Monday, March 02, 2009
BooksFirst - February 2009
Snark by David Denby
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe
I did a rather long full report on Snark, the book I love to hate earlier in the month, so nothing new on it.
Carrie Fisher’s book is an adaptation of her one-woman show Wishful Drinking and reads like it should be read aloud. While I didn’t have the audiobook, this would be the ideal format for it. The cover has a cinnamon-bunned model face down holding a martini glass with some pills nearby. While great visual short-hand, it is misleading in that much more of the book is about her addiction and mental health issues than her role as Princess Leia. Only one chapter of the book deals directly with her three-movie career-making role. her take-away message from the whole experience is that she is a little creeped out by fanboys describing their sexual awakenings because George Lucas believes that there are no brassieres in outer space.
The remainder of the book ping-pongs between cautionary tales of her various addictions, how her parents' failed marriages set-up her own miserable relationships (first to Paul Simon and then to the gay father of her daughter), and how undiagnosed bipolar disorder has ruined her life. In other words, it’s a laugh a minute. Really. The book is hilariously funny in a disturbing way. Paced like the stand-up routine it’s based on, the patter is witty and the sarcastic asides are brutally lethal. Every page has some funny anecdote or clever saying. Her dad, who left mother Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor before being quickly replaced by Richard Burton, bears the brunt of a lot of it. Of the small cast of characters, her mom and her brother come of the most sympathetic and Paul Simon gets damned with pretty faint praise.
The book is extremely short and as a quick hit and run therapy session by a tragic figure that has been abused by the sinister side of celebrity literally all her life it succeeds astoundingly.
The other memoir I read this month is even more nerd-related than a Star Wars actress. Mark Barrowcliffe (and the name alone sounds like a D&D invention) tells of his youth obsessed with roleplaying games in the infancy and height of the Dungeons and Dragons craze. The cleverness of the title, The Elfish Gene, a play on Richard Dawkins opus, made the book leap into my hands as I walked past it in the library. The subtitle, Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange struck me as something I could relate to. I’ve blogged about my own history with dice-throwing and Mark’s story is pretty much the same.
As a numbers obsessed geek he was playing the old-fashioned version of figurine-based war games when he stumbles across the still in it’s infancy first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Barrowcliffe is English and translating the grade system and other Britishisms is a bit taxing but probably not nearly as it must be to someone unfamiliar with roleplaying games (in the very non-sexual meaning of the term). While Barrowcliffe does a decent job of explaining arcane concepts such as saving throws and character levels, most of this book is going to be gibberish to a non-player.
Which is a shame because the true underlying theme of this book is how vicious the petty alliances, feuds, and politics of adolescent boys can be. It’s like Lord of the Flies with dice. I will be the first to admit that most gamers, myself included, were on the fringes of social acceptability in high school, which makes it even more amazing how brutal the social outcasts that form gaming groups are to each other. I kept comparing his friends and their crimes against civility, fashion, and hygiene to the kids I played with and I can top him in several cases.
Like many former gamers, the testosterone finally found a more acceptable outlet in the chasing of girls and his more romantically challenged buddies got left behind. The book is written with a thick disdain for the game and he regrets the years and years he spent obsessing over it. And while some of it is exaggerated for comic effect, the passion he pursued it with is unmistakable. His bitterness reflects more on the realization of how awkward and emotionally stunted all of us at twelve. I don't regret my time playing D&D even if I cringe at how mean-spirited we got with each other. Barrowcliffe should do the same.
Dungeons and Dragons paved the way for dozens of movies that brought swords and sorcery into the mainstream and paved the way for online games like World of Warcraft that can be more addictive and perhaps more isolating than old fashioned RPGs could ever be. The other day my son apologized for not calling me on my birthday because he lost track of the time playing D&D. I asked incredulously “You mean with paper and pencil and dice and everything?” He assured me that it was old-school roleplaying with a bunch of his fraternity brothers around a table. My wife just mumbled something about acorns and trees.