Recommendations, 8/23

This week we like pretty board games, bold introductions, and poetic memoirs.


Photo courtesy of Board Game Geek


I’ve only played two rounds of Seasons, but it might already be my favorite board game. See, sometimes when I play games like Settlers of Catan or Dominion, I feel like my decisions don’t really have that much effect on the game. In Catan, I basically just do what’s obviously good (get rock, build cities), and sometimes I win. With Dominion, I still haven’t found a way to reliably beat the most basic strategy (just buying a ton of gold pieces). Seasons is the opposite: I feel like I’m in complete control of the game, and that all my actions are connected to each other.

When you take Seasons out of the box, it looks ridiculously complicated because it has a ton of moving pieces. At heart, though, it’s a simple card game in the vein of San Juan or Citadels. You play cards in front of you, and they have a one-time, continuous, or activated effect on the game. All the other pieces form a clever time-and-resource management system that tracks your currency, points, and the passage of seasons. The game uses dice to lend it a modest element of chance — not so much that it becomes capricious, but enough to make each turn interesting. As you play, you see how all the systems fit together, and the game develops a fun and satisfying rhythm.

And I haven’t even gotten to the best part. Any Magic: The Gathering player can tell you that the most fun you can have with a stack of cardboard is drafting: you look at a bunch of cards, choose the best one, and pass the rest to the player on your left. Then you grab the cards from your right, pick the next best one, and so on. It gives each game variety, allows players to tailor the game to their own style, and the act of drafting itself is skill-testing and compelling. And every game of Seasons opens with a draft, which is just awesome. So while it may seem like an intimidating game at first, once you get it, you’ll know it was worth the effort.


I am looking now at the front page of On the prime real estate at the top of the page, there are stories about stockbrokers and mayors, the chairman of the Fed, and a playwright who’s written about Bernie Madoff. The Dow Jones is up, and right by the stock ticker there is an ad for American Express, the Columbia MBA program, and a condo complex in New York City where rent starts — starts — at $13,000 a month.

What isn’t there is a discussion of class and poverty. I get it: it’s uncomfortable to do and harder to do without that sheen of noblesse oblige condescension. American poverty appears so little in modern mainstream fiction — it’s not in the newest Franzen or Eugenides, it’s not really in the latest “It Novel,” Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., where gentrification happens in the passive voice. The only recent novelists I can think of to treat the subject with any modicum of comprehensiveness and sympathy are Philipp Meyer (American Rust) and Héctor Tobar (The Barbarian Nurseries). Even then, there’s an ethnographic component to each of them: these worlds are several degrees distant from the vantage point of Brooklyn or the suburbs of Minneapolis or the coasts of New England, or in other words the kind of places where most mainstream literary fiction seems to take place.

This is not meant to be a criticism, only an observation that it’s hard to find someone who can talk about what it means to be unemployed or underemployed or drowning in debt, without the security of a trust fund or your parents’ bank account with some honesty. And it’s why I’m finding the first few pages of The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West so bold. The book — its introduction, anyway — serves as a reminder that the hardest thing in the world to do is have a conversation about uncomfortable truths. Yet it does so not as a harangue, but as an inspired reminder to pay attention: to stop seeing the state of being poor solely as a spiritual and personal failing, and to realize that it is the result of broad range of things that affects individuals and families, some of which can be mitigated.

Read the introduction for yourself, for free, and you may find yourself rethinking the need for a strong social safety net when the specter of poverty can be found on every street corner in America, not just those in the inner city and the Rust Belt.


Lately, I have been really into saving things.

I feel like an idiot for not having signed up for Pinboard years ago. It’s probably because at the time, I split all my bookmarking between Instapaper and (RIP), which satisfied most of my needs. Also I used to be very poor and Pinboard’s membership fee of $10-ish was enough to keep me out of its walled garden. But now that I am less poor, I am enjoying the rich experience of being inside of this nicely manicured, hyper-functional walled garden. Bookmarking, tagging, and search all work as simply as you would hope, and even the community is small and narrow enough that the most popular bookmarks are actually fascinating to look through (“fascinating” if you like HTML5 frameworks and things like that).

Do you ever spend too much time and effort trying to hunt down the right GIF? Okay, I’ll admit, it’s really a non-problem that I’ve been trying to figure out the solution for. I’ve read a handful of overly complicated ideas about how to quickly access GIFs (including this ridiculous post titled “The perfect GIF workflow using Dropbox and Alfred”). Eventually, a friend and I started saving all of our most-used GIFs to a private Tumblr, which so far had been the most efficient way to keep a dancing Leslie Knope at my finger tips. Now I save all of my GIFs to a new Chome extension called GifMe, which stores them in the menu bar for easy access — perfect for inserting into IMs or emails quickly. Like Pinboard, GifMe’s features are obvious and kind of perfect. There’s a clever tagging system for quick searches, and the extension even tracks your usage of each GIF.


While poet Liao Yiwu was undergoing harrowing, degrading, horrific — and whatever other adjective describes “debased and shitty” — treatment in the Chinese penal system (laogai), I was probably across town from his prison drinking beer and having a “China study abroad experience.” So I have read his excellent memoir of his imprisonment for writing a poem in sympathy with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protestors, For a Song and a Hundred Songs, with a guilty knot in my stomach. I had to put the book away for a week when I saw the chapter on Chinese New Year, 1991. That was my 21st birthday and I was drinking baijiu and singing karaoke in a revolving restaurant in Zhengzhou. I ate some super sweet cake and I vividly remember vomiting up the red frosting flowers on the streets of Zhengzhou and laughing as the fireworks spewed all around me. At that very moment, Liao was in a prison cell with eighteen other inmates, lorded over by a guard named “perverted Liu.” I was dazzled by the fireworks and didn’t think of the people (very nearby) listening to their crackle from behind prison walls.

Whether you were a callow youth in China or not, For a Song and a Hundred Songs is a classic prison record with a spiritual connection to e.e. cumming’s The Enormous Room. As in that book, it is the author’s normalcy — the feeling that he could have been any young poet, anywhere — that lends the memoir much of its power. We expect to read prison narratives about heroes and martyrs and holy sufferers but the banal and frightening truth of it is that political prisoners are just people, many of them not so much political as unlucky, with flaws and pretentious like the rest of us.