This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities

Calling This Gaming Life a book about video games is a misnomer. Video games — or the love of gaming, more accurately — is at the core, but it’s also part travelogue, part commentary on community, and part personal reflection As much as the book bounces around from topic to topic, it stays glued together and finishes as a delightful and enlightening read.

Jim Rossignol opens the book with a description of his experience with the video game Quake, his intense devotion to it as a competitive hobby, and his subsequent loss of an office job because of the game. While the section works as a biographical primer into Rossignol’s experience with games, it also sets up one of the book’s reoccurring questions: are gamers wasting their time with video games?

Rossignol’s answer is a book-long “no.”

The majority of This Gaming Life revolves around Rossignol’s visits to three very different cities and the similarly very-different game experiences he’s had in each: London, where Rossignol spent a substantial amount of time competing at near-professional levels with first-person shooter games; in Seoul, South Korea, where legions of adults treat professional gamers like royalty; and in Reykjavik, Iceland, where the multiplayer game EVE Online is redefining how people look at society and adaptability in video games.

The section on Seoul may be the most interesting in the book, as South Koreans view video games in a near alien way, at least from a Western perspective. Not only is game playing so popular that there are dozens of prime-time game shows dedicated to it, but countless 20-somethings spend their time playing and interacting on bare-bones online games that could be considered boring to their Western counterparts. It’s not uncommon for crowds of young adults to go to coffee bars in their free time and wile away the evening playing online games, and it’s seen as normal and healthy.

This Gaming Life isn’t necessarily aimed solely at gamers; in fact, some of the preliminary chapters may be helpful to people that know nothing of video games. Rossignol points out some of the facts about video games that have eluded the mainstream media for years, and writes at length about the social and community aspects that are hard to find outside of gaming. Some of this discussion was the most enlightening for me; though I’ve been a gamer since I was a teen, the commentary on the social ‘sandbox’ aspects of video games (that is, how many games give players open-ended freedom as they play) was great.

The book is accessible to non-gamers, for the most part, but people that play video games — even casually — will get the most mileage out of it. Rossignol does a great job explaining some concepts for the uninitiated, but some of the stuff covered is easier to grasp if you’ve experienced it first-hand. While this isn’t a problem at first, Rossignol branches off into several directions simultaneously; where he was going with the book was hard to grasp at some points, and I could see it being even more confusing for people that weren’t familiar with the gaming world.

That said, Travels in Three Cities works well as both an introduction to video game culture, and also as a more complex exploration of a hobby that’s still developing and changing weekly.

This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities on

The copy reviewed was an unedited advance copy, provided by the publisher.

This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities
by Jim Rossignol
Published in 2008 by Digital Culture Books
224 pages
ISBN 978-0472116355


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Joe Connelly’s Bringing Out the Dead was the rare novel that was as lyrical as it was streetwise, as if Raymond Chandler wrote a novel about paramedics that were slumming lower than their wards. The story of healers in search of healing — emotional, existential — was laid gently across the pages, cathartic and not overly critical.

So what happened with Crumbtown, Connelly’s sophomore novel? Calling it a ‘sophomore slump’ really isn’t an exaggeration; the book was a commercial and critical flop. Sure, you could probably say that’s because the book didn’t spawn a film adaptation (like the Martin Scorsese-directed Bringing Out the Dead from 1999), but it could just be because the book, well, was just bad. Sorry, Joe.

The idea works in theory: convict is released early from prison to act as a consultant for a TV drama based around the criminal’s antics. But this is how it really plays out: After spending more time in prison than out, Don Reedy is released early to return to the urban cesspool of Crumbtown. Lots of confusing things happen, which play out like they’re supposed to be funny (but aren’t), or wink-wink nudge-nudge ironic (and aren’t). And the book weakly coasts to a stop before ending, like a deflating helium balloon clinging to its last few months in the air.

Connelly never fully develops Don as a character, but I feel like the reader is supposed to grow to love or pity him (or both). He’s merely a list of actions with a name attached; there’s no meat on the bone. The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better either, especially the small cloud of has-beens and never-will-bes that float around Don. The only character that had some weight — a Russian immigrant bartender turned love (no, make that lust; there’s no love here) interest — feels like she should be in another, better book.

Crumbtown also relies far too much on cheap laughs or unwieldy surrealism to attempt to float the plot along. The grand jest of having Don rob the TV set based on a robbery he committed is the only thing that comes off as clever, but that good feeling fades fast. Characters with goofy names aren’t funny in the long run, especially if you’re trying to pass it off as satire. Crumbtown shoots for street-level satire and hits the gutter with one-note jokes.

Connelly’s wordplay is one of the few things worthwhile in the book. Short, elegantly descriptive passages kept me thinking that yes, Connelly is talented; but even this aspect is tainted by hodge-podge editing. I had wished that I were reading Bringing Out the Dead again.

Crumbtown on

by Joe Connelly
Published in 2004 by Vintage Press
272 pages
ISBN 0375712976


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Exiled (2006)

Johnnie To has a pretty lengthy filmography, with countless credits as director or producer; many say that the guy has all but single-handedly kept the Hong Kong film industry afloat for the past decade. His movies run the gamut from great (Running Out of Time) to good (Election) to obnoxious (Fulltime Killer).

Using this scale, Exiled floats somewhere between good and obnoxious. To is certainly a talented director; as much as I’ve disliked some of the films he’s involved with, I certainly always saw the technical merit involved. But — like Fulltime Killer or even the almost-good Breaking NewsExiled struggles with anything involving a narrative.

Four men wait outside the house of Wo (Nick Cheung), a former mobster that wants to spend the rest of his life in peace with his wife (Josie Ho). Two of the men were sent to kill Wo, two were sent to protect him. It’s a neat premise, and as the four toughs wait for Wo outside of the apartment complex, the tension escalates considerably.

After an elaborately gimmicky and surreally beautiful shootout (Wo does show up, eventually), the four men call a truce so they can eat dinner together. They grew up together, see, and that’s enough to make the hitmen pause in their mission. All five men agree to go in on a gold heist. Mayhem ensues.

If the set-up sounds unsteady, it is. The screenplay — by To regular Yip Tin-Shing and HK film vet Szeto Kam-Yuen — is an absolute mess in spots. One of the biggest problems is how the characters are developed. The film kicks off with action — there’s no time for backstory when people could be shooting at each other! — and tries to cram a few weighty character explorations as an afterthought. This has to be a first for To; despite how much or how little I’ve liked some of his films (PTU is a good neutral example), I always grew attached or emotionally invested in the characters are some point. In Exiled, every character is as thin as a paper target on a gun range.

Which is a shame; the cinematography is stellar, as usual, and a few scenes were just gorgeous. Cheng Siu Keung’s camera work turns the Chinese territory of Macau into a contemporary western badland, the red- and yellow-hued dust swirling around every scene. And the action sequences are notable. A shootout in the middle of the film — characters twirling through wind- and muzzle flash-blown curtains — is a standout scene. It’s a joy to watch, in the purest sense of the word.

The cast — especially the regulars that are in most of To’s films — also carry the sad script farther than they should. Chueng is great as usual, as are Anthony Wong, Simon Yam and Lam Suet.

It ends up being a visual feast that is a near-total bore. You know it’s not a good thing when you want the characters to die so the film will end sooner. On a technical level, Exiled is excellent. But the story is painfully bad. Maybe To should work that aspect out first in the future.

Exiled on Wikipedia
All Movie Guide entry
Exiled on Rotten Tomatoes

Exiled (Fong juk, Mandarin title)
-Directed by Johnnie To
-Screenplay by Yip Tin-Shing and Szeto Kam-Yuen
-Cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung
-Cast: Wo (Nick Cheung), Jin (Josie Ho), Blaze (Anthony Wong), Fat (Lam Suet), Tai (Francis Ng), Cat (Roy Cheung), Boss Fay (Simon Yam)
-Released 2006 (Hong Kong), 2007 (USA)
-Runtime: 100 minutes
-Rated R (USA)


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Auralia’s Colors

Genre fiction often gets a bad rap for following blueprints drawn up by great predecessors. The bad rap is often deserved; as much as I like mysteries, I’m fine with never reading another story with a crafty serial killer or wise, eccentric European gumshoe.

So when I say Auralia’s Colors is a different sort of fantasy novel, that’s meant as high praise. Even though it took a few chapters to draw me in, I fell in love with everything about the book. I’m already impatient for the sequel, slated for next fall.

The people of House Abascar are in perpetual winter–not only are the citizens are under constant threat from marauding beastmen, but the kingdom was stripped of color years before by the since-vanished queen. Now, only the royalty can enjoy color while the rest of the people are draped in grays and murky brown. Morale is low. Fear and paranoia are a given. All await a spring–a grand return of color and joy–that may never come.

At the center of the novel is Auralia, a young girl living with the outcasts and criminals camped outside of Abascar’s walls. She spends her time exploring, often collecting materials for the richly-colored weavings she makes. Her joy and compassion are a blessing for the downtrodden outside the city gates, as are the magnificent–and illegal–gifts she makes for everyone.

But while Auralia is the heart of the book and the catalyst for much of what happens, she isn’t the focus; Overstreet populates the Expanse with a great cast. There’s King Cal-marcus, broken by his wife’s disappearance and the ghosts of the past; Prince Cal-raven haunts the woods outside of the kingdom’s walls, drawn more to the outcasts than the aristocrats; and a humble, un-named ale boy who is quickly swept into the adventure. There are also countless minor characters that are as rich and interesting as those that get more focus.

Overstreet sidesteps some of the standard fantasy tropes and delivers something different, something wonderful. None of the characters fit into the standard fantasy archetypes–Auralia isn’t a harmless waif or tough princess, but a complex, tattered young girl that has a deep love and faith in things she doesn’t entirely understand. And instead of a novel based around swords-and-sorcery action or medieval political intrigue, Auralia’s Colors gives the cast room to breathe and move about and take their own path.

Sometimes the prose is a little too lush (I had to re-read a few parts several times just to figure out what was happening), but Overstreet writes beautifully. He’s not writing the story of Abascar–he’s painting it. I also wish the book could’ve been longer, fleshing out a few things that seem like they were glossed over. But that almost seems like a minor afterthought; Overstreet gets everything else right.

The allegorical aspects and themes are also woven into the story well enough that they don’t fall out on to your lap. It’s all pretty powerful stuff, from the childrens’ whispers and trust in the Keeper that haunts their dreams, to the power of imagination and beauty, no matter how rugged or worn it may seem.

It’s hard to believe this is Jeffrey’s first novel. In addition to acting as contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, he spends most of his time writing film reviews for magazines like Christianity Today and Paste (he also wrote a great account of his journey as a film lover with his book Through a Screen Darkly). His attention to detail and nuance as a film lover pays off. Auralia’s Colors is an accomplished and satisfying debut, minor blemishes and all.

Next fall can’t come soon enough.

Auralia’s Colors is the first strand in the Auralia Thread. The next in the series, Cyndere’s Midnight, is forthcoming.

Jeffrey Overstreet’s website
Buy Auralia’s Colors here

Auralia’s Colors
by Jeffrey Overstreet
Published in 2007 by WaterBrook Press
352 pages
ISBN 1400072522


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Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge

Asia Times reporter Pepe Escobar likens his book Red Zone Blues to a series of blues songs, short blurbs that capture the sad song of life in Iraq during the 2007 troop surge. It sounds like it could work but ultimately does not.

Escobar bookends the book with segments padded with hyper-kinetic prose and slivers of blues lyrics. It looks like James Ellroy journalism on the surface, but if you dig deeper it’s closer to a high school student vomiting out angst as bad poetry.

Yes, there is some meaty stuff here. Escobar’s 15-plus chapters each serve as vignettes of life in Iraq and its neighboring countries since the beginning of 2007. He gives readers a good sense of the cycle of hopelessness and cynicism he sees Iraqi citizens falling into. He talks to the exiled and dispersed people that have trickled out after the U.S. invasion. And from the information gleaned, Escobar draws some conclusions: the Sunni and Shi’ite strife was non-existent before the invasion, there are many more sides to the conflict than just “UN vs. everybody else” and–as an underlying theme–things will probably just get worse.

But Escobar is so frequently one-sided that it mars his position. He unapologetically blames the U.S. for the bulk of the trouble, which–honestly–doesn’t bother me. I’m all over the map regarding the current events in Iraq, and feel frustrated when I hear so many conflicting reports, all saying I should think one way or another. But Escobar is so one-note in his condemnation that I can’t take him seriously. It seems like he interviewed just people that shared his view, and he tosses around damning numbers and figures left and right without any sourcing.

Escobar also slums by employing almost non-stop shoddy metaphors and ironic quotes. Some sentences drag on for entire paragraphs, others dovetailing out of sight, the weight of purple prose dragging them down. The prologue and coda are especially bad; I had to re-read them because I was laughing so hard the first time around. I don’t think laughter was the intended response. Journalism doesn’t have to be–shouldn’t be–dry, but this is soaking wet. Soggy, even.

Red Zone Blues is a short book, and a sizable fraction is occupied by a preview of Escobar’s other book (Globalistan). But by the end, I was wishing it were shorter; there are some provocative ideas in here that could lead to good discussion or challenging self-examination, but it’s almost entirely obscured by questionable journalism and self-indulgent prose. It’s a snapshot of Baghdad, but a tattered, unfocused one at best.

Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge
by Pepe Escobar
Published in 2007 by Nimble Books
124 pages
ISBN 0978813898

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Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is a retooled, contemporary take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. But it also feels like a 1990s version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Card uses the modern setting–and some contemporary moral questions–without mauling the source material too much, providing a surprisingly deep and entertaining read.

Ivan Smetski grew up during the twilight of the Soviet Union, his family converting to Judaism to gain visas to Israel that will ultimately pull them out from under Communist rule. But they end up moving to the United States, where Ivan grows and matures to a become a talented young man. He becomes an expert in the Old Church Slavonic language, gets engaged to a nice American girl and spends what little free time he has running for pleasure.

Ivan heads back to the Ukraine to do graduate linguistics work, promising his parents and fiance a swift return. But curiosity draws Ivan to a clearing he had discovered as a child, a sleeping princess in the center. The clearing and princess are still there, and Ivan overcomes obstacles–including a monstrous bear–to rescue her (with a kiss, no less).

This sets off a chain of events that takes Ivan back to 10th century Russia, back to 1999 America and then back to dark age Russia once more. Ivan’s morals and convictions are challenged repeatedly, and Card uses the narrative to raise some pretty deep questions about the nature of love, duty, and lots and lots about the nuances of folk religion and belief.

These nuances make the book tick. The cultural divide Ivan’s European/American Judaism and dark age pidgin Christianity causes no end of grief for the various characters (especially Ivan), but this element is not used as a simple ‘culture clash’ plot point; the author really does a great job of taking a step back and examining why certain cultures do certain things. Card also put a lot of thought into the nuts and bolts of time travel; Ivan wonders about this frequently, and they’re the sort of honest questions you wish people would ask in other books and films.

Card’s prose is occasionally hamfisted, but he’s not a bad writer. The characters are molded from well-worn clay, but the result is pretty fresh. And the plot moves along at a rapid clip without dropping in quality too much. And Card’s inclusion of eastern European myth and folklore–which binds wonderfully with the story–is seamless.

But a few things were groan-inducing, including dialogue that is incredibly expository. Card also includes several scenes that are probably meant to illustrate the possibility of fate or predestination, but come across incredibly hammy–one of the few living people in modern society to speak Old Church Slavonic just happens to travel back to a time period where Old Slavonic is spoken, and so on. This sort of thing happens enough to make it wearisome.

By the end, I really was drawn to the novel. Card took a worn fairy tale and turned it into something new, something fresh and worth investigating again.

by Orson Scott Card
Published in 1999 by Del Ray
400 pages
ISBN 0345416872

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Clockers (1995)

Clockers are the lowest rung on the drug distribution ladder; they keep a consistent, ’round-the-clock vigil on an area (hence their name), always on the lookout for buyers. Clockers dream of moving up the ladder, but between persistent sweeps by narcotics cops and the near-constant threat of violent death by rivals, this dream is rarely realized, even in part.

Spike Lee’s Clockers uses the world of these drug-dealing pawns to ask some troubling questions in the framework of a genre film. But while he mostly gets the crime film aspect down, Lee exceedingly succeeds in posing the questions.

The film revolves around a young clocker named Ronald Dunham (Mekhi Phifer); the police and his family use Ronald, while everyone else calls him Strike. He’s barely out of his teens, constantly lugs a bottle of chocolate soft drink with him and spends his evenings hunched over the model train set in his living room. He’s basically a nice kid…but he just happens to deal drugs for a living.

Strike’s world is upended when the night manager of a fast food chain in the projects is killed. Strike’s brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) turns himself into the police, but his obviously false confession doesn’t make sense–Victor supports his wife and kids with two jobs, goes to church, and avoids the drugs and violence that surround him. He wants outof the projects, so why would he ruin that chance? The police think Strike did it. Strike thinks his boss Rodney (Delroy Lindo) had his loose-cannon, HIV-infected henchman commit the murder. And Rodney isn’t sure who did it; he’s just glad the fast food manager–an obstacle to his drug peddling–is out of the way.

Based on Richard Price’s novel, Clockers‘ screenplay carries most of the film’s weight. Price–with help from Lee–adapted his own novel to the screen, streamlining the bulky book without crippling it. I was initially worried, since the book really did the trick for me–Price has a remarkable ear for conversation, and the novel unceremoniously presented weighty moral dilemma after weighty moral dilemma without ever bogging down in cheesy melodrama. But the movie doesn’t suffer; my only qualm with the adaptation is that the action is moved from New Jersey to New York (which might seem minor, but Price’s book portrays the urban decay of the satellite sprawl of the Big Apple like no other).

Strike doesn’t dabble in what he sells and–though he carries a gun–is terrified of violent confrontation. But as homicide cops Rocco Kline (Harvey Keitel) and Larry Mazilli (the always captivating John Turturro) notice, death follows Strike, and not only because he sells it daily while perched on a bench. Strike is a tragic character, too. You pity him, want him to move on. He’s sick of what he does and the quality of life in the projects. He’s the kind of kid that you’d want as a friend, a neighbor, a son. But he’s also killed or ruined countless people, a fact that he just doesn’t comprehend.

Much of the film is shown from Kline and Mazilli’s perspective, two more normal, nice guys wrecked by their jobs and what they see. Early in the film, the two arrive at a murder scene, making gallows humor and hateful slurs as police check entry and exit wounds on the victim. But you can read it in Kline’s face: I hate this life, get me out, save me. The cynicism, hate and distrust rests in he and his partner’s hearts after years of seeing what no one should see. That doesn’t excuse their behavior one bit, but Lee and Price don’t paint them as villains. Just drowning.

But Clockers really works at showing how attractive the drug-immersed lifestyle is, and simultaneously how deadly it is. Lee starts the film with a series of photographs of victims of drug-related crime, all African Americans. Lee’s extended question seems to be, why are so many young black men dying like this? The film is filled with contradicting, powerful little scenes: a young mother chastising the clockers for their lifestyle, but using violence as leverage; a well-meaning black cop constantly threatening to murder anyone that corrupts a young boy in the projects; Strike telling a young boy how important it is for him to stay in school and stay out of the clocking life, but boasting about his money and power at the same time. It’s hard stuff, and Lee lays it out without any cushioning.

If Clockers falters, though, it’s stylistically. Lee is a very capable director, but he fumbles with the crime genre. The editing is terrible in spots–sometimes a line of dialogue ends abruptly and cuts immediately to another character speaking. In fact, this happens constantly. I was quickly turned off by how choppy the movie was. And many of the scenes felt off in some ways, not flowing well from one to the next. The cinematography is a highlight, though; there is extended use of natural lighting, and sometimes the glare from the sun or fluorescent lights overpowers everything on the screen. It’s an effect that works well. The acting is absolutely top-notch, too, especially from Phifer (his first role) and Keitel.

It works in the end. Lee handles the material well, even though the actual detective/crime aspects feel haphazard. Price’s novel is probably the better investment in the long run, but as it stands the film works as an excellent conversation starter, a rich character study graced with detailed brush strokes.

Clockers on Rotten Tomatoes
Clockers on IMDb
Roger Ebert’s review of Clockers

-Directed by Spike Lee
-Screenplay by Spike Lee and Richard Price
-Based on the novel Clockers by Richard Price
-Cinematography by Malik Hassan Sayeed
-Cast: Det. Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), Det. Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), Ronald ‘Strike’ Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), Victor Dunham (Isaiah Washingon), Andre (Keith David), Shorty (Pee Wee Love)
-Released 1995
-Runtime: 128 minutes
-Rated R (USA)


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