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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A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving surprised me with its heart

Lowell Kempf
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Our son surprised us by asking to watch the Peanuts Thanksgiving special on Thanksgiving.

Earlier this year, he’d wanted to see It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and we were surprised at how bleak it was. So we weren’t sure what A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving would be like.

While it’s probably the most prominent animated Thanksgiving special (there aren’t a lot), it’s no A Charlie Brown Christmas so let’s get a summary going.

Spoilers

Spoilers

Spoilers

In A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the conflict comes from Peppermint Patty inviting herself, as well as Maurcie and Franklin to the Browns for Thanksgiving dinner. However, Charlie Brown will be celebrating Thanksgiving with his grandmother. His hastily thrown togoether meal disappoints Peppermint Party but Marcie points out hypocrisy. In the end, Grandma Brown invites everyone to her condominium for a traditional meal.

While there is a scene where a chair comes to life and fights an epic battle with Snoopy, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is surprisingly grounded. Really, if a group of elementary school kids were to try to throw together a feast, popcorn, toast, pretzel sticks and jellybeans seems pretty believable. The special feels even more slice of life than usual for a Peanuts special.

As a grownup, the conflict in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving takes on a different tone. Peppermint Party invites herself into the Browns’ Thanksgiving because her dad has been called out of town and she’s all alone.

While it is barely touched on, Peppermint Patty has a single parent home. (I remember Marcie’s mom made her a skating dress because Peppermint Patty didn’t have a mom) Unlike Charlie Brown being in the unrealistic position of getting a Christmas tree (something a grown up would be expected to do), Peppermint Patty’s situation is very believable.

And when Marcie calls her out on she imposed on Charlie Brown and then blamed him for not living up to her expectations, Peppermint Patty feels bad and apologizes. I can’t see Lucy doing that.

While the situation isn’t as ‘big’ as the Christmas or Halloween specials, the stakes in the Thanksgiving special are more grounded and thus hit home on a different level. I found it surprisingly effective.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was a medium-changing work that has informed animated specials in general ever since it’s creation. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving can’t touch that but it surprised me with its sweetness.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Nov 26, 2021 9:17 pm
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Alcatraz versus the Unreliable Narrator

Lowell Kempf
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I have finished the fifth book in Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz books. And ooooh boy, do I want to write about them.

But the books are too much fun for me to spoil So I don’t want to go into any of the twisty plot elements. But the format gives me plenty to discuss.

Alcatraz is an orphan who discovers that he actually nobility of a fantastical hidden world, has vast magical powers and is at the forefront of the battle between good and evil. Which makes the series sound like a clone of Harry Potter. Instead, it relentlessly subverts those expectations.

Alcatraz is the narrator of his own adventures. And he is not just an unreliable narrator. He brags about being an unreliable narrator. On top of that, he discusses literary tropes and literary history, getting side tracked from the actual narrative constantly.

Interestingly enough, it isn’t quite as meta as it sounds. Alcatraz doesn’t know that he’s in a book. He knows that he’s writing a book. (Well, within the context of the books. I’m pretty sure Brandon Sanderson is real author)

This has the interesting effect of letting Sanderson actively discuss the nuts and bolts of literature and writing while still making it make sense and be accessible within the context of the story.

And Alcatraz is a _fun_ narrator. Snarky, actually pretty funny and self-depreciating to the point of being legitimately damaged, Alcatraz is engaging and sympathetic. He’s very much of a guile hero but one whose desperate, cunning plans tend to have unfortunate and unforeseen consequences. He frequently points out that, since he is writing his autobiography, that he clearly lives through the books but there are still stakes.

The Alcatraz books pulls off being an interesting experiment/exploration in writing and being a decent story as well. Since it is theoretically aimed at younger readers, it needs to have the second part. Still, the former is really the selling point of the books.

So. Good books. Glad I read them. Go read them.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Nov 17, 2021 7:58 pm
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You know Falling Angel is a tragedy going in

Lowell Kempf
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Probably the worst thing I can say about Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg is that I figured out the twist by the second chapter. And, no, I didn’t even know it inspired the movie Angel Heart, let alone seen that movie.

That actually didn’t spoil the book for me. I knew where the story was heading and what the ending would be (and I was right, by the way) However, the actual journey to get there was the real reason to read the book. I’m pretty sure everyone who goes to see Antigone knows how it ends but buys the ticket anyway.

Falling Angels is a hybrid of horror, classic tragedy and hard boiled detective. And while the hard boiled detective genre frames the story, all three elements are essential to the story and are woven together surprisingly well.

Since the story is basically nothing but a whole bunch of twists, I am going to skip it to avoid spoilers. And, yes, it’s obvious but that doesn’t mean I feel like spoilers. A private detective named Harry Angel is hired by a Louis Cyphre. And bad things happen. There. That’s enough.

I’ll give this fair warning. There is some graphic violence in this book. It actually succeeds in being disturbing.

Falling Angel isn’t a perfect book but it does the things it needs to do to work well.

Originally found at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Nov 10, 2021 6:54 pm
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Winnie the Pooh is authentic

Lowell Kempf
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Reading Winnie the Pooh by A. E. Milne for the first time since becoming a parent was a fascinating experience.

The book, far more than the animated adaptation, is a remarkably faithful depiction of a child in imaginary play. So many times while I was reading, I found myself rememering times I had seen our son doing variations of what Christopher Robin does.

First and foremost, Christopher Robin is the natural leader of the gang. He is the smartest person in the room and everyone admires him. Yeah, I didn’t see that kind of play when our son was five. No, not at all

More than that, certain traits are assigned to the animals so that Christopher Robin doesn’t have to have then. Timid Piglet is probably the best example of this, a projection of a child’s insecurities. Piglet lets Christopher Robin be brave.

Even Rabbit’s plan to kidnap Roo because Kanga makes him nervous is a great example of how little kids are sociopaths.

In short, now that I have a little Christopher Robin of my own, I can appreciate the observational skills Milne demonstrated. For a story about a talking teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh is surprisingly true to life.

(And, yes, if our child, who has never shown any interest in any version of Winnie the Pooh, prefers the Disney version, that’s cool. Disney Tigger rocks)
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Thu Nov 4, 2021 5:18 am
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The Halloween Tree is pure Halloween madness

Lowell Kempf
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I decided to wrap up my enjoyment of Halloween things with Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. As such things tend to be, it was both worse and better than my memories of past readings.

Published in 1972, it describes the fantastic journey of eight boys as they both discover the origins of Halloween and try and save the life of a friend who is on death’s door. The mysterious Mr Moundshroud takes through time and space to see bits and pieces of how Halloween has come to be framed with each boy wearing a costume that reflects stops on the journey.

And one of the things that profoundly struck me was how their choice in costumes was as much characterization as the boys got. Admittedly, it’s a short book and that’s a lot of characters. They end up being an amorphous blob of boisterous kids who make Henry Higgins look like Holden Caulfield.

Something I seriously misremembered was the amount of historical and cultural information in the book. My memory had filled in complete essays on how different cultures remembered the dead. Nope.

Instead, The Halloween Tree has shadow box images with very little actual didactic content. You get verbal snapshots of scenes. I realized that I was filling in a lot of the details with my own casual knowledge of ancient Egypt or ancient Britain or Notre Dame Cathedral or Dia de Muertos.

Instead of being educational, Bradbury is fully embracing the phantasmagorical and the Grand Guignol. You have to almost fill in the plot connections yourself as he rushes breathlessly from image to image.

Bradbury’s use of language and imagery has always been on of the his strong suits, pretty much since the get go. But in The Halloween Tree, his use of language was so extreme that it almost feels like he is parodying himself.

And, you know what? That is why it works.

The Halloween Tree is a fever dream of over-the-top and hyperbolic imagery. It doesn’t even try to be realistic. And, if it had, it would have diluted the effect. Instead, the game is a mad carnival ride of scenes and the ride never slows down. It is Bradbury’s profound imagination and skill with language on fire.

I understand it was originally written as a screenplay, which explains how visual the work is. And I haven’t seen the animated movie that was made in 1993, which apparently removed four or five the characters and turned one of them into a girl. It does sound interesting and removing the ‘no girls allowed’ feel of the book would be an improvement.

As an outline, The Halloween Tree shouldn’t work. In practice, it works very well because Bradbury’s mastery of language makes it burn like a thousand jack o’lanterns stuffed with fireworks.
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Sat Oct 30, 2021 3:17 am
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The Three Investigators- debunking ghosts from a junk yard

Lowell Kempf
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It’s really more Halloween adjacent at best but I have gone back to the Three Investigators series for the last few months got decompression reading. The reason that I can even try and tie the books to Halloween is because, man, these teens run into a lot of Scooby Doo hoaxes.

The Three Investigators is a series of juvenile mysteries that ran from 1964 to 1987. Except in Germany. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it never stopped in Germany.

The protagonists form a classic Super Ego-Ego-Id trio. Jupiter Jones is the chubby super ego and the actual detective of the group. Bob Andrews is the ego. While Jupiter is the intuitive genius, Pete is the other side of the smart guy coin, the methodical researcher. And Pete Crenshaw is the big guy, the id, and I always picture him as Shaggy from Scooby Doo since he’s the first to believe in the supernatural.

In some ways, the stories are more grounded than other kid detectives I’ve looked at. They live in a defined town that is fictional but set in a specific location in California. They have to work and scrounge for money and supplies. And grownups, either negatively or positively, are never useless.

On the other hand, they do have an elaborate hidden secret headquarters in a junkyard and they have access to a Rolls Royce. Which, admittedly, does explain how they can get around California. So there is some definite wish fulfillment going on.

Originally, part of the spin of the series was that the boys were associated with Alfred Hitchcock. In reality, of course, all Alfred Hitchcock did was accept a check for the use of his name. But, honestly, from an entertainment and literary standpoint, that’s the least interesting part of the books.

The plots are surprisingly intricate puzzles. Not realistic, oh no, but they are intricate. I did appreciate when part of a solution was glare jolt obvious in one book, Jupiter immediately pointed out. The plots are ridiculous puzzles built on people trying to live like Professor Layton but they don’t talk down to their readers.

One thing I can’t do really is compare these books to either the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, even though they fit the same niche. That’s because those two series have been pretty much adding content for ninety years and adjusting as the times change. I’d have to find books written at the same time as the Three Investigators to make a fair comparison.

I have only read nine of the original forty-three books but I have enjoyed them and I’ll keep on going. The Three Investigators isn’t high literature but it also isn’t junk.
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Wed Oct 27, 2021 9:02 pm
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The Nightmare Before Christmas is our son’s Halloween

Lowell Kempf
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In what is becoming a holiday tradition, we watched the Nightmare Before Christmas as a family.

Honestly, as our kid grows older, I can see some holiday works beings ones that he grows out of. But Nightmare is probably going to be there for the long haul.

I think part of the movies strength is that it doesn’t talk down to the audience or pull its punches. The common denizens of Halloween Town, both their natures and their proclivities, are the stuff of nightmares. The Oogie Boogie Man is right out of the Festival by H. P. Lovecraft.

However, when our son says to me ‘This is Halloween is the Halloween song,’ I think he really nails a powerful part of the movie’s appeal. Outside of The Monster Mash and Werewolves of London (maybe Thriller?), I can’t think of any other Halloween anthems that have really made it into the collective consciousness. (Which still puts Halloween way ahead of Thanksgiving and Arbor Day)

There is a LOT that makes Nightmare work and the score is just one part of it. That said, it’s a musical that clicks even with people who don’t like musicals.

Honestly, I don’t feel like I can do Nightmare justice and I’m sure that no one reading this hasn’t seen it. Probably seen it lots of times. It is a children’s movie I don’t mind seeing over and over again. And I don’t mind hearing our son sing This is Halloween constantly
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Mon Oct 25, 2021 4:59 pm
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The Gates is one _hell_ of a good time

Lowell Kempf
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I hadn’t realized when I decided to read John Connolly’s The Gates in the middle of October that it was set at Halloween. Mind you, I’d have enjoyed it any time of the year.

In a small English town, a boy named Samuel Johnson and his dashchund Boswell see a portal to hell open up. Demons come out, just in time for Halloween, and hijinks and comedy ensue.

Okay, it was impossible for me not to compare The Gates to Good Omens. They both have that cheeky, self-aware tone that resonates with the works of Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome. And they both are about biblical-style end of the world.

That said, the differences are significant enough that the Gates stands as its own book. Good Omens has an ensemble cast and a fairly complicated plot. The Gates is clearly centered around Samuel and has a simpler plot. A ton of footnotes about physics but a simpler plot. Samuel is very different than Good Omens’ Adam. Quirky and a bit nebbish and coping with his parents’ divorce, he’s more developed (but he is the main character so he should be)

And, yes, Good Omens is the better book but it’s a modern classic. That leaves plenty of room for The Gates to still be very good.

I have to note, while a dedicated cat lover, I adored Boswell the dashchund. Neurotic but brave, he demonstrates endless love for Samuel and more common sense than any other character. I cheated and checked to make sure he doesn’t die at the end of the book (spoiler)

The real strength of The Gates is tone and characterization. Plot wise, it doesn’t break any new ground on the idea of kids saving the world. But that doesn’t matter. The voice that the book has and the characters easily carry the work.

Years ago, I read John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things, which is one of the best fairy tale deconstructions I’ve read. After The Gates, I won’t wait so long to read more John Connolly. For instance, the Gates is the first book in a trilogy
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Wed Oct 20, 2021 9:10 pm
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The Night Wire is a tasty bit of dread, perfect for Halloween

Lowell Kempf
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With Halloween coming, I took a moment to reread The Night Wire, a short story by Henry Ferris Arnold. It’s from 1926 so public domain and free to read online. It’s also pretty short so it’s easy to read in half a sitting.

In it, two men are on the night shift of a telegraph office, typing out news stories as they come in when they start getting live reports about a terrible apocalypse happening to a city they have never heard of.

I honestly don’t want to go into too many details because that would spoil the story. Mind you, it’s nearly a hundred years old, apparently was one of the most popular stories in that era of Weird Tales and has been frequently anthologized so you probably have already read it

And you can click on the link below and read the thing in five minutes if you haven’t

There are two elements in the story that I think make it resonate. Atmosphere and uncertainty.

The entire story takes place in one room in the middle of the night. The sparse setting manages to convey a sense of isolation where the only connection to the world is the telegraph and that is a tenuous connection.

But the uncertainty is the real power of the story. We never have a clear idea what is going on. Is the night wire describing a Biblical apocalypse? A Lovecraftian cosmic horror? The afterlife? Or is the narrator having some kind of psychotic break? You can make arguments for all of the above.

But you get enough details for it to be really creepy. The story gives your mind enough to work with.

If you need a tiny taste of Halloween dread, the Night Wire should do the trick.

https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Night_Wire
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Fri Oct 15, 2021 4:23 pm
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Shangri-La is a weird place

Lowell Kempf
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Rereading Lost Horizon (by James Hilton) for the first time in maybe five years was like reading a completely different book.

Okay. There will be spoilers ahead. For a best-selling book from 1933 that was turned into a famous movie from 1937 that turned Shangri-La into a common noun. So it’s like spoiling the end of the Wizard of Oz. (Pssst… Dorothy gets to go home)

Here’s the elevator pitch: four westerners get flat out kidnapped to the mysterious and mystical lamasery of Shangri-La.

My vague memories were that, by the mystical lamasery’s standards, Shangri-La was pretty mundane. No warrior monks with magical martial arts or wizards. I had completely forgotten that the High Lama claimed to be telepathic or that the longevity apparently had a narcotic drug component.

I had also been under the impression that Lost Horizon had been the start of the whole mystical monastery genre when I was younger. Now I know it was a well-used device by 1933. So I am now left wondering if Lost Horizon is a straight take on the mystic monastery and great white savior tropes or a deconstruction of them.

Conway, the protagonist, is the guy who the High Lama chooses to succeed him, even though he’s just got to the place. However, his inner calmness comes from being a shell-shocked survivor of World War I. The book makes is abundantly clear he is very damaged, even though everyone wants him to be their hero.

And, judging by the ending, he doesn’t end up saving anyone. But, to be fair, he never asks to be anyone’s hero.

Shangri-La, on the other hand, is fascinating. The highlights of the place include plumbing from Akron, Ohio, central heating, a library with lots of western elements and a grand piano. The High Lama is actually from Luxembourg. The special treatment that extends lifespans doesn’t work on native Tibetans.

More than that, Shanghai-La doesn’t seem to have any goals relating to enlightenment or philosophy. What little we learn of the place makes it sound like scholarly hedonism, like a group of professors were given lifetime tenure and sabbaticals at the same time. The main goal of Shangri-La is to be a repository of knowledge and art after the rest of the world blows itself up.

Don’t get me wrong. Shangri-La sounds like a lovely place to chill out but it doesn’t seem very deep. Given their mantra of moderation, the characters in the book might agree with me. It’s a tempting but I don’t know if it’s a good idea.

I wonder what Hilton’s goal was with the book. But the layers of ambiguity may be part of the book’s lasting success.
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Thu Oct 14, 2021 12:10 am
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