A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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My earliest Sandman memories

Lowell Kempf
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With The Sandman having been turned into a TV series, that’s taken me down memory lane. Probably enough for two or three blogs lol

I have heard a number of folks say that there was nothing like Sandman before it came out and there hasn’t been anything like it since. Which seems pretty extreme but, at least as far as comic books are concerned, I’m not sure they are wrong.

But, I have to say, I didn’t get that impression with my first experience with it.

It was issue 7, Sound and Fury, the issue that wrapped up Morpheus’s quest for his tools and his duel with Doctor Destiny, an old Justice League villain of all things. Without any context, it didn’t make much sense. Why did the pale guy turn into some kind of God at the end?

If I had the issue before, the nightmare 24 Hours, or the issue after, the charming Sound of Her Wings, I’d have been sold. But issue 7, possibly the worse issue to start with out of the entire series.

No, I wouldn’t get interested in Sandman until I found and read the Doll’s House graphic novel. And this was back before graphic novels and collected editions became an industry standard. And this was also when they still included the Sound of Her Wings.

Then I was hooked. I started getting every issue with #19.

And I still recommend friends who haven’t read Sandman start with Doll’s House. If they like it, they will be good for the whole ride. And if they don’t, they can be done.
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Mon Aug 15, 2022 10:02 pm
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The fascination of Initial D

Lowell Kempf
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Back when TokyoPop was first releasing translated Manga (which was a golden age of Manga reading for me), I latched onto Initial D. I bought and read volume after volume of it. And I never could quite figure out why I enjoyed it so much.

I recently had the chance to read the first third of the series again. And I really enjoyed it a lot. And I still can’t figure out why it’s so enthralling.

Initial D is a sports manga about street racing. The cars are beautifully drawn but the people are kind of ugly. And static images of cars racing shouldn’t be exciting. It would make more sense if I was into the anime. That would bring the cars ignoring physics to life and the sound track is legendary.

I know that I’m showing my age when I say that my default Shonen standard is Dragon Ball. (And I’m sure it says something about me that by the time it became Dragon Ball Z, I was getting bored ) The formula of the underdog coming out on top by a combination of character and last minute tricks is a familiar one. And, to be sure, with Takumi being an unbeatable underdog, Initial D holds to that formula.

What I think makes Initial D sparkle is that the appearance of being realistic. I am far from an expert but I am sure that the techniques range from terribly impractical to utterly impossible. And, in between, Takuma should be ripping the wheels off his car and dying in a flaming wreck. But he’s not leaping into the sky and lobbing fire balls so it feels realistic.

Initial D is a well packaged piece of wish fulfillment. Takuma is driving a family car and beating street legal race cars. As the series goes on, it becomes modified beyond belief but it’s still the kind of car readers might be able to own.

And maybe that’s why it works. Because it embraces wish fulfillment without being too obvious about it.
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Wed Aug 10, 2022 9:21 pm
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Stone Fox - it’s like Hemingway wrote childrens lit

Lowell Kempf
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In my search for ‘books high schoolers pick for bill reports’, I found out about Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. I thought it was a Newberry award winner (but it’s not) and it’s really more of a fifth grade or middle school book. But I read it anyway.

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Okay. It’s a famous childrens book with a dog on cover. It’s better than even money that the dog is going to die. And she does. So, since you can automatically guess how it ends, is it worth reading?

Short answer, more than I expected.

Synopsis: Willy and his grandfather will lose the farm if they don’t pay off the back taxes. The only way Willy can earn the money is by winning a dogsled race. His beloved dog Search Light dies right at the finish line. However, the titular Stone Fox, legend of dog sled races, holds off the other racers so Willy can carry the late Search Light over the finish line.

First of all, this is a short and Hemingway minimalist book. It is 90% show and only 10% tell. It is impressively razer focused. While there are things Willy struggles to understand, it doesn’t talk down to the readers.

Second, it is very grounded. The story lays out the situation so we can actually buy an 11-year-old boy winning a dog-sled race with one dog. It’s not a thosand mile Iditarod. It’s ten-mile race and one Willy and Search Ligjt ran on a daily basis and already knew well. And Willy’s big trick of crossing a frozen pond as a short cut is believable and something he cleared with the officials first.

Third, man, does Gardiner develop the relationship between boy and dog well. And almost entirely through showing. He describes Willy and Search Light working and playing together constantly.

So, the ending hits hard. And there’s no falling action. The last sentence is Willy carrying Search Light over the finish line. Razer thin minimalism.

The question I kept asking is why the book isn’t named Search Light? Stone Fox is Willy’s main competition, a neigh mythic sled dog driver- oh. That’s the answer.

Stone Fox, a Native American who is using prize money from races to buy back land treaties took away and is undefeated, is a legendary figure. He is larger than life, outside the scope of Willy and Search Light’s world. And he can be mean, punching Willy hard enough to close his eye for getting too close to his dogs.

So, when this mythic figure not only helps Willy but also honors Search Light’s sacrifice, it elevates both of them. Stone Fox is the gate keeper who lets them become legends as well. Cool trick when the book is so grounded.

Stone Fox is a tiny little book that has an old chestnut for a plot. But it is written so well that it works.
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Wed Jul 27, 2022 3:52 pm
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What’s so great about the Great Gatsby?

Lowell Kempf
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As part of my decision to read more books that lazy high schoolers use for book reports, I reread The Great Gatsby which I’m not sure I’ve read since college.

And doing some side research about the book,
I realize that trying to write about the Great Gatsby is like trying to write about Hamlet. There is practically a cottage industry for analyzing the book.

When I was younger, my biggest impression of the Great Gatsby was that it was held up as the shortest a book could be and still considered a novel. Reading it as a grown up, I was surprised at how, well, readable it was.

It was a little like finally seeing Citizen Kane. I knew that it was a classic movie and all that but no one had actually told me it was good. And that the sled is really more of a little aside than the point of the movie.

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Most (certainly not all) interpretations of The Great Gatsby seem to be that it’s a scathing critique of the American Dream. Everyone is obsessed with fame and money and is everyone is miserable.

One of the things that is fun to argue about is what is the real nature of any given character.

Is Jay Gatsby a Byronesque hero who is too good for a corrupt world? Is he a creepy stalker? Is he a delusional hypocritical man child ? Is he just a larger than life figure who reveals how crummy everyone around him is? Is he even the main character?

(I found myself thinking that Jay Gatsby isn’t the protagonist and that Nick Carraway, the narrator is. He is the one who really changes over the course of the book. His relationship with Gatsby takes him from mild disillusionment to complete and utter disillusionment)

I don’t think that the theme of the Great Gatsby is its selling point. The human race is a bunch of rotters is an old, old theme. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald created a classic by exploring that theme with interesting enough characters that we can argue about who they really are.

And, quite frankly, by not being _too_ depressing. You can argue that Fitzgerald’s friend Nathan West wrote an even more brutal and brilliant deconstruction of the American Dream with the The Day of the Locust but, boy, is that book is bleak.

I’ve read people calling The Great Gatsby as the Great American Novel. I can’t say that myself (I’d put the Catcher in the Rye before it among others) but it is a great novel about Americans.
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Wed Jul 20, 2022 6:57 pm
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In search of chapter books

Lowell Kempf
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We’ve been looking for a series of chapter books to help supplement The Magic Treehouse books. Yeah, there are a lot of them but some variety won’t hurt. So, we’ve been looking at Ron Roy’s A-Z Mysteries.

Okay, his school librarian handed me a random handful at the end of the school year, plus some Gary Paulsen and other books. They were battered surplus that she couldn’t keep.

It did include the first book and that was enough to get us started. And it’s about what you’d expect. Elementary age Dink, Ruth Rose and Josh stumble on a different mystery in each book.

Seriously, kid detective stories as a genre are over a century old. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys didn’t even get the ball rolling. So it’s a well established and well loved idea.

The A-Z Mysteries are a stark contrast to the Magic Treehouse books and not just because of the difference between fantasy and mystery. Jack and Annie have very little personality beyond Annie making life-threatening decisions and somehow surviving. Two thirds of the dialogue is didactic. (Which, to be fair, is the point)

On the other hand, the A-Z Mysteries are much more character driven with a lot more dialogue. The kids aren’t that complex but they are still distinct. Dink is the analytical one who comes up with investigation plans. Ruth Rose, the token girl, makes the actual conclusions. Josh eats a lot. (At least Shaggy stumbled on clues and drew monster agro)

And, in at least the first couple books, the kids investigations are pretty believable. They might go over the top by the letter Z but they start off reasonable.

Post Script

And in one of the books, corrupt businessmen in suits were compared to penguins. Our son loves penguins and now the A-Z mysteries are dead to him for the foreseeable future.

Time to buy ten more Magic Tteehouse books.
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Wed Jul 13, 2022 9:12 pm
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Another eulogy for a gaming friend

Lowell Kempf
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I wrote an elegy for a gaming buddy last month. I was not expecting to write another one so soon.

On the same day as I’m writing this, I’ve learned that a gaming buddy from college passed away suddenly.

College was very formative for me as a gamer, particularly as far as RPGs were concerned. It wasn’t where I discovered or played them but it was the first place where I really found a community for them.

There were three campaigns in college that, quite frankly, affected the rest of my life. The friendships from those games (Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Marvel Superheroes) have continued to this day.

Jen was in the Dungeons and Dragons campaign and she was the DM’s girlfriend. The DM had/has an interesting way of treating her and the woman he eventually married in his games. He would let them play major roles in the stories but that meant all the bad stuff happened to them.

They didn’t get powerful magic items or such. But if there was a cursed item, it would end up in their hands. And major plot conflicts would get built up around them. In other words, Frodo stuck with the one ring was clearly played by someone dating Tolkien.

And Jen ran with it. She grabbed onto every crazy story twist that was thrown her way and ran with it. The group didn’t ‘win’ a lot but we had fun and created what I’m pretty sure was a great story.

College was when I personally really knew Jen but I also stayed enough in touch to see how, like the rest of us, she grew up. She got married to a real sweet guy and had two kids. So she leaves behind a lot of friends and family and a lot of living that she should have had a chance to live.

I’m glad I got to play D&D with her and am so sad for her husband and children.
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Wed Jul 6, 2022 9:13 pm
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Cape Punk and blowing up the moon

Lowell Kempf
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Earlier this year, I read Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m A Supervillain, a fun romp about a middle schooler who also happens to be a mad scientist in a Cape Punk world.

(Cape Punk is a very loosely defined genre about superhero stuff done ‘realistic’ It seems to get slapped on any work when it’s convenient. Frankly, I can see an argument for the original treatments of Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four counting as Cape Punk )

The books definitely falls on the lighter side of Cape Punk. At least in Los Angeles, the super-human community is very self-policing. Murder and mass destruction isn’t tolerated by villains OR heroes. So it’s a pretty safe environment for a junior high metahumans to figure things out.

And I just got around to reading the second book, Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up the Moon. The title gives away a major event and the book is actually a bit of a genre shift. And I don’t think the genre shift really works for the series favor.

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The first book is not just about Penny becoming a super-powered person. It is all about her relationships. With her two best friends who gain powers either influenced by Penny or flat out from her. With her schoolmates. With the adult superhero community. With the adult supervillain community. And, of course, with her parents.

And it was good stuff. And none of it was resolved.

Book 2? Penny and Ray and Claire fly off into space and have steampunk, clockwork punk adventures. Away from basically all the conflict which drove the first book.

It’s actually worse than that.

The plot was disjointed to the point that I couldn’t figure out what the characters were trying to accomplish. They were constantly shifting to new locations and I kept feeling like I was missing the connecting pieces.

It felt like Richard Roberts had come up with this neat setting with at least three different alien groups and two human factions from the first and second World Wars and was just using Penny and company as a way to show it off.

The best part of the book was Remmy Fawkes. She’s an eleven-year-old mad scientist who is constantly being used as a pawn in other people’s plans. She has a genuine character arc as she takes control of her life, albeit with a lot of conflict with Penny.

Honestly, a stand-alone book with Remmy as the protagonist would have made a lot more sense.

The next book looks like it’s back to middle school and family. So I’ll read it and hope it catches the magic of the first book.
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Wed Jun 29, 2022 6:19 pm
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Does anyone else remember Mulberry?

Lowell Kempf
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Every once in a blue moon, I remember an obscure little British show called Mulberry. It was never finished (and it clearly has an ending built in) and may have been underrated. It did have a beautiful sad, sweet theme song and a killer concept.

Miss Farnaby is a sour, sullen old lady living with her equally elderly maid and gardener. Into their lives comes Mulberry, her new manservant, who is blessed with humor, vibrance and an astonishing area of vests. Mulberry breathes new life into their home.

Ah, but there is a twist! Mulberry is actually the son of the Grim Reaper. He has come to take Miss Farnaby away. However, he has a sweet and tender side from his mother, Spring, and he wants to give Miss Farnaby a chance to enjoy life before she had to give it up.

Damn, but that’s a hook!

It has been probably decades since I last watched Mulberry. And, at best, I watched it intermittently even through there were only thirteen episodes. But if my memories of it are true, it often fell into sitcom shenanigan and didn’t really live up to its high concept.

I think that Mulberry could be rebooted very effectively. Not darker or edgier but with more drama. Lean into the melancholy and sweetness and you’d get an unwritten Peter Beagle masterpiece.

As I mentioned, it was canceled before it could end and I wondered if the plan had been for Mulberry to somehow extend Miss Farnaby’s life. However, I found an interview with Bob Larbey, one of the writers. In it, he said Miss Farnaby would die in her sleep and Mulberry would meet her in the garden to guide her awayZ

Which makes sense since that’s the ending that’s baked into the core concept.
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Wed Jun 22, 2022 10:51 pm
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Magical tree houses and child endangerment

Lowell Kempf
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For the past several months, The Magic Tree House book series has been my go for reading to our son and occasionally having him read back. I’ve written about the series before but I’ve got some more thoughts.

The series describes the adventures of a brother and sister who discover a treehouse that can travel through time and space (but it is _smaller_ on the inside than on the outside)

The books are formulaic as all get out, down to the dialogue. That said, I have read Stratemeyer Syndicate from the start of the 20th century so I have read much more formulaic and much worse children's literature.

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The series is broken down into four book story arcs. At the end of the first arc, they learn that the treehouse is owned by Morgan Le Fay, the librarian of Camelot.

Morgan or Morgana Le Fay is often portrayed as one of the big bads of King Arthur stories, although she’s apparently okay in the very earliest stories. Still, it’s a little surprising to see her as the benevolent patron of a eight and seven year old.

Except, as we hit the fourth arc, I’m starting to question how benevolent she really is.

In the third arc, Jack and Annie go through the process of becoming Master Librarians. Which doesn’t involve much in the way of literacy or archival studies or the Dewey Decimal system but does seem to feature a willingness to risk life and limb across time and space. They become Morgan Le Fay’s gofers in the fourth arc.

First thing Morgan Le Fay does? Send them to Pompeii to get a book the day Mount Vesuvius erupts.

While there are time travel story arguments for why that was the only way (the book had to be taken from the time stream right before it was destroyed, you can only travel to specific points in history, etc), those aren’t presented. And they don’t excuse the fact that she sends young children into mortal danger and the only warning she gives them is a book about Ancient Rome.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is a high point but she keeps sending the kids into serious danger. Yeah, it’s in the name of education and entertainment (readers learn stuff by it happening rather than lecutures) but it’s still hard to swallow as a grown up.

Kids in danger is a genre staple but there’s usually some attempt at justification. Adults are out of the equation or the kids are trapped or they are the only ones who can pilot the Eva units. After the Jack and Annie get home safely, Morgan just sends them out again.

Of course, what really matters is that our son loves the series and just eats it up like popcorn. He might even be learning some facts from it (but I count on Mystery Science videos more for his random facts) When I first wrote about the Magic Tree House, it was wondering if he’d like them. That question has been definitively answered.


Post Script: I won’t be surprised if the kids are actually Morgan’s descendants. Annie displays supernatural intuition on a regular basis. That doesn’t make sending them into danger any better, of course.
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Thu Jun 16, 2022 12:38 am
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Farewell to a friend

Lowell Kempf
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Well, it’s time for me write one of these blogs.

Yesterday, as of my writing this, I got a phone call that Erik, one of my gaming buddies, passed on.

We met at the 1999 GenCon, which was also my first GenCon. It was at one of the last scheduled games on Saturday, one that I got in by going through the catalog of games until I found one with an opening.

Erik was one of three people at that table who belonged to the same Dungeons and Dragon campaign. I somehow found out that they were close to me in Chicago and got an invite to come over and play. That led to me playing at least once a week with them for the rest of my time in Chicago.

Most of my gaming experiences with Erik involved Dungeons and Dragons, although he did play a mean game of Puerto Rico. Both as a player and a dungeon master, Erik inevitably went Lawful Evil, no matter what was written on the sheet.

In real life, though, Erik was a big sweetie. He liked to act like the token adult, rolling his eyes at everyone else’s shenanigans but he could caught up in the silly just like the rest of us. He’d call you out on your hypocrisy but always own up to his own.

I hadn’t seen him in person since I moved away from Chicago and now I know I’m not going to. I miss Erik and I’m really glad I got to know him.
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Tue Jun 14, 2022 4:49 pm
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