My Favorite Things, October 2009

What the Bureau Staff is watching, reading, and playing right now.

24-year-old males can admit to playing video games, reading comic books, or following rock bands around the country without shame. But watching cartoons — or at least, watching them while not in an altered state of consciousness — is much more suspect. If I dropped a reference to, say, SpongeBob Squarepants or even Animaniacs in casual conversation, people might think that I was painfully unhip, or suffering from a moderate form of Peter Pan syndrome (which is not to say that they’d be wrong…).

But I admit: Sunday mornings, I make time for reruns of Cartoon Network’s The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. It never quite does the obvious. Despite its nautical theme, it isn’t bursting with pirate clichés; despite the fact that it’s a kids’ show, it doesn’t rely mostly on poop jokes. And even though its two main characters are a classic “mismatched pair,” their mutual affection isn’t buried under layers of gruff cynicism. It has a kind of exaggerated, grotesque visual style that I can only describe as a cross between Ren and Stimpy and Lane Smith’s illustrations to The Stinky Cheese Man (and other Jon Scieszka books). And even though Flapjack is targeted at a demographic half my age, there’s just the right combination of absurdity and sheer whimsy to keep me entertained. I mean, the characters can get drunk off of maple syrup. MAPLE SYRUP!

For this self-described pessimist, it’s nice to have an hour’s worth of escape every week — even if it doesn’t make me any cooler. — Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story has backed me into a corner. Recently released for the Nintendo DS, it’s the latest in the Mario & Luigi series, games that blend Mario’s traditional platforming style with role-playing game (RPG) elements and self-aware parody. The problem I have with the game is that I can’t come up with a good reason why it isn’t the best RPG I’ve ever played, and that places my credibility in real danger.

See, great RPGs are supposed to hew to the Final Fantasy school of game design. Think Lord of the Rings meets Twilight and you’ve got the right mix of epic and angsty. In these games, you control a spiky haired adolescent who needs to do far more than just save the world. That would be too simple. No, great RPGs feature teenagers using overwhelming magic to kill God or merge universes together or resurrect a lost civilization of hyper-intelligent mystics. And this leaves little time for all the brooding. Basically, if every event is more preposterous and overwrought than the next, you know you’re playing a contender for greatest RPG ever.

Bowser’s Inside Story doesn’t do that stuff. It’s just a silly little adventure that takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom. I mean, all I have to save is Princess Peach’s Castle, which is being attacked by an alien or something. Hardly impressive. But the game features an engaging, action-based battle system; snarky, hilarious dialogue; and insanely clever gameplay unlike anything I’ve played before. It shows how the designers thought about the possibilities afforded by the leisurely, exploratory pace of their genre, rather than rehashing the same mechanics and aesthetics over and over again. So at the risk of ruining my street cred, I’m choosing fun, charming and smart over epic. — Editor Nick Martens

Make no bones about it, I’ve been into the public library lately. Tired of looking at a screen fourteen hours a day but working poor, I remembered that most Americans have a fabulous public service that allows them to borrow books. Not only that, but the magic of the internet allows you to place holds and renew titles online. Even better, most public libraries now have free wi-fi. This is ideal if, let’s say, you’re unemployed and sitting at home doesn’t spur your productivity like it used to. You can only watch so many videos of amateur ukulele players and internet porn before you feel like a total monster unfit for any actual human interaction.

The library also offers public readings, discussion, panels, and other events. Also, unlike in a bookstore, the people who work there don’t stare uncomfortably at you if you hang out there all day. The library is like the best part of the internet — the academic, intellectual, but also slightly weird part of the internet — made manifest. I’ve heard they even carry DVDs, games, and music, but good luck if you want anything popular. It’s most likely been stolen. Apparently, people aren’t so keen on returning things that aren’t books. — Contributing Writer Brandon Lueken

I adore author Jonathan Lethem. But I can’t decide who I’m more smitten with: Lethem the short fiction writer or Lethem the essayist?

I picked up his first short story collection, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, from the bargain table at Powell’s City of Books, mostly on a whim. Here, Lethem showcases his literary chops in a series of seven sharply crafted science fiction stories that often cross into horror territory. There’s “The Happy Man,” an exploration of Hell; “Light and the Sufferrer,” about invulnerable, panther-like aliens who feed off of human misery; and “The Hardened Criminals,” which literally features a prison made from prisoners.

Next, I bought The Disappointment Artist, Lethem’s 2005 essay collection that takes an entirely different tone. I don’t read a lot of pop culture essays because I find that if I’m not already familiar with the topic at hand, the article feels flimsy and forced (I’m looking at you, Nick Hornby). But while I’m literate in a few of the subjects Lethem discusses — Pink Floyd, Star Wars, the silver age of comic books — I’m just as compelled when he talks about his relationship with John Wayne Western The Searchers, which I’ve never seen. Lethem’s essays lean hard on personal experience — probably the reason unfamiliar films and books become instantly relatable and relevant.

But here’s the funny thing: Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude is widely considered his seminal work and one of the decade’s greatest novels, but I struggled to get through it. My copy is sitting on the edge of my desk, with close-to-no chance of the bookmark traveling any further than page 207. Apparently the Jonathan Lethem I love is not the one everyone else does. — Editor Kevin Nguyen