A treat for all New Yorker obsessives, Emdashes’ “Ask the Librarians” series has a new installment up. If you’ve always been dying to know the history of the “Tables for Two” column or the origin of the “cover strap,” this one’s for you.
Check out an excerpt of the Art of Fiction with Haruki Murakami from The Paris Review. If you are a Murakami fan like me, you should buy the issue and read the complete interview. If you do, you will find a discussion of Murakami’s upcoming novel Kafka on the Shore, which is due out in January. And from the British Library: “On this site you will find the British Library’s 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642.” (LINK)
Some things I’ve noticed today:This review of a new biography of one the founding fathers of fantasy and science fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. What’s interesting about this bio is that it is done in the form of a graphic novel, a fitting medium in which to describe the life of a visionary. Lovecraft was almost a movie before it was adapted by Keith Giffen from a script by Hans Rodinoff and illustrated by Enrique Breccia.Great capsule reviews at the Christian Science Monitor of the nominees for National Book Critics Circle awards in the criticism category, “far and away the most intimidating [category].” The nominees are Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb, Songbook by Nick Hornby, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, and Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. The winners are announced on March 4th in New York.And a group reads all of Shakespeare in one day, which reminded me of this awesome big ticket item.
Every few months, a peculiar compulsion comes over me. After dinner, instead of reading a book or lazing on the stoop, I’ll walk upstairs, sit down, and fit small blocks together, again and again and again. When I’m in the grips of this dependence, my wife knows exactly where I’ll be from 7:30 to 8:15 or so: in front of the TV, eyes glazed, drool at my mouth. Tetris fever has struck.
Over the years, we’ve amassed a solid collection of Nintendo games, including Tecmo Super Bowl, Mega Man 2, and all three Super Marios. There is Baseball, Baseball Stars, and Bases Loaded 2. But when I’m feeling eight-bit, I almost always go with Tetris; with few exceptions, it stays in the console, safe as a joey. Like Pac-Man or Punch-Out!!, its pacing and graphics are as effective today as they were in the Reagan years, as good as they need to be. When I pop in, say, Tennis or Ice Hockey, I’m depressingly aware of the gap between them and their modern successors—grunting apes to today’s Gattaca humanoids. But Tetris is different. As with chess, efforts to update it have seemed superfluous, faintly sacrilegious. It’s one of the few entertainments that arrived fully formed, little improvement necessary.
For me, this is evidenced by the ease and consistency with which it melts my brain. Once things get cooking, twenty or thirty rows in, I find myself on the fourteenth level—or is it fifteenth?—of consciousness. It’s a murky shade of purple there, with a tinge of lunar dust. Drifting through the door from The Twilight Zone intro, I find “Bitches Brew” the national anthem, Jim Woodring the national storyteller. In this place, everything undulates—yet stays, like, perfectly still, man. Outside of recreational drugs and a Ghibli film, few other things bring on such a strange and fluid state. And like ping-pong or fucking, the game demands a deep focus that must be both maintained and ignored; once you realize what you’re doing, you’re done.
Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection. Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself. My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block. Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival. Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously. When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall.
This approach correlates with who I am when the Nintendo is off: I’ve taught myself to stop drinking, but I reward my piousness by getting whacked on special occasions. I withhold myself from others until I’m comfortable, then gleefully let it rip. Most importantly, as a freelancer, my life has become a constant wait for the “I” block. That wait is often unbearable, but when it finally comes—via an editor’s e-mail or telephone call—there’s a flash of light and a scream of sound. I feel great for a time, smug with accomplishment. And then, inevitably, other bricks appear and I must hurry to place them, setting things up for the next big clear.
My wife doesn’t live her life this way, and, tellingly, she doesn’t play Tetris in the same way I do. She takes each block at a time, concentrating on the present, never stalling for the tetris. Watching her careful style drives me nuts, but I understand it: she’s a pragmatist, preferring steadiness to risk, no matter how visceral the reward. Unlike me, she doesn’t need constant validation to get by, can cope with a regular job. Her way appeals to me—it’s calmer, less given to peaks and valleys. But I don’t think I’m capable of arranging my blocks any other way.
It might seem absurd for an old Nintendo game to bring on such navel-gazing, but, hey, there it is. And that’s why Tetris, unlike others in its genre—Klax or Arkanoid or Dr. Mario—is consistently at or near the top of greatest-game lists. Because while its premise seems dull, its simple complexity allows us to project ourselves fully upon it. In a 2007 interview with Gamespot, Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov said, “Emotion comes from [the player,] and [the designer] can’t control that. As soon as I design drama for you, I take away your freedom.” That’s what Tetris brings: interior freedom through steadily-vanishing rows, a vehicle for thoughts that might not otherwise surface. We supply the drama. Pretty good for a game that was made in the age of Excitebike.
[Image credit: Aldo Gonzalez]
New Yorker writer, George Packer has written some impressive articles on the Iraq war over the past few years (rivaling those of another favorite, Jon Lee Anderson.) Of late, I’ve been hearing good things about Packer’s new book on the subject, The Assassins’ Gate. From a Washington Post review:How did this happen? How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos? Americans will be debating the answer for decades, and as they do, they are unlikely to find a better guide than George Packer’s masterful new The Assassins’ Gate.The Post will also be hosting a live discussion with Packer today at 3pm Eastern.
I listen to a lot of Public Radio, perhaps too much. And while I probably shouldn’t be scheduling my days around radio shows devoted to cooking or news quizzes, there are some Public Radio personalities that do deserve my devotion (and you probably yours too.) One of these is Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Glass was recently in the news for his vocal protests of FCC crackdowns. In this essay from the New York Times Magazine he takes up for Howard Stern and criticizes the absurdity at the center of the decency battle. And the Houston Chronicle explains that Glass isn’t just a public radio host, he’s also a sex symbol. Often considered one of the funniest voices on radio, David Sedaris is a frequent contributor to This American Life. His fans are already clamoring for his latest book due out this June. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another of Sedaris’ collections of humorous, autobiographical essays, is previewed here in the Sydney Star Observer. And then there is Terry Gross, master interviewer and host of the long running show Fresh Air. A collection of Gross’ famous interviews will be coming out this fall, titled All I Did Was Ask. Here’s an interview with the queen of interviewers at the Detroit Free Press.
On Tuesday I attended what will almost certainly be my last Dodgers game for a long time. It wasn’t one of the better games I’ve been to. Perhaps because they were playing the Mets, the stands were more crowded than usual. Halfway into a sloppy game the distractable Dodger fans devoted their energies to Thundersticks, shouting matches with transplanted New Yorkers, and the dreaded wave. Hideo Nomo didn’t have his stuff, and the Dodgers were plagued by timid, sloppy baserunning. There was a bit of history, though, as Mike Piazza hit his 351st home run, tying Hall-of-Famer Carlton Fisk for the most career home runs by a catcher. The ball was passed down through the bleachers and dropped over the wall to left fielder Dave Roberts who tossed it in to the ballboy. After the game Piazza said that he was happy to get the ball back and that he looks forward to getting his hands on the one that breaks the record. Over the last three years I’ve been to twenty or so ballgames. It became especially easy after I moved into my current house. At around six, I would hop in my car and drive north on Alvarado to Sunset. I’d park out front of Little Joy Jr. and stop in for a beer and meet whoever was joining me that evening. Then we’d walk back out into the sun and up the hill to Chavez Ravine, purchasing tickets on the way from the cadre of scrambling scalpers. Los Angeles, while better than some places, isn’t known as a great baseball town, and the Dodgers have certainly underperformed since I’ve been around, but I did have some moments at the Stadium that were truly sublime. If you go to enough games, you’re bound to. There was opening day 2003 when we paid 40 bucks to a scalper to sit way up in the top deck behind home plate. Fighter jets flew low over the field and the noise of the sellout crowd mingled with the leftover roar of the engines. Then an Army transport plane dipped low into view and a half a dozen paratroopers leaked out of the side of the plane. As they drifted down they emitted colored smoke, and the trails intertwined as the troopers landed on the ballfield. Then there was a rare damp day in May last year. The Dodgers were playing the Padres or the Brewers or somesuch lowly team. The scalpers were a forlorn lot, knowing that their profits would be slim. My purchase of a field level seat felt like charity. The Stadium was quieter that night and mostly empty, only the diehards had bothered to come out for this meaningless game. A collective calm settled over the whole place, folks in windbreakers with blankets on their lap mesmerized by the crack of the bat, the delicate arc of the ball, and pop as it hit the fielders glove in the misty twilight. Perhaps, the most memorable though, was May 5th, 2002. The Cubs were in town and my friend Matt, an artist who now lives in San Francisco, joined me in the cheap seats for a packed Sunday afternoon game. Cubs fans were liberally sprinkled among us and several fights erupted. Every inning or so another spectator would be escorted from the stadium owing to his disorderly conduct. Neither the game nor its outcome were memorable, the stadium was so full of life. Afterwards the PA announcer Mike Carlucci invited everyone onto the field for music and fireworks in celebration of Cinco de Mayo. As the stands emptied and people spilled across the outfield, the loudspeakers blared Mexican rolas interspersed with several American patriotic anthems. Matt and I spread out in center field, and up above, a fantastic fireworks show enveloped the heavens. An inebriated fellow Dodger fan stood behind us during the festivities and proudly belted out every word to every song, switching languages effortlessly. Even after the music had fallen quiet and the fireworks had faded from the sky, he wasn’t ready to leave, “Play some Puerto Rican music!” He screamed to no one in particular, “play some Puerto Rican music!”And to accompany my little ode to Dodgers baseball, I thought I should mention Roger Angell, whose writing about baseball is one of the reasons I love the game. Two of his classic collections have recently been released in spiffy new editions: Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion and The Summer Game.