Tidewater Review March 2006

Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Video Game Revolution, by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Index. 287 pages. $24.95. ISBN-10: 1-56512-346-8
      The New York coauthors of this almost hysterically enthusiastic book about video games are, I was at first surprised to learn, both writers. Heather Chaplin’s articles have appeared in the New York Times and Fortune magazine. Aaron Ruby reviews video games for Entertainment Weekly.
      Big-time journalists are serious – right? But video games are not serious and probably belong in penny arcades – right? So why have these two scribes in the New York big time written a serious book about games fit for children?
      Maybe because they are children, sort of. After I noted their birth years on the copyright page, though, I was not so surprised to learn that they both apparently admire video games to an extent most of the survivors of the previous “greatest” generation would call excessive.
      Chaplin and Ruby were born in 1971 and 1967, respectively. They apparently believe video games incorporate computers and associated high-tech apparatus and are at least as important – socially, economically, culturally, educationally, scientifically and artistically – as hybrid cars.
      Why? Mostly, I think, because they grew up in the computer age and feel that previous epochs – including their artifacts (typewriters, for example) – are too primitive to enthuse about.
       As I interpret the word “bomb” in their book’s title, Smartbomb, it refers to the exploding popularity of video games. Annual sales of them “are approaching $10 billion in the United State alone,” and they’re selling big elsewhere, notably in Japan.
      The word “smart” in the title, on the other hand, is, it seems to me, principally an accurate description of the occupational ability of the numerous mathematicians, physicists, computer programmers, movie and TV animators and master tinkerers who design, and in many cases apparently love to play video games.
     “Smart,” however, does not describe the content of some of the most popular video games. They involve “virtual” (the fashionable adjective, I believe)... virtual reality, including virtual war, virtual murder and other virtual violence. And the people who play them (in the same sense a cat plays with mice) include – and probably influence – children.
      E.g., the two teenaged video game fans who shot and killed several of their high school classmates, then killed themselves a few years ago. Promoting violence – virtual or real – is smart?
      I don’t think so, even though I’m against censorship.

The I Love Lucy Guide to Life: Wisdom from Lucy and the Gang! by Elizabeth Edwards with Lucie Arnaz. Philadelphia, London: Running Press. Illustrated. 128 pages. $9.95. ISBN 0-7624-2402-8
      Thanks to television, the late Lucille Ball (1911-1989) may have been the most popular woman slapstick comedian in history. I personally prefer Carol Burnett’s satire, but this cute little new book and “guide to life” is attributed to Ball and the pie-in-the-face, funny-falls TV sitcom she starred in – “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957). It has been, and still is, rerun ever since and everywhere.
      The Ball book, which appears to be for children of all ages, is subtitled Wisdom from Lucy and the Gang! The “gang” – now all gone to glory – included Ball’s husband and co-star (and dance band leader), Desi Arnaz, and two veteran supporting actors, Vivian Vance and William Frawley.
      The I Love Lucy wisdom was assembled by Elizabeth Edwards (with Lucie Arnaz), who is described by the book’s publisher as a Connecticut resident who has worked with the Arnaz family since 1992.
      Two examples of their wisdom, printed in assorted big type faces:
     “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Attributed to Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832) in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
     “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!” Attributed to Aesop in Bartlett.
      And so on – mostly wisdom in public domain. To be fair, I think my mother and/or maybe my father came up with some of the wisdom in The I Love Lucy Guide to Life in the 1920s, but maybe some of it originated in the TV sitcom.

Butterflies Don’t Bark. Story and illustrations by Sue Loweree. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation. 30 pages. Paperback. $15.00. ISBN 1-4134-9829-9
      Sue Loweree, of Easton, Maryland, has written and illustrated some real laughs for children. Her story is about a butterfly who resembles a little girl and lands on the center of what she thinks is the center of a big yellow flower, but it is not: it’s the nose of a fairly big and friendly yellow dog.
      The dog eventually wishes he could fly like a butterfly and the butterfly wishes she could bark like a dog. But neither one...
      Aw, shucks; you know I seldom give away the climax of a work of fiction. I will note that this story doesn’t inspire sex, violence or obscenity, real or virtual. And that Loweree, a graduate of Parson’s School of Design, has produced some very well designed full-color pictures in Butterflies Don’t Bark.

Breakaway Laughter: How to Lighten Up – Despite It All, by Nan L. Crockett. Acton, Massachusetts: VanderWyk & Burnham. Index. 154 pages. Paperback. $12.95. ISBN 1-889242-22-5
      Probably the best known verse ever written by the Wisconsin poet, Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is “Solitude” – four lines long, to wit:

Laugh and the world laughs with you;
Weep and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

     The Iowa author of this new book at hand, Breakaway Laughter, Nan L. Crockett, may have Wilcox’s judgment in mind when she works, as her publisher advertises, as a “consultant and business-to-business consultant on navigating change and stress management in the workplace.”
      As a young baby-boomer writer she creates a similar impression. She’s a talented wit and raconteur, leaves her readers smitten with mirth and free of stress and convinces us (me at any rate) that her prose justifies the book’s title. Breakaway as a single word means favoring independence from an affiliation; Laughter, of course, means ha-ha, tee-hee and ho-ho-ho.
      Crockett tells us about her divorced (but still friendly) husband, her two truant (but lovable) sons, her leaking hot tub. That’s the funny part, funny in part, I think, beacuse it seems to favor occasional independence from some rules of children’s conduct favored by some American parents. A few examples of her own rules that Crockett has “periodically cast aside”:

* “No eating in carpeted areas. When I am 90, I just can’t imagine I will be fretting over the fact that I had a stained carpet or sofa in my earlier years.”

* “Kids should wear pajamas to bed. (Who started this? A clothing company? My kids never wanted to wear pajamas. They usually just drop down in whatever they are wearing at the time.

* “Children must always wear a coat when playing outdoors in cold weather. (My boys function like mini blast furnaces. This December Gabe [pseudonym for one of her sons] ran barefoot through the snow to catch the fire department truck as it drove Santa through our neighborhood. I have learned the boys will put something on when they get cold enough. Nobody has gotten pneumonia or hypothermia.”

     Toward the end of her book, Crockett changes gears. She asks: How would Jesus react to the men who flew airplanes into the New York Trade Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11 and killed over 2,000 people? He would forgive them but would not object to their being punished, she concludes.
      The last chapter in Breakaway Laughter is called “Conversations with God.” “It is inappropriate to put words in God’s mouth,” Crockett writes – but she does it anyhow.

“...God:...Bear in mind, all lives have to include some pain and suffering.”
“Me [Crockett]: That doesn’t make any sense...[People] describe you as pure goodness and love.”
“God:...let me explain.... Think of Job.... Sure, he cried out in anguish quite a bit, but...he kept his faith through it all. Made me proud. Job’s suffering created a more mature advanced soul.”
“Me [Crockett]:...but it sure seems like you did a number on Job....”
“God: Remember, it was his idea...he knew he couldn’t truly understand the ultimate joy, bliss, and peace here in heaven unless he experienced its opposite – pain and suffering....”