Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Triad: Games and Atlases

It's been a while since the last book triad; it's not that I haven't been reading things, it's that I haven't been finishing them.  But, well, we're here now.  Today's books are:

The Leafs in Autumn by Jack Batten.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form by Anna Anthropy.

Reviews after the break.

The Leafs in Autumn. This book is rather far from usual interests, but I'm on a sports kick, so expect to see a flurry of Leafs and related subjects in the days to come.  On the coattails of his related book, Hockey Dynasty, Batten wanted to do a book profiling the players of the Maple Leafs who were there in their golden period, from 1947-1951, the years the Leafs won four of the five Stanley Cups.  The first and last chapter explain some of what these accomplishments meant to Batten personally; every other chapter (9 in all) follows the same format: a profile of one of the players (or coach, in Hap Day's case), including a mini-biography, their own description of those days, and what they're doing now.  Batten's focus is relentlessly positive, highlighting the successes of these men and their apparently unflagging attitudes.  After a while, the individual players tend to blur a little, and the nostalgia wears a little thin, but I suppose you'd have a bit more mileage for both if you had grown up with the team--personally, in the 40s, I wouldn't have been born for another 35 to 40 years, so my own connection is a little slight.  At the same time, I did enjoy the glimpses into what hockey meant, culturally, at that time.  Batten relates the intense, even snobbish, nature of the fans back then ("Class didn't mean anything to Leaf fans outside the Gardens, but inside, in the red seats, upper-middle-class Anglo-Saxon protestantism counted for almost everything."), and the incredible power the managers had over the players--one player recalls how a friend was sent down to the minors for getting married during the season, a practice the Maple Leafs manager had forbidden, on the grounds that it distracted the players too much.  Most of all, and most importantly, Batten conveys the sense that these players didn't just represent Toronto, but all of Canada, and he does so by going into detail over how they lived, and how they lived now; the chapter on Max Bentley, from Delisle, Saskatchewan, is so detailed on the content of small town life that I felt a little homesick.  Yes, it's nostalgic, nationalistic, and vaguely elitist in strange ways, but it was a good read, nonetheless.

Cloud Atlas.  Add me to the growing list of those who have jumped on the Cloud Atlas bandwagon in anticipation of the upcoming film. It'll be an interesting film, at any rate, because what strikes me most about the novel is how literary it is. The book doesn't have an ongoing plot, or rather, it has six of them. There's six stories here, each of which breaks off half way through to suddenly start the next one in the cycle, which takes place decades later, if not more. And once we get the sixth story in full, we get the second half of the others. Each section takes place in a different era, and that's what I mean about it being literary--Mitchell nails the tone and language of each period's narrator:a man early turn of the century Pacific sea voyage,a rake-hero-ish post WWI (I think) musician, a reporter trying to discover the truth in a 70s thriller, an aging literary agent in a nursing home farce set around present day, a genetically modified clone explaining how she came to lead an uprising in the corporate future, and a man recounting the last bastion of civilization in a post-apocalyptic future-jargon drawl. There's not a lot tying the stories together: each protagonist has the same comet-shaped birthmark somewhere on their body, and each finds a fragment of the story of the person preceding them. And there's a general theme of choosing violence or opposition to violence, as well as the odd metatextual reference to the book's structure. 

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it a manifesto, but Anthropy's book is definitely edging toward screed in her argument supporting the development of homebrew, indie-made games. Her model for how she would like to see games work is the zine: intensely personal for the author, creative, cheap and easy to make, easy to distribute in low levels. The book is divided into eight chapters. She starts by talking about what's wrong with the videogame industry: essentially, that it puts industry before videogame, and it's making games first and foremost for the same white, male clientele it always did. Chapter two looks at the history of videogames, and how it used to have various forms of more populous distribution. From there, she talks more generally about what a game is, and what value it has in society at large. And how modders and hackers change games to reflect their own values: she talks about super Mario hacks, machinima, sampling, and mods. Further chapters offer useful examples of such games, and a general discussion on how these indie games are made, and how to make your own. The book ends with two very useful appendices, one listing good tools to start making games with (Twine, Gamemaker, Inform 7 and so forth) and another listing some games Anthropy finds inspiring: Sonic 2 XL, The Baron, and Digital: A Love Story, among others. It's an intensely personal book, as Anthropy (sometimes rather bluntly) details her own falling out with the larger videogame industry, and her own path to unleash the creativity she wanted to use for creating games. I'm not crazy about her industry/regular people distinction; it's got some truth to it, and it highlights some of the more glaring problems with the industry at large, but it's still overgeneralizing. Valve is not EA is not DoublFine and so forth. Still, it's a very passionate yet practical guide to why making your own game is important. I mentioned to someone that this book would make a good pairing with Ian Bogost's more scholarly-oriented How to do Things with Videogames, and it would: Bogost's book is on generating ideas for games, and Anthropy's is on how and why those games should be made.

It was an odd set of books this time round; the nonfiction books both took me hardly any time to read, but the fiction selection seemed to drag on forever,  which almost never happens.  Part of the problem with Cloud Atlas, I think--besides the fact that it was longer than the other two books combined--is that the six story format makes it all seem longer, and harder to read on that basis.  By the time you reach the sixth story, you're definitely feeling a bit fatigued.  The Anthropy and Batten books share a strange similarity--I say it's strange, because it's pretty clear that the WASP, conservative Batten would find very little in common with Anna Anthropy, the relentless lesbian rebel.  But they've both weaved this larger narrative about what a particular kind of game means to them, and how their own lives have been shaped by this love.  The difference is that Batten's looking back, to a certain approach that can never be recaptured; Anthropy's looking forward, to a videogame industry that doesn't exist yet and may never exist.  Both books aren't exactly to my taste (though Anthropy's got the slight edge); Anthropy's a little too proselytizing, and a little too dismissive of the existing game industry.  And Batten's got a lot of cultural assumptions under him that were more prevalent in the time of the book's publication (1975), but are kind of eye-olling today.  I also want to note that The Leafs in Autumn are not on Goodreads, which is the first time in a long time that has happened.  Its absence forced me to think about how much I've come to rely on Goodreads for being a part of my ritual for finishing a book.  In medieval plays, there used to be a bit at the end where the actors would remind the audience that it was all made up; the ending served to take them into the "real" world (I put real in quotations because I've done enough work with videogames' magic circle to put some qualifiers on that.)  Likewise, writing the GoodReads review and watching my "Number of Books Rated" go up by one is part of the ending process of reading for me now.  And it feels a little out of place to skip it.  I guess I'll just have to settle for a long blog post.  But somehow... it's just not the same.

Later Days. 

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