Thursday, September 12, 2019

Encyclopedia Brown is trapped in the past

The new children’s show  The InBestigstors has made me decide to revisit the Encyclopedia Brown books. Encyclopedia Brown didn’t invent the kid detective genre (that happened at least fifty years before that and probably much older than that) but it did promote a new level of ‘fair play puzzle’ to the genre.

Everyone already knows the Encyclopedia Brown formula works but here’s how it goes: Every story is actually a puzzle where there’s one or two clues that contradict the criminal’s explanation and show that they are guilty. Sometimes it’s an honest to goodness logic puzzle and other times it’s just someone contradicting themselves. The answers are in the back so the reader has a chance to figure it out before looking. 

(And, no, Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t the first time that was used but it sure helped popularize it)

My memories of the stories were that the characterization was very flat and that most of the explanations worked as the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. (Of course, Encyclopedia Brown had the winning card of his dad being the police chief so he had that backing him up)

What I forgot was how corny the books were. Everyone, including the narrator, is constantly making groan-worthy jokes. And all of the local kids have one quirk or odd hobby that makes them stand out. Mind you, which each case being only a few pages long, that’s only way to make the kids stand out.

As literature, Encyclopedia Brown is really nothing. As I already mentioned, the stories aren’t actually stories. They are really just puzzles. Theme, character, even plot are minimal. But they’ve encouraged generations of kids to read and maybe even think so that’s a good thing.

What I found interesting, though, is that the books are like a time capsule. The first book was written in 1963. So, of course it’s dated. If it wasn’t dated, something would be disturbing and wrong. And I don’t think the books are an accurate picture of childhood in the 1960s any more than Norman Rockwell is an accurate picture of America in the 1940s. But it does give me an idea what an idealized, sanitized image of childhood was like.

After rereading the first three books (published in 1963, 1965 and 1966), I decided to read the last book which was published in 2012. I wanted to see if the author included cell phones or at least personal computers and microwave ovens.

The title story of Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme did feature, well, soccer, which is a sport I don’t think would be discussed in 1963. So Donald Sobol at least managed to get to the 1980’s. Beyond that, time seemed to be frozen and Encyclopedia Brown was still charging a quarter per day (plus expenses)

Looking at Encyclopedia Brown as an adult in 2019, part of me wonders how and why I read so much the stuff when I was little. But, if it makes my son read more and think about puzzles, I won’t mind if he reads it too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Taran Wanderer ties the whole series together

I think of the Chronicles of Prydain as the Lord of the Rings for middle schoolers. And I don’t mean that as an insult but as serious praise. Both are heroic fantasies in a functional low-magic setting where there’s high magic in the wings. And both have ‘normal’ folks on the frontline against a greater scope evil.

However, the Chronicles of Prydain are much shorter and more accessible. Basically, they’re easier to read :P

One of the great strengths of the Chronicles is character development. In addition to fighting against the evil that is Arawn, the books are the story of Taran growing from a young idiot to a sadder, wiser adult. And part of the reason when that works is because Lloyd Alexander takes his time. It’s a gradual coming of age story.

It really doesn’t get kicked into high gear until the fourth book, Taran Wanderer. It’s doesn’t fit the structure of the other four books, being episodic as opposed to revolving around one event. However, as distinct as each episode is, they definitely build on each other.

We start off with a fairly jolly adventure with King Smoit (My fantasy casting for him is BRIAN BLESSED) We then have a sword and sorcery adventure against the evil sorcerer Morda. Next is Taran’s heartbreaking experiences in Craddoc’s valley. Finally, Taran ends up in the Free Commots, where he gets some experience in smithing and  weaving and pottery.

In other words, the action and adventure, including one of the more high fantasy sequences in the whole series, is at the front of the book and the mundane world of growing up is at the back. It works because Alexander eases us into it and it’s a process that takes Taran months to live through.

Taran Wanderer is the book which really pushes the Chronicles to the next level in my arrogant opinion. Because it takes the subtext of coming of age and makes it the text without being didactic. (Okay, too didactic)

I sometimes wonder if the Chronicles of Prydain has been left behind in the sands of time. (Probably not since they’re still in print) If they are, I blame the terrible 1985 movie. But they are really good, particularly when you’re in middle school.

Monday, September 9, 2019

You know, the InBestigators is jolly good fun

Our son recently discovered the children’s show The InBestigators on Netflix. Frankly, his parents might be getting more out of it than he is. 

Imagine if Encyclopedia Brown If it was a comedy and Australian and possibly directed by Christopher Guest. Four fifth-grade kids solve problems around their school and neighborhood with frequent cuts of them narrating the events as a vlog.

The show embraces the mockumentory format a lot more than I was expecting. We watch the kids usually doing something else (like failing at origami or not repairing a printer) while they describe the latest case to the camera. Instead of just being an occasional confession cam, the vlog is a subplot.

Each of the detectives has a distinct and quirky personality. Ezra is earnest and obsessed with science. Ava is hyper and super social to a silly degree. Sporty Kyle has a heart as big as a hot air balloon and his brain is about as empty as one well. Maudie, who is the one who actually does the detective work, is also withdrawn and socially awkward. It’s not the best child acting I’ve ever seen but it’s several cuts above very nice young men and women doing their best.

The writing is beautifully, wonderfully snarky. I don’t think our five-year-old gets half of the jokes. I love it when a children’s series includes bonuses for the parents but does so by being witty instead of ‘hidden’ raunchy. The show is actually funny.

As wacky as the show is, there are some surprisingly serious topics discussed. In addition to cases about cheating in class or vandalism, the show delves into parents getting divorced and bullying and losing a parent. And the InBestigators doesn’t give pat, easy answers to those subjects.

The InBestigators isn’t our new favorite show but it is funny and discusses things kids need to deal with in a non-preachy way. Our family is glad we found it and another season or two would be nice.

My September RinCon time

Saturday was the last RinCon fundraiser. I’d missed the ones in July and August so I wanted to make sure that I got this one in. I was there for four, five hours and every game I played was new to me.

I started off with Wingspan, which I’ve been wanting to try because I quite like Tussie Mussie. And the promise of Elizabeth Hargrave’s earlier design did not disappoint. Wingspan is the better game of her so-far two and there’s a lot more game. You build up a tableau of birds but you get fewer actions every round,

While Wingspan wasn’t billed to me as an engine builder, that’s what it really made me think of. There are enough random elements, particularly the bird food dice tower, that made me wonder if the random elements could be too swingy but I really enjoyed the game. I definitely want to play it again.

The heaviest game I played was Heaven & Ale, which is a game about Medieval beer brewing. It was almost insistently counter-intuitive. You don’t build up points but various supplies that get crunched into a simple formula to create points at the end of the game. It was a very interesting process but I’m not sure if the game was fun or if trying to parse the system was fun. Heaven & Ale is a game where I know it’s clever but clever can fool you into thinking clever is good.

The last and simplest game I learned was Reef, which has absolutely nothing to do Reef Encounter. It is really an abstract themed around building a coral reef with chunky, stackable pieces. You either draw a card or play a cards. Cards let you place two of those chunky pieces and score points if you match a pattern on the card. It was jolly good fun and I can see it as a game my family would enjoy.

Sometimes, I end up playing lots of little games. This was more playing a few middle-sized games and it worked out well.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Thanks for so much Doctor Who fun, Terrance Dicks

On August 29, 2019, Terrance Dicks passed away. He wasn’t a household name for a lot of folks but his work had a big impact on me. And, okay, he was kind of a household name in my childhood house.

While he did a lot of work writing and editing for television, Terrance Dicks was significant for me because he did a lot of work on Doctor Who. Between editing scripts and writing some too, he was part of the creative team from the Patrick Troughton era through Peter Davidson’s time. His scripts included co-writing The War Games and writing Robot, The Brain of Morbius and The Five Doctors among others.

So, some fairly significant stories.

However, where he really hit me was was all the novelizations he wrote. Back in the 80s, my access to the actual show was whatever re-runs PBS showed. The skinny little Target novelizations were a big part of my formative Doctor Who experience. Terrance Dicks wrote dozens of them. I later learned he got a lot of the original script writers to write novelizations as well.

Now, I have to admit, we aren’t talking about high art here. Most of Dicks’ own novelizations were practically just the scripts. And there is a big difference between reading what Tom Baker said and watching him chew the scenery with gusto. But, by golly, it let me get into Doctor Who in a way I never could have otherwise.

Thank you, Terrance Dicks.

My August PnP

August has gone by so quickly that I find myself already behind now that we’re in September :D Still, I did do some Print and Play crafting during August and here’s what I made:

Tempus Imperium
Catan Coop

Eventually, I am going to miss my goal of making a ‘big’ project each month but I haven’t yet. I’m quite happy to have finally made a copy of Bali, which was my big project for August. The fact that I’m pretty sure it’s been out of print for decades doesn’t bode super well but I think it will prove worth at least making a home made copy.

Tempus Imperium and Catan Coop both just involved laminating a single page. Still, I am quite curious about them both. Tempus Imperium will be the first time I’ve tried a Roll and Write where you replace dice with the date and time. I don’t know how well that will work but I think it’s something worth looking at. Catan Coop is something I’d never heard of (not a great sign) so I’m curious to see if it’s any good. Having a version of Catan (even a simplified one and a cooperative one) that I can carry anywhere would be nifty.

September looks to be another busy month but I’m hoping to crank out at least one ‘big’ project if nothing else.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Three Men in a classic about nothing

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome is one of those books that I think everyone should read. It’s a classic that somehow doesn’t really say anything at all but it’s such a charming nothing.

Allegedly, Jerome was planning on writing a travelogue that described a boating trip on the Thames that he and two of his friends made. However, the humor element took over and a fictional dog got added to the mix and that led to the book we have today.

The book is still kind of about that boating trip. Indeed, the trip is described well enough that you can recreate the trip today, which many people do. But most of the book is the characters, particularly the narrater  going on long, rambling asides that are often hysterical. Jerome describing his Uncle Podger trying to hang a picture is one of the most perfect slapstick bits imaginable.

There are some odd shifts in tone. The bit where the narrater begins imagining King John signing the Magna Carta comes out of left field and always makes me wonder if I missed something. And the description of a suicide victim they come across is a drastic shift in tone unlike anything else in the book.

However, for the most part, the book is a leisurely journey that basically goes nowhere but its a relaxing, fun trip. The tone is so conversational that it feels less like a book and much more like a monologue and not in an annoying way :D

I was shocked after reading the book for the first time to learn that it was written in 1889. That’s at least thirty years older than I expected. The book is so candid and witty that it feels more modern. Indeed, while I have absolutely nothing to back this thought up, I think of it as one of the first modern British comedies.