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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 5/2/09

Dave Beck
05/02/2009

Our book reviewer Nancy Pearl has found a new memoir that isn't about dysfunctional families, lousy childhoods, or the terrors of addiction. It's about a kid from England who discovers the joys of Dungeons and Dragons. KUOW's Dave Beck spoke with Nancy.

It's not that angst–filled accounts of dysfunctional families, lousy childhoods and the terrors of addiction aren't interesting to read about. It's more that sometimes you need a break and want to read a relatively trauma–free memoir. If that's the situation you find yourself in, check out Mark Barrowcliffe's "The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange" (Soho, 2008). With his clever title and frequently hilarious prose, Barrowcliffe details an adolescence that, if not entirely neurosis free, never devolves into the oh–poor–me miasma that characterizes so many memoirs these days. In 1976, at age 12, as a geeky kid growing up in Coventry, England, Barrowcliffe discovered the charms of a recently invented (in 1974, by Gary Gygax), multi–player role–playing game called Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). As he was introduced to the intricacies of its most notable aspect, the 20–sided die, Barrowcliffe was soon spending all his free time engaged in searching for treasure, amassing knowledge (in order to advance to a higher level) and fighting off enemies. As Barrowcliffe describes it, playing D&D not only widened his horizons by introducing him to boys far removed from his social and economic class, but mostly it got him through the horrors of being a boy who didn't fit in anywhere, particularly not at the all–boys school he attended. One of my favorite parts of the book is how he describes his parents' bemused reaction to his new hobby, and especially the time he casually asked his mother if he could have some friends over to play and several dozen boys ended up spending not only the day, but well into the night, hunched over a D&D game, scattered throughout the Barrowcliffe home. When I began this book, I knew just a tad about Dungeons & Dragons (I've never played it), and I found it fascinating to learn about its genesis and subsequent development, all from the point of view of a pretty normal (if geeky) kid, who would go out and spend his allowance on whatever new D&D addition was announced that month. Barrowcliffe is forgiving of the intense awkwardness of his teenage self, to the point of being able to laugh at himself about it, and we laugh along with him (even when we're wincing in sympathy over some of the events he describes).

The poems in Paul Guest's "My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge" (Ecco, 2008) are astounding and unforgettable. They all reflect, either obviously or more subtly, a central fact of the author's life — that a bicycle accident at age 12 left him permanently paralyzed. In his poems, Guest uses everyday language and straightforward diction; there's no attempt to puzzle or frustrate the reader. The undeniable power of the poems comes from the accumulation of detail that Guest uses. As he explores his feelings at forever being set apart from those who are able to move their bodies at will, Guest's tone is sometimes colored by anger and bitterness, and sometimes by a sadness so deep and pervasive that his poems are literally painful to read. Here's how the poem "Bad Mood" begins:

Bad mood and bad dog and bad luck like
my broken neck or heart or head
playing out so much bad weather
like kinked yarn unraveled by a bad
black cat, which summons luck again,
that diffident lover half naked in the dark.
And here's the start of "My Life Among":
I'm beginning to dream of my life among
the ornamental, the vaguely functional,
the doorsteps and paperweights, my tenure
in the legion of lawn gnomes, my brotherhood with novelty decanters,
my solidarity with the generally useless, the inscrutably devised,
the deformed idea, the Elvis clock,
the flea market phantasm, the broken
stapler clicking toothlessly, the pen caddy unpenned,
"Vaguely functional" — wow! What a thing to say about yourself. Once you start with the first of these remarkable poems, "Users Guide to Physical Debilitation," I don't think you'll be able to put the book down.

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