writing

Book Review: “Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh

Brent Hopkins

This book was released last year and I always had interest in reading it but failed to find it in a Korean bookstore until this week. Hyperbole and a Half was an extremely popular blog by Allie Brosh that followed the little nuances of her life. The drawing point of the blog was that it was weird in an almost fictional way. People of course exist like this, but you rarely see it illustrated in Microsoft Paint glory.

clean all the things

You may have seen this at some point during your Internetting.

This clearly isn’t a review of the blog, so let’s jump into the book. The first thing I noticed about it is the quality. This book feels absolutely amazing in the reader’s hands. The pages are thick and glossy and the color quality is perfect for giving an almost handheld blog feel to it. This might be the best feeling web-to-print book I have ever handled and honestly, maybe one of the best feeling books I have ever owned. I tend to give away and discard books due to living abroad but this is one that will make its way to a bookshelf I will someday own.

The meat of the book is the same as the blog. Allie Brosh illustrates different aspects of her life while filling the other space with narration. I hadn’t read the blog in a year, so it all felt relatively fresh to me even though I knew there were stories from the blog repeated in the book. If you like the blog then I think you will appreciate this book, but there is a bit more to it than meets the eye.

Brosh’s magnum opus (the blog has been silent since the book’s release) is not what I would call humorous. There are moments where I would smile or chuckle, a bit but the focus was very decidedly on the narration. This felt more like a memoir than anything else, following her from the eccentricities of her childhood to the same eccentricities in her adulthood. One thing that is well documented is Brosh’s struggle to deal with her depression. This book details how she gets there and the struggle to come back. It is surprisingly poignant and the conclusion is by no means sugarcoated to make the reader feel better.

People tend to keep up a facade of how they want to be perceived. Brosh completely deconstructs herself in this book and it is somewhat jarring to take in. There is simply a “This is who I know I am” and then the book ends. I can’t help but recommend it. It is a quick read and it clearly has a purpose.

Plus, the illustrations are pretty dope to look at.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

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Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Advice You’ve Ever Been Given?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

Rules are simple: no one can tell you what to do, not even your dad or a cop. They can only advise you. Who has done the worst job of it in your life?

Alex Russell

I’m terrible about unsolicited advice, so I’m usually the other end of this one. As for advice someone’s given me, I’ve got to go with something I was taught in college. Have everyone write down their feelings. I was in training to be a high school teacher, but a series of my education classes were “general” classes for teachers from preschool through high school. When you need something to apply to a six year old and an eighteen year old, you have to be pretty broad. When you have to be pretty broad, you end up saying a lot of really silly stuff. The moment the shine came off the apple for me was when a person looked me straight in the eye and told me that the way to handle a teenager that wouldn’t listen in class was to have them write down their feelings about class and to take away their recess.

Brent Hopkins

The worst advice I have ever received was to be brashly honest in relationships. This just straight up does not work and causes so much stress and pain on both ends that it kinda is a self-sabotaging mindset to be in. I am not saying I am a consistent liar or anything now, but I have grown to appreciate the little lies and the withholding of information to keep the peace. There are times where lying IS actually the best option, not just Eagle Scout levels of honesty. That being the case I am regularly told I am still too honest, but I have figured out when that extra push is too much and to just keep it to myself.

Andrew Findlay

I am fortunate enough to have trouble remembering advice that has landed me in a laughably compromising position. People who feel qualified to give it out in my life generally give it soundly, and most problems arise from me not following it. That being said, one general piece of “advice” that really annoys me is “Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.” There is no, zero, nada physiological reason the order in which you ingest poison will make you feel worse or better. It’s like having a rhyme that starts “strychnine before arsenic…” Alcohol is a poison. You feel bad because you drank poison. If you drink so much you find yourself muttering useless, rhyming rules about it, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Gardner Mounce

A youth pastor once told me that it is a wife’s marital duty to sexually submit to her husband whenever her husband asks for it. He said that since two people become “one spirit and one flesh” when they are married, and since someone can’t rape themselves, then a man can’t be said to rape his wife.

Jonathan May

“Write what you know”–an often espoused platitude in creative writing programs. If people only wrote what they knew, then science fiction and fantasy, as genres, wouldn’t exist. If people only wrote what they knew, there would be only autobiography, which (unfortunately) so much of “today’s” writing is inherently. With the rise of the personal essay and proliferation of creative writing programs, I heard this advice often from writers at all levels, and I wanted to ask them, “Do you ever write outside of yourself?” So yeah, “write what you know” is horrible advice. All you writers out there–do whatever the hell you want.

Book Review: “Think Like a Freak” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

image source: freakonomics.com

image source: freakonomics.com

Brent Hopkins

I have rarely harped on it when writing here, (too busy raging at games and reviewing comic books) but I am a huge business and economics fan. I have my undergraduate in International Business and am currently working on a master’s degree in Human Resource Management, so something is always drawing me to this side of literature. That being said, I am no economist, but I think it is fascinating how certain things are correlated.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner came to prominence with their collaboration Freakonomics. This book and its sequel, SuperFreakonomics, used economics (though you can argue it’s a lot of sociology and criminology as well) to help explain the correlation between a myriad of things that would seem ridiculous to a normal person. This goes from abortion affecting the crime rate to teachers cheating to boost grades. There have been some issues brought up from other researchers with their methods and phrasing, but as long as you read with a reasonable mindset the books are incredibly engrossing.

This brings us to the third book, Think Like a Freak, which was released this summer. The book takes a break from telling stories about how approaching problems with a different mindset can lead to unique solutions and instead uses little tales to try and get the reader to think uniquely in various situations. The entire book comes off as almost a self-help work, but refrains from really pointing out direct flaws in people that need to be fixed. Instead, the authors explain how problems don’t always have simple solutions, but when you think like a “freak” amazing things could, not will, happen.

I am a pretty practical and positive person so it was a treat to read something that resonates with me at the age of 28. Two topics in particular stuck with me as they talked about quitting and redefining problems to help redefine solutions. They used two rather fascinating stories to draw the readers in: one focused on Takeru Kobayashi, the famous Japanese eating champion, and how he figured out how to eat hot dogs so quickly and another story about a company that invents things but often has to give up on ideas if they aren’t feasible. The line “Fail Quick and Fail Cheap” is simple but makes a lot of sense from a business mindset. These topics will make the reader step back and ask: “Could I handle doing that?” which I feel is precisely what the authors set out to do.

This book is largely about self-limitations, fear, and dealing with pride. Most of the situations brought up are not about external issues, but instead about how people get so focused on either being right or setting up artificial boundaries that they can never get to the next level. Think Like a Freak holds your hand through these issues and packs a lot of depth for such a short read.

Should You Read It?

Yes. It may not change your life, but I think it has enough depth to really be applicable to anyone’s life.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Video Games as Literature: Thomas Was Alone and Sentient AI

image source: wiki

image source: wiki

Brent Hopkins

Thomas Was Alone is an indie game developed by Mike Bithell that was originally a simple flash game, but was then expanded upon to become a full release for major platforms. I had the pleasure to play this game through Steam after picking it up on sale for something like 30 cents.

The game itself is a simple platformer that asks you to take basic four-sided shapes and help them reach their portals located somewhere in the stage. This is simple enough, and the learning curve may be the best one I have seen in a puzzle platformer. I never felt the game was too easy and, on the other end of the spectrum, I never had to resort to looking at a guide to solve an unfairly complex puzzle. This all benefits the game overall since this allows a lot of focus on the story of Thomas Was Alone.

The narrative of Thomas Was Alone is by far its strong suit. Bithell manages to use the 100 levels of the main game to bestow personality onto the most basic shapes you can have. This is done through narration that either occurs at the beginning of a level or at certain trigger points in a level. The narrator is perfect at  giving each shape a special flair when they are talking  and I must admit it doesn’t hurt that it is a pleasant British one to boot (I feel like semi-snarky, British narrators are practically a must have for text and dialogue-heavy games).

Thomas is the first shape that you meet and you quickly learn that he and his other cohorts are artificial intelligences that have become sentient. Their goal is to acquire knowledge and escape the system, which in terms of the real world would mean floating around freely in the internet. This is a pretty interesting story for a rather short game (I beat it in 4.6 hours, according to Steam) but there are some flaws. The most obvious issue with the narrative is that nothing is really fleshed out. You have a team of shapes and they are very clearly unique: one can float in water, one can double-jump, and Thomas is the “Mario” of the team as the all-around shape. The personalities portrayed also help flesh out the characters, as each is a relative extreme. I found myself thinking “Orange Square is a dick but his relationship with Long Rectangle is endearing, so let’s make sure they help each other a lot.” This is a complete success in storytelling and I am happy that I found myself making these little mental decisions in much the same way I did in the game Journey.

The design decision to go level by level with snippets of the story means that the end has to come by chapter 100. This is a platformer though, so it is obvious that you can’t have the player sitting and waiting for the narrator to shut up to finish a level. I think Bithell hit a relatively sweet spot in Thomas Was Alone, but I was definitely left wanting just a bit more story by the end.

Another issue with the story is that at times it completely interrupts the gameplay, or vice versa. I found myself on more than one occasion going through a level too quickly when the narrator was far from done, so it turned into an audio novel as opposed to a game. The same thing happened when I was expecting more narration in a level and it wrapped up really quickly. It could be argued that this wanting of more storyline is a success, but it truly just felt disjointed and too noticeable.

Thomas Was Alone takes the bare minimum in terms of graphics and gameplay and gives some heart and soul to it. Each character has their strengths and weaknesses, but together they accomplish something far greater than all of their parts. The growing of the AI characters throughout reminded me of the film Her, where I could imagine this being the prequel of sorts to the story of the AI represented in that film. In both, the AI are never portrayed as malicious, but instead as beings with the ability to absorb and attain knowledge at a rate that far exceeds that of humans. This vast knowledge doesn’t lead to a Terminator type insurrection from appliances but instead shows that AI quickly pass the human emotions phase. Skip the murder everything phase and get right to wanting to be seen as equal “beings.”

I kind of like this new approach to AI that Hollywood and the gaming industry have begun to take, because it really opens up a lot of interesting thoughts about what could happen if computers grew feelings. The 80s and 90s automatically figured that nothing good could possibly come from it, but these days, as computers become as much a part of life as breathing, it is nice to see that there are more options for narratives to take than that of The Matrix and its ilk.

Thomas Was Alone is a good game, not great by any means, but well worth the price and time that it asks you to invest.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Video Games as Literature and The Novelist’s View of Work/Life Balance

novelistwritersblock

Alex Russell

If you’ve ever had to make a hard choice between work and the rest of your life, well, that’s normal. The Novelist is about what happens when you make the wrong one. Oh, and they’re all wrong.

You play The Novelist as a ghost that’s inhabiting a vacation house by the water. The Kaplans (Dan, Linda, and their son Tommy) are on vacation for the summer, and they each want something different out of the trip. Dan wants to finish his second book. Linda wants to work on her painting. Tommy wants to have a fun summer. You might say to yourself that those don’t sound like they’re at odds with each other, but in the world of The Novelist they are violently opposed to one another.

The game unfolds over a series of chapters all centered around important events in the summer. In one chapter, the Kaplan family has to deal with a funeral. In another, Linda has an art show in town. In another, Tommy has a friend over. They all start out as mundane pieces of a family’s life, but the game’s actual narrative is all in how you respond to them.

It’s an interesting choice that you’re not any of the characters. You influence decisions by wandering around the house during the day and observing each family member. Once you feel like you have a grasp on what everyone wants, you signal the family to go to sleep. Then you whisper your choice to the family while they sleep. Whatever you decide will play out in a cut scene, and the results will influence how everyone feels about everyone else (and themselves) in the days to come.

For example, I decided to focus on Linda’s happiness in my playthrough. On one day, I opted to have Dan spend a night talking with Linda instead of working on his novel or playing with Tommy. The next day, Linda felt better about her marriage, Dan felt worried about his book, and Tommy felt neglected by both parents. Me? I felt really sad for everyone.

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The choices are tough because each choice is also the lack of two other choices. It’s intended to simulate life — if you go out tonight and drink with your friends you don’t get anything done at home, etc — but it’s brutal nonetheless. You know Dan has to finish his novel over the summer, but every single choice of “write” instead of “play with your son” or “talk to your wife” drives him away from his family emotionally. Any choice to not do exactly what the family’s young son wants makes him miserable. I guess that’s realistic to a degree, but it’s too much sometimes. As another example, if you choose to have Dan not play with Tommy and a toy car outside, Tommy leaves the car in the rain and it gets ruined. What is sadder than a lonely child’s ruined toy?

I didn’t side with Tommy very often. My version of Tommy drew angry crayon drawings of his father neglecting him. My version of Linda, who was happy with her art career but unhappy with her husband, never seemed to get exactly what she wanted. My version of Dan was a wreck. Your milage may vary, but it’s hard to imagine any set of choices resulting in true happiness for these people.

It’s certainly true that any choice means you’re eliminating others, but it needn’t be this stark. I don’t want to give away any of the endings, but by only siding with Tommy a handful of times I essentially ruined the kid. It had a really damaging effect on me; I was actually saddened that I had failed this digital child. In that sense I have to say that the narrative (or the narrative in my playthrough) really works. The feelings are real, they’re not “video game feelings.”

The Novelist is a little repetitive – the gameplay isn’t worth mentioning at all, it’s even less of a traditional “game” than Gone Home – and it’s frustrating at times. The challenge of keeping all three people happy is a kind of story-based The Sims; every mood bar is depleting at the same rate, and you’ve gotta keep them all happy to win. I don’t know that I “won” The Novelist, but the mental image of that car in the mud is going to stick with me for a long time.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

The Pete Holmes Show is Canceled and Why I’m Not Quitting

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Alex Russell

The Pete Holmes Show got 80 episodes on TBS. Per a very personal post from Pete Holmes himself, the variety/comedy/interview/sketch/whatever show is now over and will air its final episodes within the next month.

The comedy nerd world has been both insanely good and insanely bad to Pete. He’s one of the biggest comedians that your parents probably don’t also know, but he’s also the target of a metric ton of hate by way of his sometimes-infuriating-but-always-interesting podcast You Made it Weird and his career as a baby that sold insurance on television. If all you know about Pete Holmes is that he has a podcast where he sometimes talks about astral projection and healthy juicing for upwards of two (or three) hours a week and that he sold insurance on TV, sure, why did they give that guy a show is a reasonable question.

But he’s also one of the ten funniest people in the world right now, and that’s not something I say lightly. He’s a better standup than he is anything else, and 80 episodes of The Pete Holmes Show showed that he’s a pretty damn good “anything else.”

Every episode wasn’t always my favorite — though part of the joy of Pete Holmes is his persona that he sometimes calls “fun dad,” so he’s in on the joke that he’s sometimes just so much — but I watched every single episode because I was so in awe. Pete Holmes got to do sketches based on in-jokes and interview segments where he clearly ignored publicists. He got to make what “The Pete Holmes Show” without the italics would be if he had his say. He made his show.

This week we passed 10,000 total hits on Reading at Recess. This week we hit 175 unique posts from nine different people. Despite what I’d call “success,” I still almost gave up.

I started Reading at Recess earlier this year to have an outlet to write about culture. I figured that the world didn’t necessarily need another recap of Louie or an ode to Walter White. That said, I think there’s space for what we write about Louie and our thoughts about Walter White’s opposite on Fargo. I think there’s room for an Obama campaign worker’s review of Mitt as oddly humanizing. I think there’s room for covering things everyone else is talking about, like How I Met Your Mother‘s weird ending and Archer‘s lull of a season and why half of the audience of Girls seems to be watching for strange reasons.

At the end of the day, this is just a blog. It’s just a place that I hope you spend five minutes of your website time every weekday. But if it’s more than that, it’s somewhere you might learn something about feminism and parody in anime, or art design’s influence on gameplay in video games, or about data’s influence on politics.

What it hasn’t been is consistent. We’re all over the place. We’re a shotgun, not a sniper rifle. When you watch The Pete Holmes Show, you’re looking at what Pete wanted you to see. When you’re here, you’re kinda seeing something that’s far too unfocused.

We’re taking Thursday and Friday off to regroup. When you come back on Monday — and I do hope you come back on Monday — you’ll see something that looks a lot like what you’re used to, but better, more consistent, and more focused. You’ll see our real show, because it’s what we wanted to show you from the get-go.

Want to write for us? We’re accepting contributors! Reach out through our submit page.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: TBS

Should I Read This: The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Winner 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri

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Austin Duck

As the committees announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry this month, we find ourselves once again in that season where, all of a sudden, people read a book of poems. Sure, it’s only one (and usually not the best one of the year), but hey one figures, all these poor suckers are writing these books that maybe five hundred people ever read, and if this one has made it atop this year’s pile of dreams (a la the scene in World War Z) we might as well. Maybe we’ll feel something.

If you’re feeling this way, 3 Sections might not be for you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read it—really, it’s astonishing—but, in 3 Sections, Seshadri grapples not with the known, reducing the world to something we can see or hear or think; there are no easy answers or feelings of beauty or satisfaction in these poems. Yes, they’re beautiful, yes, they’re satisfying, but, in some ways, his subject matter is so foreign, so simultaneously abstract and concrete that even when you make it through a poem, or the book, or the book twice, it seems to have been a dream, a dream you didn’t understand, a dream that gestures and satisfies at the very idea that, if you understood something, you’ve dominated, destroyed, and reconstructed it in your own image; that astonishment and beauty and meaning in the world luxuriate all around us inaccessible, and that that is the pleasure, to see and fail to assimilate it, to feel the meaning slip always through your fingers. Like I said, not, conceptually, a very simple book, nor a book in which the author has much chance of succeeding.

I mean, it doesn’t take a philosopher to see the logical problem of making a book in which poem after poem (each, in and of itself, a meaning machine) concludes unable to make meaning, or makes meaning of not being able to make meaning, not being able to know, always just outside of the world taking place before the mind. Add to that the collection itself, 3 Sections, is not actually delineated into three sections and you wind up less with what you might consider classically as a book of poems (title, body, meaning / title, body, meaning), or a logical piece of work, precisely because both logic and “classical definitions” are ways of understanding the world by categorization and rules, both of which assume that we truly know the world. Rather Seshadri crafts a story about failed attempts, of trying and failing to break into what we think of as the “sensible” world in which we know how to make meaning, precisely because we allow our minds to to categorize and sort things we don’t understand.

What we get instead is a book unable to separate itself out, or, in case some of you think about books as put together by an external author, unable to be separated. While it parses like this—a bunch of short poems, then a long prose piece about commercial salmon fishing, and then a really long philosophical poem—and while each of the pieces does have its own title, its own thud of meaning, we have a singular mind working its way through a singular problem so that the “sections” seem formal rather than thematic, new approaches to the same problem, new strategies that land in different, though (in many ways) equivalent valences of failure of access to the world.

I know that I’ve talked about this book very abstractly, and for that, I apologize. Here’s an alternative way to consider this book and its project: Imagine you’re looking at a very beautiful woman (or man) by whom, inexplicably, you’re filled with an enormous amount of feeling and affection. At this point, if you’re in any way conscious of what it means to fantasize about someone, you acknowledge that there are two paths you can take: 1) you can project your dream of them, all of your ideas and fantasies about who they are and what their life means onto them, or 2) you can accept the frustrating, terrifying reality that they are only, exclusively themselves, and that, no matter what happens, or how much you pay attention, all you will ever come to is that what they are, what they think and feel and what makes them beautiful is entirely inaccessible to you, and that that singularity, that inaccessibility, that inability to ever know something well enough to separate out its parts and to theorize it, is exactly what makes it beautiful and astonishing and worth looking at and trying towards again and again.

In many ways, this is a book of prayers, a book of trances, a book in which, ultimately, things can only be seen exactly and perfectly and separately as they are. It’s not a pleasant book because the mind in the world is not pleasant; the mind wants to steal from the world, to make comfort and simple beauty, and to ask god what’s the meaning of life and to get a satisfactory, comprehensible answer, and the world and god refuse. Seshadri’s 3 Sections is a story of how to live in that refusal.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

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Bad Last Chapters or How Television is the New Terrible Novel

How I Met Your Mother Finale

 Stephanie Feinstein

Note: Serious spoilers for a bunch of shows, notably How I Met Your Mother, Roseanne, The Sopranos, True Detective, and Breaking Bad.

Devoting seven years to something is a serious commitment. To Hollywood, seven years of marriage is the equivalence of 25 years to mere mortals in lesser zip codes. Seven years of a vice may easily be called an addiction; seven years of school sees a full turn of your DNA. Seven years is literally the length of time one needs to become an entirely new person.

Seven years is too long to hold onto the same story, same ending, same turns. Sure, many an MFA could argue to me that grand books arose out of more than seven years of imaginings, rewrites, and edits, but I shall counter argue that those novels surely found new pathways by the end. An author grows and evolves with his or her work, expanding into the sunshine of new thought and wisdom.

I have a dear friend in the heady throes of editing her first novel for publication, and having known her for more than seven years, she has had to rewrite much as her knowledge and self expanded.

Do not dare to tell me that television writers do not suffer so.

How I Met Your Mother ran for nine seasons, I realize, but it was in its second when I began watching and when the show filmed its ending. According to Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com, it was also the ending used in the initial sitcom pitch to CBS. It was always supposed to be Robin.

In Austin Duck’s article concerning the teleology of HIMYM, he asserts that the Robin-not-mother ending completes the circular nature of the show, a common feature of sitcom writing. While I will agree that the show, like many others, is highly dependent on circuitous routes within its plot, as viewer and fan, I disagree with the balance of the ending on several accounts. For a show so devoted to wrapping up loose ends, the final episode created more questions. Examples of the queries I have posed to myself and other fans: Who was 31? Didn’t Ted make Robin get rid of the dogs last time? What killed the mother? How long did that illness last? How often does Aunt Robin come over for dinner? So, is Lily a stay-at-home mom now? Does she still work for the Captain? Does Barney have full custody? Did he marry the mother? But I digress from Robin and Ted.

In “Last Forever: How They Conned Us All,” Sepinwall points out that the relationship of Robin and Ted devolves over the nine-season run, turning toxic and incomplete, thus forcing them together at the end leaves the viewer dissatisfied, as we have been told over and over again all the reasons the relationship will not work. I agree, and I use this as my basis for why endings in television are the new terrible novel.

I love terrible novels. Much like Jonathan May loves to hate-watch television, I truly enjoy hate-reading poorly written or executed stories. That may sound harsh, as I have yet to publish anything, much less anything excellent or terrible. But if I can’t be pretentious on a website, then why the hell do I have a degree in literature?

Bad writing can be bad for many reasons: poor editing, bad grammar, sloppy story lines, lost symbolism… the list is really endless. A terrible novel will need more than just bad writing technicalities… it needs to create holes that it cannot fill, force relationships that do not fit, and waste opportunities for symbolism and allusion. HIMYM suffers from a stubbornness to characterization in forcing its ending. The writers cursed themselves from the beginning by deciding exactly how the story would end. A novelist may not be very successful if they begin an epic novel knowing exactly how the story will end, and refusing to ever back down from the singular scenario. Unless one can throw in some seriously killer Edith Wharton twists (Oh, you want to stay Mattie to stay, Ethan? Oh, really? How badly do you want her to stay…?), the completed work will be stilted and forced. If we consider HIMYM as a novel constructed over seven years, the characters have grown in unexpected ways. Lily’s role of mother not only evolves through action, but through reaction, as she steps away from early childhood education into a role of art curator. On screen, the character evolves even further, as Alyson Hannigan has gone through more than one pregnancy in her real life, even when her character was still childless. The written relationship of Robin and Ted blossomed and died over multiple seasons, with varying stages of “this is the last time; I’m really letting go.” In the final season, final episodes, we as viewers witness Ted giving up the role of finder, of hero, of conquering knight. When faced with a vulnerable, scared bride, he is chivalrous, wise, telling her that she is already with the right man. Smiling, Ted explains that he simply must find the right woman for himself, confirming that it is not Robin. For a sitcom, this moment was bittersweet, tainting the usual “happily ever after” endings of today, but I believe that modern audiences want a storyline that can be real. The idea of Ted abandoning the obsessive thought of Robin is comforting to audiences, assuring us that new chances at happiness are possible when we open ourselves to possibility. Ted’s meeting and short relationship with Tracy was sweet, honest, and felt very real. It was also cut awkwardly short to a “And then she got sick, and that was six years ago that we lost her.” “Dad, you should date Aunt Robin!” (Okay, so that is not how the official dialogue went down, but close enough.)

So, the ending of How I Met Your Mother was stilted, forced, and a terrible novel of television. Great until the last chapter, which weirdly dragged, with a cop-out of an ending.

But I’m not done there. How I Met Your Mother is not alone in its novel terribleness. Other terrible novels of television include Roseanne and the “it’s all a damn dream” ending, The Sopranos meets Tristram Shandy‘s inked out page of an ending, and The Wire.

Shut up, all of you. I loved The Wire, and I will argue all damn day that it is far more Shakespearean than Breaking Bad could ever hope to be. Tragic McNulty, the Benvolio-esque Bunk, the shut-the-hell-up-this-is-new-literature showdown between Omar and Brother Mouzone (Michael K. Williams and Michael Potts, respectively)… I love that shit. But the final act of that beautiful play fell flat for me, and left a depressingly Irish-whiskey flavored tang in my throat.

And Breaking Bad! I watched the full run up to the final season in a single summer, with the final season happening in real time. And, I found it less than lackluster. Perhaps it was weak characters, perhaps it was a whole handful of misogynistic men and weak women. But most of all, I really despised the ending. Our final scene of Walter, stripped of his glory as he stumbles among his scientific vats, now worth nothing, tapping the dial fronts of the equipment. Then he falls, a blood stain left across the shiny aluminum surface. Blood loss? Chemical Poisoning? The cancer finally doing him in? We have no idea. (Note: There are not words to express how much I wanted a massive meth explosion in those final moments. I am from the South, and everyone knows moonshine stills and meth labs eventually explode). But instead, we get the soft wailing of an inept police department, with Walter already too far gone to atone for his sins. And what the hell with Jesse just driving into the sunset, just in time to star in Need For Speed? Terrible. The novel equivalent of “To Be Continued” with absolutely no plans for a sequel. Do I have greater hopes for Better Call Saul? Not really. Will I watch it? Of course… that’s irrelevant.

Now, my next television novel that has failed me is really less novel and more first short story in a series. Why are anthologies the new rage? Are we bored with following evolving characters over a span of years, aging and acquiring wisdom with them? Are actors just not willing to commit the time and energy into evolving these characters? I don’t know, but, oh, how I wish I did.

True Detective season one filled a void in my cultural soul that I did not realize was empty. Well, the first seven-and-a-half episodes (There are only eight total.). Being a Southern lady, I devoured the swampy nature, the Louisiana drawls and old-French tones. In college, I randomly attended a lecture series about rural Louisiana Mardi Gras and Easter traditions, strange rituals with masks and pagan origins. I went to find new inspiration for poetry, but the images of those presentations have stuck with me for years. True Detective‘s use of the arcanely ritualistic culture of the backwoods bayou delighted me, and I waited for deep significance of these images to emerge within the show.

Michael Hughes published a great article on io9.com shortly after the first few episodes aired, illuminating a new set of allusions form the writers. In “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective, Hughes cites Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a selection of short stories published in the late Victorian era, as being quoted by central characters within the episodes, if not contributing to the larger story. I quickly acquired the text from Gutenberg Press and I devoured the stories, exclaiming every few pages as a new revelation or theory was uncovered to me. (Mask of deception! Women in stone! Repairer of reputations!) I watched the rest of the season waiting for Carcosa to come to light, a Yellow King to be crowned, the wave of insanity to mask us all in truth.

The final episode of True Detective season one was thrilling but flat. A “to be continued” vibe was given, but next season has already been announced to have a new cast, location, and story line. We will no longer be traipsing the back bayous in search of pederasts and twig sculptures. I will not be able to find out: How those scars happened? Who else was involved? How did the old black maid know about Carcosa? Why the spiral? Why did Hart’s daughters have a sexual violence storyline but not? Why did the killer have a British accent for only, like, ¼ of his scenes? Why was his dad tied up? I may never know.

I hope we will never reach a point as society where television sitcoms and dramas replace great literature. In fact, I think the two can greatly benefit from one another. What if we, as intelligent minds of the internet, band together to rewrite television history? FAN FICTION. Granted, fan fiction has been around as long as fans have found disappointment with story lines. But I am calling for a new age of fan-fueled fiction, where the endings are reinvented to be stronger, more beautiful.

You see, my aforementioned novelist friend had a terrible quandary after the How I Met Your Mother finale aired. Her sister, a devoted fan, had missed the initial airing, but my novelist friend was fretting over hoer own disappointment. “I want her to see it, but not the last five minutes,” she lamented. “I want her to turn off the television with five minutes remaining, and then read a chapter I’ve written instead.”

She ultimately did not, letting the writers of the show have their ending.

BUT WHAT IF…

…fan fiction reached a new level. What if those of us with the degrees, sources, and talent band together to override what society has deemed as “appropriate endings?” Because I am dissatisfied with television, even when it leads me on for so very long.

When True Detective fell short of my literary expectations, I sought out fans. Now, I don’t know if I am just unable to locate the hidden fan fiction files of the internet, or if there just isn’t anything out there, but the results were very limited. Yet, the theories presented through the five stories I found were intriguing, provocative, and creative. Still not what I wanted as the ending, but it gave me something.

So, a call to all those who fan fictionalize their television serials, write me new endings! Breaking Bad, The Wire, Roseanne, True Detective, How I Met Your Mother… send it all to me! I will read each personally, and with any luck, the best to my mind will be presented on this site.

You can reach Stephanie Feinstein at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.

Image: New York Times

What is Reading at Recess? It’s (Popular) Cultural Reading

playground

Austin Duck

Recently, at a party, someone considering coming to write for Reading at Recess expressed her hesitation to me; she said “Austin, I don’t work in a field where we attempt to elevate things. The blog comes off as pretentious, as a bunch of guys with semi-valid credentials writing as if they actually know something, as if they have the cultural authority to write toward taste and value or the knowledge to sort out this from that,” and, I’ll admit, it took me aback.

I never really considered our project here at RAR to be about superiority or ethos-building, a kind of talking from the Silicon tower (if you will), but maybe it is. I don’t know. But I feel like, and perhaps I’m a bit misguided here, that our project is not so much pretentious (if you take a look back at the majority of the posts [mine excluded because I am, in fact, pretentious] you’ll see that most are just fan-boy diary entries) as it is an effort in cultural reading.

As you may have noticed, our title Reading at Recess has very little to do with reading in the traditional sense. Sure, I normally write about books, and Andrew Findlay writes about sci-fi, and Jon May definitely touches on the literary from time to time, but this isn’t, and has never been, a blog about books. Instead, RAR is about reading culture (well, elements of it anyway) and presenting responses to those readings (which, inevitably, are so intertwined with our particular tastes and our socio-economic positions as middle-class men who came of age in America that it’s impossible to separate the objective (Hah, that doesn’t exist! Suck it, Science) from the subjective). I don’t think, though, that this failure of impartiality or this desire to elevate our topics—video games, movies, television, or other cultural miscellany—is useless, invaluable, or altogether insensitive to the desires of our readers to access, be informed of, or make up their own minds regarding the texts (and I use text in terms of any piece of information that we interpret) we focus on. Instead, you could think of our discussions here at RAR as corollary to your own, as models for personal cultural inquiry (though that, I think, might be a bit of a self-aggrandizing vision on my part), or just as our desire to have these conversations with each other and ourselves, a kind of self-obligation we set forth toward always writing, being critical of what we see, using what we know and where we’re from to make some kind of sense of the element(s) of culture that obsess us.

And that’s what cultural reading really is. It’s engaging what obsesses you, exploring it far beyond what most people have with it, a casual relationship, and, most importantly, not interacting with it passively. At this point, I don’t read a sentence in a book without thinking why is that here? What’s it doing? and it’s not because I think I’m smarter than anyone else, nor because I want to be perceived as that guy who does those things. It’s because, at a baseline, I’ve become so involved with literary texts that I want to see what they really are, how they work, how they’re made, and why they’re made that way. Because, however they’re made (and for whatever reason), I too am made that way; I am a construction of the same language, the same culture—possibly we (the text and I) are separated by history, but in that way I am of it, a response to it, the next (or next to next) logical (or illogical but extant) step in linguistic, grammatical, philosophical, scientific, historical systems.

Sure, that sounds grandiose and crazy, and it is, but I’ve written it that way because it’s important. Because that’s how I experience it. I gave up on reading for pleasure a long time ago because I discovered that, through work, pleasure comes in the cultural (and, by extension, the self-reflexive) discovery of the real-to-me, those iterations and patterns and texts that become more than books or movies or games, that become part of my thinking and thereby reveal (if I’m willing to look) what elements of culture inform me and my decisions, what makes me up and allows me to see (a little) beyond the scope of myself precisely because I’m able to see a piece of my self’s scope.

If you’re starting to think to yourself that this project sounds very selfish, that’s because it is. But be real with yourself. You’re not reading this because you care about the content. Good content lives in straight journalism, where writing disappears and all that’s left are ideas. Go to Vox or The New York Times or something if you want that. You come to these blogs to learn about new things, movies you haven’t seen, games you might want to play, sure, but you come here, likely, not for what we’ve selected but why we’ve selected it; because we care. Because it obsesses us. Because every time we sit down to meet our weekly deadline, it’s not rote or filler or because we have to because we don’t. Each of us, in our own small, sometimes glib way, is engaged in a kind of cultural self-discovery and everything the comes with it: the biases, the crass reality, the meaningless, waste-of-time attentiveness, the existential void that opens up every time you realize your entire life is built on the words of others, TV shows, shitty commercials, and movies you were told were good but just aren’t. Cultural reading, then, fills the void, one text at a time, by making sense of it, at least from one perspective, so that we don’t get even more lost.

That’s not to say we’ll ever be found, or find ourselves, or that RAR specifically will help at all. It’s not about help, or us believing we know something you don’t. Yes, we’re writing to you because you are also we (just look at Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”), but, more-so, to discover why we write, to ask questions we don’t know the answers to, to identify (and, in identifying, attempt to come to some understanding of) the fundamental impasses, paradoxes, hypocrisies, and identifications with the (popular) cultural of our moment that seem, to us, to mean something (or not).

For the love of god come write with us.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image: NBC

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Warning: While I wouldn’t really call anything I discuss a big spoiler, absolute purists may want to tread lightly. I discuss some general plot points.

The Wise Man’s Fear has generated a lot of excitement in fantasy circles in recent years. Book Two of The Kingkiller Chronicles, it continues the story of Kvothe, master wizard, musician, and warrior. The framing device for The Kingkiller Chronicles is that Kvothe, the titular kingkiller, has gone into hiding as an unassuming innkeeper in a nowhere town. He has taken the name Kote and spends his time pressing apples for cider and cooking mutton for guests. A chronicler happens upon the inn, recognizes him, and asks to take down his story. Kvothe obliges, and the story starts. It’s an appealing bildungsroman, underdog-against-all-odds type of tale. At the time that Kote/Kvothe is telling his story, he has achieved legendary fame, accomplished a ridiculous amount even by the standards of heroic fantasy, and then retired. When I say “accomplished a ridiculous amount,” maybe I would best make my point by quoting the beginning of his account of his life:

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”

Also, here’s a map. I don’t think you’re allowed to write fantasy without a map.

Kvothe was a big problem for me for a very long time because Rothfuss would hammer down the “Kvothe is so cool!” nail relentlessly throughout the entire first book. The strongest criticism against the character is that he’s a definite Mary Sue. He’s an underdog because he’s a poor orphan, but he is anything but poor talent-wise. He breezes past his magic school entrance exams, grows extremely powerful in magecraft, and is a master musician. The problems Kvothe confronts in the first book seem contrived. Oh, he’s really poor? That must really suck when you’re the most powerful young magician in the entire freaking world. After finishing the first book in the series, I did not come back to it for years, as I’d read in a blurb somewhere that he meets Felurian, an ancient sex goddess who either kills men or drives them insane with her vulvic talents. He escapes, because it turns out that he is so naturally good at sex that he impresses a five-thousand-year-old GODDESS OF SEX with his skills. As a virgin. This was a breaking point for me, as Rothfuss seemed to be building a character like you used to build characters when you were sub-10 and playing superheroes: OK, he’s as strong as Hulk, as fast as Flash, also he can breathe underwater and shoot fire from his hands. And he can shoot ice like Subzero, too. The Penny Arcade guys love this series, but even they take Rothfuss to task for this:

With all that being said, the Mary Sueness is improving. In The Wise Man’s Fear, he’s still way too good at everything, but at least he has some believable flaws. His ego is causing serious problems for him, he is struggling in some of his classes, and there are many things he does not know. Even his meeting with the sex goddess Felurian went down differently than the blurb made me think – he didn’t sex her so good that she fell in love with him. He was almost killed but fought with pure will and magic until he achieved victory. He still learns sexomancy from a lust fairy, but the problem was not his talent, it was that he was extremely talented at just about anything he tried. Him besting Felurian is fine, because he did it with unbelievably impressive magic, and being unbelievably impressive at one thing is fine as long as it’s not all the things. His character is easier to swallow in The Wise Man’s Fear because he faces more real struggles and he’s not just the absolute best at everything. Well, not every single thing. The Mary Sue problem still exists, it’s just no longer unforgivable. The thing is though, as an American reader, I can’t help but think of Superman. He is the most famous comic book character in the world for a reason, and one could argue that he’s way too talented – barring exposure to an extremely rare radioactive element, he’s unstoppable. The Kvothe of The Name of the Wind is insufferable, whereas the Kvothe of The Wise Man’s Fear is merely stuck within a Superman complex – over the top, but not story-breaking.

Fuck plot armor. I’m explicitly unkillable!

The strength of The Kingkiller Chronicles lies in its reverence for the art of storytelling. The framing device for the whole book is the protagonist telling a story about himself. Within that story, there are a lot of common, insignificant myths that do a lot to increase the texture and weight of the world. There are stories about religion. Travelers pass the time around campfires in telling each other tales. These range from rumors and gossip passed along on the road to old creation stories. In addition, the main quest of the series is Kvothe’s desire to find a group of seven immortal demons. Most people think these seven, the Chandrian, are just a silly children’s tale, but that’s because these monsters have spent the last few millennia obliterating any trace of themselves from the stories of men. Kvothe’s father begins researching them, and they show up and murder Kvothe’s entire family. Kvothe’s main motivation throughout the books is to gain enough knowledge and power to find and kill the beings who made him an orphan. His search for knowledge explores the beautiful patchwork nature of human storytelling – he manages to find a piece here, a sliver there, but all the stories are slightly different, the names added to or worn away by time, minimized or aggrandized by whichever culture acted as the story’s steward from the time it was created to the time Kvothe found it. Why did the Chandrian work so hard to make these stories so few and far between? It has something to do with the magic system of the book – knowing the true names of these creatures would give Kvothe some measure of power over them.

Pictured: The most powerful weapon in the fight against evil

One of the standout features of The Kingkiller Chronicles is its compelling magic system. Magic systems are important. They define the way mages can influence the world around them, which is a major concern of most fantasy. Rothfuss’ is inventive and intricate. The author includes many detailed, rule-bound systems and schools of magic, but all of these different techniques are children playing with matches compared to the roaring conflagration of Naming. Naming as a form of magic used to be widespread, but now only a handful of extremely talented people can manage it (Kvothe is, of course, among them). Naming consists of being able to intuitively know and call the true name of different things – wind, fire, rock, even blood or bone, even people. If a Namer calls something by its true name, he or she can control it. This is much more powerful than the other forms of magic. A Namer can break a hole through a thick stone wall by speaking to it. He can kill by calling the name of the wind and sucking the breath out of the lungs of his enemy. Naming, the true and accurate use of the perfect word at the perfect moment, is the most powerful form of magic in this world. This, along with the lovingly crafted myths that permeate this narrative, emphasizes the importance and power of writers and writing. The right words can kill an enemy, burn down a forest, or break through a wall. This focus of The Kingkiller Chronicles will appeal deeply to lovers of words and stories.

Wearing one of these is a really, really bad idea in this world.

Ironically, for all of its care and focus on the nature and power of stories, The Wise Man’s Fear has taken a lot of flack for its own storytelling. One of the main complaints is that, although it’s book two of three in The Kingkiller Chronicles, there is yet to be a kingkilling. Many are concerned with the pacing of the story – with only one book left, how will Kvothe kill a king, find his parents’ murderers, and bring the story he’s telling up to the present day? Another major criticism of The Wise Man’s Fear is that it seems like a mass of stitched-together short stories about Kvothe instead of a cohesive novel. Kvothe at school, Kvothe hunting bandits in the forest, Kvothe in the Fae realm, Kvothe with the desert swordsmen, et cetera. I see the point of this complaint, but I don’t care because all of these stitched-together stories are entertaining and well-written. Rothfuss has a gift for vivid, clear, and immediate writing, and he’s very good at describing knuckle-whitening fight scenes. Honestly, as a fantasy writer, if you can describe a duel involving magic, swordplay, or both with energy and deftness, you can be forgiven for a host of other niggling complaints.

In conclusion, the book is flawed but well worth a read. I’m a strong believer in the phrase “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” and just because this novel is not perfection does not mean it’s not enjoyable. Sure, the main character is Mary Sueish. Sure, this book consisted of what felt like a bunch of sidequests. Here’s the thing though – the character is driven and compelling through the sheer force of his skill. The sidequests are engrossing and fun standing by themselves. Also, the pure power of the narrative is a roaring river – hard to resist. I read this book for hours at a time. Finally, the languorous love affair with tales of any and all kinds that Rothfuss builds into the book, along with the idea of writer as Namer and words as power, serves to forge this series into a paean to the strength and gift of human communication and storytelling, which is a worthwhile accomplishment.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Image sources: Wiki, Penny-Arcade, and io9