Tag Archives: Games

Type L For Live

At least once a year, I take down a certain book and read it through, though I know it well enough that I can start from any point. And then, if I can, I give it away. The gap in my bookshelf makes me happy; it feels right to pass along this book. But it comes with a sense of regret, too, and not a little awe. I don’t think anyone will write anything like William Horwood‘s Skallagrigg again.

Published in 1987, it seems both timeless and brave as a product of its time; Horwood’s winding prose is gentle, but spares you nothing. It begins in 1927 with Arthur, a boy with cerebral palsy abandoned in a squalid institution, where he loses even his name. He begins to tell his fellow patients of the Skallagrigg, a mysterious figure who he prays will take him home–over a fence and into a field of poppies, where someday he will run. Skallagrigg becomes a legend among the patients, a protector amid neglect and brutality. For years, disabled people pass down Skallagrigg stories all over England–with eyes, feet, symbols, speech–until Arthur becomes legendary too.

In the 1970s onward, the stories reach Esther Marquand. Privileged, clever, and contrary, she too is tangled in her body. She’s not always likable, but she is appealing. With more to say than she’s able, Esther reveals the workings of her mind in subtle ways. Every twist of a limb matters; every “Nah” or “Yeh” has an inflection. Emerging technology reveals her quick reasoning as well as foreshadows the freedom computers would bring to many disabled people. When Esther scans the letter grid of a Possum typewriter or chords Speedwords on a Microwriter-esque keyboard, you’re in her head where time passes in letters per minute, then words; you know exactly how much effort it takes her to communicate, and how elegant numbers and logic can be. Esther begins to believe the Skallagrigg stories are real, programming them into a labyrinthine interactive fiction game as she searches for the only person who knows who or what the Skallagrigg is. Along the way, she leaves an “Easter egg” especially for our narrator, who’s telling the story against Esther’s father’s wishes in 2019.

None of this does it justice; I don’t think I can. It’s a hell of a quest novel, where the mazes are library stacks and hospital corridors, and the battles are spiritual and personal as well as physical. Today it’s also a little bit of nostalgia for people who remember things like BASIC, Pong, and such vexing lines as “You are in a twisty little maze of passages, all different.” But if that were all, it wouldn’t have become its own Skallagrigg story. Out of print (but available through WorldCat), it circulates now through word of mouth and gifts of secondhand copies. Often the recipient is another disabled person, but always it’s only someone who would understand.

Skallagrigg is an epic act of empathy; I haven’t read anything so broad and painstakingly detailed before or since. This is worldbuilding–but what Horwood recreates is the everyday history, language, love stories and struggles of people like his own daughter as well as himself. His daughter has CP; the novel was partly his coming to terms with their relationship. But Esther’s is not the only quest, nor the only disability. Here, disability is also loneliness and estrangement and the inability to help the people we love. There is an ache throughout this book, and we follow the thoughts of each character as they slowly make their way to the people who might ease it.

Horwood returns often to the characters’ relationships, sometimes mentioning each with their complement in a refrain, as if they’re dancing. Relationships are everything in this novel, their mutual exchange and dialogue essential for the characters’ survival. In their bonds I find an apt line of poetry attributed to Roy Croft: “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.”

Disabled people may be rooted in their bodies, but the spirit of disability is also fluid–shaped by whom you’re with and where you are. Some people drag down hard at your bones and render you helpless, strangling your voice worse than disability could by shouting over your words until hopelessness and tension make you mute. With others, your limbs ease and you can breathe and participate and laugh. Expansive and forgiving, granting the whole human spectrum of emotion to mutually imperfect minds, Skallagrigg is a testament to the people who help you over barriers when you’re bruised and scraped against them–who give you glimpses of poppies and the sky between the trees.

It’s an intense and sometimes dramatic read, but it is also fiercely beautiful. The effect of reading the characters’ journeys in such exhaustive detail is greater than the sum of its parts, generating an amazement that’s distinct from the book itself–a mix of peace and joy and sadness and rightness so deep it’s almost a presence. The Skallagrigg, perhaps.

photo of bright orange poppies, taken by Rebecca O'Connell

Bright orange poppies, taken by Rebecca O’Connell. All rights reserved.

Related reading:

Under the Eye of the Clock, by Christopher Nolan

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, et. al.

Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper

Petey, by Ben Mikaelsen

William Horwood’s site

–Amy R.




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The Game’s The Thing: Five Books About The Business Of Games And Toys

When I ordered the latest edition of  Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America for the library a while back, I knew it would enjoy some attention when it finally hit our shelves.  Author Jeff Ryan goes into exacting detail on the history, iconography, and cultural impact of the Super Mario game, and how its popularity catapulted Nintendo and its video game system to the top of the nascent video game industry.

Seeing Ryan’s book also got me to thinking about some of the other great books on games and toys we’ve acquired over the last few years.  Here’s a short list:

These books confirm that the world of games and toys is really serious business.


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Match Game

Some of the feedback we’ve received so far from the strategic planning process is news that warms the cockles of our hearts: Pittsburghers want us to keep them informed on how they can donate to the library. It’s really encouraging for all of us to know that you want to support our civic work, so we’re resolved to make it as easy as possible for you.

Created by Amy, from an original photo by Frank E. Bingaman

All through the merry month of May, for example, you can maximize your support of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh by making a donation to the Perfect Match campaign. Although this promotion does not, alas, feature the wit and whimsy of the late Charles Nelson Reilly, it does give you the opportunity to help the library in a way that’s double the fun: all gifts made by May 31, 2012 will be MATCHED by the library’s Board of Trustees and a committed group of leadership supporters, making this opportunity the best game in town if you want to make your contribution go as far as possible.

Ready to play?  You have options!

  • To make a gift by mail, print out the gift form and send it back to:

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

4400 Forbes Avenue

Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Visit the official Perfect Match campaign page to read the fine print, and thank you in advance for your support–past, present, and future–of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Because helping us engage our community in literacy and learning is like playing a game where everybody wins.

–Leigh Anne

*While tickets last! These events tend to sell out, so why are you still reading this?


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It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye

“Winter is the season for board games.”  –B.L. McCloskey

I tend to agree with the genius that penned the above statement.  Who doesn’t love to sit around a table with friends or family, laughing and taunting one another in the spirit of friendly competition?  Over the holiday, I played gin rummy in Alabama, Settlers of Catan in West Virginia, about a million rip-roaring games of checkers with my friends’ brainiac little girl, as well as a Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana jigsaw puzzle and a topographic Wheeling, West Virginia map puzzle.  By the way, I don’t think jigsaw puzzles count as board games, but it didn’t stop me from taunting and jeering my fellow puzzlers.

As you might guess, the Library has myriad books on board games, like the Oxford History of Board GamesNew Rules for Classic Games with rules that breathe new life into games you might be sick of, as well as R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations.

What you may not know is that the library can be a destination for playing board games.  You could bring your own, but if you have an ID card, you could borrow one of ours!  The First Floor has several sets of Monopoly, Uno, Scrabble, and playing cards (tournament anyone?) as well as chess, Trivial Pursuit, Boggle, and Rook.  The Teen Department has too many to list here, but I’ll give you a few: Settlers of Catan with the Seafarers expansion pack, Cranium, Apples to Apples with expansion pack, Risk, Balderdash, Set, Mancala, Ticket to Ride, Voltage, Phase 10, Gloom, Backgammon, Upwords and many, many more!

So approach the Ask-a-Librarian desk and tell ’em Bonnie sent ya!!



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Playing games

A recent conversation with a friend about games we played as kids got me thinking about games in general, and the kind of all-consuming passion that we tend to develop for our favorites.  The idea of children sitting blankly in front of a TV playing video games for hours is almost a cliche, but that same kind of obsessive playing can take place with games that are the total antithesis of video games.  Remember how competitive jump rope was in elementary school?  In my elementary school, at least, the girls who were best at double dutch or Chinese jump rope were definitely at the top of the unspoken playground hierarchy, and the rest of us practiced for hours to be as good as they were.  I remember games of tag being similarly competitive, and we all played SPUD or freeze tag (or whatever variation was popular that week) at every chance we had. 


Once we got to high school and began playing “real” sports (although in New York City public schools, anyway, double dutch is now an official varsity sport!), we left games like jump rope and tag behind for the most part and moved on to sports like football, basketball, soccer, or baseball (or track, or tennis, or swim team…). Certainly all of those sports have their share of devoted players and fans at the high school, college, and professional levels, and amateur leagues exist for those of us who didn’t quite make it to The Show.  But even less physical games like poker, ScrabbleDonkey Kong, or pinball have legions of fervent– and very, very serious– players.

Of all the games that we become obsessed with, chess has to be the game that best exemplifies this.  Players like Bobby Fischer serve to illustrate the stereotype of the eccentric genius chess player, and if you walk by nearly any park on a nice day and you will find tables filled with chess players, deeply engrossed in the game.  Because strategy is such an important part of the game, books about the game are crucial.  If you wander down to the “GV” section of the stacks here at the library, you’ll find that chess books occupy several shelves.

Washington Square Park Chess Players by David Shankbone.jpg

My own current gaming obsession is Boggle– I picked up the game at a yard sale recently, and find myself playing daily, often for most of the evening.  It’s strangely addictive.  Are there any games I’ve forgotten?  Childhood or current obsessions?  Let me know in the comments!



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Did You Hear the Dice?

You may or may not be familiar with the term “gamer fiction”. For those who don’t know, gamer fiction is a sub-genre of fiction usually associated with science-fiction, horror, or fantasy. Gamer fiction comes in many forms, but is most often found in the paperback or trade paperback  format. Even before online and console video games hit popular culture with the force of an atom bomb, there were table-top games. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons came first, and in them players took on the roles of noble elves, greedy dwarves, bronzed barbarians, or other fantastic archetypes, all seeking glory and treasure under the guise of upholding the greater good. But D&D originally grew out of  skirmish miniature game called Chainmail, wherein players  pushed tiny pieces of metal around a small, fully realized miniature environment (think model railroading, but with a lot more violence) and matched their forces against each other in mortal combat. Whether role-play or miniature game, most of these conflicts are governed by detailed rules of play, with sometimes random outcomes determined by a character or piece’s statistics and the throw of a handful dice.


These early games spawned innumerable imitators, and over the course of time, some of their progeny eclipsed them both in depth and fandom. British company Games Workshop developed Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000 in the mid-1980’s, raising the bar of quality for 25mm miniatures (also called figures, or figurines by Hummel-obsessed gamer moms who knew no better). Cast in lead or pewter, these tiny toy-soldiers could be used in their own games, or coupled with games like D&D to better illustrate the scene of the action. Many game designers developed elaborate worlds and universes for their creations to dwell in, providing additional context and verisimilitude for gamers longing to immerse themselves that much more deeply in their hobby. From these backgrounds a natural inclination to write stories soon grew.


In 1985 Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, wrote Saga of Old City, a 352 page paperback telling the tale of Gord the Rogue, a thief and adventurer in the lands of Greyhawk. This humble paperback was among the first of what would become a multi-million dollar niche of the publishing industry: gamer fiction. A few years later (1988 to be exact) a small company called FASA published a sci-fi novel called Decision at Thunder Rift. Set in the BattleTech universe, Decision at Thunder Rift told the origin of a ragtag band of mercenaries and their amazing, humanoid walking tanks, the BattleMechs. This story followed perfectly with FASA’s popular board/miniature game, BattleTech. Since then dozens of other BattleTech novels have followed. It wasn’t long before the Brits had gotten into the act with a line of their own Warhammer and Warhammer 40K novels.


By their very nature gamers are obsessive folk. When they latch on to a miniature or role-play game, they often absorb themselves in all of its trappings. It was a logical next step that they might want to read fiction set in their favorite gaming universe. Today gamer fiction commands significant rack space in most popular book stores. The sheer number of titles staggers the consumer. Most major game lines will offer dozens of titles, some written by well-known authors in their related genres, others by relative newcomers who often cite the games themselves as the reason they became writers. New York Times best-selling authors like R.A. Salvatore and Margaret Weiss made their fame and earned their stripes writing gamer fiction. Still, a lot of gamer fiction just isn’t very good. A common question among gamers when they’re sharing reviews of gamer fiction is “did you hear the dice?” If you can hear the dice rolling metaphorically behind the curtain of an action scene, the author has failed to seamlessly transport the essence of the game world  from the table-top to the printed page. It is prose perhaps one level above fan-fiction (or fanfic, the likely topic of future blog entries), and ultimately disappointing in its inability to match the quality of the best writing in the genre it seeks to emulate.


Even bad gamer fiction can serve a purpose, further engaging the fan of the associated game line in his hobby and helping to kill tedious moments like riding public transportation or waiting for root canal in a dentist’s office. However, when gamer fiction is good it reverberates from the page like music for the gamer’s soul. It’s his world, his escape, on paper, eminently portable, and more than that, evidence that his hobby is alive and viable amidst a sea of other distractions. Recent years have seen libraries begin to fill out their genre and teen collections with gamer fiction. With the cost of paperbacks approaching $10 and the abundance of gamer fiction, making a bad selection can be painful. Now lovers of gamer fiction can sample a title from the library and if they find it lacking, all they’ve lost is time. But there’s plenty of solid gamer fiction to be had at the library, and even if you’ve never thrown dice in anger, you might find some of it surprisingly accessible. Below you can find a short list to get you started.




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