Mar 022019
 

So I was chatting with my eleven year-old niece about the Harry Potter books that I’m starting and she’s close to finishing, and right away she asked the inevitable and impossible question: “So what house are you?” I hesitated, unsure.

To help me out, she let me know that without question she is absolutely, certainly a Slytherin. To which, I replied “oh no!” Well, she was having none of it and explained that the books gave the house a bad rep, which wasn’t fair, because there were clearly many, many good Slytherin. Slytherin, for example, like her. How could I resist such logic? Answer: I could not.

My niece, a young woman of great talent, is probably also a parslemouth. (via)

This settled, she turned back to the original question: “So what house are you?”

“Well,” I confessed. “I don’t know. I think I’m either a Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw.” To which my eleven year-old niece responded, without hesitation: “Hufflepuffs are dim, and you aren’t dim.”

This was the best moment of my day. Maybe my week.

Mar 012019
 

Reading this biography, I realized that my knowledge of the people of the revolutionary and federal periods in American History is limited to the big names: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and maybe a half dozen others. Webster knew many of these Bright Lights, but they flit by on the outskirts of his life, visible for a moment or two and then leaving the field to the less famous, many of whom are familiar to me only as names. I know nothing about who they are or what they did. In this, reading the book felt a lot like reading Miracle at Philadelphia (and what I imagined it’d be like to read about Irving Thalburg without knowing who Hawks or Joan Crawford were).

What’s clear despite my lack of context is that Webster was a very difficult person and could be quite unpleasant to be around. Kendall makes a good case that this was linked to mental illness—anxiety and obsessive traits— without making that argument overbearing. Instead, he gives the basic contours of Webster’s on-going difficulties and then takes them for granted as the context for his interpretation of his behavior. I can’t make any judgement of whether this approach is warranted by the evidence, but it is definitely effective.

My one concern is that it seems to me—and again I don’t know the evidence—that this consideration causes Kendall in some moments to mistake statements by Webster’s contemporaries, which seem carefully constructed to avoid provoking him, as endorsements of Webster’s view of situations. A good example is a letter from Madison cited to suggest he accepts Webster’s assertion that he was an originator of the Constitution’s ideas. My reading of the cited text is less generous than Kendall’s: Madison seems to be telling Webster who invented these ideas while attempting to avoid contradicting him overtly as far as his claim to be among them. There are other citations coming from correspondents I know less about that ring a similar tone to me. I have to trust Kendall but wonder if he’s not taking Webster’s side a bit too much.

Feb 282019
 

A really great monster movie that’s focused, brief and doesn’t bog down with world building. More importantly, it avoids cliché apocalyptic tropes. Think for too long and there’s a lot we don’t know about this situation. But none of it matters. We care about the family and we follow their story through to the movie’s efficient and early end. Great work.

Feb 282019
 

For some people, writing—not necessarily being a writer—is essential to who they are and yet nearly impossible. They are only themselves when being someone else’s voice. It is paradoxical and crazy making, lonely and can drive you to drink. This movie captures that without being cute or making a joke of the real struggles and real emotions involved.

Feb 242019
 

I got behind with the nominees this year. They all came out at once and it was just too much. So no opinions this year. I saw things I liked, Roma, The Wife, especially The Favorite. I’ll root for them but have no idea whether they should win.

Feb 242019
 

I’ve gamed since I was a kid. Early on I’d played everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much, and always for consoles. The Atari 2600, a couple Nintendo boxes. The big turning point though was when my dad brought home our first PC. Freed from the console, my choices exploded. My games of choice? Early RPGs like Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds.

When I went to university a few years later, my tastes stayed the same. Only now I was playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and a Myst-style puzzle game whose name I wish I could remember.

When Blizzard’s Diablo invented the action RPG, I was fully onboard and played it and its sequel alongside Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights.

What came next was Bethesda’s Oblivion, the first truly open-world RPG I’d ever played and easily the most immersive and absorbing. It had an invisible leveling scheme: you didn’t select skills and traits, you earned them based on what you actually did while you were playing. So no calling yourself a mage while sneaking around and shooting things with a bow. I lost hours working through the detailed character creation screens, generating various characters with different pasts, personalities and backstories. I spent a month wandering collecting herbs. When I discovered and captured a wizard’s tower, I wandered some more collecting materials to build features and to decorate it.

It was only after half a year or more that I remembered that there was a story and that I could (should?) figure out how to help the king’s heir and drive off the demon invasion. Soon I discovered the thieves guild, then the assassin’s guild. I rose up and became the Grey Fox. I allowed myself to become a vampire. It seemed there was nothing I couldn’t do in this world and that no matter how much I wandered or what I did, the map would never be exhausted.

I played Oblivion right up until I switched for the first time from a PC to a Mac. That switch shut down all non-Blizzard gaming but at the time that was fine: I was busy writing and the time I had to game I was eager to spend in World of Warcraft. The first expansion, Burning Crusade, had been a hit and my brother and sister were both playing. Wrath of the Lich King was about to launch, and we used it and the subsequent expansions to hang out for years.

Eventually though, around the end of Warlords of Draenor and after years and years of game play, I was getting tired of Warcraft. It was still great and I loved it, but I was bored. Garrisons and the dailies it took to sustain them were starting to feel like a second job. I wasn’t really having fun anymore. Looking back now, I can see that I’d just gotten tired of playing the same game —and importantly, the same stories—over and over again. But at the time, I thought I was getting too old for video games, that I’d moved on.

I was wrong.

Pushed by frustrations with my Mac hardware, in late 2017, early 2018 I made the rash decision to sell my MacBook Pro and build a gaming PC. The switch didn’t last, and I’m back to Mac for basically everything, but that leap back into and embrace of the word of Windows ranks as one of the happiest decisions I’ve made in years. It pushed open the gates as surely as that first PC sitting in my family’s den had done. I could play what I wanted which meant I could game again (rather than “play Warcraft“). And it has been glorious.

One of the first games I bought was Bethesda’s Fallout 4, this post is an unexpectedly long preamble to my ravings about my experience playing it. That will have to wait for the next post though.

Feb 232019
 

Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and word is that he’s out to get Harry. In school, there’s the usual competition around the house points and the Quidditch Cup and the kids are learning real magic now (“Expecto Patronum!”). But bubbling throughout is the other stuff: a prof keeps foretelling Harry’s death, Malfoy’s working to have one of Hagrid’s hippogriffs executed, Dementors are conjuring up Harry’s memories of his parents’ death and, worst of all, Ron, Harry and Hermione aren’t getting along.

In the final chapters, everything swirls together so quickly my eyes hurt from trying to read fasterfasterfaster. Scabbers—who I spoke about over and over with my brother, always in admiring, loving terms—is a traitor! Sirius Black, after spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is after the rat—seeking vengeance, yes, but also to protect Harry. The new Defenses Against the Dark Arts teacher, appropriately named Lupis, is a werewolf. He’s also a friend of Sirius and of Harry’s father, and he’s also out to catch the traitorous rat. In the final scenes, Hermione and Harry step back in time, saving Sirius, saving Hagrid’s Hippogriff, and saving Harry.

These books are plotted like steam engines, but what makes them come alive are the characters who feel like flesh-and-blood creations. Snape especially remains a mystery. At this point, I can’t see him being any good at all, and yet, I’m rooting for him.

Don’t be evil, Snape.

Feb 212019
 

My favorite scene in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel is basically every scene where Glenn Close is speaking quietly and sparsely to a man who doesn’t realize he’s not the smartest person in the room and who is not catching on to what Joan Castleman is carefully not saying.

The choice to rely on a journalist to carry the historical content of Joan’s narration in the novel is clever and well done. It leaves Close the freedom to expose the difference between being unseen and being effaced, between standing off to the side and being pushed there. The film zeros on that subtle emotional distinction and in a brisk, focused hour-and-a-half shows a fiercely intelligent and grounded woman refusing to become a thing defined and moved about by others. She refuses too to love one bit less than she feels. It’s a beautiful performance of a beautiful character.

Feb 212019
 

A light but cleverly done movie about the composition and first performance of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Nothing ever bogs down, the performances are lively, and the direction hews a balanced line between creation and hagiography. The digital landscapes of 19th century Paris are beautifully done.

This film is a better biopic than something like Bohemian Rhapsody.