No shame in my video game-book-game.

I tried for a week and a half to get through 23 pages of an Ayelet Waldman novel I ended up abandoning, but have spent the past two hours completely engrossed in a book based on the Dragon Age video game series.

Draw from that any conclusions you will.

(I was surprised to find the Dragon Age novel has a higher average rating on Goodreads than the Waldman novel.)

Ethan Frome food

Reading descriptions of food in books is maybe one of my favourite things. I often read the descriptions two or three times, imagining how the combinations work and comparing the food to what I’m already familiar with.

Recently I read a food description in Ethan Frome that was among the most unusual I’ve seen:

She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass.

I read this on the bus and put the book on my lap and looked out the window, thinking about it. Donuts, blueberries, and pickles. Yes, the donuts were likely plain cake or yeast donuts and not the glazed and sprinkled things we think of now, but it still sounds so odd.

And I kind of want to try it.

Books and video games.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing Nintendo and Super Nintendo games with my brother, and making that long suburban walk to the arcade on summer vacations. In high school and my early twenties, I dropped the hobby for a while mainly due to lack of a console and a lack of funds (and discovering blogging probably helped), but I happily returned to it after a few years. I haven’t looked back since.

I hesitate to call myself a “gamer,” mainly because I associate that word with someone who’s quite serious about it, who enjoys playing almost any kind of game. My husband is more like that than I am, and teases me for being picky about the kind of games I like (and before anyone thinks that’s unfair, I do have to vocalize my bewilderment when I see him playing games that I would give up on in two minutes – so it evens out).

I don’t mean to make myself sound like some video game snob. While it’s true that I can be strangely picky about superficial things such as setting (no space or post-apocalyptic environments for me, thanks) and graphics, my favourite games are the ones with a compelling, immersive story and well-written characters.


When Skyrim (my favourite game of all time thus far) came out in 2011, my husband and I took turns playing. I had slightly more free time than he did then, so I progressed a little further in the main story than him. Many shouts of, “Oh shit, wait ’til you get to this part!” were heard from the living room. The story and world of Skyrim were so engaging that I played it right up until a couple of months ago, when our PS3 gave up the ghost with the Skyrim disc still in it.

And, despite how much I knew I loved that game, I was surprised to find that I actually missed it. I missed almost everything about it. The music, the world, even my character (whose face I spent a long time creating at the start of the game). I had beaten that game long ago and completed all the side quests I’d cared about, but I kept returning to it. If I was anxious or frustrated or bored or even in a perfectly fine mood, I’d pop in the disc and just run around in the game, jumping up to the tops of mountains, firing arrows at giants and bandits from high above where they couldn’t reach me. Returning to that world over and over again was strangely relaxing.


I was thinking about all of this recently because I’m feeling the same pull towards the game I’m playing now, Dragon Age: Inquisition. The first Dragon Age game was my original Favourite Game of All Time. I played it when I was recovering from eye surgery, and while that was maybe not the best thing to do to my eyes, I couldn’t resist (and no harm done, anyway). I remember driving home from a meeting and thinking about the quest I would do next in the game, and how that would influence the story, and how my character’s companions would react. And that to me is the biggest parallel between a good video game and a good book – I think about it when I’m not actively playing/reading, and after it’s over.

And much in the same way that a good book can make you think about yourself and your own life, a video game is a great chance to analyze your own decisions and logic. For example, I have a friend who has no compunction about playing as a fully evil character in the fictionalized environment of a video game, but I can’t do it. And that applies to non-evil things, too. I’m on my second playthrough of Inquisition and making some significantly different choices than I did the first time around, and a few of those choices were actually difficult for me to execute. What do these things say about me? Like with all of my favourite games and my favourite books, I’m right there in the world, seeing how the protagonist’s choices affect people and what happens in the story, and thinking about why I had a particular response to a character or an event. In a game those repercussions are arguably more immediate and less fixed than in a book, which raises the mental anguish potential.

Books and video games are different of course, and games have a long way to go in achieving the same equality standards and cultural significance as books, but I can’t help but see so many similarities between the two. With video games I get to be a writer and a reader at the same time, and it’s wonderful.

A 1971 frenemy

One of Decca’s favourite words. In a 1977 essay in the London Daily Mail (reprinted in the New York Times and later in Poison Penmanship), she wrote that “frenemy” (which she sometimes spelled “frienemy”) was “an incredibly useful word that should be in every dictionary, coined by one of my sisters when she was a small child to describe a rather dull little girl who lived near us.” Her sister and the neighbor girl, she said, were “inseparable companions,all the time disliking each other heartily.”

– From a footnote to an August 1971 letter in Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford got her wish about “frenemy” appearing in dictionaries. Trailblazers, those Mitfords.

Apologies if this blog is becoming a Mitford read-along. This book is massive, and my Christmas holidays so far consist of nothing but reading it, playing the new Dragon Age game, and a bit of writing here and there. So it’s either interesting Mitford facts, or a blow-by-blow of the latest war between the templars and mages.

If I don’t post here before Christmas – I hope everyone has a fun and restful holiday filled with great food!

Decca and letters.

Arrived back at Joan’s just in time for dinner. To it came Doris Lessing (you know who she is, a best-selling English writer of the Angry Young school) . . . and, joy of joys, 12-year-old Peter Lessing, who had learned about Benjy’s arrival and has planned his whole Easter vacation around showing Benj London! Peter is a super-nice boy, and he and Benj became bosom friends immediately. He called for Benj early this morning, they got back at 6 p.m., having seen all the science museums, walked for miles all over London, ridden on top of innumerable buses, etc. Peter phoned here at one point to say he decided Benj should “see the West End,” so we thought they were probably having cocktails at the Savoy.”

– Jessica Mitford, in a 1959 letter to her husband.

I am currently working my way through the behemoth that is Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. It’s a long process, but I’m enjoying it. If I had to choose my favourite Mitford, it’d probably be her so far.

Two major things keep jumping out at me:

1) She did a lot of civil rights work in the States, and – while there are of course major differences – her descriptions of police brutality and general mistreatment towards black Americans in the ’50s feel disturbingly current.

2) Books of letters are often my favourite form of biography. While they are necessarily one-sided (probably because they are one-sided), they can feel the most intimate. I wonder how long this kind of book will survive, considering our society’s almost-certain trudge toward electronic ways of keeping in touch. Of course I have sent “real” letters, but these days, as with millions of others, most of my communication takes place via email. Or worse. My brother and I Skype often, but outside from that we’ve started communicating primarily through the un-searchable, probably un-archived messaging feature in Words With Friends. Imagine someone making a book out of your Words With Friends messages? The HORROR.

I try to be a good emailer, to write an email with the same amount of care as I would a letter, but it doesn’t always happen. They are often shorter than a letter. And, of course, they feel temporary. How long will emailing remain popular? I’m thinking now of the stack of old floppy disks I have in storage in my basement. I no longer have any way to see what’s on those disks. When was the last time you saw an A: drive? That change happened before I even noticed it. I wonder how many of my most important emails will just slip away one day.

PD James interview

But then one day, you know, I suddenly realized with an absolute shock that there never was going to be a convenient time, and that if I didn’t make a beginning, I would be saying to my grandchildren, ‘What I really wanted to be was a writer.’ So I had to make time.

– PD James, interviewed on CBC’s Writers & Company

I’d never read anything by PD James. Even so, today I listened to an interview she did on the CBC’s Writers & Company, re-aired after her death. I found many things about her that I could relate to, especially the quote above.

I listened to the interview while I was making lunch (the time-consuming but delicious carrot soup with rice I’d posted about earlier), and thoroughly enjoyed it. I wish I’d “discovered” her earlier.

The full interview is here.