Archive for the ‘nostalgia’ Tag

[50/50] Book #2: “Prague”

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Book #2: “Prague”—Arthur Phillips (2002)

[Since it is LONG gone from their website, I just going to reprint my review of Prague that appeared in The Herald-Sun in 2003.]

The Persistence of Irony: Memory, longing and nostalgia collide in Arthur Phillips’ first novel “Prague”

Prague_ArthurPhillipsAfter the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Eastern Europe and its previously off-limits (and therefore exotic) capitals became the hot destination for young Westerners. Armed with attitude and the victorious dollar, American expatriates rolled into cities such as Prague and Budapest seeking fame and fortune, convinced they were taking part in the creation of a gilded age to rival that of 1920s Paris—with everyone angling to be the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

That Arthur Phillips’ novel “Prague” takes place entirely in Budapest is the first clue this is no mere attempt to cash in on the recollections of a brief, intense time. The book, now out in paperback, was both a best seller and a darling of literary critics when it was released last year. While ostensibly about five droll and oh-so-ironic expats living in Hungary in the early 1990s, “Prague” is really Phillips’ exploration of nostalgia, longing and the nature of memory. It is also a paean to Budapest, for which he readily admits a long and “obsessive love.” (Phillips was one of these cultural invaders of the East, where he lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992.)

As a writer, Phillips is both sharp and playful, sprinkling his text with clever metaphors as liberally as Hungarians sprinkle paprika on everything they eat. With his deft use of description and language, he paints a rich, textured portrait of a city, and a history, in flux. His characters are meticulously drawn, and Phillips slowly pulls the reader along as he probes the peculiarities of desire, unrequited love and perception, before flinging everyone involved headlong into a collision with each other and history.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember this is Phillips’ first novel, it’s that good.

Those few times (rare, to be sure) when this rookie effort strains the reader, when the writing seems too clever by half, or the descriptions thicken until the prose almost stops, don’t come close to derailing what is a truly impressive debut. Never mind. Push on, and you’ll quickly find bright and insightful observations, as in this early paragraph:

“Despite its insignificance, there was this moment, this hour or two this spring afternoon blurring into evening on a cafe patio in a Central European capital in the opening weeks of its post-Communist era. The glasses of liqueur. The diamond dapples of light between oval, leaf-shaped shadows, like optical illusions. The trellised curve of the cast-iron fence separating the patio from its surrounding city square. The uncomfortable chair. Someday this too will represent someone’s receding, cruelly unattainable golden age.”

Even the overall structure of the novel echoes and supports Phillips’ Big Themes of cycles, circles, of the chase for something always just out of reach. Each of the book’s four parts begins slowly, leisurely, before picking up speed and spiraling around like water going down a drain, ever faster and more chaotic, until even the paragraphs themselves are pulled apart.

On occasion, you want to slap his self-absorbed characters, so full are they of an annoyingly hip and cocky irony, but mostly you want to shake them and wake them and save them from this longing for something they can never have. For all of their self-awareness and insight into those around them, Phillips’ characters, like we do, often fail to see what is right in front of them. It is this use of literary irony that forms the bittersweet heart of “Prague.”

50/50 — A year-long countdown

Friday, January 4th, 2013

I love lists. When I was a kid, I devoured every edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, bought all three volumes of the Book of Lists, and listened to American Top 40 every week. One New Year’s Eve I almost missed the ball drop because a local radio station timed Casey Kasem’s year-end countdown to end at midnight and I HAD to know what the #1 song was when they announced it (Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” if you’re curious … and yeah, I was as disappointed at hearing that as you no doubt are.) Heck, I even used to keep an AT40-style list of girls I liked in middle school, even though I was too shy and awkward to talk to most of them.

BookOfListsOver time I kept running tallies of favorite games and movies, and was always annoyed if a critic simply listed things in alphabetical order. Best of and Worst of Collections of are all well and good, but a numbered collection is even better. I wanted to know WHY they thought something was better than something else, and rankings will always win out. It’s silly, because I know so much of it is personal taste, and that quantifying quality is rarely an exercise in comparing apples to apples. (And the horse-race aspect of, say, weekly box office receipts may indeed be damaging to the very idea of quality and creativity. How often IS the top grossing movie actually the best movie of the year?) None of which takes away from the fact that one of your all-time favs may actually be a trashy piece of fiction —  as long as you KNOW its trashy and love it anyway.

So yeah — I love lists. And recently, when LOCUS asked readers to vote for their favorite sci-fi and fantasy novels (AND short stories and novellas and novelletes) of the 20th and 21st century, I found myself compiling yet another set of personal lists — and being challenged by what I found. And then I started thinking that next year I turn 50, and that I had all these lists around, many of which reached 50 or more entries … so I’ve decided to do a countdown to my birthday next year with a list of my all-time favorites — music, movies, books, games — one item each weekday for the next 50+ weeks.

Won’t you please join me on this horribly self-indulgent quest? Stop on back throughout the next year for the 50/50 countdown, and see if you agree with anything on my best of list. I look forward to the feedback /and snarky comments.

Monday — Albums
Tuesday — Books
Wednesday — Movies
Thursday — Games
Friday — Songs

Coming Monday: My #50 record has THE GREATEST ALBUM COVER OF ALL TIME. Be here to find out why.

Magic: The Revisiting

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Over at the AV Club, Steve Heisler has a sweet and even touching look back at the game “Magic: The Gathering,” how we become nostalgic for something, and if it’s possible to re-experience a sense of wonder for something that was once important to you.

Context is what turns objects into artifacts. To most people, things are just things, unless we’ve decided to attach value—a memory, an explanation.

The whole thing is worth reading, especially if you’re a gamer — and particularly for me: his experience ran somewhat parallel to mine. I’m reposting a piece I wrote on it five years ago, partly for context, but mostly because the blog it originally appeared on has since been wiped out.


14 years ago, in the late summer of 1993, I remember reading about this game called “Magic: The Gathering.” It was played with cards but you and your friends actually bought different random decks so everyone had a unique mix. What intrigued me (other than the art, which looked fabulous) was that no two decks were alike. It was a fascinating concept, and I recall quite clearly holding this idea in my head that we would each carry around this one unique deck.

Remember that line, so you can laugh at it later.

Being a Trostle, I of course filed away the article, fully intending to check it out “some day” (… hey, games came out all the time and I still had many I had bought we had yet to play, so what was a few months or years, right?) A few weeks later, a guy from one of my regular gaming groups called up all atwitter, said we had to come over that night and try this new game he had discovered. It was, of course, Magic. Bastard had stolen my thunder.

No matter. Magic tore through our group — and the gaming world — like a lightning bolt. We stopped playing anything else for almost a year. Even my wife remarked on it, and for her to notice anything about the games we played, well — the observation was telling. (Funny, too, but when we first started playing everyone remarked how like “Talisman” the card game seemed; years later, when we dusted off Talisman, we all remarked how much it reminded us of “Magic”).

My friends and I managed to catch the tail-end of the first release, before the initial print run sold out and cards became hard to find. It was all new and fun and challenging, and there was this heady headiness to it all like, I’m not kidding, falling in love. We played as often as we could and when we weren’t playing we were thinking about playing. In retrospect, that period lasted all of six weeks, maybe less, and I think the rest of the time we were trying to recapture that first high. The same was probably true of the publisher, Wizards of the Coast, who was caught off guard by the success of their creation. They threw their original game plan out the window and flooded the market with new sets and reprints.

Magic shook up the entire gaming industry in fact, and pushed me to the point were I got interested in getting back in the business — I even applied to Wizards of the Coast for a job but luckily (if this story is to be believed) didn’t get it. Personally, it was all downhill as well — when new sets came out, gamers bought cards by the shovel-load, and I couldn’t compete monitarily. When one friend eventually sold his collection he counted over 15,000 cards — 250 decks worth! — and bought a new top of the line computer with the payoff.

The sense of mystery and discovery were gone as well. I came over the night after one set was released, looking forward to opening a few bright new packs — only to find that two of the guys had taken the day off work, bought several cases of the release, and opened and sorted them all already. This was about a year after the game had originally been published, and already it had become mechanized, automated, all about volume.

WOTC put out new versions where the printing was poorly handled (some said deliberately, to drive up the secondary market on original cards), tournament rules were constantly changed to force you to buy more cards, snotty gamers sucked all the joy out of trading and even casual play, and during one convention, someone stole my most valuable card. Dare I say it: the magic was gone.

We ran a couple of small leagues, which admittedly were fun, but overall the game became a burden. Eventually, 3 or so years after first playing it and bitter, I sold my collection. My best guess is I broke even. I kept a handful of favorites and enough cards to make about 2 decks (which was how I first envisioned the game) and moved on.

+ + +

Fast forward to the next decade. Magic was still around and bigger than ever, even if it was a souless money-making machine and now looked like Pokemon. When our neighbor’s 12-year-old son found out I used to play, he brought his cards over and challenged me to a duel. I crushed him. Then I showed him how to build a better deck.

Over the next few years, Eli and his friends picked up thousands of cards. He entered and won tournaments, and began giving me tips on deck construction. Even though I absolutely hated the new card designs, WOTC had flooded the market with so many sets over the preceding years, you could find decent older stuff for cheap and I started buying cards again, if only to compete with Eli. The old obsession had returned.

As Eli got ready to go to college however, I realized I was going to lose my main (ok, only) competitor. Like so many other things in my life that have recently folded themselves up and put themselves on the shelf, it was clear it was time to put the cards away again.

Anyway, I helped Eli sort thru all his cards — which had been literally dumped in a drawer some years ago as he discovered girls and guitars — and got them organized as he packed for school. I couldn’t stand to see them languish there. He talked of selling them to help pay for school, or passing them on to the younger brother of a friend, but he’ll probably keep a deck or three with which to play. Then, I got out my own collection and divided them up. This time I am keeping five decks (symbolically enough the number of colors in Magic.)

I gave all the rest to Elliot, the 6-year-old son of my friend Kevin. He was overwhelmed by the gift, and excited by each and every card in the box. They are ALL new and mysterious to him, and he and his father are having a great time discovering the game together.

As for me, I am done buying cards. No really. Here’s how I know. The last card I bought from my last buying spree on eBay finally arrived in the mail yesterday.

Appropriately enough, it is titled “Equilibrium.”

[Originally posted August 8, 2007]