Happy Holiday Shopping Season, Overthinkers. After the jump, our annual gift guide for the most media-saturated of your friends, colleagues, and family. And when you use the included links to Amazon to buy these, or any other, items to prove you love them, we get a small kickback, which helps us run the site. That way, everyone is doing their part to commercialize the holidays. Enjoy!
The Areas of My Expertise audiobook
If you are a fan of Overthinking It, you will most likely be a fan of Jonathan Hodgman as well. He’s probably the only Daily Show correspondent to have written for The Paris Review and edited the humor section of The New York Times Magazine. He has acted in Flight of the Conchords, Bored to Death, The Venture Bros., and Battlestar Galactica. And yes, he’s the Mac to Jason Long’s PC.
But what launched Hodgman’s unlikely career as an eggheaded humorist was his 2005 book of fake trivia, The Areas of My Expertise. In 2008, he published the sequel, More Information Than You Require. I do not recommend you read them. Instead, I highly recommend you acquire the audio versions, which are just awesome. Jonathan not only adds a lot of hilarious new material, but he also features frequent musical interludes by OTI favorite Jonathan Coulton. And the recording of More Information features a perfect storm of hipster guests:
- Ricky Gervais
- Paul Rudd
- Zach Galifianakis
- Dick Cavett
- Sarah Vowell
- Ira Glass
- Rachel Maddow
And let me say, for the record, that Hodgman has one of the great voices of our time. I don’t mean his style of writing (although that too). I mean the actual sound he produces with his vocal chords. I love listening to the man talk. He’s like a spoken word version of Mel Torme.
You may have already heard it talked about in one place or another — if your experience is like mine, it’s a word that seems to be used in common by in-the-know gamers across the ‘net. You wonder whether they know each other – everybody seems to speak about it in much the same way. So you get curious. But one thing is clear — there’s something about Dominion that discerning gamers really like. The more dedicated to games a person is, the more they seem to like Dominion, maybe because it’s a fun distraction that’s still interesting and complex and evolves over time – maybe because it brings you the fun of a Collectible Card Game like Magic: The Gathering without players having to worry about buying separate, potentially expensive decks. Instead, you buy one card pool the players split with any of a variety of expansions. Each player starts with a very small, identical deck, and you go from there in rules that are too complicated for me to elaborate on here (I did say discerning gamers, after all).
It’s got a theme of Medieval Castle Building with expansions that include seafaring, alchemy, and other related themes. It’s is made by the charming folks at Rio Grande Games, who tend towards a tiny bit of a non-violent bent. Well, there’s still elements of violence, but the bar for violence in a game is high enough that it seems quaint, if a little creepy at times.
Dominion won the 2008 prize for best game at the Spiel German trade game fair, and its latest expansion, Prosperity, just came out last month – but be careful, unlike Magic, you have to buy a standalone first before you can play with any of the expansions.
But if there’s a discerning gamer in your life, Dominion may be just what the barber/apothecary ordered.
Perich: The Sandbaggers
For those who want to stretch their horizons in the TV espionage genre, “The Sandbaggers” is the opposite of “24.”
* It’s British.
* It’s from the late 70s, rather than the cutting edge of today.
* The action is sparse.
* The heroes are the men who sit behind desks.
“The Sandbaggers” is the continuing story of Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), Director of Operations for the Special Operations unit of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (a/k/a MI-6). He oversees a unit of three “Sandbaggers” – agents capable of being dropped into any zone in the world and reacting with speed and foresight. Burnside’s abrasive manner and refusal to risk his Sandbaggers on assignments he deems trivial runs him afoul of several other bureaucrats: the Deputy Head of the service, the head of SIS (codenamed “C”), and the Permanent Undersecretary of State – also Burnside’s ex-father in law. Burnside trades favors with rivals, negotiates with enemies and runs his men to the bone in order to get results.
If you want a show that takes an unglamorous look at office politics, with the sexiness of Cold War espionage blended in, you can’t do better. The New York Times called it “the best spy series in television history”, and I haven’t yet seen cause for them to change that recommendation.
Regular OTI readers and podcast listeners should know that I have something of an obsession with karaoke. If this is news to you, I direct you to the two articles I wrote about my mathematical formula for determining karaoke song quality. So if you share even just a part of my obsession, then you absolutely must read Don’t Stop Believing: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life by Brian Raftery. The title pretty much says it all (both in terms of the content of the book and its appeal to me), but if you’re not already convinced that this book is for you or for the karaoke lover in your life, then let me sell you with this:
You will learn just how those cheese-ball ersatz music videos get made. No, not the ones with random scenes of Asian cities. You know, those videos, all from circa 1989, that you like to laugh at while your friends are singing. Like the one for “New York, New York” that features a rough-around-the edges guy who transforms into a big city dandy while green-screen superimposed dancing over shots of the New York City skyline. There were real people–real actors and directors–behind these videos, and the author manages to get one such director to spill the beans about the creative process (yes, there was one) behind these four minute masterpieces. I obviously won’t reveal these secrets to you now, but I will say that the next time you go to karaoke and see one of these videos after learning how they were made, you will feel like a serious karaoke insider; the possessor of secret karaoke knowledge.
Raftery succeeds wildly at doing what Overthinking It strives to do: subject pop culture that we love to a level of scrutiny that many would say it does not deserve, but in reality deserves all of it and then some, if for no other reason than that it is so beloved by the scrutinizer. And in doing so, he reveals something new about that object of scrutiny and shares that joy of discovery with fellow enthusiasts.
Wrather: The Amazon Kindle
Seriously. I bought a netbook and an iPhone 4 this year, and neither one of them changed my behavior as much as the Kindle did in 2010. All the things they advertise are true — it’s light, it’s got a great screen, it holds six gajillion books. I’d add that it doesn’t fatigue your eyes, that the battery lasts for freaking ever, and that everyone you know will want to touch it.
I don’t read enough, which is unfortunate when it is my longstanding habit to hoard reading material. (I swear! I will read every issue of The New Yorker, as well as of the New York Review of Books, London Review of same, and the Times Literary Supplement which are now gathering dust in piles on the floor of the living room. I’m thinking I should subscribe to the Economist. To say nothing of the geologic strata of books on the shelves, nightstand, kitchen table…)
I’ve always had a problem keeping track of which issue of a magazine, which three or four different books, which articles from the internet (I am absolutely crazy about Instapaper) I am currently reading. I am also vaguely guilty about using that much paper—especially for things I’m throwing away anyway. Now it all comes with me, sans tree-murder, and I can pick up where I left off as the mood strikes me.
You’d think that this would enable my near pathological task-switching. But what I’m finding is that I settle in for long reads (books, long articles, long blog posts—like the ones on this very site) more often than I used to, that for some reason removing the interface of the book somehow engages my mind with the matieral more directly, and I can stay focused on one thing longer.
Don’t shell out for the one that uses the cell phone network. And for goodness’ sake, don’t put any games on it. Stick with the $140 basic model, load it up at home, and throw it in your bag. Or your back pocket. Seriously. It fits in the back pocket of my jeans, like a paperback. Just don’t come crying to me when you sit on it.
Stokes: The Val Lewton Horror Collection
You should buy this for the horror buff in your life. Actually, scratch that. Liking horror is not a requirement. Buy it for your favorite film buff, and if that’s you, buy it for yourself. It’s pricey, yeah, but still a good deal: it works out to five dollars per movie, with the Scorsese-helmed documentary as a bonus prize. And the movies are kind of astonishing. If you’re like most of the OTI staff, you probably have an abiding fondness for people who bring their A game to B pictures. For material that transcends its limitations. For atmospheric, smarter-than-it-has-to-be genre fare. For quirky, intelligent treatment of gender roles. For zombies. For artists who work. For dignified late-career performances by pop culture icons (in this case Boris Karloff). And for formulas, done well.
The collection is also an interesting object lesson on the classical Hollywood system. Yeah, we all know that outfits like Warner and RKO had all their actors, set designers, directors, etcetera on salary, and used them in picture after picture. But when was the last time you sat down and watched nine movies from the same unit? You’ll see the same actors, props, and even camera tricks turning up in movie after movie, and while this seems like it should be annoying it’s actually kind of charming.
Now, once you have it, what should you do with it? Start with I Walked With a Zombie, The Cat People, and Curse of the Cat People. The first two are probably the best introduction to what Lewton’s strange little corner of the cinema universe is all about. The third is… really interesting, although mostly for what it doesn’t do. Then check out the Karloff set, The Body Snatcher, Bedlam, and Isle of the Dead. None of these qualifies as a horror film in the way that we tend to think of it, although they’re always flirting with becoming horror just because, hey, it’s Boris Karloff! They also show off what an amazing actor the guy actually was, given half a chance. He’s scary in The Body Snatcher, but not in the way that Freddy Krueger is scary. More like the way that Daniel Plainview is scary (and not the showy, shouty, bowling-pin-in-the-face-smacky scenes, either). The Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim are maybe the least satisfying of the bunch, although they both have their charms. But for that reason, I’d suggest you save The Leopard Man for last. It’s the closest Lewton ever came to a “modern” horror film – more sex, more violence, although still nothing the Hayes Code would have a problem with – and serves as a fitting coda to the set. And then go back and watch I Walked With a Zombie again.
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