Archive for May, 2010

Caricature-ization

Monday, May 31st, 2010

I tried to read Jonathan Franzen’s latest story in the New Yorker, “Agreeable,” and I had to abandon it on the first page. I usually try to soldier through with the fiction, but he’s shameless in loading the deck for his protagonists, employing characterization that’s about as nuanced as a Snidely Whiplash appearance on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.

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Graduating Into Debt

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

The Project on Student Debt, a research and advocacy organization in Oakland, Calif., used federal data to estimate that 206,000 people graduated from college (including many from for-profit universities) with more than $40,000 in student loan debt in that same period. That’s a ninefold increase over the number of people in 1996, using 2008 dollars.

The New York Times has an excellent article on ballooning student loan debt. I’ve long thought higher education will be the next bubble to burst; people are leveraging themselves beyond what their college degree will give them the ability to pay.

Joystick Jockey, Heal Thyself!

Monday, May 24th, 2010

I can’t claim to be much of a gamer anymore, but I enjoyed David Wong’s Cracked piece, “5 Reasons It’s Still Not Cool to Admit You’re a Gamer.” He touches upon the format’s misogyny, immaturity and repetition. I would agree and add the sheer cost–in dollars and time–of keeping up with the hobby. Many games leave you repeating the same gameplay experience for three levels beyond the point it’s novel. (Hello unbeaten copy of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind!)

I think the anecdotal surge in casual gaming highlights how many fun, quick and free browser-based games are out there. Plants Vs. Zombies, Bejeweled and Mushroom Madness 2 are some recent ones I’ve clicked through and then happily abandoned. The AV Club’s Sawbuck Gamer feature is a great guide to more.

Free Fruit For Young Widows

Monday, May 24th, 2010

I’m wary of authors using the Holocaust as a storytelling prompt, but Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit For Young Widows,” published in the New Yorker, was a human, satisfying read.

Review: Little Big

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

John Crowley’s “Little, Big” is a sprawling, lyrical fantasy epic. It is a work of high style, one Crowley executes with skill rare for the genre. He teases his sentences into precise, beautiful forms, situating them the page like typeface origami. Even if his phrases are occasionally overdone, they often succeed in shaping fresh metaphors, new views onto a created world.

Crowley’s fantasy setting strays far from common touchstones of elves and named swords. It is fixed in myths and prophecies, a fairy world at the edge of sight. The story revolves around Edgewood, a mysterious house designed by an older architect as a beacon for his younger wife—and perhaps the fairies she communes with. It is isolated, anchoring a pastoral community at some distance from a big city.

A family—a tribe, really—has grown there. They stand in uncertain commune with the spirits surrounding them, unsure, it seems, whether they exist at all. Some can see these visitors better than others—the women and children, mostly—but no one can explain their visions. It’s all part of a larger Tale, they assure the bewildered outsiders who come to follow love and father children. No one will know the deeper meaning until it’s over.

Crowley succeeds in building a familiar, but unknowable, society, especially at the outset. His family feels organic; his house, lived in. He sketches a mystery, leaving you eager to find a solution.

But the book falters later. Like its characters, it ends up re-treading beautiful, circular paths of the imagination. The characters’ confidence in what is written—the larger Tale—grounds them in a frustrating passivity. They are acted upon, by human and unknown forces, but they rarely seem to act themselves. Crowley’s male protagonists are especially inert, hapless wonderers content to lapdog along. Toward the end, when the characters arrange themselves on their pre-set paths, it’s increasingly uncertain why they choose to acquiesce. Rationalizations are offered, touching upon passion and duty, but these are spoken rather than felt.

Crowley is at his best with beginnings, notably the piercing passion of early love. He writes with a sure eroticism, luxuriating in reckless idleness, time spent unheeded in beds and bars. His willingness to leave “the Tale” here is energizing, and some of the book’s biggest disappointments come when we’re forced back into the larger narrative.

“Little, Big” is suffused with blunt mysticism, the heavy strivings of Crowley’s attempts to establish an unknowable world. The book is dense and beautiful, offering the delights of realized ambition. But it is also a chore, losing its way at times as it meanders within itself. If you accept it as a journey, you’ll find many rewards. As a destination, its value is less certain.

Modern Drunkard’s No-Booze-Barred All-Star Drink-Off

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

It’s an older piece, but Modern Drunkard has a hilarious drink-off featuring some of the top tipplers in history. “Clash of the Tightest” offers a running commentary as Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dean Martin, W.C. Fields and other carousers of note face off over martinis and more. The running commentary is sharp and well-rooted in the relevant works. Beyond that, it’s pretty damn funny too.

They Always Kill The Dogs

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Radley Balko of the Agitator links to footage of a Missouri SWAT raid where the police raid a home, shoot the family dogs, found a small amount of marijuana and then charge the parents with child endangerment.

I’ll admit that I can’t watch the movie. But I think it underscores the futility of the “war on drugs” and the unvarnished danger of no-knock police raids.

Inside the Baby Mind

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Paul Bloom has an excellent article in the New York Times detailing the moral life of babies. In it he relates a series of behavioral experiments showing infants natural tendencies to help, judge and even punish bad actors. It’s a great read.

As a follow-up, I’d like to learn whether kittens really “Think of Nothing but Murder All Day.”

Mushroom Madness 2

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Anyone looking for a few days of browser-based mayhem should check out Mushroom Madness 2, a free, frantic Flash game designed by Silen Games. The quick-clicking gameplay has you use a variety of weapons–from baseball bat to rocket gun–to defend your mushroom patch from rampaging rabbits, hedgehogs, bears and birds. The action is fast and fun, and it’s easy to become immersed as you fend off waves of attackers.

Gameplay extends to survival and tower defense modes. The control can be a little frustrating at times–it’s hard to nail the slippery spiders, and it’s frustrating when your grove falls because you accidentally picked up a weaker weapon that you can’t drop until its out of ammo. But plentiful power-ups and short-burst chapters make this a great game to snack on.

Thanks to the AV Club’s Sawbuck Gamer feature for pointing this one out.