Currently Reading: The Hunger Games

“The Hunger Games” is a 2008 young adult novel by Suzanne Collins (it is the first of three books in a series by the same author). My S.O. is currently writing a young adult novel, and, as a result, she ends up reading other things that have been published for young adult readers (most of which, according to Annie, is wretched stuff). She recommended I read ‘The Hunger Games,’ and, since she knows my taste fairly well, I finally got around to starting it a day ago.

I didn’t like the highly regarded “Ender’s Game” enough to finish it, and, in most cases, I’ll pass on literature written specifically for young adults. Although I am only about half way through “The Hunger Games” and am glad I picked it up. Collins is an excellent writer; her prose is spare without being bland and her characters are interesting. Since the book is for young adults, the main character is a fifteen year old girl named Katniss.

‘The Hunger Games’ takes place in a dystopian future where the inhabitants of the outlying towns (known as “districts”) work in near wage-slavery in order to support the lavish life of the privileged in the Capitol. Every year the Capitol hosts an event called “The Hunger Games.” A boy and a girl are selected at random from each district and fight to the death in a setting known as ‘The Arena.’ The last survivor’s district is given extra food and privileges for the coming year, so there is great pressure for the children selected to succeed.

The entire contest is televised. Participants are released into the ‘arena’ and expected to compete and win by any means necessary. Supplies like food, tools, medieval era weapons like spears, swords, bows and arrows, etc., are available if the participants are lucky enough to reach them first. Players are allowed to form alliances if they wish in order to ‘gang up’ on other players, but, eventually, they will need to turn on each other since the games end when only one survives. In addition, according to their popularity with the television viewers and the bribes provided by ‘sponsors,’ different participants may be occasionally given helpful items like a loaf of bread or some medicine, so smart players attempt to appear interesting or appealing to the viewers.

Katniss ends up being one of the ‘tributes’ to participate in “The Hunger Games.” Before his death, her father taught her how to hunt in the woods, fish, forage for nuts and berries, set snares for rabbits, etc. While the other players compete against one another for food supplied by the game masters, Katniss feeds herself with her hunting and foraging skills.

I’m only about 1/2 way through, but have enjoyed the book immensely so far despite the fact that it is written for a younger reader. Although the book is not as emotionally brutal as 1984, I think the book is not written ‘down’ for a younger audience. Her prose is solid; we learn a lot about Katniss‘ world and her opinions in passing and in context rather than having it laboriously explained. The book explores themes of Independence and personal responsibility but (as I am about 1/2 way through) is not too heavy handed in trying to get young readers to think about these topics.

I have been avoiding reading the Wikipedia entry on the book before I finish it. Suzanne Collins claims she was inspired to write “The Hunger Games” while channel surfing between news from the Iraq war and reality television shows. The idea of ‘fight to the death’ gladitorial games in a distant future isn’t original, but I think the book is good enough that I don’t care that I have seen these themes before.

Definite recommendation.


There is a very short post by James M. over at Grognardia which has garnered 70+ comments and counting. James M. stuck up the picture at right (which is of the actor who is playing the part of Thorin, leader of the dwarves, from Jackson’s “Hobbit” film) along with a caption saying who it was. Most of the comments (I haven’t read them all) seem to be debating the issue of whether or not this ‘looks’ like one of Tolkien’s dwarves or not.

I’m less interested in whether or not this ‘looks like Thorin or not’ and the other issue it raises for me: If I read a book and then later see that same book made into a film, sometimes I feel like the images from the movie will actually replace those of my own imagination, which is strange and somewhat disquieting. I know I read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ long before I saw the films, but when I imagine what Frodo looks like today, I imagine Elija Wood instead of whomever I might have pictured in my mind’s eye before that (who knows: perhaps I imagined those huge eyed midgets from the Rankin-Bass cartoon and singing goblins?).

I don’t think the above ‘Thorin’ looks how I pictured him. I lived in Germany as a wee kid and had access to all kinds of really old fairy tale books as a kid which somehow made me imagine dwarves as somewhat more stumpy, grouchy looking garden gnomes with wrinkled faces and impossibly long beards. I know that’s just a step away from the somewhat maudlin Walt Disney Snow White cartoon, but Disney’s images and mine may have been drawn from the same sources (we had a pile of illustrated German fairy tale books that I think inspired me to want to draw, some of which were old when my mother was a child. Among them is Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter” which is probably still in reprint today and continues to guarantee that German kids grow up somewhat perverse and twisted — but there are no dwarves in Struwwelpeter; just kids getting killed, mutilated or humiliated).

I sometimes feel like my brain is a crowded house, and when I introduce new things into it, other things get shoved out the back door and forgotten. People who study brains and learning assure me that the human mind does not work like this, but sometimes I think conceptualization and imagination does. One of the strengths of stories like ‘The Hobbit’ is that the author gives a lot of little details in the course of telling the story but lets the reader paint his or her own picture of what the character may look like. We know that Bilbo is fat and out of shape because we start by learning about how the dwarves invade his comfortable middle class house and take advantage of his hospitality and he is out of breath from running back and forth trying to fill all of their requests for beer, cheese, wine, etc. Later in the story he complains about being hungry or not having even the smallest items of personal comfort like a handkerchief. Waistcoats and round doors and hairy feet are mentioned, but part of the pleasure of the story is taking all of these little details and creating a character image from it as you read rather than having the author give a visual inventory of Biblo Baggins at the start. If memory serves, Tolkien does not tell us a lot about how the dwarves look other than saying that they have cloaks and beards and hoods. Thorin is noted as having a silver tassel on his hood and being treated with respect by the other dwarves but I don’t recall a great deal of specificity in their individual description. The only dwarf who stands out is Bombur, who is noted as being very fat. As a reader I may have just assumed dwarves were shorter than humans because they are called ‘dwarves.’ I don’t know if that was ever specifically stated in ‘The Hobbit.’ (And, while we are on the subject, is ‘dwarves’ really correct? Should it be ‘dwarfs’?)

I don’t feel qualified to argue whether my ‘dwarf image’ is better than Jacksons… mine is probably pretty dull and predictable given what I was exposed to as a kid… but my dwarf image is mine and feels like a gift from both my own brain and the author.

I know when The Hobbit finally hits theaters I will see it. But part of me doesn’t want to. Part of me thinks that every specific image of the imaginary I expose myself to in very immersive technologies like movies risks replacing images I mentally generated in my own more piecemeal fashion, and that feels like I am perhaps giving something up.

On Life Drawing

In the June 27th issue of the New Yorker, there was an article by Adam Gopnik called ‘Life Studies’ about how he took art lessons (sort of) to learn to draw. You need to be a subscriber to read it, but the link is here anyway. If this interests you, hopefully you can beg, borrow or steal a copy. My s.o., Annie, gave it to me saying I might find it interesting. She was right.

Gopnik is an art critic, and writes extensively about art and culture… but it seems he felt a bit like an imposter since he spent all that time talking, writing and thinking about what made some art good and other art bad and yet he felt he could not draw a convincing stick figure. The article tells of Gopnik forming a friendship with an artist who gives lessons in life drawing (i.e.: drawings where one draws directly from observation, striving to make the marks on the paper resemble the ‘real thing’ as much as possible). By the end of the article, Gopnik doesn’t feel that he has become a good draftsman, but he does feel like he has at least learned a new appreciation for the art of representation. There is a lot more to the article than this pat little summary (including some fascinating glimpses into how his friend tries to teach Gopnik how to draw from life), but that’s the part I found myself thinking about today.

Gopnik’s artist friend, Jacob Collins, considers himself a bit of an ‘artistic throwback’ to art’s past. He doesn’t draw or paint anything other than what he sees with his own eyes. Collins impresses upon Gopnik that when most people sit down to draw something, they don’t look at the thing they are drawing — they look at the paper and draw what they think that thing looks like. So we are drawing ‘symbols’ rather than the thing itself.

I had occassion to think about this when I was talking to someone about some drawings I have been working on for a collaborative project. She was explaining why the drawings didn’t quite work for her, and that was frustrating for me (who likes to hear that they have to do something over again?). Suddenly I wondered if part of the problem was that I wasn’t drawing anything other than the ‘representation stuck in my head’ of things. As I looked at the drawings under discussion, all of the faces of the characters started looking alike to me — these were not individuals, they were just place markers or chess pieces. Perhaps I had to at least spend more time looking at source materials and inspiration before drawing something rather than just relying on my imagination, simply because my imagination may have started to travel down some very well worn paths recently, especially as I have gotten busier and some drawings have felt more like ‘work’ than ‘fun.’

One goal for the coming months is to try to do a bit more research and preparation before I sit down to draw. I can’t hire models or limit myself to drawing/painting plaster casts, wine bottles and drapes, but I can at least try to find photographs and attempt to make the people in the pictures a bit more differentiated. Expect to hear more about this current experiment, especially in about 3 weeks when I (hopefully) will have finally finished the big mosaic commission that is kicking my butt right now.

(above, left: some studies of hands by Da Vinci)

Updates for Khunmar / other work

I’m still thinking / working on the new version of Exquisite Corpses; the entire concept/layout has changed several times in the course of the past 2 months and I need a bit of time to stew it over.

A while back I did a few illustrations for ‘Mines of Khunmar.’ I was thinking of doing a 1/2 pager to introduce each level, but that is probably too much work for a freebie. Perhaps after I win the lottery. See some previews below.

Meanwhile, I have more work for another client coming up, but that’s all I can say for right now.

Below is a picture for level 1b (which I believe is just east of level 1; I don’t think this level appeared in the free preview pdf I released a few years ago). It looks like the party’s torchbearer is finding out that the Vargouille’s bite is worse than it’s bark. I’m not sure if ‘Vargouille’ is released under the OGL and if I need to make a subsitution or create an ‘offbrand’ version. I haven’t decided what kind of compatibility the public version of Khunmar will have when and if I ever finish it.

This (below) is level 1a (just north of level 1)… an abandoned mine filled with challenges (getting in is supposed to be hard; getting out alive is supposed to be harder). The ‘giga snails’ are not particularly fast moving, but probably well beyond the capacity of a lower level party; hopefully the party can keep moving and not get caught in a dead end passage. But once your 1st level PC is underneath the snail, it’s probably time to roll up a new one.This is level 1 — the entrance to the kobold caves. My only regret is that I made the kobolds about 2x the size they ought to have been… I dunno if I can fix that or not. The challenge is getting across the bridge alive — the bridge is defended by spearmen and archers on the kobold side. Hopefully that magic user brought a ‘sleep’ spell along.

Do yourself a favor!

…and check out the Sidney Sime collection of pictures on the Monsterbrains blog.

The good thing about A to Z posts

I keep reading comments here and there where people are slagging on the whole ‘A to Z’ thing. I finsished the last of my A to Z posts the other day (they are all just sitting in the queue waiting to be autoposted when the right day comes around). While I’m not proud of all of my A to Z posts, I can honestly say that there are a few that I wrote that I think could be pretty interesting to the community at large and were fun to write and think about — and I would have probably never written them if I hadn’t had to find a topic that started with a certain letter.

This morning’s entry (T is for Tana Tak) is a case in point. I had a pile of notes and drawings in my binder, so all that stuff was ‘already written,’ but it wouldn’t have occure to me to look it over, scan it in, write it up, etc., unless I had to come up with something for the letter T. And once I started looking at it, I became more excited about it. And now that I have posted it, the wheels have started turning and I am eager to do some more work on it.

I took the A to Z challenge as a chance to repost a lot of campaign notes from Aldeboran which I have added to, very sporadically, over the years. It’s given me a chance to take a closer look at the stuff I’ve accumulated as a whole. And that’s a good thing.

Melan’s Fomalhaut

A while back I downloaded Melan’s custom made RPG rules for his campaign on Fomalhaut (which he has shared with the world here. Thankfully for those of us in the US, it is not in the author’s native Hungarian).

His game, “Sword and Magic,” seems to answer many of my wishes for a simple, intuitive and fun rule set that is capable of expansion by the referee and players. I’m also fond of the adventure diary Melan’s players shared on The Dragonsfoot boards.

The photo at right is not Sauron’s Eye from a Peter Jackson Movie, but rather a strange optical effect of some kind picked up by The Hubble Space telescope caused by light and dust specks. That dot in the middle is the star named Fomalhaut. Perhaps I am also fond of Melan’s campaign because we both named our games after a distant star (his is Fomalhaut, mine is Aldeboran). I don’t know who did it first but suspect it was Melan. I remember deciding to name my campaign after the distant star when reading about Chalmers and Bierce sharing ‘Carcosa’ as a fictional location (Either Chalmers or Bierce made allusions to another place named ‘Aldeboran’ which is also the name of a distant star).

Wolverton: Crab People!

I love crab people. I don’t know why. But just now I found this single panel from a Basil Wolverton comic which has me very interested:

Anyone know where it comes from?

Fact or Fiction: Why does it matter?

James over at Grognardia was waxing nostalgic about Erich Von Danikken(sp?) and “Chariots of the Gods?” over on Grognardia. ‘Chariots of the Gods,’ TV programs like, “In Search Of” and similar ‘pop science’ that blurred the line between fantasy/fiction and reality (or at least tried to) was a big part of my growing up in the 1970s. Since the cover of von Daniken’s book is so boring looking, I thought I would dress up my blog with some ‘Eternals’ artwork by the great Jack Kirby.

I have an unabashed love of these ‘Fortean’ type studies… including the story of Richard Shaver and the Shaver mystery, so it probably does not come as a surprise that I’m enthusiastic about seeing Grognardia include von Daniken and similar ‘the pyramids were built by aliens’ and similar psuedo scientific theories in his sources of inspiration for fantasy, science fiction and pulpy stuff. However, reading the comments that followed his post, I was surprised to read several people take issue with the inclusion of von Daniken and his ilk because ‘Chariots of the Gods’ was not intended as a work of fiction.

I guess I find that idea really puzzling. That von Daniken claims that these things are true doesn’t make it ‘ineligible’ for inclusion in inspirational material (at least to me). One person wrote, “This isn’t pulp fantasy. If this is included as pulp fantasy then every book in the New Age or Metaphysical section at Border’s book store is pulp fiction. A dreadful misrepresentation, James.”

“A dreadful misrepresentation?” What did I miss? I don’t get it. Is this just a matter of taxonomy? And, if so, where do you draw the line? If you have strong feelings on the subject (especially if you feel that Grognardia was wrong to include von Daniken in a list of ‘potential inspiration sources), please reply and explain your views; I want to understand where you are coming from because this just makes no sense to me.

Bass Ackwards Dungeon Design

Here is the normal order of things (at least as I know it):

1) author conceives of adventure/setting/etc.

2) adventure/setting is written.

3) physical product (images, editing, etc.,) is produced to sell or distribute.

So, basically, art usually comes last in the process.

I have a bunch of drawings and other images that have been kicking around for a while with no particular purpose. My plan is to create a map and an adventure/setting using these pictures, then (maybe) produce illustrations to fill in the gaps.
First image is at right. That’s the basis of the adventure.
Next up I need to conceptualize what the adventure / setting is, etc. That it will take place in that pink city/castle is pretty much a given… but who lives in/built the city and why would any adventurer want to go there? And what happens when they do?
I have no idea how long this will take or what I am going to end up with; just spitballing right now.