I enjoyed Tetris: The Games People Play even though it was essentially a business story. Box Brown is good at making characters out of real people, and the very analog style of art worked really well in contrast to the pixels of the game under discussion for most of the book. It laid everything out clearly with the convoluted selling of rights that some people didn’t have, and in the end it all works out for the Russian who invented the game (though his friend and sidekick through most of the story ends up um.. badly in a way that surprised me and could have been a frame for a very different style of book).
In the beginning of the book there was a bit about the importance of games and the cultural significance of them, which gets wrapped around back to by the end. I think that’s the best part, and what I’ll probably return to. It felt a little like reading Scott McCloud in its clarity and use of the comic format.
I’ve become less of a devotee of the power of games in the last year or two, mostly because I’m seeing more ways that adding game layers to things enhances certain political projects. Which is conflicting, because while I love games and I wish I could play them more, but I prefer it when games are kept in the realm of recreation and art, not business or the betterment/anaesthetizing of society or the efficiency of an organization.
So yes, the book about Tetris made me feel bad about the world. But it’s good.
In my general “trying to read more nonfiction” project of this year, I got kind of a freebie: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville. A freebie, because I’m going to read a new China Miéville book pretty much regardless of what it’s about. That it’s about a moment in history I didn’t know in any great detail, and it’s now a time in my life when I’m trying to understand a bit more about politics and history is a good coincidence.
Miéville is a writer whose sentences I enjoy and this book benefits from him being good with narrative. Each chapter covers a month between February and October 1917 (with a pre- and post- chapter bookending them) and follows the activists and reactionaries who are doing things. There were a lot of things going on in Petrograd at that time. I’d had no idea how much stuff happened between the abdication of the tsar and the Bolsheviks finally assuming power. Yup. A lot of stuff happened.
Probably not as scholarly a treatment as the sources in its works cited, but I know a bit more about history now, without feeling like I was slogging through a dry text. It also didn’t overdramatize things and felt well-researched (though he does say in the afterword that he was relying on works in English, not primary sources). I do prefer Miéville novels though, since I really enjoy his shaping of the reality in the pages rather than simply (though evocatively) reporting on things.
Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was is not as phantasmagorical as its title might imply, but if you add in the subtitle – A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents – you get a bit closer to the matter. It’s a history of anarchists and revolutionists in 19th century Russia and France primarily. I don’t read a lot of history so I don’t know if it was tremendously accurate. It gave me a bit better an idea of some of the political challenges going on at the time and how the secret police used agents provacateur to try and manoeuvre naive folks to serve other political ends. I liked it because it was about the people who were leftist but not Marxist, which is something especially historically I am very capable of forgetting.
White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia isn’t exactly the travelogue I expected from reading the back blurb. It’s about a Polish journalist, Jacek Hugo-Bader, who travels through Siberia in a truck in the middle of winter, but that aspect of the trip only appears in the first and last chapters of the book. The rest is arranged more topically about the people he interviews in these Siberian communities.
Once the realization that this wasn’t going to be a wacky journey tale set in, I quite enjoyed the book. Hugo-Bader talks to AIDS patients, hip-hop wannabes, shamans, religious communities and alcoholics. His european perspective on the Siberian aboriginal people gives those sections quite a different tone from the way you’d write about them in North America. Not better, but it was different enough to make me notice and try to analyze why it felt so foreign. Would it have felt more natural if I was a white Canadian forty years ago? Maybe, but maybe that’s just me thinking these Eastern Europeans are a bunch of assholes.
Anyway, problematic aboriginal discussions aside, I liked the book for its alternative perspective on the parts of Russia that don’t make the news. I’ll talk to my Russologist friends about how accurate this Polish journalist was, but for a non-expert it was an interesting read.
Peter Higgins’ Wolfhound Century is kind of a spy/detective novel mashed up with a fantastical element in a world whose moon has shattered and angels fell to earth. I liked it, but it didn’t grab my innards the way I’d hoped it would.
There are two parts to the book. The first is about an investigation in this fantasy-tinged Russian city filled with agents-provocateur, anarchists and artists. This stuff I loved. The powerful people are assholes and Lom the detective is a prototypical noir detective in this pseudo-Soviet state. It’s great.
Then it spins into something overtly mythical magical and blatant rather than tinged with magic. This big magical plot doesn’t resolve itself and I assume it’s planned as a trilogy at least. That bugs me. The change in Lom 3/4 of the way through the story also bugs me a bit. He starts off as a hard-boiled provincial detective out of his element but pursuing leads in the case he was given. By the end he’s definitely not that any more. There’s a lot of stuff that happens that undermines the “lone man against an impenetrable totalitarian fantasy state” vibe I wanted out of the book (and got from the beginning).
But it’s a decent beginning to a story that I’ll probably like when it’s all put together eventually. As it is, it’s too much of a first act for my liking.
I read The Great Railway Bazaar long after reading Paul Theroux’s book about revisiting his journey thirty years later. I liked the revisiting book better, possibly because the society Theroux was writing to in the 2000s is more like the society I think of myself a part of.
The parts I liked were the parts about the trains themselves. I too am a lover of trains and riding on them and could gladly let riding a train be the entirety of a vacation. I also appreciated the Vietnam chapters because this was written so close to the war and things felt weird and on edge there. But this book had more than just riding on trains. It had a lot of grand statements by a white guy about the cultures he was passing through. I can see a lot of similarity to myself there too, and, well, it was kind of ugly.
Theorux makes all these sweeping statements that seem to have no compassion for any of his subjects. I didn’t get that feeling from his book as an older man. Maybe I’ve just heard enough of what people who look like me have to say about travelling through Asia. And maybe that’s why I liked the Vietnam sections; his compassionless comments were directed at Americans and other foreigners instead of the people whose homes he was cruising through.
I was primed by my love of Greg Stolze and John Tynes’ RPG Unknown Armies to really like Gary Reed’s Saint Germaine comic. I mean a story about the great immortal wandering the earth, dying a thousand deaths, but always returning to witness more of humanity is bound to be kind of awesome. Well, no.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a story here. A writer is summoned to the immortal’s home to write his tale. He’s attacked by shadows of Lilith, the immortal’s companion. There are scenes from the Spanish Inquisition and Moscow, pre-Napoleon. The writer is consumed by shadows and used as a weapon against Lilith. That’s what I’ve got.
Maybe it would reward a more careful reading, but nothing about the art or the writing really drew me in to say, here’s something great. And with my preconceptions about the First and Last Man (and let me say again that Unknown Armies does really cool stuff with this bit of myth), this book needed to be great instead of meh.