entirely unique and potentially allows an experience that few other works, even among video games, have provided.  It is a shared tale and an intimate tale for two players.


Regardless of how you play the game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is fantastic and you should purchase it as a download from the Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Network.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Choose Your Own Death with Star Wench

Anna Anthropy has been a consistently enthralling force of good within the indie games community.  Her games are free for all to play, their topics and themes are often times complex and original, if not a tad on the explicitly sexual side, and she writes.  She writes a lot about the art of game design and the need for freedom in game design.  Her book, Rise of the Video Game Zinester, is a particularly inspirational work that anyone interested in game design or games should read.

That's far from the only thing she's written.  Recently, she has been using the very simple tool, twine, to make text adventures, similar to those "choose your own adventures" we played...or, I guess, "read" as children.  Funnily enough, games like this don't have to be released via twine on the internet.  They can actually be bought in a physical form and read as a "book."  So Anna Anthropy has released a couple Choose Your Own Adventures in that more traditional format.

One is an adventure to find a lesbian utopia called The Hunt for the Gay Planet.  And another, I have sitting right here called Star Wench.

To be fair, Star Wench is not a Choose Your Own Adventure story.  It's a "Choose Your Own Death."  At the front of the book reads this warning:
Do not read this book straight through from beginning to end!  This book contains many different adventures you may encounter as Star Wench, an intergalactic rogue and space captain, as she pursues the nefarious Queen of Space in the depths of her domain!  Or, rather, it contains many different ways for that adventure to end.  You'll never defeat the Queen, but you can choose how you'll fail! 
Just open to a page - any page - and read how your adventure ends.  If you're lucky, maybe you'll get to meet your end at the hands of the Queen herself!
Obviously, this is a bit of a take on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" style.  But it's not mean spirited or some kind of defeatist commentary on the genre.  Read that warning again!  You're supposed to love it.  The goal is to hopefully die at the hands of the Queen.  It's an incredibly entertaining exercise in masochism.

So let's die on an adventure, shall we...

Click me and I grow!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tricky Dick and the Six Roman Emperors

The Nixon White House tapes have once again resurfaced to show just how cruel and bigoted our chubby cheeked crook was back in his day.  In the audio below, Nixon takes the time share his thoughts on All in the Family, Roman Emperors, ancient Greece, and homosexuality.  His opinions are not really surprising.

For example, when discussing ancient Greece, Nixon said, "You know what happened to the Greeks.  Homosexuality destroyed them.  Aristotle was a homo, we all know that.  So was Socrates."  In regard to the Romans, he stated, "Do you know what happened to the Romans?  The last six Roman emperors were fags.  The last six.  Nero had a public wedding to a boy."  Rumor says he actually performed two marriage ceremonies with men.

Nixon's gay history lesson did not stop there.  He quickly moved on to the papacy, "Popes were laying the nuns, that's been going on for years, centuries, but when the popes from the Catholic church went to hell in...three or four centuries ago, it was homosexual.  And finally it had to be cleaned out."

He asserted "that's what happened to Britain...France.  And let's look at the strong societies."  The Cold War president continued, "[The Russians] rooted [homosexuals] out.  They don't let them around at all...I don't know what they do with them."

Nixon concludes, "You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general; these are the enemies of strong societies."

It's not that I posted this to tell the world how terrible Richard Nixon is.  I couldn't care less about Richard Nixon's opinion on homosexuality.  What's curious is that the language he uses and the opinions he has are startlingly similar to ones people have been holding in very recent years... like this year, for example.  While changing views toward homosexuality have been remarkably rapid in the last few years, we still run into these strange voices that inexplicably turn homosexuality into the greatest threat the world has ever faced, something that can topple empires.

In fact, in 2011 an Italian historian and deputy of the country's National Research Council said that effeminacy and homosexuality were the causes of the Roman Empire's weakening.  And "strong societies" like Russia and the United States still do attempt to "root out" homosexuals.  If you're keen to gay and gay friendly media, you know that violence and persecution of homosexuals are still constant in American society, like many others.  It's a shame that these people don't talk about violence and hatred destroying empires half as much they talk about gay men doing so.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Game to Fix You Right Up: 1984

The first book I remember reading, I mean really reading was George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Most books, like most movies and most games, don't leave a lasting impression.  I finish reading.  I set the book down and say, "Well, that was just dandy!"  Then I go about my life as if nothing happened.  That wasn't the case with Nineteen Eighty-Four.  It was the first work of fiction that I really dwelled on, pondered, which obviously put it in a special place in my heart.

Then, of course, we have 1984: The Game, a recently released browser-based adventure that was created as a graduate project for the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.  I'm not going to pretend that it resonated with me exactly like the novel it was based on, but it captures the oppressive feel of it beautifully.  Beginning with a good old fashioned face stomping, the game quickly moves into your rehabilitation within the Ministry of Love, where, for example, a starving man begs you for food and then condemns you as a traitor for giving it to him.

It's a powerful experience and well worth the relatively small amount of time it takes to play in between periods of blissful ignorance.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Baby Eating

I'm internally debating right now about which one society hates more: Nazis or Cannibals.  Both are viewed as pretty loathsome, but I think we would all agree that the idea of "baby eaters" pushes cannibals over the line from villains to abominations.  People love babies.  They represent everything innocent and helpless in the world, so we tend to create narratives in which our most hated foes or the most monstrous folk kill or eat babies.

Here's a picture of the Kindlifresser in Bern, Switzerland.  Slate recently ran a brief story on the five hundred year-old work of art, wondering why the hell it was built.  It could be possible that the fountain may be anti-Semitic in nature or that it could represent a cautionary fairy tale.

Historically, Jews have been the subjects of many, many European and Middle Eastern character assassinations.  As hip, young, post-racial Earthlings, I hope most of us have a hard time understanding this idea.  But once upon a time, people didn't think it was so crazy for Jews to kidnap and eat children.  It was called blood libel.  They thought that Jews would sneak into good Christian houses, take a kid, and use its blood in their "demented Jewish rituals" or to make bread (seriously...bread...).

These fictitious actions placed Jews well in the realm of European folk monsters, like ogres and trolls.  Trolls were known to steal human infants in the night and replace them with troll children called changelings.  Meanwhile, the ogres were less maternal.  They just liked the taste of babies.  Think about that next time you watch Shrek.

And I have to admit that people still find baby eating to be a very real, very horrible thing that villainous "others" do.  Not too long ago, images appeared of people in China eating what looked like a human fetus.  To this day, some people still believe that the Chinese eat babies or fetuses, despite the fact that the pictures were part of an exhibition by the artist Zhu Yu.

Cannibalism in general has always been extremely rare, and eating children is even rarer, but there's this certain creativity in the human imagination, a fear really, that makes it easy to accept outsiders or the ever present unknown as monstrous.  So we assume those bumps in the night or the band of strangers wandering into town might be dangerous.  And they're not just dangerous for us, they're dangerous for our families, which are often times more important to us than ourselves.  We tell our children to beware the woods at night or the ogres will gobble you up!

That's actually a perfectly reasonable response considering how at points in time humans have had to legitimately worry about things sneaking into the home and eating their children.  Unfortunately, that problem didn't only get assigned to real world animals and fictional monsters.  Other people, innocent people, were occasional targets of blame when the only things they really were were outsiders.

In contrast, probably the most truly monumental work of art in the last five thousand years could be termed "the reverse" of mankind's obsessive fear with baby-eaters.  That would be Gustav Vigeland's "Man Attacked by Babies" sculpture in Oslo.  Look at it... it's beautiful...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Trapped in Holiday Word Association

Tomorrow is the American Independence Day, a day traditionally celebrated with fireworks, cookouts, and people waving American flags...

...stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a light from above...

It's strange how one can sum up a holiday with only a sentence.  Even if the name kind of gives it away, I didn't have to say what the holiday was actually about.  I just described the objects and events most clearly related to it.  These are the typical traditions that I grew up recognizing as important aspects of the Fourth of July.  The Fourth of July is what I think of when I see fireworks and little American flags.

By the way, word association games are so much fun!  Person A says a word and Person B says the first thing that comes to mind.  Person A might say, "Dog" and Person B could reply "Cat" or maybe "Log" and we learn a little bit about how their mind works.  Cat is our assumed opposite of dog.  Log is a natural compliment of dog; they rhyme!  Holidays are like very boring, very obvious word associations.  Most people in a culture celebrate them "similarly," so we all gain a collective description, sometimes slightly different, but usually along the same lines.

Let's look at other American holidays for examples.  What words can be vomited randomly into a sentence to explain each of these?... Let's take the words in abstract and guess the holiday.

Kisses, Countdown, Firework.
Hearts, Candy, Gifts.
Punxsutawney Phil.
Parade, Turkey, Pilgrims.
Shopping, Sales, Mass Hysteria.
Cross, Eggs, Rabbits.
Jack-o-Lanterns, Costumes.
Trees, Mistletoe, Stars.

One of those isn't even technically holiday, though it does have its own certain rituals and traditions.  One of those holidays can easily be described to most Americans (presumably) with a single proper name that doesn't even belong to a human being.

These things are almost codes.  They can't be described to everyone everywhere and get the same comprehending nods.  You say, "ya know, parades, pilgrims, turkey" to someone far, far away from the United States and you'll get a blank stare (raised eyebrow at best).  But that person should have their own easily described traditions and celebrations.  The obvious universal terms for many holidays are likely "food, family."  Then people begin to understand Thanksgiving as the American Chuseok, or Chuseok as the Korean Thanksgiving, no matter how different in the other rituals they may be.

I imagine we could take these one step farther, if we really wanted to... like if we made a conscious decision to define each one of holidays by a single symbol to differentiate it from the rest, perhaps a shape, color, or animal.  Halloween could be represented by a bat, the color orange, or the outline of a pumpkin... Christ, it already is...  Well, how about New Years?  We could symbolize New Years with a circle or a phoenix or a a real animal...butterfly?  No, that wouldn't do... What animal represents change and renewal but sticks around for winter... tough...

It would take a committee.  And I demand a congressional one to figure this out!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Free Hugs: Dead Ahead

Addictive is the word that comes to mind when I think about Chillingo's recent release, Dead Ahead, an "endless runner" game where the player rides his moped away from hordes of zombies (The endless part of the genre comes from one's inability to technically "win."  The player will go until he is caught by zombies or crashes, and no level has a clearly defined finish line).  I'm not all that excited by new "zombie" games these days, but moped games... now that's a different story.

See, there are certain things that are magically locked into my brain forever.  These are beliefs and philosophies defining the core of my being.  Mopeds are one such thing.  I love mopeds, scooters, and vespas.  While, I understand that they are not actually cool or suave, there is this little patch of brain in my skull that refuses all reason and accepts them as the ultimate... let's go with "chick magnet."  Oh, how misguided you are, little patch of brain...  This same area of grey matter convinced me to switch the language setting from English to French and pay $1.99 (as an in-game download in a free game) so my avatar could have the company of Vera œil de Lynx riding in my side car, gunning down the zombies on our romantic drive through the post-apocalyptic countryside.

As heavenly as that sounds, the aesthetic charms of Dead Ahead are not what make it so addictive.  The ranking system does that.  The levels are endless, but "getting farther than you did last time" (the typical goal of an endless runner) is seldom the point of playing.  New bikes, weapons, and levels become unlocked with each new rank, and the ranks are determined by certain feats you accomplish during play.  To get to Rank 8, I needed to Parcourir 3,000m and Percuter plus de 50 zombies.  During one run, I aimed to accomplish the the first goal, and then I tried for that second.  Giving these goals vastly changes how the player interacts with the game and often offers something to do beyond "get farther."

If I get that kind of enthralling game play from an easy to pick up endless runner that allows me to ride mon bécane cross-country as the french beauty in my side car guns down hordes of the undead, then lord of mercy, I must recommend it!

Dead Ahead is available at the low, low price of "with ads" for free and can be downloaded from the App Store for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.  I strongly suggest buying the Vera or Betty characters for $1.99 (which, in addition to being very helpful at killing zombies, remove ads).

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Entertaining Arts: May

Here I've collected a number of beautiful, fascinating, and strange things from the month gone by.  I don't have too much to say about each one individuality, but they are all wonderful in their own right.

What Did I Do Last Summer?

Let's get summer started off right with an inspiring story.  THROUGH THIS LINK you can find a tale told by Robert Krulwich about how a few amateur scientists, including a six-year-old and a three-year-old, turned everything people used to know about reproduction on its head.  And they did it by staring at aphids.

Something for the Kids

A Spanish organization called the Aid to Children and Adolescents at Risk Foundation made an advertisement that shows two completely different images.  At adult eye level, you'll see one image.  However, children can see a different one, which sends them a message about abuse that their abuser wouldn't be able to see.

Damsel in Distress

Feminist Frequency recently released the second installment of a three part series that focuses on the damsel in distress trope that pops up in video games over and over and over again... to an alarming degree actually.  Both PART 1 and PART 2 are really interesting, and give some insight into the origins of the trope and some reoccurring devices that are less than flattering towards women.

PS: Micro-Art

It's been an off month for me, so here's something blatantly not from May, but well worth sharing.  THROUGH THE LINK you can learn about the Russian artist, Nikolai Aldunin, who creates iddy-biddy, teeny-tiny works of art.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cthulhu vs. Zombies

I'm not sure how anyone learned about H. P. Lovecraft or his most famous creation, Cthulhu, without being in the Boy Scouts.

Way back, when I was but a wee-lad, living off the land in my parent's cottage home, I was part of an organization called "The Boy Scouts of America."  (You might have heard of them.  They did something pretty cool recently.)  For me, scouting was about tying knots, building bridges, and slaying giants.  We played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in my troop... Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Starcraft.  And D&D was my first exposure the Cthulhu mythos.

In the game, there are creatures called mind flayers or illithids.  They're kind of the ultimate intellectual villains.  They're tall, lanky, squid-faced creatures with long, clawed hands and psychic powers.  Lurking deep underground, they use mind control and manipulation to seduce prey.  Then they wrap their tentacles around your head and *slurp* suck out your brains!  Oh my god!  It sounds so corny, but so cool.  

These monsters were created by Gary Gygax (inventor of D&D), who was only influenced by H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu indirectly.  He saw the artwork for a story by Brian Lumley that had been inspired by Cthulhu mythos and that became the mind flayer.  Learning about the mind flayer's similarities to Cthulhu and learning about the pen and paper game The Call of Cthulhu, were my introductions to the horrible, cosmic monster we all know and love.

With or without those particular influences, people have taken to the character of Cthulhu in some surprising ways.  I've seen Cthulhu plushies, t-shirts, and comical video games starring him... but let me remind the world that this creature is the secret cause of human anxiety and fear.  Cthulhu is an incredibly powerful, god-like horror that is only temporarily trapped, and will eventually return to the earth to wreak a terrible havoc upon it.  Plushies?  Really?

Cthulhu strikes me as almost the opposite of zombies.  We are fascinated by zombie media because it reflects this fear we have about the future of humanity.  Zombies are very human.  They are men and women gone completely feral, and they tend to represent concepts like consumerism, mindlessness, uniformality, and function as the enemy in story's where humans needs to regain their basic survival instincts (reject modernity and return to nature).  They are very twenty-first century monsters.

Cthulhu is an old foe.  He's more like an old religion end-of-the-world beast.  Not a horde of zombies, not something human, but something outside humanity, something from beyond.  He lurks just outside our worldly understanding.  That's what's supposed to make him scary, but that's not a very modern foe.

With all our technology and science, it sometimes feels like human progress is clearly the most dangerous force on the planet, and the superstitions Cthulhu resembles are laughable by comparison.  Thus we turn Cthulhu cute.  "Aw, wook at the widdle howwa.  Don't wook too wong or he'll dwive woo just cwazy!"  It's a fair bit condescending to transform an ancient god into a funny t-shirt.  But we don't stop at the fictional religions.  Real world religions with their own mysticism and eschatology sometimes get similar treatment.

Rest assured though that the premise for Cthulhu (as with end of the world theories behind many real world religions) is far scarier than zombies.  It's like comparing a giant sun flare to global warming.  We could probably stop human influence upon global warming if we tried really hard.  But if there was a massive sun flare, we'd all probably die and there's nothing we could do about it.  It's likely we wouldn't even have much time to react.  

Yeah, that's scary.  The problem is there's not much you can do about it.  You can't fight unstoppable disaster.  You can't fight a god.  And because of that, those aren't always the most fun or interesting stories.  Zombies, on the other hand, can be resisted.  Even if humanity failed, at least we could say we gave it a shot.

Even plants work to fend off the zombies.
If Cthulhu represents an unavoidable doomsday, then I would say that the human race has handled him quite well.  People embrace Cthulhu.  We love him.  Sure, he'll be the death of all of us, but we all gotta die sometime, so why spend your days worrying about some ancient evil.  Let's welcome him when he comes.  Who knows?  Maybe when he sees how cute those damned plushies are, he'll have second thoughts.  Maybe, he'll just kill us all a little.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Playing the Pacifist: A List of Pacifist Video Games

Let's say, you are a pacifist, but you like video games. You think video games are fun or interesting and you'd like to play them, but there's a little bit of guilt stuck in your chest because you are all too often enjoying violence. Even the most basic of children's games are frequently filled with unavoidable, violent solutions to the problems presented. Hero Mario stomps his foes into the earth. Noble Link slashes through hundreds of living creatures, many people, on his way to save the day. If a game has an actual story, it will likely be one where the protagonist kills people and blows stuff up.

That's really annoying for people who don't want to play a sadistic murderer. Yes, I'm sure video games are all about killing and I shouldn't be surprised and I can go play The Sims or some racing game and blah blah blah. We've heard the dozens of knee jerk reactions before. But more and more, you actually can play good games with planned narratives (i.e. not The Sims or some racing game) where you don't kill or even attack anything.

So I'm going to make a list of contemporary "pacifist" games a person could play. It's fair to note that these are not "non-violent" games. Like all stories, to be enjoyed a story needs conflict. And any pacifist will recognize that their own life is typically filled with more conflict than they probably would like. There's a great little browser game called The Life of a Pacifist is Often Fraught with Conflict. The title alone speaks a grave truth and irony. The games on this list may include conflict, confrontation, and violence. But what makes them "pacifist" games is the player's avatar. The avatar is non-violent. The player either cannot harm others, is strongly discouraged from doing so, or is harshly penalized for doing so in these games.

Finally, I am going to avoid most straight puzzle, simulation, sports, and racing games, as well as freeware and browser games, because I want to emphasize larger, more accessible (and increasingly popular) releases and narrative games. The list is alphabetical.

Catherine (PS3/Xbox 360)

In Catherine, you play Vincent, a man whose been having a rough time committing to a steady relationship, when he has an affair with the beautiful (yep!) Catherine, and soon starts to have reoccurring dreams where he is being pursued by monstrous versions of his girlfriend, Catherine, babies, etc: all the things that would hunt a guilt-ridden, male mind. The story is really strong at the beginning, but grows increasingly loopy towards the end.  Though, that does not stop it from being a fun romp through the male psyche.

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” (PC)

In this game, you play the titular Dominique Pamplemousse, a gender-ambiguous detective low on work and desperate to make the rent. Like any good noire, detective story, "that's when she walked in." A woman comes to Dominique for help finding a missing singer. This is a black and white, musical, claymation, point and click adventure game. Note, the word "musical" because there is a lot of singing (a lot of off-key singing). If you don't immediately find it endearing, you will hate it. That's just a warning for people with hearts as black as coal.

Fez (PC/Xbox 360)

In Fez, you play a little, white boy who lives in a simple, innocent, 2D world. Then a magical (yep!) fez descends from the heavens and onto your head, allowing you to twist and spin your perspective, revealing the third dimension! You'll spend a fair amount of time wandering through very beautifully constructed, vertical landscapes searching for secrets and collecting cubes.  Anyone that enjoys a good puzzle game and remembers life before Playstation will likely love this one.

Flower (PS3)

Flower is among the most beautiful and powerful video game experiences I've ever had. You control the wind and collect flower petals as you travel across the country and through a city. No game has ever come close to giving me the sense of flight that the motion controls in Flower allow. I've felt more joy and wonder playing this game than any other.

From Dust (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)

You can actually kill people in From Dust, but the entire goal of the game is not to. You play as a god, and you want to sculpt the earth so that a tribe of people can travel safely through each region. It takes a lot of work to be a loving god. Teeny-tiny people are all too easily wiped out by flood and fire, but that's why you're there. From Dust isn't as much a "god game" as a "personal god game," where you really have to work to protect your people.

ilomilo (Xbox 360)

ilomilo is much deeper than it looks. On the outside, it is a cute, 3D puzzle game with some interesting mechanics. But only through delving into the secrets and hidden clues will you unravel the story at its core. What is a children's toy box of gorgeous art design contains a somewhat sadder, nostalgic treasure that is well worth the time it takes to find.

Journey (PS3)

There are a couple videos in the Extra Credits web series about Journey and "the hero's journey," and I strongly recommend watching those (Part 1 and Part 2). 

Journey, by the same developers as Flower, is a visually gorgeous adventure where you travel from sandy dunes to a distant mountaintop. This game can be played solo or co-op, but you can't exactly play it with friends. Instead, you meet strangers along the way and can help each other reach the summit. There's always the choice to ignore a new acquaintance, but it is so much more rewarding to journey with a companion.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act I (PC)

Cardboard Computer pretty much does nothing but create amazing, non-violent games, filled with wanderlust and strong writing. Kentucky Route Zero is no exception there. You play a trucker traveling through Kentucky and looking for (yep!) Kentucky Route Zero. This game is heavy on Americana and magical realism, which set it apart from the more "fanciful" fantasy games out there. As of writing this, the first Act is the only one that's been released.

Papo & Yo (PC/PS3)

Papo & Yo is quite explicitly a survivor's story. It's not a "survival horror" story. It's about a child who survives an abusive parent. Remember games like Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom (maybe?) where the protagonist is accompanied by a cute, monster friend. Well, Papo & Yo is kind of the reverse of that. Most of the game is spent hoping that your helpful monster pal will not fly into a frenzied rage. More so than probably any other game on this list (possible exceptions are Journey and Flower), Papo & Yo is one you will play for the ending.

Thomas was Alone (PC/PS3)

Thomas was Alone is a game about friendship. Characters are abstract blocks that would not have any personality of their own if it weren't for the humorous narrator guiding you through the adventure and explaining who each block is and what each block is thinking. This game is a real charmer and you will fall in love with the entire cast of characters by the end.

The Undergarden (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)

The Undergarden is a game largely without conflict. You explore underwater caverns, solve puzzles, and collect little friends. It's all very nice and very zen in its own way. But there is a barrier to entry. Patience. A player needs to be patient to enjoy this game because it is not a high speed action title. It takes its time and stops to smell the roses, and you have to be willing to do that too in order to get the most out of this game.

The Unfinished Swan (PS3)

Why play a first person shooter when you can play a first person painter?! The Unfinished Swan is a children's fairy tale where the orphaned protagonist travels into a blank canvas to find his mother's painting of (yep!) an unfinished swan. The opening to this game is brilliant. Nothing but white, and you have to toss black balls of paint to fill in the scenery. The game grows more grandiose from there. If you are looking for something to fill you with child-like wonder and remind you of the joy you received from exploring game worlds as a kid, this is one you want.

Friday, May 17, 2013


The above is a picture of the walk to my front patio.  It doesn't look like much, but this area is its own amazing, little ecosystem.  Creatures are constantly passing through: birds, slugs, snails, the rare snake, lizards during the day, toads at night, and of course insects.  What might be fascinating to the casual observer seated on this patio is the baffling number of injured insects that manage to find their way to that walk.  Almost on instinct, they descend from the heavens, broken and battered, to crawl or churn gracelessly upon those hard, cement barrens.

Charity, I suppose, would be to put the creatures out of their misery or find some way to tender to the injured lovebugs.  But that is not the way the world works.  There was this really good anime I watched years ago, Trigun.  In one scene two boys and their caretaker are sitting in a field and one sees a butterfly caught in a spider's web.  With good intent, he reaches to save the butterfly before the spider can have its meal.  As he does so, the other boy smashes the spider with his hand.  The naive, butterfly child is enraged and screams that he wanted to save them both, but the other states, "If you let the butterfly live, the spider is going to die. You can't save both without one suffering."

This is one of those grave truths that honest, good, kind-hearted people sometimes hate to hear.  To deny a predator its prey is to condemn it to death.  It is questionable whether or not that moral should be taken outside nature and into greater human philosophy.  But back to the walkway...

There on the unfaltering cement, product of man's genius mastery of the elements, flops the wounded beetle or a moth with a torn wing.  Returning to flight for them is little more than a dream.  But they go on, marching towards the patio looking for some salvation, failing to notice their silent watchers in shrub jungle.

Geckos hide motionless in the garden just waiting for diminutive prey to land on that stretch of earth, and a dying or injured insect is a perfect meal for them.  Fighting for food can be hard, or worse yet, dangerous, but a weakened moth, still in its prime, is a huge gain.  Maximum reward for minimum effort.  The poor moth must be eaten, so the poor lizard may survive.

The lizard appears out of the brush, taking a position on the walk far enough from the moth to safely scan the area, searching for its own predators.  Then once it knows there are no immediate threats, it darts to the moth, grabs it with its mouth and tosses it into the jungle, diving in after it.  The world is still again.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Earth from Space

Over the weekend, tragedy of tragedies had befallen me.  I was happy.  Living out my normal human life, free from natural predators and strenuous labor, when the most unimaginably horrible of horrifying things that could have happened happened.  My computer adapter stopped working.  I couldn't charge my computer.  It sat there on the table, its battery life slowly draining away, and most unfortunate of all, family would be visiting that very weekend!  I- I had no time to have it replaced.

And so, I lived like my primitive ancestors before me.  Building fires out of charcoal and lighter fluid.  Washing myself in a simulated rain storm inside my private hygiene room.  Finding and trying out shakshuka recipes from the New York Times website using my iPod Touch.  It has perhaps the most difficult experience anyone had ever gone through since brave Ulysses sailed from Troy.

I sat in a cold, black void where reality seemed to stop and I could watch the planet Earth rotate slowly.  Life existed on that verdant rock, but I was so apart from civilization, from nature, and from the spirit which binds us all together... I mean, I could still get internet on my iPod, but it wasn't the same.  Anyway, shakshuka is a really good dish.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Found Books: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

"I like to imagine that the world is one big machine.  You know, machines never have extra parts.  They have the exact number and type of parts they need.  So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason.  And that means you have to be here for some reason, too."
The poor children of Lake Country Elementary School are suffering and they probably don't even know it.  This is because I have their copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Bought it from a thrift shop for a cool one dollar out of one of the recently arrived boxes.  But... I don't feel particularly bad about purchasing a potentially stolen book, because I read this potentially stolen book, and after reading this potentially stolen book, I'm beginning to feel that stealing ain't so bad.  Children's books have the best morals.

Thievery is one of the major reoccurring themes of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The titular character is a child who lives within the walls of a Paris train station, keeping the clocks running on time and stealing for many of his meals, as well as stealing to repair the automaton kept hidden away in his room.  But he's not the only one who steals... Everyone seems to steal, and often with positive results.  The character Etienne sneaks children into the movie theater for free and when he is found out and fired he claims it is the best thing that ever happened to him.

Aside from "theft" there are a lot of themes throughout the book (film, books, clocks and machines, etc) that come up again and again, of course.  Any book that's half decent at what it does will have reoccurring themes.  Cool, we can enjoy its content.  But The Invention of Hugo Cabret sets itself apart from most other novels with its form.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret opens like a dream...
"But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie.  On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city.  You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby.  You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station.  Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret.  His head is full of secrets, and he's waiting for his story to begin."
It's like the reader is slowly being lulled into sleep, hypnotized by a magician.  After the reader flips through the next few pages, he finds that he is not actually reading at all, but looking at sketches or watching an old, black and white silent movie.  Unlike a graphic novel, the prose are kept completely separate from the pictures.  However, like a graphic novel or a movie, the prose and pictures are both integral to telling the story.

It's not just a wonderful way to write a book, it's a perfect way to write a book that is largely about film, magic, and drawings (those themes we mentioned earlier).  The novel reads like a silent movie, but that's not to say the art completely reflects the silent movies.  The art looks more like sketches, (spoiler) like the sketches drawn by Hugo's mysterious automaton, like this entire story was a film written through a machine that draws... which sounds um... well, it sounds like too much... like it wouldn't work.  But the writer, Brian Selznick, fits it all together like the pieces of a beautiful machine.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is hopefully a book you have heard of before and it will continue as a modern classic for many years to come (and then as the regular kind of classic), the kind that inspire dreams in both wide-eyed children and wide-eyed adults.  Purchase it at your local book store, Amazon.com, or listen to it as an audiobook (which sounds strange to me), and watch the movie.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Greeting Card Poetry

I am a terrible shopper, which makes it hard to go shopping with other people.  Since I've been taking care of my grandmother, I've had to do things I never did before: reading every ingredient on the label, checking sodium content, and actively looking.  That last one can be the hardest, because when I go shopping I tend to not separate the forest from the trees.  I track down the peanut butter and don't worry too much about the brand.  This makes helping her shop for greeting cards especially challenging.

You have to actively look for what you want.  Are you buying for a friend, sibling, parent, boy, girl, birthday, wedding, anniversary, funny, serious, cute cat or dog.  Added to that, I can't just go through every card until I find the one Granny likes.  I have to have some sort of understanding of her tastes and her friends tastes (based solely on Grandma's reactions to the previous cards I choose).  Thus, I am forced to actively look and can't just pick up a random, cheap card.  But at least Grandma seems to share my "lack of enthusiasm" for overly sentimental cards, especially when it comes to poetry.

Let's face the facts, poets of the world, most people only associate poetry with bad greeting cards.  That industry has simultaneously managed to keep poetry alive and beat it to death.  Horribly abstract and lazily written poems litter our Hallmark shelves.
Cheerful thoughts are special things
That travel far on friendship's wings...
Warm with sunshine from the start
They find their home in someone's heart
Ugh!  It hurts.
The future
belongs to you,
believe in yourself
and your hopes
and dreams
will come true.
Not sure if the above is actually a poem, but it seems like it's trying to be one.  It's hard to tell when most greeting cards are written in stanzas.
There's something very wonderful
about a day that shows
How truly vows are spoken
how deeply true love grows...
There's something very special
about two people, too,
Who share and care for sixty years
in the happy way you do!
This one was for a sixtieth anniversary, I believe.

I find it impossible to think that anyone put much thought into these cards, and buying one is about as thoughtful as not getting one at all.  So if it is the thought that counts, one is better off actually putting thought into their card.  If I wanted to give someone a card, I could actively search for one that fitted their sense of humor, I could make a card myself, I could write my own damn poem, or I could write to them about the good ol' days, rekindle memories.  But these dumb, dumb, over-sentimental poems...

...worth less than their receipts...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Entertaining Arts: April

Here I've collected a number of beautiful, fascinating, and strange things from the month gone by.  I don't have too much to say about each one individuality, but they are all wonderful in their own right.

Nutella Heist

I never knew what Nutella was until I got to college.  Ah, how attending university changed my life.  When I saw my roommate spreading it on bread and combining it with peanut butter, I recoiled in fear.  That's not jelly!? thought my once closed-off mind.  But now I understand exactly why a band of devious thieves in Bad Hersfeld, Germany nabbed FIVE METRIC TONS of Nutella.  These same thieves are assumed to have stolen a large supply of energy drinks from the same place in the past.  Who knows what they'll strike next?

Space: The Final Frontier

It is fair to assume that the whole of human existence is based upon competition.  Striving for food, shelter, competing with other animals and other tribes for control of land and resources.  And of course, man of the present is notorious for competing with man of the past in all efforts to emblazon the world with phallic symbols.  Recently, however, NASA's Mars rovers have taken that struggle one step farther: from Earth...to Mars...

Yes, one of our beloved rovers has left mankind's mark on the red planet.  But if manhood on Mars is a little too lewd for you, then I suggest you look to our kind and innocent neighbors to the north, whose journey through the universe has answered that eternal question: "What happens when you squeeze a wet towel in space?"  It will blow your mind...

Wilder Mann

Charles Fréger spent two years of his life traveling through Europe to collect little known pieces of history and culture.  Throughout that journey, he found a wide variety of "wild men" that were connected to the seasons, rituals, and traditions in pagan culture.  He documented them and that series, "Wilder Mann," is on display at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York through May 18th.  Since, I don't live in New York, I'm anxiously awaiting my copy of the book.

Mock Toy Poodles

An Argentinian man bought what he thought were two toy poodles from an outdoor market only to discover that they were steroid injected ferrets.

Gentleman Banned in South Korea

The pop musician PSY's first music video since his incredibly popular Gangnam Style has been subject to a little bit of controversy over in South Korea.  The new song, Gentleman, is an unsubtle parody of classy and fashionable men who lack the "qualities of a gentleman."  Throughout the video, men are constantly shown rudely mistreating the women around them.  However, that's not the reason it was banned by one Korean broadcaster.  It was banned because he kicked a yellow cone that read "No Parking" in Hangul.

Friday, April 26, 2013


"...and we played rock-paper-scissors for the smaller room."

"Wait.  What did you do?" my grandmother asked.

"Both of us wanted the smaller room-"

"No, what did you play?"

If you ever want to challenge yourself, try to teach a nearly blind, eighty-five year old woman rock-paper-scissors.

I stammered through an explanation of this ancient art, as my grandmother stared blankly into her clenched fist.  For me, rock-paper-scissors had always existed.  It was one of those schoolyard activities, or rather, laws that controlled the fates and one which had been in affect since the beginning of time.  Occasionally, new elements were introduced: handguns and dynamite, but they were only short lived fads that tired out their welcome not long into the first game played with them.  The classic triality were perfect, able to dictate rule and order before we even knew what they were.

It's place as the eternal final word was only justified by my brief tour of Korea, where I learned school aged children were playing "gawi-bawi-bo" with an almost religious reverence.  All disputes, no matter how great or small, could be determined by this game, and kids would flex their muscles ahead of time in order to improve their... luck(?)... or more likely, put their plumage on display.  This made it clear that rock-paper-scissors was an international problem-solver for children everywhere.

My grandmother quickly took the game to be a descendant of "Eeny-meeny-miny-moe," which she noted as being far superior in her own unique way of condemning strange and foreign things.  While it seems odd that she would never hear of this game until far into old age, the real issue was that she shattered my very understanding of reality.  My head swirled with fears, Wh-what if everything I know is a lie?  If this one, obviously universal aspect of human existence, this single, universal law, is not actually universal... then there's nothing I can believe in...

For a long, black moment, I had become a nihilist.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: The Game

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce is one of those short stories that I absolutely adore.  Written in 1890 when the traumatic events of the Civil War were still locked in the minds of many across the country, this tale focused on a Confederate sympathizer being executed by hanging at (where else?) Owl Creek Bridge.  The man spends the last few moments of his life thinking of his family and desperately planning some sort of escape.  And as luck would have it, as he drops from the side of the bridge, the rope snaps and he is freed into the water.  I'd hate to ruin the rest for anyone who hasn't read this wonderful story, and as stated earlier, its a "short" story, so you could read it really, really fast.  Right now even!  OR you could sit on your front porch and listen to it for free from Librivox.org.

OR you could even play through the adventure yourself, taking on the role of our hero, Peyton, as he escapes from the Union's grasp in a pixelated rendition of the classic tale.  James Cox's video game adaptation of the game hits all the right notes (Speaking of which, it also has a great, one song soundtrack that you could download with the game).  I can only think of a hand full of interactive adaptations of literature, and most of them waver between decent and god awful (Dante's Inferno, I'm looking at you!), but this one really hits the spot.

While Cox's version is strong enough to stand on its own, I strongly recommend reading the original story with it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Found Books: The Adventure of the Speckled Band

"Very sorry to knock you up, Watson," he said, "but its the common lot this morning.  Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you."
Lack of context is fun.

During my thrift shop rummaging, I crossed paths with a fifty cent copy of The Best of Sherlock Holmes, a small collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle staring the most famous detective of them all (with the possible exceptions of Batman and Detective Conan).  Few literary characters are as iconic or popular as Holmes, which makes him one of those rare, fascinating characters, like Captain Ahab, that everyone knows about even if they haven't read something with him in it.

I've always had an extremely limited understanding of the mystery genre.  However, Holmes has been (physically) close to me since birth.  His profile sat upon the binding of a massive tome on my mother's book shelf, and ever since I can remember I've known who he was.  And yet, I'd only read two tales featuring Holmes until discovering this book.  The first story in the "Best of..." was The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

Thanks to this and The Case of Jennie Brice, I'm starting to understand just what the mystery genre is all about.  For starters, both mysteries are less about who did it and more how it was done.  In both stories, we pretty much know from the start that the only suspect is the culprit.  The surprise twist is not that it was someone we'd never guess, but the clever way in which they committed the crime.  Also, both books tend to lack the modern interpretation of excitement.  No shoot outs.  No wild chases.  Most everything is delivered through dialog or observation.  Holmes stories are extremely dialog heavy and very dry to boot.

That said, The Adventure of the Speckled Band is not boring.  After a woman's sister dies under mysterious circumstances, she finds herself in the exact same situation and goes to Holmes for help.  That's not an uninteresting premise, but then you read something like, "He has a passion for Indian animals, which are sent over to him by a correspondent, and he has at this moment a cheetah and a baboon which wander freely..." WAIT!  What?!  Still in that dry, analytic tone, we just read a man lets two wild and very dangerous animals roam merrily around his property.

I'm not sure whether that dry tone aids or detracts from the absurdity, but it makes the Holmes character that much more likable.  Watching him solve the case with nonchalance is the best part of the book.  We like Sherlock because he's a good detective and just so damned as-matter-a-fact about everything.  Watson's narration seems to match that tone just fine.  Seeing the calm and scientific Holmes solve cases in his calm, scientific way in a calm, scientific voice is what seems to make the character such an enjoyable one... That, and this:
"You are Holmes, the meddler."
My friend smiled.
"Holmes, the busybody."
His smile broadened.
"Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!"
Holmes chuckled heartily.  "Your conversation is most entertaining," said he. "When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draft."
How could you not love that man?

This particular story can be found in several collections besides the random one I picked up, downloaded for free as an audio book from Librivox.org, or bought for the Amazon Kindle for only a dollar.