“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman (Week 4 – Book a Week)

American Gods is as good a book as you can hope to read.  It tells a massive story with the scope and gravitas to encompass gods and nations, but it remains so specific that you feel as if your friends are living it.   The locations are real.  Gaiman lovingly describes the Great Lakes states.  Peru, Illinois and The House on the Rock are note-for-note perfect.  He may be just as good on Reykjavik but, as a Midwestern boy, I can speak with more authority on his observations of Wisconsin.

The cast of American Gods mostly contains mythic figures on the brink of a huge conflict, but a few humans find their way into the story through an accident of history.  In a way, it is easier to write a fictionalized version of character who exists already.  They carry a certain cachet and the reader can picture who they are.  But the difficulty in working with characters who exist in the collective conscious is that if the author hits a wrong note it jars the reader.  So when Gaiman introduces Loki, he needs to be the close enough to the Loki of our imagination that we recognize him, but the story needs to be engaging enough that the character doesn’t get lost in its own shadow.  Gaiman does this beautifully.

The novel is an epic.  It builds up a number of stories, starts a number of conflicts and then pays them off beautifully.  The Dude would call this book “a fucking Swiss watch.”

A Note on the Medium

I originally borrowed this book from the library in CD format.   But it was too exciting for me to wait for someone to read it to me.  I wanted to eat through it in big bites.

Recommended

Housekeeping

I had originally said that I would review Machine Man this week and I still plan to do it but I would like to post that review as a companion piece to the interview that I did with the book’s author, Max Barry and I am waiting for the Max Berry article to be published before I write that review.  If you’re waiting on that review then bless you.  You’re an angel.  If you aren’t… Well, I am going to write it anyway

 

Upcoming 

Week 5 – Dune Messiah

Week 6 – Machine Man

Freedom and Bad Food on the Open Road (Vámonos Vol. 10)

These are tough times.  Everyone is being asked to make more from less and stretch dollars further.  Under these circumstances travel plans often get pruned, delayed or just flat out canceled.  One of the oldest ways to save money when traveling is to opt out of train fair and make it a road trip.  Looking for local wonders through a windshield can be an exciting way to see the world, and while gas prices continue to abuse wallets, there are no charges for additional bags, and TSA will not take your deodorant.

More importantly, a car offers a certain amount of personal freedom that a plane can’t compete with.  A roadtripper leaves at her or his own convenience; he/she controls the climate and the music.  The car makes stops and layovers where the driver wants, not where the airline wants to.  And while there is always the chance of a mechanical failure or delay, that delay is something that the roadtripper has some control over(this can be a good or bad thing).

It is considerably slower to travel by car then by air, but this doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Some of the best travel pictures I have ever scene were taken on the side of a small highway or out the passenger window.  I remember once as a young boy, waking up in the back seat of my grandparents Oldsmobile somewhere in South Dakota stopped in the middle of a heard of buffalo.  I can’t remember where we were going that day, but I remember the car trip to this day.

Some consider the Midwest boring country to drive through, sometimes they’re right.  A lot of Illinois “Mile after magnificent miles” are cornfields each identical to the one before.  I would have thought there was nothing of interest in the drive between Chicago and St. Louis.  It is a drive I have done a number of my times and I have always been in a hurry to get home.  But, on a recent trip at my girlfriend’s insistence we stopped in Springfield to see some of the historic site tied to Lincoln’s early political career and eat some of the worst tacos I have had in my entire life.   On balance it was a great little adventure.  And while our dining was imperfect, it was a side trip and an adventure we couldn’t have had traveling any other way.  I loved seeing Springfield, next time I am getting a sandwich.

 

Trip Tips

 

Don’t Push Yourself too Hard 

It is easy to become excited about making good time, but remember you’re on vacation this is not the amazing race.  Whoever is driving should be responsible and remember that they’re not being considerate if they keep driving even after they become groggy.  If you need to make distances quickly make sure you can share driving responsibilities.

Bring a Second Driver

See Above.

Be a Good Passenger

When you’re not driving make sure to be a good passenger.  Someone should be talking to and engaging the driver.  It can be difficult to drive for long stretches and its more fun and easier to enjoy the trip if you have someone with you to pass the time with.

Use the trip as an excuse to do general maintenance of your car

The driving you do on your road trip is likely above and beyond what you do on a normal day-to-day basis, the same goes for your car.  Make sure you don’t get caught on the road in something that can’t or shouldn’t handle trip.  Your wheels are your freedom out there and they will treat you as well as you treat them.

 

This article is available en Español

Previous Vámanos Music another Window for Culture

“The Magician King” by Lev Grossman (Week 3 – Book a Week)

Sequels

Sequels and fantasy go together like hot dogs and grilled onions.  The fantasy genre, which requires world-building and myths, has room for huge word counts and long volumes.

Still, I carry a small suspicion of sequels in any genre, they make too much sense from a marketing perspective to be motivated primarily from a creative perspective.  I know the world of Middle Earth had more to explore than the world of the Transformers in their recent movie incarnations, but it’s easy to see why editors and movie studios would be hungry to make sequels of both properties.  A successful story has a market built in.

I am happy to admit that I am part of that built-in market for The Magician King.  The Magicians, which precedes this book, is as good as anything I have read in the last year.

Review

Judged on its own merits, The Magician King is an exciting, emotionally affecting story that I zoomed through.  The characters felt real and were given interesting things to do. I cared about everything they did.

Even with those merits, this is an excellent book that falls short of its predecessor. The Magician King is about finding the proper path, so it feels unfair to criticize it for wandering around in the doldrums, or suffering through uncertainty before powering toward a climax.  There is gold in the early adventures, the introduction of a swordsman protector (Biddle) for the hero (Quentin) is particularly engaging but, as the story moved along, I found myself wanting to jump forward into the meat of the adventure.

Another nitpick I have is that Grossman employs an A plot B plot technique — switching perspectives as the story unfolds — and what happened for me (as happens with almost all books using this device) is I found myself more interested in one plot than the other.  I was pushing through the part about the magician’s underground to get back to the present and the adventure happening in the current time-line.  In the end, both stories paid off and tied up beautifully and I probably wouldn’t be complaining about either story if I hadn’t had have to jump between the two.

So give it a B+/A-, 4 ½ out of five stars, or the silver medal.  I loved this book, maybe it is so up my alley that I graded it on a curve but, for me, it was just short of great.  Perhaps the most ringing endorsement I can offer is that If Grossman writes ten more of these books, I would happily read them all.


 

Recommended

 

Schedule

Week 4 – Machine Man

Week 5 – American Gods

Week 6 – Dune Messiah

Music another Window for Culture (Vámonos Vol. 9)

Eyes and ears need training.  A photographer can see a beautiful pattern in a heap of scraps; a musician can pick out a subtle difference in pitch that would be impossible for the audience to pick up on.

Travelers are untrained in the sights and sounds of the place they are visiting, especially if they are going for the first time.  The more foreign your surroundings, the harder it is to identify what you’re seeing or hearing.  This unfamiliarity is part of the fun, of course, but just like it is useful to dip your toe in and get familiar with basic vocabulary of the language in the country you’re visiting, a little familiarity with local music can go along way in a new place.

Both foreign and domestic travel offer the chance to explore music that you wouldn’t otherwise seek out.  Some cities, like New Orleans, Seattle and Memphis, are closely associated with the music that was born or grew up within their limits.  But places not necessarily thought of as homes for music scenes, or museums to a musical past, can be that much more exciting to uncover.

For example, if you’re going to St. Louis, a quick Google search might lead you to a song like W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” while a less adventurous traveler might just pick through some old CDs to find a discarded Nelly album.  Omaha was the birthplace of Elliot Smith and is the home of Saddle Creek, the label that Bright Eyes and Cursive are on.  A little music as cultural background can go a long way.

The digital music revolution has made finding the music of whatever place you’re heading to so much easier.  Once you identify a couple tracks that come from or mention the place you’re going to, you can likely hear them on YouTube, iTunes, or Spotify.  It’s easy to sample different styles and find something you like.  Then when you are there you can have a soundtrack to play over the sites.

 

Trip Tips

Use the Internet

If you knew exactly what you were looking for you already would have found it.  Use the internet to help you find music you wouldn’t normally come in contact with.  Start with a general search about the music of the place you’re going to and let the randomness of the internet lead you to places of interest.  Once you have found something interesting, use a music-streaming site to dig deeper.

Be Adventurous

Don’t let the fact that you generally listen to genre X keep you from trying something from genre Y.  Travel is all about trying new things.  This is your chance.

Check out Smaller Venues

Baseball fans may disagree, but to me a stadium is a stadium.  Huge venues have trouble holding as much local flavor as neighborhood haunts.  If you can find an act or a place that interests you, try and venture off the beaten path.

Do Your Homework

I may have given this tip before, but it is just as applicable now as it was then.  If you can get excited about some music or a venue before, you go you’ll be all the more likely to enjoy it once you’re there.

 

This article is available en Español

Previous Vámanos Being a Good Houseguest


“The Mission Song” by John LeCarré (Week 2 – Book a Week)

The Performance

I listened to this book on CD’s borrowed from the Lincoln Square’s Sulzer Library and, first, let me highlight the performance of the actor, David Oyelowo.  He doesn’t need my praise to lift his career, Oyelowo has gone on to act in many successful television shows and films.  As far as I can tell, this is his only performance in an audio book, but what a performance.  He is just as believable as a female British newspaper editor as he is as a grizzled Bembe warrior.

There is no stock Pan-African style voice gets trotted out every time an African character speaks. Oyelowo narrates men and women from all over the world and makes every voice distinct and real. African voices are hard to do and they don’t always come off, see Steve Bucsemi’s reading of Pagan Babies.

With The Mission Song, Oyelowo drew as difficult a read as an actor could hope for and doesn’t just pull it off he impresses the whole way.

The Work

The book itself is a spy thriller.  We follow an interpreter hired by a shady, nameless organization to negotiate a shady and nameless deal to start a war in the Congo.

Unlike older spy novels that followed familiar Cold War dynamics, this one deals with the more unfamiliar political situation in the Congo. Though it’s not as easy to grasp, the novelty makes the book feel fresher and more interesting than yet another story about mounting an attack on the Nazis or the Commies.

The political world makes the creepy syndicate that much more creepy, and makes the many cogs in the machine that much more helpless arousing painful empathy for the characters.

I found some of the situations so uncomfortable that I had to switch over to the radio until I had the courage to move on.  For some reason, it is much easier for me to skip a page when I’m reading than to jump to the next track in an audio book.

Politics

It’s a common knock on LeCarré these days that with time his books have become less fun and more political.  I don’t know that I line up on that complaint.  If the author doesn’t have a point of view, what is the point?  I don’t think every book should be as strident as say, The Jungle, but if LeCarré is paying attention to European intervention in Africa I am happy to be filled in.  The political polemics add to the intrigue.

Ultimately, the book satisfies, not as a pamphlet for a cause, but as a story with characters the reader cannot help but care about.

 

Recommended (especially audio version)

 

Schedule

Week 3 – Machine Man

Week 4 – The Magician King

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman (Week 1 – Book a Week)

The fantasy genre has a small but committed group of superfans.  There are shelves and shelves of stories about magic and elves that no one but the deeply committed fan has ever heard of.  But, the canon has its crossover hits.  The Magicians takes many of those beloved works (particularly Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia) and builds his book on their sacred ground.  But it’s no rehash.

The idea of magic is inherently tied to power.  The idea of young people gifted with the ability to do more than mortal men is a fantasy in its purest sense.  Power is what makes magic so tempting as an idea in fiction.  Doing impossible feats by conjuring unknowable powers is a sexy possibility.  But what happens when there is no menace to turn those powers against?  With no Sauron, what would Gandalf do all day?

The idea of a group of listless recent college students and graduates with superpowers is a scary one.  The book has its share of adventure and derring do. But it’s the frank way that the book looks at sex and death that raises the stakes.  One scene where a female wizard slits the throat of an anthropomorphic ferret stands out as more honest than genre generally allows.   The consequences in this world are real and that makes the wonderland all the more wonderful.

 

Recommended

 

Schedule

Week 2 – The Mission Song By John LeCarré

Week 3 – Machine Man By Max Barry

Read a lot, Write a lot (Book a Week Series – Introduction)

“Read a lot, write a lot.” This is the mantra of a good writer or, at least, the one I stole from Stephen King. He says that a good writer should read between 70 and 80 books a year and I take him at his word.

In chess, if you never study the masters, you will be stuck under a low ceiling. You also need to log your time playing. If you don’t, you cannot develop an eye for the patterns. Following the “read a lot, write a lot” advice doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a great writer but not doing it probably ensures you won’t. So I’ll be reading a lot and writing about reading, too.

Reading is an emotional topic for me because for a long time as a kid I could not read. I am dyslexic and didn’t learn to read more than a sentence at a time until the third grade. At that point, I only half read books. I would undertake to read a paragraph out loud and then my mother would read the next paragraph to me.

It was generous of my mother to do this every morning. And I think it got me on my feet. The practice, the unavoidable act of reading, forced me to catch up.

By the time I was 13, you wouldn’t necessarily notice that I had had any trouble reading. I still read slowly but no longer had to read aloud, take untimed tests or rewrite things I had written backwards. The training wheels came off a little before puberty.

But, I was always sensitive about it. I felt stupid for not learning faster. I wanted to avoid reading the same way a kid who can’t throw a baseball as well as the rest wants to avoid gym.

Now I read frequently, but nothing like 70 or 80 books a year. So, I am game for a challenge. I am setting myself the goal of a book per week. If I keep on pace that makes 52 books in a year (did I say 70 or 80? I meant 52). For the next, who knows how many weeks, I will read and post a review for a different book here on North and Clark. Full disclosure, I plan to cheat every way I can: graphic novels, books I already finished this week and audio books are all fair game. I still think it will stretch me as a writer to take in all this material and knowing I will be reflecting on the books here in the blog will force me to read more closely. If you’re interested, follow along. I am going to start tomorrow with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

 

Coming up

Week 1 – The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Week 2 – The Mission Song by John LeCarré

Week 3 – Machine Man by Max Barry

 

Disease, Marriage and Board Games (Feature for Extra)

Matt Leacock doesn’t remember exactly how he got the idea for his board game.
“I was a new dad… you’re kind of in a haze when you’re short on sleep,” he tells EXTRA with a laugh. He does remember wanting to create a game that he could play with his wife. He had loved and invented board games since he was a kid and he wanted to share that love with her. It was a romantic idea that spurred this creation, which was odd considering it inspired a game called “Pandemic”.

This game concerns the outbreak of four deadly diseases in four locations across the world. The object of the game is to contain and eventually cure all four of these diseases before they become too big to control. The catch is that as the game goes on and the diseases get more widespread, the game becomes more challenging. Any bad turn may cause a chain reaction and the diseases can win. Luckily, the players of “Pandemic” are not alone. Every player can and must work together.

Matt is a real student of games and he was happy dig into what makes a great game great. He spent much of our interview talking about how to create and sustain challenge, variety and interest in board games.

Matt did not come up with the idea on his own. Besides his wife, whom he cites as his muse, Matt credits a number of other people whose testing and critiquing of his game sharpened and improved it. His wife and family were employed as game testers, but Matt didn’t stop there. He kept taking the game to new people with fresh eyes and perspectives.

One manufacturer said his pieces needed to “map” back to the actual players, and a color blind co-worker told him he couldn’t tell between red and green cities.

Suggestions like these led to changes big and small. Matt made pawns more like individual people with the addition of colors and roles specific to each player, and colors were changed from green and red to blue, yellow and black. Symbols were added so that the cities could be distinguished by two different mechanisms.

The game is designed to be as easy as possible to understand. There are games that are for gamers, people committed to the hobby or the practice of gaming. People like this play games that are often intimidating or inaccessible to the average person. Gamers, though, weren’t the only people Matt wanted to have play and enjoy this game.

“For a game to really come off the shelf for me it’s got to not only be playable with [hardcore gamers],” he says. “What I personally find most gratifying is being able to play it with my aunt, or uncle or my cousin or my nephew.”

For a game as challenging as “Pandemic” is, it’s also accessible. A player can understand the board, cards and pieces of the game without reading English. This was a point Matt emphasized during a speech he gave at Google. He talked about wanting to make sure the greatest number of people could enjoy the game, not just for altruistic reasons but also because the more people who could play the game the more likely it was to be a success.

In terms of the creative process, Matt emphasizes that his idea wasn’t ready right out of the gate.

“If you work too hard on the prototype you become married to it,” Matt says. Instead, he talks about having a strong goal and building toward it.
He collaborated with his family to create a cooperative game and his inspirations were multiple, but one place Matt’s game did not take its inspiration was video games. Matt resists the idea of a cooperative board game springing out of computer games. He is quick to point out that he was never interested in video games, neither from a design standpoint nor as a player.

“I am not a programmer, video games take large budgets and teams to get off the ground,” Matt said. “As a board game novice, I had only seen the idea of playing a game as a certain role in 386 computer classics like Oregon trail, and playing on the same team sounds to me like Mario and Luigi coming together to fight Bowser.” Still, there is actually an entire genre of board games dedicated to cooperation. As a true lover of board games, Matt was influenced by a non-digital world.

When asked why he picked a morbid topic like widespread disease to be the subject for his game, particularly one that he developed with his wife in mind, Matt says simply that it made a good enemy. In a collaborative game where players aren’t monopoly men competing to buy the best stuff or pawns trying to get home on a Parcheesi board, there needs to be something significant for players to beat. That something has to be scary enough to be a believable bad guy. When Matt plays the game with his wife, they are not playing against each other—they are playingto save the world. And that is a pretty romantic idea.

Pandemic and Matt Leacock’s other games can be found on his website: http://www.Leacock.com and in many game shops.

This article is available in Spanish here

Being a Good Houseguest (Vámonos Vol. 8)

The Spanish say, “After three days, fish and houseguests get old.”  In my experience, sometimes the guests get old faster than the fish.  To quote a more modern phrase, “Don’t be that guy.”  It’s not difficult to be a good houseguest, but it makes all the difference.  The main thing you need to have is common sense.

There are any number of reasons why staying in a house can be preferable to staying in a hotel.  A home is a real environment where people actually live.  You can see firsthand how the people in the city you are visiting interact with their homes in their community.  A lot of what you learn while traveling is not contained in museums; it is witnessed in the lives of others.  It’s also cheaper to stay in a house.

But being a houseguest comes with responsibility.  You need to engage with your hosts.  If invited to a dinner or two, you should definitely go.  Remember, these people are going out of their way to make you happy and comfortable, so you should make every effort to return that favor.  At the same time, you cannot expect too much of your host.  If they offer to be your guide to the city, that is lovely, but it should by no means be expected.  Sometimes as a guest the best thing you can do is take care of your own entertainment.

In a previous article (Beer, Bread and Bananas), we covered food and eating in places where you may not be able to stomach local cuisine.  This problem becomes a little trickier when you are a houseguest. In order to avoid embarrassing or awkward situations, try to inform your hosts of anything you might not be able to eat in advance. If attending a dinner, it may be wise to offer to bring something to share that you know you can eat.

Always respect the place you are staying.  The main thing here is common sense.  You need to be clean, particularly in the bathroom, which you will likely share with your hosts.  Don’t leave the shower curtain open and a puddle of water in the middle of the floor, or something worse.  Keep your sleeping area tidy, even if you’re given your own room.  Take care not to damage any part of the house or apartment.  Generally, try to make the house a nicer place because you’re there.

 …

Trip Tips

What is an appropriate housewarming gift?

Traditional gifts are generally the safest.  Wine, pop, beer, or whatever your hosts drink is fine.  Also, flowers or chocolates are nice.  If you want to be more creative or original, by all means give it a shot.

Can you stay out late?

You will often be on a different schedule from your host, so try to have as a good time as you can without making it unpleasant for them to get up for work in the morning.  If they have an extra key, that can solve this problem.

What can I do to show my thanks at the end of the trip?

It’s always nice to take your host out to dinner towards the end of your trip.  While a host or hostess gift is a good way to acknowledge the favor your host is doing, a dinner is a great final thanks.

Should you expect your hosts to be your tour guides?

No.

 …

This article will appear in Extra September 9.  As soon as it is available I will link the Spanish Translation.

 

This article is available en Español

Previous Vámanos What Words to Learn First When you Can’t Speak the Language