Friday, June 27, 2008

Casual Friday-Poetry III

I'm a little behind on some of the essays that will be making their way to the blog very shortly, so I figured today would be an excellent day for "Casual Friday-Poetry." This installment is going to be slightly different from the previous formats. The reason for this is that every blog that I checked was either a disguise for advertisements, or featured people advertising mp3s and eBay purchases. While I'm sure an advertising poem could be cool, I wasn't in the mood to deal with something like that tonight.

Today's idea could work, or it could be very bad, for I'm composing it as I type. Above my desk is a bookshelf. Going from left to right, I'm going to close my eyes and point to a random sentence in ten consecutive books, and these sentences will become this week's poem. Since these are copyrighted materials, I will list the books in order, but I'm not going to list page numbers. Of course, you the reader have no way to prove that I'm selecting these sentences at random...so just trust me. The books are:

1.) Shakespeare: Four Great Tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth)
2.) Six Memos For the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino
3.) Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life In Your Twenties by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner
4.) Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
5.) Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
6.) Agape Agape by William Gaddis
7.) Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
8.) Welcome To the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut
9.) Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett
10.) The Most Beautiful Woman in Town by Charles Bukowski

"The Random Sentence Poem"
Before Gloucester's Castle
By Contrast, the sight of the sun or moon in a vast, airy landscape, and in a clear sky, etc., is pleasing for the vastness of the sensation.
Many twentysomethings hope that feeling never changes.
This may very well be true, but still, the formula of the Heremetic books allows us, almost to intuit this sphere.*
He begins talking in elegant tones, his stooges filling in.
That you're being used, used, used that you're being used by nature simply to perpetuate the family line, the social tribe.*
He started at some point I remember to refer to the kitchen as the Mess Tent and his den as the Marsh or Swamp.
But we formed a neighborly habit of having a drink with the McClellans once or twice a month.
Worse than the pantomime.
To take someone standing up, their size must have a certain relationship to your size.
*Edited for length.
I can't believe how appropriately this poems begins and ends. William Shakespeare sets the scene, and Charles Bukowski gives us a climax. Check out the other two poetry installments (one link is above, the other one is here). As I said for the previous one, I feel like these are becoming more coherent with each passing attempt. Please feel free to suggest other random places to look for poetry lines. I want to go beyond blogs and books.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Seeing Green

"A delicious meal now requires less energy. Now you can help save the planet in just 10 minutes. With the eco-friendly convenience of Contessa Green Cuisine. Green Cuisine comes from the world's first green frozen-food manufacturing plant. It uses half the energy and reduces CO2 emissions by 50 percent compared to a conventional plant built today. And that helps protect our planet for future generations. Easy to prepare. Easy on the planet. Contessa Green Cuisine."

--from an advertisement in the May 2008 issue of Men's Health magazine

Last year, like many people, I saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and got worried about the state of the environment, not to mention the guilt I felt over the amount of paper towels I've wasted in my lifetime. Around that time, as I watched the 2007 Academy Awards (when An Inconvenient Truth won for Best Documentary Feature), I made what turned out to be an accurate prediction--that companies would soon be jumping on the environmental bandwagon. It all came to me as I watched Hollywood act like giddy cheerleaders to Al Gore's star quarterback. Everyone felt great about the environmentally-friendly telecast and the electric cars that shuttled some celebrities to the event. It was only a matter of time before companies and corporations saw this as a chance to make money.

This is not to say that I'm taking the crisis lightly. I'm an avid recycler, and I make efforts to do as many little things as I'm capable of doing on a given day. I shake my head at people who believe that global warming is a myth, and based on the documentary alone, I feel that Al Gore helped set in motion events and actions that have literally changed the world for the better. While I believe that certain companies (such as Contessa) are actively making changes to fight CO2 emissions and climate change, I get a nagging feeling. A feeling that most of it is aimed at bottom lines instead of tree lines. For every soda can I recycle, I know that there is a ridiculous amount more that I could do, but I resist the idea that buying a package of sesame chicken stir-fry in order to make a difference.

I also admire people who have the means to modify their homes to utilize solar power, but sometimes it merely looks like a personal pat on the back. The other day, there was a feature on a local news broadcast, detailing a couple having an entire house (and foundation) shipped to an island off the coast of Seattle via ferryboat. The segment was very interesting, and one of the homeowners went into detail about the environmental features of the house. I'm sure her intentions were genuine, but the vibe was that it was meant to counter the fuel and energy needed to transport what appeared to be a small mansion across Puget Sound.

It would just be more refreshing if companies could be more environmentally responsible without having to show it. Of course, that's impossible, because with responsibility comes the chance to look good. Since global warming is threatening us with changes that could take place in the next ten years, perhaps I shouldn't be complaining. If an ad like the one above makes someone think about these problems, then that's a good thing. I just feel that a crisis that could lead to the loss of lives, plus the extinction of several species of animal shouldn't be fodder for sales. Individuals and companies should continue doing their part, and the only reason it should be advertised is to make others aware.

Monday, June 16, 2008

(S)'Nuff Said


Whenever Chuck Palahniuk comes out with a new book, I always get excited, sometimes against my better judgement. While I believe that a select few of his novels (Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Survivor, and Choke) are great works, his fiction has rapidly declined in quality since then. His later works run dangerously close to being mere schlock disguised in literary clothing. As of late, it seems as if Palahniuk is sacrificing his talents in order to shock readers. And then shock them some more. While this trait is evident in his earlier fiction, it worked with the story instead of now, when he seems to think of the most subversive acts and tries to weave a novel around them. Despite these criticisms, he will always hold a special place in my love of literature and books. He very graciously provided me with my first interview as a college journalist, which alone fills me with excitement before the release of a new title.

I recently finished his latest book, Snuff, and I'm pleased to report that he seems to be going in a better direction, albeit with some flaws. While not a great book by any means, the "shock values" are toned down, based in what most of us would assume is the seedy, business-like workings of the pornography industry. Snuff tells the story of Cassie Wright, a veteran porn star attempting to set a world record by fornicating with six hundred men on film. It's told mainly by three of the "actors" waiting for their turns, as well as Cassie's assistant. They all have their separate agendas, and Palahniuk deals with these agendas quite well by hinting at them early on instead of relying on a quick, jumbled ending (as he's been wont to do lately). This might seem like an awfully basic plot description, but any further details would require giving quite a bit away.

Palahniuk has always been categorized as a minimalist, and Snuff is quite heavy on that (oxymoron?). The physical descriptions and scenes are done quite well, giving the reader a well-done atmosphere, but moving on quickly. Most of the paragraphs are just a sentence or two long enough to avoid being stylized a la James Frey--stark and minimalist in a very annoying fashion. Overall, especially given its late May release, Snuff feels like a beach novel trying to masquerade as subversive fiction.

Despite my harsh criticisms, the novel does have some genuinely funny moments, and the "porn names" of several major films (A Separate Piece) are creative. Plus, Palahniuk devotes more time to describing factual, historical events that weave in greatly with the story. To borrow the name of his non-fiction collection, it's truly stranger than fiction. It's his way of showing that no matter how depraved some of his fiction ideas are, they're not that different from what happens on a daily basis. Based on his early quartet of excellent novels, I'm fully convinced that Palahniuk still has the talent to blend literature with the bizarre. Snuff isn't close, but much more enjoyable than anything he's published in the last five years.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Novel Approaches

As I mentioned in my first post, I write fiction, but by choice will not display any of it on Chicago Ex-Patriate. However, since I do my best to keep my thoughts in non-fiction essay format, I see no problem in discussing my fiction writing, even if I offer no physical proof (short stories, excerpts, etc.). For some reason, this reminds me of a wonderful line from the 2003 film Swimming Pool. At one point, a young antagonist tells a dour crime author: "You write about dirty things but never actually do them." I love writing and discussing literature, but in the interest of balance, I feel that I need to make my own contributions.

Writing as a whole has been on my mind constantly as of late, since I'm taking notes, drafting outlines, and researching a major project--writing a novel. Yes, I understand that the concept of "writing as a whole" is about as tangible as "defining love." This means a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Novels and longer narratives have been scattered around my study like windblown newspapers on a downtown street. At the moment, I'm reading three novels at once, works that couldn't be more different, works that have no bearing on my own project: Snuff, the latest book by Chuck Palahniuk; The Savage Detectives, a look at revolutionary Mexican poets by Roberto Bolano (a novel that I had planned to have finished reading for a blog review about two months ago); and Lila Heavy From the Get-Go, an unpublished manuscript by Paul Bergstraesser, given to me years ago, detailing three of my favorite subjects: love, music, and the Chicago Bulls. All of this heavy reading is both essential and slightly disheartening. The books remind me that I have a long way to go before I can consider myself a good fiction writer. On a more optimistic note, I think of how all three writers started off on the same page (pun intended), staring at a blank word processing screen or blank sheets of paper.

Other motivating factors are the two novels I started before, works that make me cringe, even though I never showed them to anyone else (or finished them, for that matter). The first one was a reflection of me at age eighteen, realizing that writing and literary studies were my calling: nearly a hundred pages of ridiculous plot lines, intentionally hip, culture-savvy references, and painfully obvious urban characters. If Dave Eggers' talent was halved and he had a concussion, even he would not be able to come up with the stereotypically "lost" city dwellers that I created. My second attempt at a novel actually has a plot that I plan to return to in the future, but at twenty-one, I was still rambling. All of this was bad enough, but as a beginning writer, I was gleefully showing people my awful short stories, thinking they were good (Jeremy, I still silently thank you for humoring me when I was a college freshman). Had my two previous "novels" been seen by anyone, I would have been laughed out of every classroom I entered.

At this point, I feel that I'm a much better non-fiction writer, and this motivates me to devote equal parts daydreaming and actually job-hunting to find work in journalism. I run the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, but I also felt disheartened when I read articles (written by paid, established writers) that were nothing but fluff and stereotype. Perhaps I should stop using Hotmail. Everytime I log out of my e-mail inbox, my browser automatically goes to MSN.com, and everytime, I find myself reading bad articles and becoming despondent. For example, take relationship articles, which are usually all the same: the author lets us know that men A.) don't talk about their feelings, B.) want to watch the Big Game, and C.) leave dirty socks all around the house. Women A.) love shoes!! B.) want to talk and talk and talk and C.) are always conniving to drag men to the opera. But did I mention shoes??!! That might be a poor example, because I'm not trying to become a relationship columnist. My point is that bad writing can be the norm, and while I know my skills need some developing, I also know that I could do better if given the chance.

At one point a few weeks ago, I moved beyond "sounding like a curmudgeon" and into actually being one. As I tortured myself while reading search engine features, an author began an article with "As a writer..." I wanted to scream and create an altar to David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates. Instead, I turned the computer off and sat in bed with one of my favorite books, James Joyce's Dubliners. As I read his stories, I felt happier. My mind immediately began returning to the readings and projects that I've been planning on doing, and as I started my research, I realized that it's healthier to focus on good writing instead of complaining about bad writing. As I continue my work, I'll keep in mind that all writers are connected, and the ones I've complained about were very much in the same position I was, trying to make their way in a very crowded field.

But a final message to relationship columnists: very few of us live in a world that resembles a romantic comedy. Can you try to move beyond cliches? Please?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I Was Just Wondering, That's All

Last week, during my usual daily browsing of sports websites (namely ESPN.com and the marginal coverage on MSN.com), I came across an article by Woody Paige, a columnist for The Denver Post and a regular contributor on ESPN's Around the Horn. In the column, he mentioned the hypothetical possibility of the Cleveland Indians trading Cliff Lee for the Colorado Rockies' Matt Holliday. I won't go into statistics, but I e-mailed Paige my thoughts on that scenario. I didn't have any major urge to do this; I saw a link to send a message to him, so I figured "what the hell?"

I forgot all about this, until I remembered this morning. I checked his website, and was pleasantly shocked to find that my e-mail was one of a few that he responded to this morning. Apparently, he wasn't in a good mood. And no, I am not the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians.

Click here.