Thursday, February 26, 2009

Announcing "The Underrated Blog-a-Thon"



Today marks the one year anniversary of Chicago Ex-Patriate. As I've said a few times, I really want to thank everyone who reads this, even if it's just a glance every few months or so. I really had no idea what this little blog would become when I started it. Granted, it's still little, but I feel like I have a consistent tone, and I'm grateful for all of the feedback I've received.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I have a plan to celebrate this milestone, so I'm announcing my first blog-a-thon, "The Underrated Blog-a-Thon." Since I don't tend to write about any one subject, I feel that it's only fair to open up contributions to all areas of creativity, whether it be literature, film, music, art, poetry, design, or whatever else you can think of to add. I chose "underrated" because it's a signifier that everyone can feel passionate about. We all have long mental lists of arts that we believe fly under the radar too often.

There's really nothing limiting about this blog-a-thon. Perhaps there's a band that doesn't get any real attention, either indie or mainstream. Write about it. Perhaps your favorite movie is Casablanca, but you feel that there are some aspects of the film that do not get proper attention. Do you have books on your shelf that nobody seems to read? Give them their due. "The Underrated Blog-a-Thon" will be running from March 23rd to March 27th.

If you have a blog, please feel free to contribute. Any questions? Comments are welcome. I'm also available via Facebook or e-mail (jyates3@hotmail.com).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lunar Fields

(Note: Although the story mentioned is available for free online--see the link below--I intentionally left the major parts of the story vague in the interest of analysis. My hope is that you read it before getting into my thoughts.)

In a wonderful example of perfect timing, the February 23rd issue of The New Yorker published a previously untranslated story by Italo Calvino, entitled "The Daughters Of the Moon." Since my last post was a look at If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, I was excited to see some new material (new in the sense of "available," since Calvino has been gone since 1985), doubled by the fact that I've only read novels and essays written by him. I've been meaning to get into his available short stories, a format that, at first assumption, would be among the better showcases of his style. Since Invisible Cities and If On a Winter's Night a Traveler are composed of short, vibrant chapters, it only seems natural that he would be able to pack a lot of imagery into a story that stands as its own piece. Besides, it would be wrong to look at just a single chapter of a Calvino novel, since each one is connected (almost scientifically) as more than the sum of its parts.

The word I used above, imagery, can sometimes be an easy go-to placeholder in literary criticism. However, it applies perfectly to "The Daughters Of the Moon." Calvino creates acute landscape descriptions, including a New York skyline that is minimalist, yet tells a lot given the story's structure:

"These cities grew in approximately the same places as our cities do now, however different the shape of the continents was. There was even a New York that in some way resembled the New York familiar to all of you, but was much newer, or, rather, more awash with new products, new toothbrushes, a New York with its own Manhattan that stretched out dense with skyscrapers gleaming like the nylon bristles of a brand-new toothbrush."

A passage like this highlights Calvino's primary designations as a fabulist and a storyteller. "The Daughters Of the Moon" is narrated by a first person narrator, but one who, while involved personally in the events, remains as detached as possible, remaining confused at best, at least until the climax. In the future, the moon, with its age and meteoric erosions, does not fit in with the shiny, consumeristic society to which we're accustomed. The titular daughters of the moon, the almost fairy-like nude women who attempt to halt the moon's destruction. However, even they are not detached from the problems of rampant consumerism, which is a prevailing metaphor in the story, a metaphor that seems drastically different than the Calvino I'm familiar with:

"Everything was scattered on the grass around the bench: her clothes, a stocking and shoe here and the others there, her earrings, necklace, and bracelets, purse and shopping bag with the contents spilled out in a wide arc, and countless packages and goods, almost as if the creature had felt herself called on her way back from a lavish shopping spree and had dropped everything, realizing that she had to free herself of all objects and signs that bound her to the earth, and she was now waiting to be assumed into the lunar sphere."

As the passages I've cited hint, the story reads almost like a science-fiction piece, in addition to the metaphoric shame of consumerism and rape of the earth, which comes to a head in the stunning final paragraph. Since so much of the planet has been changed since the advent of industry, once the technology is available, would humans attempt to change the features of outer space? This also reminded me of the ideas of a vastly different writer, George Carlin, who more or less hinted at the same themes, imagining the colonization of space, complete with microwave hotdogs and trying to explain to extra-terrestrials the logistics behind embarrassing human behaviors.

Of course, Calvino is not without hope. As the daughters of the moon attempt to salvage the lunar destruction, by sheer magic (or so it seems), the problems begin to right themselves, both physically and socially:

"Following this moon that had been saved from the scrap heap, all the things and all the people who had been resigned to being tossed in a corner started on the road again."

Thus far, I have not formed any real opinions on the story itself. I found it beautifully written, futuristically atmospheric, but was somehow left feeling that there was more that could have been expanded. "The Daughters Of the Moon" reads as if it could have been a chapter in one of Calvino's novels, a more modern take on a city from Invisible Cities. Perhaps I'm committing a faux pas and not taking the story at face value, combined with the fact that I have not read other Calvino stories. However, one of the passages of the story serves as a wonderful metaphor for this new English-language addition to Calvino's canon, especially given its form as a story as opposed to a novel. I'll close with it:

"This was the landscape that we hardly managed to glimpse before the sphere swiftly receded into the sky, and the more minute details were lost in a general impression of freshness and lushness. It was dusk; the contrasts of the colors were fading into a vibrant chiarscuro; the lunar fields and woods were now just barely visible countours on the taut surface of the shining globe."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Concentrate. Relax. Dispel Every Other Thought.

Note: The title comes from the second sentence of the first chapter of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler.
"Whatever it may be, this is a novel where, once you have got into it, you want to go forward, without stopping (Calvino 76)."

I began this blog nearly a full year ago. My first essays consisted of some shaky (although well-intentioned) analyses of Italo Calvino's Six Memos For the Next Millennium and Invisible Cities (click here for that effort...there are a few errors on the novel's meaning, but for the most part, my literary theory heart was in the right place). Just recently, I finished Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, which is generally tied with Invisible Cities when his most influential works are discussed. Both novels have their vast differences, but both have writing, reading, and storytelling studies as their primary sources. I cannot believe that it has taken me this long to read If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and furthermore I cannot believe that it never appeared on any syllabus I had in college.

One of my biggest sources of irritation is the sheer number of books available on publishing and writing, specifically books geared towards people who never write (or read, for that matter), but just might (in the hopes of the publisher, who doesn't want the manual to be remaindered) have that "big bestseller" in them. Dozens of these books offer formulas and tips for writing bestsellers. While the great novels do have similarities, it's impossible to write a lasting work simply by punching in ideas into a sort of literary algorithm. These writing books should be replaced by If On a Winter's Night for two reasons. One, it contains intangible advice that cannot be found in any manual, and two, it would simply laugh in the face of anyone who takes them seriously.

The "plot" behind If On a Winter's Night is well known, so I won't spend much time on its tangible summary. Calvino introduces a second-person character ("You," the reader) who teams up with a young female reader, trying to solve a vast publishing mistake, one that quickly turns into a subtle love story (or, more appropriately, an attraction based on reading) and a literary conspiracy. Yes, this does sound like it could be the plot of a mindless bestseller. However, as Terrance at Blogsmos writes about the book:" If all you read is Clive Cussler adventures or Nora Roberts romances, this book will probably just frustrate the hell out of you." There are various "chapters" mixed in, each from different fictional novels, all in very different styles, each originating from publishing mishaps and lost, secret manuscripts that tie into what can be loosely identified as the actual story of the book. However, the beauty lies in the fact that there is no actual straightforward story. In the rare example of a book jacket description that is on the money, the back of my edition states: "Italy's most brilliant modern writer shows that the novel is capable of endless mutations."

I remember one of my teachers in college poking fun at the class for constantly mentioning Calvino's sheer enthusiasm in relation to Six Memos For the Next Millennium. This teacher mocked us, saying something along the lines of "Ohh, Calvino! He's so nice!" However, it happens to be one of Calvino's skills--few writers could have pulled off a serious, postmodern, intellectual novel about the benefits and trials of reading and writing, held together with the aforementioned enthusiasm. Calvino shows that it's possible to maintain intelligence and excitement in the same conversation. In the book, hardly three pages will go by without an amusing passage or a play on language:

"To open the gate for me there was the gravedigger I had already met at The Star of Sweden. 'I am looking for Mr. Kauderer,' I said to him.
He answered, 'Mr. Kauderer is not here. But since the cemetery is the home of those who are not here, come in (65)."

"Hold on a minute. Concentrate. Take all the information that has poured down on you at once and put it in order. A Polish novel. Then the book you began reading with such involvement wasn't the book you thought but was a Polish novel instead. That is the book you are now so anxious to procure. Don't let them fool you. Explain clearly the situation. 'No, actually I don't really give a damn about that Calvino any more. I started the Polish one and it's the Polish one I want to go on with. Do you have this Bazakbal book?'(28)

Another aspect of the book's brilliance is that the main discussions on writing and reading could go on for hundreds more pages. In one passage, Calvino offers a hypothetical look at a tormented writer and a productive writer. One would assume, based on the descriptions, that they would be very different. However, Calvino highlights the differences with similarities and contradictions, emotions and sketches that become interchangeable to the point that the two writers could easily be the same person. The passage below does not do this idea total justice, but it helps:

"She returns to the productive writer the tormented writer's novel in the productive writer's manner, and to the tormented writer the productive writer's novel in the tormented writer's manner. Both, seeing themselves counterfeited, have a violent reaction and rediscover their personal vein (175)."

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler closes with readers in a library, offering their various views on reading styles and what they personally pick up from a given book. This ending is nearly perfect, since throughout the book, both the reader and writer are shown as conflicted entities with endless dimensions, two groups of people who would not exist without the other. While I've mentioned the idea of contradictions, I'll close with one brief passage that, to me, seems to encapsulate a few of the book's arguments. In these few words, Calvino creates a possible summary, complete with the necessary contradictions. This is one of the few passages I've ever read that have stopped me in my tracks, so to speak.

"'With my spyglass I can observe a woman who is reading on a terrace in the valley,' I told her. 'I wonder if the books she reads are calming or upsetting.'
'How does the woman seem to you? Calm or upset?'
'Calm.'
'Then she reads upsetting books (192-3).'"

Work Cited:
Calvino, Italo. If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Copyright 1979 by Giulo Einaudi Editore, S.p.A, Torino.
English translation copyright 1981 by Harcourt, Inc.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Where There's Smoke, There's Ire

"You're still my boy Mike everyone will always be behind you %100 of the time. Don't smoke in public anymore only do it with people you know you can trust and in privacy. God bless you and good luck swimming." --An unedited comment from Michael Phelps's blog post apologizing for smoking marijuana.

I read a statement not too long ago saying, to some effect, that there is no such thing as objective journalism, that a writer has to have some opinion on a given topic. Before I get into the main ideas of this essay, I'm going to share my opinion, and hopefully my forthcoming assessment will reflect it: I have nothing, personally or socially, against the recreational use of marijuana. People I love and admire use it, and while I don't, it has no effect on my view of a person. This said, even if I did have a negative view of it, I wouldn't be able to get upset over the recent Michael Phelps "scandal." At this very moment, whether the moment is my writing of this sentence or your reading of it, there are probably thousands of twenty-three year olds smoking weed on a college campus. Of course, there's almost a definite chance that none of them are Olympic athletes, and none of them were literally the face of America during the summer. Yes, Phelps did something illegal (I'm not getting into a legalization argument, I'm mentioning this merely as a technicality), but it would be no different if he were nineteen and photographed doing shots of Jager. What does bother me is the backlash. He's never failed a drug test, yet he's been suspended from competing for three months, and Kellogg's has canceled its sponsorship. A columnist for The Seattle Times claimed that his children, all swimmers, now hold Phelps in a lesser light. What does bother me is that this seems to be about race just as equally as it is about public image.

Last year, during the NBA playoffs, Josh Howard of the Dallas Mavericks admitted to smoking marijuana during basketball's off-season. He too never failed a league-mandated drug test. He faced backlash--from sports radio and television hosts, not the majority of the American public. He was criticized--not so much for the admission, but the fact that it came during the playoffs, with his team down two games to none. The overall vibe was that his statements, which seemed to be forgotten quickly, would have garnered less attention had they been made in December instead of April. This leads to two troubling hypotheses: One, that the public assumed, because Howard is black, that admitting to smoking weed was normal; and two, since Howard is not a superstar, there was no need to call that much attention to the subject. I feel that some (not all) of the national disappointment in Phelps stems from his public image as the All-American Champion, race aside. The Phelps/Howard views would apply to Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr of the Chicago Bulls's championship teams of the late 1990s. If someone had photographed Jordan smoking a bong, the backlash would be just as intense as it has been to Phelps. If Steve Kerr had admitted to smoking in the off season, it would have received roughly the same amount of attention as Howard's admission. Since Kerr was never a perennial all-star, it doesn't make for compelling news discussions.

Familiarity has been the key to the criticism of Phelps, and he has nobody to blame but himself. Even if the photograph had not been taken, the news would have gotten around, since he's arguably one of the most famous people on the planet. As is the case with Josh Howard, the level of fame should not have anything to do with the attention, just as race shouldn't. There are just as many white drug users as black ones, just as is the case with any other product, be it tobacco or alcohol. Phelps and Howard are superior athletes, but they're humans, too. Not to bring up the distant past, but Jason Kidd's wife-beating got even less attention, which is all the more infuriating.