Garrett’s Summer Reading Recommendations

by Garrett Ashley

It’s a bit late for another summer reading list, but that doesn’t mean the summer’s over! Here are a few of my suggestions, broken up into categories. I have a bit too many on my list to name here, but these are some of my favorite and most anticipated.

Short Story Collections

Dangerous Laughter, by Stephen Millhauser: Millhauser knows how to make the most mundane things unusual, and the most unusual things magical and extraordinary. The first story, “Cat ‘N’ Mouse” (the opening cartoon) is a straightforward telling of Tom and Jerry, cover_DangerousLaughtertold in fragmented segments, with deeply existential sections sprinkled in between. I didn’t know a story like this was even possible—reading Tom and Jerry is a different experience than watching the cartoon. “The Room in the Attic” is about the relationship between the protagonist and a shy young girl who, because her room is always drenched in darkness, the protagonist never sees. I haven’t finished Dangerous Laughter yet, but Millhauser has recently become one of my favorite writers. There’s no one else like him.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell: I feel licover_RaisedByWolveske Russell is probably old news now (as old, maybe, as this, her first collection). But I’d feel weird if I excluded her from my list. Her novel, Swamplandia!, narrowly avoided winning a Pulitzer (?), and Girls Raised by Wolves sports the story that became the novel. Alongside the title story, which is about a bunch of wolf girls becoming young ladies, there’s a story about kids sledding down dunes on the backs of giant crabs, a matador father, and a brother on the hunt for his ghost sister. Russell is one of the best literary/fantasy hybrid writers I know of.

Tenth of December, by George Saunders: I read this one when it came out, and afterwards went out and bought Pastoralia and CivilWarlLand in Bad Decline. Neither of which I’ve read yet, but they look pretty on my shelf (as most Riverhead books are wont to be). Saunders doesn’t seem to have a niche, as far as I know (I don’t know a lot about him, anyway). There are a couple of science fiction stories here mixed in with the weird and ordinary. One story that’s stayed with me since I read it was “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, which examines class, slavery, and trust. The narrator thinks he can be somehow better than his rich neighbors by purchasing (spending a ton of money they don’t have on) a group of “oriental” (?) women to sit in swings on a tree in the front yard. When the women escape (I won’t say how they escape), the narrator finds himself in a legal dilemma.

A Guide to Being Born, by Ramona Ausubel: I loved every one of these stories. My favorite of the batch is “Chest of Drawers,” which is about a soon-to-be father who discovers bony cover_Guide2BeingBorndrawers embedded in his chest. There’s also a story about arms that grow out of your torso when you’re in love. They get bigger the more you fall in love with someone, so you can’t hide your true feelings from your significant other. They’re called “love arms.” Go figure.

Novels

Tinkers & Enon, by Paul Harding: Tinkers, the Pulitzer prize winning novel, is short, but I wouldn’t call it light reading. It’s the fragmented story of two generations of men and George’s trouble with mental health. Enon, Harding’s recent novel, is kind of a sequel (I think), but I don’t exactly know how it’s going to play out. I’m going to work through Enon when I finish Dangerous Laughter.

The Kings and Queens of Roam, by Daniel Wallace: The author of Big Fish tells the story of two sisters living in Roam, one who is blind and beautiful and one who is sighted and incredibly ugly (Wallace’s words, not mine). There are giant lumberjacks, ghosts, silkworms, and hidden communities. The novel probably has the prettiest cover of my list, too.

The Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer: Technically, the third book in the series doesn’t release until September, but I’ve had a lot of fun reading this. I’m still not sure whether to call it science fiction or fantasy. But it’s speculative, and most importantly, uncanny. The series is full of mystery, suspense, and horror.

Literary Journals/Magazines

McSweeny’s 45: The “Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock Fistfight in Heaven” issue.

Ploughshares, Spring 2012: Edited by Nick Flynn.

Nonfiction

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

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Gaming Stories: Morrowind

by Garrett Ashley

In celebration of the apparent flop of Elder Scrolls Online, I decided to crank up 2011’s Skyrim for the first time in months. In case you didn’t already know, The Elder Scrolls V is a hugely successful game both critically and commercially—I won’t bother providing any references because it’s old news and all the reviews are pretty much the same. People seem to love The Elder Scrolls. And I don’t blame them. The games are great. So in light of all this, I wanted to talk about 2002’s Morrowind, one of my favorite games of all time.

I don’t have much to say about the mechanics of the game. There are a lot of flaws (if you’ve ever experienced the battle system, you know what I mean) but all of that can be overlooked in place of what the game actually offers. There’s a map that actually feels huge. There’s no guidance system like a compass to lead you in the right direction, and the only way you can keep up with quests is through a journal system that updates when events are triggered.

There’s a sense of reward around every corner, making exploration a general necessity for the hardcore fantasy gamer. And exploration somehow seems better in Morrowind despite its limited graphical quality—Skyrim offers impressive vistas, sure, but Morrowind offers more environmental storytelling, which is a better sort of fuel for the imagination.

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Dark Souls: What is Wrong with You?

by Garrett Ashley

I’ve been on sort of a Dark Souls kick lately. I can’t say why. The game doesn’t make any sense unless you use the wiki or have an IQ of 160. Everything is so cryptic. The game is hard, and it fills me with anxiety. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.

Video games are so tame these days. They try to be like movies—they don’t want you to fail, they want you be able to move forward and see all the gorgeous textures and polygons they’ve crammed onto the disk. Dark Souls doesn’t care about polygons. Nothing.

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At the beginning of the game there’s a boss fight. You die fighting an Asylum Demon, pictured above. Don’t forget to light the bonfire before going in. You’ll be tossed into Dark Souls Limbo if you don’t rest at a bonfire before dying here. After dying two or three times fighting the Asylum Demon, just try running around the room a bit until you find an opening. Pass through the opening and a wall of bars will fall down. Don’t stand next to the bars wagging your tongue at the Asylum Demon, because he’ll hit the bars with his big stick and you’ll die. Rinse and repeat, if so.

Run up to the top of the asylum, and you’ll encounter a wall of fog. Pass through the fog and you’ll fall down on the Asylum Demon. Do this as many times as it takes. Sometimes, you’ll win a boss fight, and get points and new items.

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When you get out of the Asylum, you’ll have a few more boss fights. I find that the key to success in this game is desensitization. Pretty soon, you’ll be addicted to losing.

I think it’s best to play the game without an internet connection. Sometimes you need to reverse hollowing (become a human) in order to summon helpful NPCs to aid you in boss battles. But when you’re human, you run the risk of getting invaded by dark phantoms, which are neckbeards that are a lot better at the game than you. The folks at Bandai and Software have written a lore that makes online play more. . . realistic. It’ll make sense. Other people will just seem like terrible monsters to you. Don’t talk to strangers.

Anyway, you fight a bunch of bosses. Then you fight this zombie king, whose sword is on fire. I find it’s best to circle the area for about thirty minutes, shooting him in the face repeatedly with crossbow bolts. Cheating is a gameplay mechanic in Dark Souls. Don’t be afraid to exploit various loopholes, or else you’ll never get anywhere in life. When you finish the game, it starts over on a harder difficulty, thankfully.

That’s about all I have to say about this game. Dark Souls II comes out in March. Here’s a neat video that’ll help you get through tough times.

images: “You Died” screenshot, Video Gaming Hard Corps; “You so Best,” This is Privilege.

Video Games and Art

by Garrett Ashley

I don’t particularly like this argument, and I don’t care whether people think video games are a form of art or not. I think it’s a silly thing to worry about. I grew up playing video games because I didn’t have many friends. I didn’t like playing outside, and I still don’t. I loved to draw, build castles out of Legos, dig tunnels in the sand when the power was out. Video games are among the things that have allowed me to (sorry for the cliché) fuel my imagination. Video games offer something that other forms of art don’t really offer—choice. The Nostalgia Critic talks at length about choice and has what I believe is the most convincing and well-worded argument for video games as an art form I’ve ever heard—here’s the video.

I’ll let the Nostalgia Critic do the talking for me.

If I were to bury myself in the conversation of video game artfulness, I’d look for a gaming company that doesn’t develop products for profit. That’s a silly thing to do, isn’t it? But I’ve heard a thousand times that art is not something that is done for profit—it’s anti-art. I don’t exactly agree with this. I believe Stephen King is just as capable of making art as Alice Munro. A work of art can become a bestseller overnight. It’s not unheard of. But let’s agree to disagree—things that are made for profit are not art. And it seems that 99.9% of video games are made for profit. That’s not so bad, is it?

So I’ll shift my attention to Nintendo for help. Nintendo single handedly saved the gaming industry with its intellectual properties. And recently, Nintendo has gone downhill in terms of sales. They’re not the only gaming company that has its gimmicks (touch screens, voice commands, motion control, etc.) but for whatever reason, the company continues to hold onto their old IPs. Are audiences getting tired of Mario? Mario doesn’t use a machine gun, and he doesn’t smash zombies with an electric hammer (to my knowledge). It’s beside the point to say that Nintendo needs to create new IPs and develop better third party support (it’s difficult to code games for their hardware). What I’m interested in, and why I feel game developers are not just after your hard earned money, is that companies like Nintendo are releasing titles and IPs for the love of doing so.

I think Shigeru Miyamoto says it best in a quote I dug up in an old issue of Game Informer:

“I could make Halo. It’s not that I couldn’t design that game. It’s just that I choose not to. One thing about my game design is that I never try to look for what people want and then try to make that game design.” – issue 200, pg 85.

There are a whole list of quotes from Miyamoto here that I absolutely love.

Someone said either on Game Trailers or Machinima that Nintendo is like an old-grandpa company that resists the new generation of gamers’ expectations. Sorry for the lack of citation. They could sell their IPs off to Sony or Microsoft (God forbid) and just make handheld consoles, but they don’t. There’s a new console in every race. I think it’s a work of love, and I respect that. That’s sort of what art is, I think.

– You can find more info about Garrett on our contributors page.