Tags: reviews


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Had the option of going to trivia/karaoke night or Tom Curtin's gig tonight. Contemplated each, then went to Barnes and Noble and splurged $40 on books instead.

Sometimes a dude just needs to hole up and chill. I am a dude.

The lonely, neglected writing part of my brain is too tired to do the obligatory nerd boast about my purchases, so I'm going to outsource that duty to a popular technology magazine.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Love him or hate him, Foer's a strong player in the market these days, and it's not hard to see why! One look at this book just screams "quality." Laminated with a clean military-grade polymer finish, the plastic on the cover feels sturdy, not cheap. Love the high-impact book jacket design too! The pages are flip with amazing ease, and the edges feel warm and grip easily with each turn. Rounded cuts by artisan bookbinders mean you'll never prick your finger again! A must buy.

Idoru by William Gibson: A welcome addition to any geek's bookshelf, Gibson once again does not disappoint. At two megamolecule ink resolution, perfect bound with 200 horsepower high performance glue, just holding this thing in your hands gives you a feeling of raw power. Tough on insects, easy on fingertips, the book's gentle heft makes pest control a breeze. The battery life is not too shabby, either--I can open this book for hours at a time and not once have to plug it into the wall.

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi: A great read! Smooth, crisp, high-contrast slab serif fonts make the text incredibly easy on the eyes--even in daylight! The 394 machine-cut pages have a pleasant new book scent to them, like fresh Chinese noodles, and offer a whopping six megabytes of read-only data storage in a compact 1.2kg package. Comes in three sporty colors! Recommended.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami: The best thing to come out of Japan since Yukio Mishima! This anthology's revolutionary slim, modular, ultra-portable design is sure to make it a hit among book retailers. Clear, crisp text, cutting-edge thermally activated binding, and support for a variety of functions guarantee that you will be using this book for years to come. Also the stories inside are fucking beautiful.

Coming soon: an unboxing video! Watch me slowly, pornographically remove the books from the four layers of packaging inside their box. (You know, the big, shiny box super-expensive paperback novels like these come in.)
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8-bit tankbusters!!

Brief flash-forward to New York before I continue writing about Cupertino.

Last month, when by amazing dumb luck I met Tob, the guy who did NitroTracker and the DS MIDI Interface, he told me about a little chiptune concert series in the city that he was planning to stop by the next day before he returned to Germany. "It's called Pulsewave," he explained. "I am interested to see what you Americans are doing with chiptune music. I hear you guys have done amazing things using Game Boy and Game Boy Advance sound chips as instruments."

"Sounds cool," I said. "Where is it?"

He scratched his head a bit. "It's not a large venue, very small, I hear," he said. "A little theater off a side alley in Times Square called the Tank..."


You're shitting me. That Tank? The little off-Broadway theater where my Oberlin friends Josh Luxenbourg and Jon Levin do Puppet Playlist, where I've heard Jon Good and Anna and all the others perform? Goodness. The bigger this city gets, the smaller this city gets.

Alas, I couldn't make it that Saturday due to prior commitments. But when I heard there was going to be another one last night, I couldn't pass up the chance.
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silent hell revisited

Finished Silent Hill 2 yesterday! Not a great game, as far as games go, but the story was one of the finest interactive psychological horror tales I've ever had the privilege of enjoying. A vast improvement over the first Silent Hill, which alternated between moments of nail-bitingly, brain-scarringly horrifyingly ominous atmosphere (few cheap Resident Evil "boo!" scares here) and incredibly tedious stretches of backtracking through long hallways killing the same two zombies over and over again. SH2's gameplay is much the same, except they've dramatically increased the monster respawn time, so instead of facing the same two zombies over and over again you're just facing two zombies. Which is actually much scarier, really, because you're spending most of the game wandering through empty, desolate darkness wondering whether any particular hallway is going to be the one with the zombies.

The art direction is, as in SH1, sublime. The environments are far more frightening than the monsters--Team Silent has a knack for tapping into the uncanny valley, just beyond your comfort zone, and perverting the ordinary into the ominous. Cafeterias covered in white bedsheets! Empty, dark offices filled with screaming voices! Mannequins dressed in your dead wife's clothes! Your own corpse in an easy chair, watching static on a bloodied television! It's merely creepy, at first, the way SH1 was creepy. It's a cheap fear, the fear you get by not knowing what's going to be around the next corner, or why there's a low growling sound coming from nowhere in particular. And then, it grows quiet. Too quiet. The cheap gimmicks scale back--there's nothing to scare you in each room except the yellowed papers strewn about a wooden table, the shadow cast by an empty flower vase. And the game's world, dark, the only illumination being the little circle from James's shoulder-mounted flashlight, starts to feel like abandoned places in real life: empty, sad, and crushingly lonely.

It is in these moments, running around empty apartments and hospitals and hotels in some physical embodiment of morbid introspection, that you will happen upon a distant, ominous humanoid figure leaning its way around a corner. And that's when your radio starts to hiss, and the discordant music starts to play...

More about those: The way the monsters tie into the protagonist James's subconscious is brilliant. Whereas the monsters in SH1 were all manifestations of simple psychological trauma from a frightened, uncomprehending, brutally abused little girl, the monsters in SH2 are born from an even more freakish tapestry of memory and emotion woven by an adult. James is deep in grief over the death of his beautiful young wife, and virtually everything in the game reflects that in some capacity--the guilt, the alcoholism, even and especially the sexual frustration. There's one monster, for example, that resembles the bottom halves of two decomposing female bodies sewn together at the waist. It ambles at you slowly, flailing its upper legs at you in a disgustingly spider-like way. Shoot it with a handgun, or strike it with a lead pipe, and the upper legs spasm and it lets out this bloodcurdling scream. Not your typical bored or exaggeratedly sexual female death scream, but a hoarse, throaty wail of pain and rage and raw unbridled fear. It drops to the ground, both pairs of legs quivering pathetically, and then the quivering becomes a form of locomotion, the bleeding, gasping corpse scuttling around as it spasms in a twisted parody of orgasm, running around you in circles and grabbing at your heels. Horrifying to watch. It's almost less unsettling to let one live than to kill it. And what's so evocative about it is that troubling bouquet of guilt, shame, betrayal, and fear you might feel when encountering one is exactly what it represents. They appear only during after events that cause James to experience such emotions in himself (you're attacked by a whole slew of them when James meets a woman he likes for the first time since his wife died). The four-legs are women as the Other, the way our protagonist sees them, or accuses himself of seeing them--equal parts threat, victim, and histrionic wailing mess.

And if you think that's unsettling, wait until you see Pyramid Head--the series' infamous indestructible, slow-moving, rusty-greatknife-dragging personification of guilt and the darkest elements of human sexuality--brutally rape and murder one of the four-legs, while James hides whimpering in a closet, powerless to intervene. YOU WILL NEVER WANT TO HAVE SEX AGAIN.

I'm not even going to get into the more Freudian monsters, like the abhorrent hanging bed-boxspring creature that represents childhood abuse. I have never wanted to kill something so badly just for existing.

Nothing is just a zombie or ghost in this game. Every monster ambling out of the darkness, twitching in silhouette, makes you think, "Dear shit, what the fuck is that?"

And if all of this reflects poorly on the experience--this is not a spoiler--if this all makes it seem like playing this game would be the most upsetting thing ever, a thing you would give to Guantanamo Bay prisoners to get them to confess to sins they've never committed, bear in mind that the game continually implies that, at some level, all of this is in James's head, all of the ugliness and the abuse and the sexual violence he sees throughout Silent Hill is his self-perception made manifest. He sees Pyramid Head and thinks, "This is me." He sees the twitching leg-women, and thinks, "This must be all women are to me." The true antagonist of the game is James himself. Silent Hill is mind-scarring to him because he feels like he deserves it--as he descends deeper and deeper into self-loathing, the environment grows increasingly abstract and surreal, degenerating from nightmare into even worse nightmare. And it's this aspect--the discovery of how he came to be this way, and what brought him to this foggy abandoned resort town in the middle of nowhere, and why it is destroying him inside and eating away at his spirit, that makes the story so compelling. Every bit of the game, from the puzzle locations to the details in the graffiti, is a reflection of James's psyche, in what I'd say would be a very Stephen King kind of way, without the cheap OH NOES WE ARE BEING BRUTALLY PICKED OFF ONE BY ONE thriller angle. This isn't so much a journey into the town of Silent Hill as much as it's a journey into James himself. If the town in SH1 was Hell, a place where sins are repaid for with excessive, perverse justice, it is Purgatory in SH2.

(Marrieds: If your spouse insists on dragging you to a creepy, vaguely demonic New England ghost town for your next vacation because the mist over the lake looks pretty, a bit of advice: it is time for a divorce.)

There are moments that belong in an art gallery. There is an absolutely immortal scene with a burning staircase. There are boss bottles that seize the back of your neck with claustrophobia, instead of just pawing at it playfully like some more recent survival-horror games do. There is a house of leaves. One of the endings is intensely, powerfully sad.

Is it any wonder that this game keeps coming up in discussions of video games as a new literary form? I know emotion is the cheapest, easiest thing to produce in a work of fiction, but the mise-en-scene, the depth and complexity of the characterization, the artful use of the medium to communicate far more about the characters than could be expressed through dialogue...this is a game written by a bunch of people who thought beyond "let's scare the shit out of some kids" and into "if M. Night Shyamalan and Stephen King had a lovechild..." The atmospheric and thematic elements that reach beyond the genre of survival horror, which SH1 and its perennial competitor Resident Evil popularized, make that emotion transcendent. It's the kind of game that gets you thinking about it, on a level far beyond "how do I solve this puzzle" or "how do I beat this boss," long after you put down the controller.

It's a testament to the power of the game's storytelling that despite the repetitive combat, the shitty camera, the large amount of pointless running around, and the infuriatingly nonsensical fetch-the-key puzzles (light bulbs inside a tin can? A door key inside a toilet? An item in a garbage chute that can only be knocked loose by throwing a six-pack of juice into it?), this is still a game worth playing. Multiple times, even. The game is almost eight years old, and its graphics and gameplay may be dated, but virtually no title you could pluck off the shelf at GameStop right now will creep the fuck out of you half as much.

Man in grief receives letter from wife, years after her death: "In my restless dreams, I see that town. Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again someday. But you never did. Well, I'm alone there now....in our 'special place'...waiting for you." If you're sold on that concept, this game is for you.

I am really glad that, after the disappointment of the first game and the cheesiness of the movie, I gave this series a second chance.

it is trying on liberals in dilton

Remember that copy of The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor that I rescued a couple weeks ago? I've been reading through it today, and it's excellent. A shame that O'Connor isn't more widely read outside of high school English courses.

One story in particular, "The Barber", struck a chord with me. It's a really funny story, but for all the wrong reasons. At first glance it merely seems like a typical white liberal upper middle-class perspective on bigotry in the Second Reconstruction, but under the surface there's something subtler, something far more universal. It may be a bit of a stereotype that the male writers of her era were screaming from pulpits while the female writers hung back in the crowd and quietly observed the foibles of their humanity, but O'Connor if anything exemplified the best of that stereotype. In an era in which men with absurd moustaches shouted themselves hoarse about honor and nationalism and destiny, and tried to wipe entire nations off the face of the map with their rhetoric, O'Connor could quietly tear one of those men to pieces by describing a mole on his upper lip.

Not bad for a dyke, eh?

(Oh, my apologies. There were no lesbians in the good ol' days.)

Of course, O'Connor never wrote directly about the war--she was possibly the only author of her generation not to. She preferred to describe the giant elephant in the room by its shadow.

"The Barber" was written in 1947. Sixty-two years, two black preachers, a couple high-profile assassinations and one black president later, and, well, as much progress as we've seen in civil rights over the past half century, under the surface nothing has really changed. Go through the story and change "black" to "gay" and "nigger" to "faggot" and you may be alarmed at how familiar it all sounds.

Hell, translate the story into any of various languages and substitute "American" for "black" and "Yankee" for "nigger," and you have an idea of what it's like to grow up as an American international student in a country that resents American foreign policy.

It is trying on liberals in Dilton.

ts;dr book reviews

In which I describe what I've read lately (or not lately) in ten words or less, in approximate reverse chronological order. (For those of you who like to read, but don't like to read.)

  • Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre. LiveJournal of obsessive-compulsive French Adderall addict.
  • Jumpers, Tom Stoppard. (Stage play.) Acrobat philosopher's theodicy interrupted by murder, infidelity, astronauts. Surreal. Hilarious.
  • Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster. Cloyingly endearing metafictional depiction of Alzheimer's patient trapped in room.
  • I Kill Giants, Joe Kelly. (Graphic novel.) BAWWWWWWW CAN'T STOP CRYING
  • Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem. Title beats book. Blade Runner with cocaine and sentient bestiality.
  • After Dark, Haruki Murakami. This novel wants to be a Godard film so bad.
  • House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski. Annotated dissertation on documentary about ominous house. Blew my mind.
  • My Life And Hard Times, James Thurber. Much funnier read aloud. Has aged poorly.
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes. Magnificent Bible fanfiction. Uncannily varied authorial voice. Damned worms!
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks. National Geographic documentary about the time zombies almost killed everybody.
  • The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon. Shorter than his other book.

No one wants to talk books with me. :[

like the navidson record, but less leafy

The Hallway from The Hallway on Vimeo.

This is my new favorite installation piece.

In an also somewhat Danielewski-esque vein, go check out the trailer for After Last Season, if you haven't already. It is striking in its absence of all the things we look to enjoy in a film--it defies interpretation because there's nothing to interpret. The props are made of cardboard, the dialogue is mundane, the plot is nonsensical. Everything, from the setting to the composition to the characterization, is painstakingly crafted to be as generic as possible. It's as if the entire film was stitched together from the cutting room floor of a film that actually made sense. Jason Coffman of Film Monthly.com is one of the few people who actually went to see the film, and he has posted a very cerebral review of what he thinks is going on. Personally, I think Coffman gives the filmmakers too much credit--I think they merely strove to produce a film that literally no one could enjoy, an irony-defying anti-spectacle that would bore and confound even the most easily amused of potheads. Which, perversely, makes the entire concept of this film pretty entertaining. It's like an elaborate practical joke played on an imaginary audience.


"one word from me will put an end to your meatballs!"

Okay. Breathe. Breaaathe.

So. News first. I have found a dorm-sized room in Park Slope. It's smaller than my room in Crown Heights, which is smaller still than my one-bedroom in Washington Heights. I've joked to several people that I've developed a habit of moving into progressively smaller rooms in progressively smaller neighborhoods. Which makes sense considering the rent I'm paying isn't all that much higher. When your spending power doesn't grow, you can't trade up; you can only trade off. If you've been to Park Slope, and you know how beautiful it is, you probably understand how it's worth the smaller room and longer commute.

I am spending much of my time moving and worrying about moving. I have few things to move, but progress is hindered by stupid things, like not having packing tape, or not having enough boxes, or not having Internet access, or not knowing where to find a moving company that will not rip me off and will be ready at a week's notice (I tentatively have to be out by the 15th). A few kind souls have tentatively offered to help drive my stuff over, which might be preferable. And I've bought tape and have been stealing boxes from dumpsters, so, sorted.

So what have I been doing while I've been stalled for time? Well, little side projects, mostly--writing songs I can't play, percolating stories I can't write. Computer games have helped me cope with Internetlessness. Tried Crawl--it's apparently what everyone plays when they graduate from NetHack--but I'm not finding it half as enjoyable, despite the richer gameplay and vastly increased complexity. There's something about the pace of that game, moving back and forth between two dungeon levels, getting killed by monsters too fast to run away from, that makes it kind of tedious. Of course, I thought NetHack was tedious at first, too. We'll see if the game gets any more fun as I get better at it.

I've also been playing a lot of Iji. Collapse ) tl;dr? Watch the trailer.
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in which kevin reviews things he has finished recently

Kingdom Hearts II for PlayStation 2: Five hours of startlingly poignant, compelling story, with fifty hours of bad Disney crossover fanfiction sandwiched in between. Oh well--I suppose that's the only way to carry such a terrible concept and make it work. (Rumor has it that the game was conceived when a Square exec and a Disney exec were standing an elevator at a graphics conference, and one of them said to the other, "You have a highly marketable franchise! We have a highly marketable franchise! Let's make a game that will sell lots and lots of spinoff merchandise.") Gameplay-wise, it's God of War for kids, which is in no way a bad thing, unless "giddy combo-mashing fun" is a bad thing to you. Just the right level of challenge, too--I've beaten the game on Proud and Sephiroth still kicks my ass. Oh, and I know half the Internet has said this already, but I don't care what the cosmology of the game says--Roxas is a far more genuine and interesting character than Sora.

The Adventures of Chairman Mao on the Long March by Frederic Tuten: A short but bold experiment in creative plagiarism. If you went into this book not knowing anything about its premise, you could be excused for believing at first that it is a dry, textbook account of the father of Chinese communism's rise to power. By the time you get to the parts with the uncredited excerpts from Jack London novels and the historical account of 1920s silent film actress Greta Garbo seducing Mao from the hatch of a tank, it's pretty obvious that Tuten is fucking with you. Apparently Tuten was a good friend of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein (the cover of the current edition was actually painted by Lichenstein himself), and his book is written with much of that same deconstructionist playfulness. Like his contemporaries, it's often hard to tell whether he's trying to make a serious point or whether he's just trying to trip every bullshit detector in criticdom. Highlights include: a scene where Mao fantasizes about the wives of other famous dictators through history, a bullshit-heavy parody of a paper on academic deconstructionism, and an end-of-book interview in which Mao reveals himself to be a hipster. Art, English, and history majors will adore this book to pieces, but other folk will probably go wtf.

I had a very special experience reading this book outside the World Financial Center at dusk. I saw rays of blood-gold sifting through the Manhattan skyline, glittering across the river, casting shadows of tables and chairs up a five-story flight of stairs, to rest on a gaggle of New Yorkers watching a crane lift a piece of the new World Trade Center into place. If only I had a 360 degree camera. That had depth perception. And no fisheye. Oh well, I guess some moments weren't meant to be preserved.

New Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo DS: A great tribute to the first four Super Mario Bros. games, but not a particularly memorable experience in itself. For a DS game, it's annoyingly non-portable, given that you have a finite number of saves for the entire game. Has its moments, though--plowing through a level when you are almost as big as the level itself is always fun.

Neuromancer by William Gibson: Okay, holy shit. I knew that this book was influential but I had no idea it was this...ambitious. I know this book inspired the Matrix trilogy, the Shadowrun role-playing games, and the entire genre of cyberpunk--not to mention the names of half a dozen real-life technologies, of which "cyberspace" is but one--but no one told me that all that stuff was based on the first five chapters. Gibson creates not only a imaginative yet chillingly familiar post-1980s future city (at least, if you read the book two decades ago), he writes an imaginative yet chillingly familiar post-1980s world. The universe of the novel spans five different countries--two of which are in orbit--each of which has entered the cyberspace age in unique yet plausible ways. And while Gibson was wildly off on some thematic and geopolitical counts (nobody expects the Japanese recession!), some technological observations were so accurate that I frequently had to remind myself that the book was first published in 1984. A lot of his observations, like the jury-rigged cyberspace nodes in the Middle East, have become true in spirit if not in fact. Now-timeless characters, a gripping story, and some astonishingly beautiful prose make this novel exceptional in its own right, not merely a fine work of science fiction. Which sets it apart from pretty much every other sci-fi novel written during the 1980s. Or the 1970s or 1960s, for that matter. Fucking starry-eyed machine worshippers.

Great Dream of Heaven by Sam Shepard: I'm willing to be the reason why this book is only worth four dollars, despite the fact that Shepard is a Pulitzer winner, is because the very very small number of people who actually read literary fiction thumbed through this at the bookstore and realized the first story, about a boy who helps a horse doctor rescue a trapped stallion, is absolutely awful. Like, dear goodness how the hell did this get published awful--it's disgusting and cruel, and there's no depth to any of the characters other than the sly but not subtle pedophilic and bestial overtones. It's a bit of a surprise, then, to discover that most of the other short stories in this anthology are actually pretty excellent. Fiction seems like a weird medium for Shepard, who won his Pulitzer for playwriting, but Shepard compensates by drawing from his phenomenal talent for dialogue. Every story is dialogue-driven--there's some exposition, some sense imagery, but all the tension and the all the character development comes from what the characters say. It's like reading a novel through a telephone, which would be a negative criticism for anyone but Shepard, who manages to spin not only believable but completely human characters from a few short pages of words. He's got a knack for finding compelling stories in the most mundane of plots: a woman's car breaks down by the side of the road; a dude at a casual restaurant asks a waitress about a sign; a Jew walks into a bar. (Okay, I made that last one up.) As my own prowess with dialogue is severely lacking (how am I supposed to write talky bits when I'm a recluse in real life?), this book is worth having to study as well as to read.

Tropic Thunder: If you've seen the trailer, you already know what to expect. Surprisingly enjoyable for a Ben Stiller film--the only Ben Stiller film I've ever seen where the audience broke into applause at the end--and squeefully meta (it's a movie about real life for people making a movie about real life!)--doubly so when you realize that most of the characters who are actors are scathingly self-deprecating parodies of the actors who play them. Manages to be much funnier than a typical Ben Stiller movie while being only half as stupid. And yes, that is Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, and no, it's not as crass as you might believe. Also, UNEXPECTED TOM CRUISE AAAAAAHH.

Welcome to Tranquillity Vol. 1 - by Gail Simone and Neil Googe Written by Gail Simone, famed feminist comics historian and talented comics writer in her own right. Drawn by Neil Googe, who I'd never heard of before, but has a knack for gorgeous pastel tones and clever panel designs. It's a very tongue-in-cheek series about a retirement community for Silver Age superheroes and their families. The protagonist is the sheriff of the town--an ordinary black woman with no superpowers. A sampling of this series's brand of humor: In the first chapter, a young hooligan from out of town comes into the Chik-N-Go to cause trouble. His name? Emoticon--and he wears a mask over his face that always shows the ASCII representation of what he's feeling. He wears a giant bling necklace around his neck that reads "EMO" in glittering studs. Hilarious, and a real delight to read, especially if you have some general knowledge of comics history.

Guitar, Month 3: exit valve for the heart.