Saturday, December 10, 2011

Plan B (1969/Washington, DC)- Lapham's Quarterly

“Plan B (1969/Washington, DC)” is a piece that gives us a look into a potential American disaster. “In the event of a moon disaster” the memo is titled, and the header lets us know it has been sent from Bill Safire, a former presidential speech writer. It’s what our president would have said to the nation had the first manned mission to the moon failed and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were left to die in space. “These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding,” the proposed speech reads. “In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.” These lines hold powerful meaning, even though the event the speech was written for never occurred. They humanize the sacrifice made on the parts of the astronauts, while at the same time elevating them to an almost-mythical status in the consciousness of the American people.

I find the piece fascinating because of the sobering look into “what might have been” it provides. After the main part of the speech (which is surprisingly short), Safire goes on to give suggestions of what to do. Prior to the president’s statement the president should telephone each of the widows-to-be personally, and after the statement, “at the point when NASA ends communications with the men,” a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, “commending their souls to ‘the deepest of the deep.’” One of the things that was also interesting to me was the feelings the statement assumes the tragedy will invoke. They reminded me strongly of 9/11, with Safire writing that the tragedy “stirred the people of the word to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they mind more tightly the brotherhood of men.” This is how I feel America (if not most of the world) reacted to September 11th, which made me wonder how America and the world would have reacted to a lunar mission disaster and the effect that it would have on politics.

-- Kelly M.

Memewar: "On Vandalism, A Memoir" - Erin Miller

The eleventh issue of Memewar has a Fun & Games theme, and because it is Canadian-based, many of the articles in this issue deal with the Olympic Games and the effects that they had on local character.

This piece of nonfiction explores the issue of gentrification. As a young student fresh out of college, she enjoyed an out-of-the-way neighborhood in Vancouver that had been dominated by immigrants since the end of WWII. She waxes poetic about the "urban village," the cultural diversity and ethnic intermingling--and there's a definite flavor of exoticism, of wanting to watch the funny little immigrant go about their lives without facing any of their struggles.

The reality, however, is that she is quite disconnected from the community to which she so desperately wants to belong. Artists that had made the area popular found themselves competing with well-off workers who could afford to pay higher prices. Two of these invaders were the writer and her husband, though she fails to realize until after the deed is signed that, "Oh no! We're those assholes!"

When vandals go on a spray-painting spree in the neighborhood, the people in the gentrified neighborhoods unite in their common fear and disapproval of potential ruffians--who, of course, seem to belong to the ethnic minorities that made the area so attractive in the first place. A divide developed--or, if you're a skeptic like me, simply deepened--between the relatively wealthy native Canadians and the relatively poor immigrants.

Miller says that "our vandal had turned me into the person he resented," but I think she gives herself too much credit. She describes working in a Starbucks and being intrigued by the weekly protests that inevitably resulted in a smashed front window--as if she was just watching animals playing in a zoo. Perhaps that's a bit harsh but, as I said before, her description of the neighborhood before it got too gentrified definitely exoticised the people who had already made the neighborhood their home.

Gentrification is a major problem in large cities in the US as well. Cities will pour money into run-down areas to fix them up, but the result is that the now-desirable property is too expensive for those who used to live there to afford. Some developments have programs that allow those struggling with finances to live in the new buildings, but it is unlikely that they would take up the offer or stay long after moving in. After all, nothing around them would be affordable, not even the groceries.

It's an interesting paradox that's been niggling at me a lot this year: when we try to support the things we love, those things often change, and sometimes those changes are mixed blessings. The Olympic games are an easy example because they often bring accelerated gentrification with them as the host city cleans up its rougher neighborhoods to put on a show for the visiting countries. What many people fail to realize is that the same process occurs in all major cities, just at a slower pace, and the impact can be just as devastating.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Memewar: "Investing in Gold," Thorblood the Shaman

This is one of the most amusing articles in the two issues of Memewar that I read. It's a completely serious look about economics in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. Specifically, it's about gold farming--when a character dies, they drop items that they've collected. Surviving characters can then gather up these items, "sell" them for gold, and then the real-life people playing those characters can sell that virtual gold for real money. Why would anyone want to do this? The more gold you've got, the more stuff you can buy, which can increase your power and protection. As I understand it.

Another way to acquire gold is to hack another player's account. When that player reports the hack to the company that makes WoW, the company restores the account without removing the stolen gold--because how are they honestly going to track it down? The result is incredible inflation.

It's amazing the extent to which an online game has come to immitate real life. Perhaps, in large part, this is because it can be life for some people. It's all fine and good to scoff at the geeks and nerds who play WoW...but if we aren't actually playing ourselves, well, then there's Facebook and Tumblr and goodness knows what else eating up our life. There may not necessarily be an economy on these other sites, but there are certainly social rules, etc. We're replicating life online, which must be fascinating to those social scientists watching us interact. It just stinks that so many people, as a result, struggle to maintain their lives offline.

As for the article itself, it's long but well-written and engaging. I never felt bored and was amazed how quickly I got through an article on economics, even fantasy economics. I would have liked to have seen the writer explore more of the real-world implications for the existance of an online economy. The closest he got was mentioning gold farming sweatships in China--I kid you not--but he dropped them in favor of pursuing the fantasy economics angle. I understand this may be in large part due to the need to limit his scope. Maybe if Memewar ever did a money-themed issue, Thorblood the Shaman could do a follow-up report.

--Sarah Lawrence

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Memewar: "Obituaries"

I've always enjoyed the short pieces that you find towards the backs of magazines. Not only are they manageable for time-pressed college students, they tend to be concentrated versions of what the rest of the magazine is all about. For Memewar, the fake "Obituaries" follow the issue's theme, though sometimes in roundabout ways, are humorous if sometimes in questionable taste, and will sometimes pursue points made in full-length pieces.

Issue 12: Childhood has obituaries for Hobbes (killed in a tragic sledding accident, survived by Calvin), Pope Benedict XVI (a wishful thinking obituary praising him for cracking down on child molestation), and "Peter Pan" with a picture of Michael Jackson (he's an odd mix of the character and the rock star). You have an icon of childhood, a man who ought to be , and the boy who never grew up/a very childish man. Behind the "newspaper clippings" are dinosaur magnets and a hand-drawn picture "for mom + dad."

Issue 11: Games has obituaries for the host of Jeopardy! (key nouns are described as they would be on the show), Tiger Woods (the theme mirrors that of an article that describes the wide gulf of difference between expecations of male and female athletes), Karvelg the Orc Warrior (goes with an article about economics in World of Warcraft), and Mr. John Boddy (last seen with Misters Green, Plum, & Mustard, and Misses Scarlett, Peacock, and White). There's a ticket to the Special Olympics in the back ground to reflect an article about disabled athletes.

The "Obituaries" are amusing enough on their own, but I actually didn't realize that each one relates to a different piece in the magazine until a third reading. I think that, along with providing a little humor to allevieate the effects of the creative pieces (why is so much creative writing depressing, anyway?), the "Obituaries" help bring a kind of closure to the magazine as a whole. Just like the concluding paragraph of an essay, it brings up themes from what has come before and juxtaposes them to give the reader a better sense of the overall picture.

--Sarah Lawrence

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Wizard, the Lover, and the Ghost---Jen G.

In the White Edition of The Fairytale Review, I came across a rather intriguing and wholly confusing story called "The Wizard" by Dara Wier. The narrator goes into a stream of consciousness, beginning with the present where they are enjoying their solitary work in nature, then jumping backwards and forwards into time as they turn their thoughts into a dialogue with a lost love. This lover, however, takes on multiple roles throughout the story as the living lover, a god-like figure, a ghost, and the stranger, culminating in the overarching and titular character of the wizard. Wier does an admirable job at reproducing the memory breakdown of a surviving partner; the narrator has a certain defiance at the beginning of the story, and dreams "of another another world, a world uninhabited by humans" (125). As the narrator begins to remember their lost lover, however, the structure breaks down, and the reader is plunged into a stream of memories, regrets, and other emotions. With each memory, the lost lover takes on a new role, and sometimes changes character within a few examples. When the narrator says, "With you in mind I work to continue with what we had started before you departed. With you in mind when my spirits pale I go on. There are ways in which what I do conflicts with what I know you'd intended" (125), the lover becomes a Muse, a ghost, and then an almost god-like presence, directing the will of the mourning narrator. Admittedly, I had never really thought about the different roles a partner plays, or at least in the manner that Wier presents them. When I had first read the piece, I thought the narrator was the wizard due to the "work" and "experiments" they are constantly working on; by the end, however, the narrator becomes a lonely, almost bitter person, whose thoughts are dominated by memories of their lost lover.
Overall, "Wizard" is, at times, overwhelming with the details but paints a poignant and fairly thorough picture about loss and reflection in a stream of fragments.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Memewar 12: "Glass Coffin," Lucile Barker

I'm a fairy tale aficionado (see what I did there, Jen G.?), so I was immensely pleased that the latest issue of Memewar had a childhood theme and just happened to include a few fairy tale related pieces.

I mentioned this one in my post on the table of contents, where I said that I wasn't sure if this was fiction or non-fiction. I'd say it was fiction just because the writer's name is different from the main character's, but I've fudged even my own name in some pieces that I played fast and loose with in order to respect privacy or feel less guilty about fudging events for dramatic effect.

Anyway, young Maggie lives in a practically post-apocalyptic industrial valley full of pollution and smog, and she seems to be allergic to almost everything airborne. Her only relief comes from nasty medicine and a strike on the town factory. When things get really bad after some neighbors push her into a patch of ragweed, Maggie ends up in a hospital in an oxygen tent/iron lung (conflicting descriptions, so not sure which), her "Prince Charming" the doctor and her "Wicked Stepmother" the mother superior who has no patience for crying.

I found the fairy tale link very interesting, since it's not a retelling but an attempt to link a fairy tale to something that resembles real life. Structurally, the story felt a little anticlimactic. For the first half of the story, Maggie is free but very limited by her illness, and for the second half she is getting into and waking up to her confinement in the oxygen tent/iron lung. The only thing that brings it full circle--and this it does nicely--is a final line that refers to the opening line, in which the narrator says that seeing babies in carriers with plastic covers reminds her of the times she was trapped inside. I admire the way the connection is made, but I feel as though the story pretty much just drops off with the last line as an excuse to end it. This isn't the first time Maggie has been to the hospital or the last, so there aren't really any heightened emotions. It's just routine, except that she felt as though she died before she was taken there. There's an odd contradiction between the fairy tale imagery, which would seem to suggest that she's trying to make sense of a new place, and her resignation--rather than fear or sadness--that she's back in the hospital.

My favorite line: "I liked Snow White best. ... My grandfather had worked at a coal mine when he was in college, so I could relate to a girl who hung out with the working class even if they were short and didn't seem to be union members."

I also want to throw out there that I love the illustrations accompanying this story. There are three, all of which have a cute red headed girl/young woman in different medical machines: an iron lung, a wheelchair, an oxygen mask. The bright colors of her hair and clothing contrast with the dull greys of the medical devices. I had a friend in elementary school who made sure she got purple head gear for exactly this reason: so that she was not just someone to be pitied, but someone who was making the best of a bad situation. She'd often hang beads, key chains, and flowers from the frame to jazz it up. Being confined to a wheelchair doesn't change childhood dreams. If anything, in the mind of an imaginative child, it might even make them more brilliant.

--Sarah Lawrence

Memewar: A Motley Crew of Contributors

While I usually love this page in a literary magazine, Memewar's is driving me up the wall!

First, let me provide examples of contributor pages that I enjoy. Mental _floss, which is essentially the most awesome trivia magazine you will ever get your paws on, provides three or four brief bios of major guest writers. All are written in a quirky or humorous tone and are as fun and weird as the rest of the magazine. The Sun, a literary magazine whose contributors seem to live with their minds wedged in the gutter (rare was the story not about sex (wait, was that why my aunt thought it'd be a good college subscription?)), had very uniform artist and contributor bios, succinct but interesting. Every artist and writer was covered.

Memewar, on the other hand...aiyah! There is no rhyme or reason whatsoever. Some bios are funny, some informative, some dry. Some are formal ("Y is a graduate of A now pursuing B") and one is extremely informal ("X's...poetry rocks."). Most are in the third person, one is in the first person, and one is written in poor verse ("I must write my life story! / But a bio won't quite fit my life. I'm so sorry").

I don't believe that these bios are representative of the artists' personalities, which is the only reason that I could imagine for the mishmash. Several are stiff and formal compared to the piece contributed, and I highly suspect that these bios are standard blurbs intended to fit "any" literary magazine (Memewar does seem quite quirky). What annoys me the most, though, is the complete lack of logic to which artists get bios. Not all four major contributors are represented. Some artists have bios but not others, and there doesn't seem to be any correlation between the amount, genre, length, style, or quality of the art and the artists who got blurbs.

Memewar, can I have a little consistency please?

--Sarah Lawrence

Memewar: Table of Contents

It's such a little thing, but it really makes the whole magazine more accessible. The four primary pieces of writing have a separate table of contents with a two to three line summary of the story, while there's a regular table of contents right across the binding with just the title and author or artist listed. While I can see why not every piece has a summary--it could get quite long, and I'm not sure how you'd summarize images or poetry--the descriptions give enough of a preview to convince me that a story like issue 11's "Investing in Gold: Orcs, Farmers, Warcraft, and Economics" might actually be an interesting read. This is especially important in a magazine like Memewar, which covers a wide variety of genres. When we read "A Statistical Abstract of My Hometown" in McSweeney's, I knew that the statistics would be part of a story--but in Memwar a piece of that name might very well be exactly what it says on the label.

There are two other things I would like to see added to the contents. First, I would love it if genre was included. I enjoyed "Class Coffin" immensely but am not sure whether it's supposed to be fiction or nonfiction. This did not hamper my enjoyment of the piece, but I would have liked a solid idea about whether or not the titular object is imagined or an actual medical device, like a pressure chamber. Second, I'd love a list of photographers and artists right up front with the written work. Some story illustrations are listed with the writer, but not all; artist names appear next to most of the images in the magazine, but not all; and only a few of those artists have brief bios on the "Contributors" page.

--Sarah Lawrence