Monday, March 29, 2010

The Drifter's Escape

Ben Lehman, designer of the ground-breaking ROLEPLAYING GAME, POLARIS, has just published THE DRIFTER'S ESCAPE VOL. 1. I bought it at a cool little gaming store in Northampton, MA (MODERN MYTH) and read it on the plane ride home.

The Drifter's Escape is tiny little book (roughly 4" x 5") divided into two parts. I want to talk about the first part last. The second part of the book is a set of very simple, but seemingly very workable rules for communally creating stories. It's a ROLEPLAYING GAME ... not as radical a departure from the "norm" as Polaris, but certainly still pretty innovative. The story revolves around a drifter, played by one person within the group. The other players control a spectrum of characters divided between two conceptual identities, The Devil and The Man. I bought the book just to see what Ben was up to now. The theme didn't appeal to me all that much, but two things changed my mind. The first was the rules. As I read through them ideas kept popping into my head for what I could do with this theme.

The second was the stuff in the first portion of the book, seven bits of fiction by Jake Lehman. (I suppose we can assume some relationship between the two others, but none is stated.) These little vignettes (only one of them could really be called a "story" I think) were really exceptional. I enjoyed them immensely, though they are a bit hard to describe. Most occur in a poetic, dream-like environment where the bounds of reality are constantly and casually trampled underneath underfoot.

At first I thought to myself, "what the hell do these stories have to do with a game about drifters?" The relationship really isn't all that logical. Yes, there are lots of drifters in the fiction, I suppose, but the game itself seems to be more focused on reality than on the kind of mystical journey evidenced in the stories. Still. There is nothing that would prevent someone from telling these kinds of stories using the game. And Jake's tales had a kind of Beat feel to them that I found really inspiring.

There were two lines in the stories that I thought fit in with the game really well. They probably won't make sense out of context, but if you pick up the book watch out for them.

I tell him the truth, "I'm just following the dog."


I didn't say anything. I wasn't about to get between a man and the demons that wanted to drag him under the earth.

I think I'm rambling at this point, so let me wrap it up with this. The Drifter's Escape is totally worth picking up. The game sounds cool to play and the fiction is awesome. It's a real "two-fer."

The Red Book

My friends recently introduced me to the wonderful picture books of BARBARA LEHMAN. Barbara's books are nonverbal; they have no words whatsoever, but they do manage to tell a story. In fact, they can tell a number of stories, with help from you or your children.

THE RED BOOK and THE MUSEUM TRIP were my favorites of the four I read at my friends' house. The books are about 30 pages long. Each page contains one or more nicely drawn "panels" that relate to each other in a narrative way. However, the reader has to do just a tiny bit of work to figure out what is going on between the panels ... which is a good thing.

The books relate almost quirky stories of "wonder" in which the main character is having a little adventure unperceived by the adults around him or her. The adventures window out into clever little spaces and the perspective occasionally changes so that the viewer experiences suprising cognitive shifts (seeing the space through the eyes of a different character or moving in and out of an imaginative plane).

In The Museum Trip, for instance, a student who stops to tie his shoes finds himself lost from his group. He wanders into a room devoted to ancient Minoa (not that this is something kids would necessarily get). There is a statue of a minotaur and a number of drawings of mazes, four or five of which are in a glass case. The boy projects himself mentally into the drawings, running through each maze in turn. At the center of each maze is a tree, except for the last maze which ...

Oh, I can't do it. It's not such a big surprise, but spelling the books out this way kind of ruins your first experience with them. Just go find these books at your library or bookstore and bring them home.

I found the books both simple and profound. They reminded me how powerful pure images can be in telling a story, and I would recommend these beautiful books not just to parents and their children, but to people working in narrative media.

My friends used the books to make their son more verbal; to help him start expressing his ideas in a more complete and rich fashion. They did this by simply asking questions about the unspoken portions of each panel. "Where is he now?" "What's happening?" "What do you think these people are saying?" The books seem like a perfect medium for this exercise.

The Titan's Curse


I mentioned before that I am reading these at the same time as my 10 year old son. (He passes them to me when he is done.)

Not only have I enjoyed this series so far, but the books keep getting better. My son tells me he can't decide if he likes book four better than book three, so I'm excited to move to the next volume in the series. We both agree that The Titan's Curse was better than the first two books, which we both liked as well.

In this installment Percy goes on a quest with other half-bloods to rescue Artemis. I could say more, but it would be too much of a spoiler for both this book and the previous ones.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How toTrain Your Dragon

The kids and I decided to quickly read HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, "translated" by CRESSIDA COWELL, before the movie came out. It was a wonderfully fun little book and seemed to appeal equally to both my 6 and 10 year old. There were a number of nice little jokes in the text and I thought the scratchy, scribbly drawings inside were fantastic. Looking at the movie trailer, though, it doesn't look like it mirrors the plot of the book much.

I would give a synopsis, but it's pretty much all there on the cover. To be a little more specific, though, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, a.k.a. Hiccup the Useless, is a young Viking who, along with his peers, is directed to capture a young dragon and train it as his entrance into manhood and the tribe. Things predictably don't go all that well for Hiccup, but he manages to keep plugging along and, eventually, his particular strengths come in handy.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk

Just finished a fine layman's book on the behavior of random events, the behavior of human beings, and the discord between the two: THE DRUNKARD'S WALK by LEONARD MLODINOW.

The book takes a while to make its point, but that's okay because the first two-thirds of the book is a very digestible and highly entertaining history of great ideas in probabilities/randomness and the rather eccentric people who came up with them.

The point the book makes in the last few chapters is that human beings are excellent at pattern recognition. We are so good at it, in fact, that we imagine patterns everywhere, even in places where they do not exist. One huge class (maybe the only class) of events where seeing patterns is actually harmful to us is random events. The easiest illustration of this is the guy or gal who plunks down the mortgage payment on a roulette wheel that is "due" to hit black. But the book gives countless more examples of people seeing patterns in cold data that not only harms themselves, but others as well. Drug researchers who see what they want to see in the results of tests. Lawyers who misuse statistics to cite patterns of data and send innocent people to jail (or keep guilty people out of jail).

And the reverse is true also, we are horrible at recognizing, reproducing, and generally comprehending true randomness. I could honestly quote this book all day long. There are sooo many good stories and illustrations in it. But this very practical one speaks to the general problem.

"There is a difference between a process being random and the product of that process appearing to be random. Apple ran into that issue with the random shuffling method it initially employed in its iPod music players: true randomness sometimes produces repetition, but when users heard the same song or songs by the same artist played back-to-back, they believed the shuffling wasn't random. And so the company made the feature 'less random to make it feel more random.'"

As much as I appreciate the author's point in the book, I will admit to being a little uneasy with the ultimate conclusions. The subtitle suggests that "randomness rules our lives." My own view of the universe falls a little short of that sentiment. I think he doesn't give enough credence to just how many events in the world are not random. Ultimately I believe our pattern recognition abilities are a survival trait and a reflection of the reality around us, which abounds with meaningful patterns. But there are some great cautionary lessons in this book for helping human beings deal with truly random events, avoid logical fallacies, and protect themselves from making stupid/harmful mistakes.

Great stuff. I will recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

The Sea of Monsters

RICK RIORDAN's THE SEA OF MONSTERS is the second book in the PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS series. I'm reading these along with my son (age 10), and we both agree that this sequel is actually better than the first novel, THE LIGHTNING THIEF, which we also enjoyed.

As I noted in my post on The Lightning Thief, this series steals an awful lot from J. K. ROWLING's formula for the HARRY POTTER series. And yet, the theft is thinly disguised; Riordan doesn't try to hide it as much as make it his own. The differences between the series is telling. The chief difference is that Riordan borrows even more heavily from the Greek myths and manages, I think, to interest readers in returning to those old myths for a refresher course.

So far the stories are entertaining romps and I would recommend them highly as fare for young adults. I don't think they are all that memorable. I doubt they will be stories that the children of today will re-read as the adults of tomorrow, but not every book needs to be enshrined on one's shelf forever. Sometimes one just wants a good yarn, and the Percy Jackson stories, so far, fit the bill. Also, these are books that will get kids reading. My son disappears into them for hours.