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It’s-A-Me, Ishmael

March 25, 2015 | by

Can Nintendo tell a proper story?

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From The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.

Nintendo and Netflix may be developing a Legend of Zelda TV series, the Wall Street Journal recently reported; or, as Time reported even more recently, they may not. Behind the will-they-or-won’t-they speculation lies a more complicated question: Can they? Do games like these bear expansion into full-fledged stories?

At first glance, a Zelda series seems like a savvy move: HBO’s Game of Thrones has proven that there’s high demand for vaguely medieval fantasies, of which Zelda—a franchise that made its debut in 1986, and that’s grown to include roughly seventeen games—is a prime specimen. And since Nintendo has gradually been losing its share of the video-game market for the past fifteen years, it has every reason to find other ways to wring more value from its globally recognizable intellectual property.

But games don’t translate as easily to TV or film as you might think. In his 2010 apologia Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, perhaps the most thorough defense to date of video games as art, the journalist and essayist Tom Bissell explains why: “The video-game form,” he writes, “is incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative progression.” Unlike books and films, games require challenge, “which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression.” Read More »

The Not-so-open Road

January 20, 2015 | by

Hoarding books across the country.

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Photo: Frank Kovalchek, via Flickr

Fourteen years ago, my mom bought herself a Volkswagen Jetta, and this Christmas she passed it on to me. My girlfriend Sheena and I did what anyone would: we packed our bags and set a course for Iowa.

What I mean is that we took an old-fashioned road trip, from Minneapolis to San Francisco, and Iowa City was our first port of call. If Sheena and I had set out in the summer we might have shot straight west into South Dakota and beyond, but in winter our rusting station wagon seemed about as likely to make it through the Rockies as to successfully invade Russia. Instead, we drove south through Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma, in search of warmer climes and easier roads. People sometimes complain that the Midwest is too flat, but that quality has its consolations. Mountains, like high heels, are attractive but impractical—especially in the snow. Read More »

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The National Writer

June 10, 2014 | by

Chinghiz Aitmatov and the literature of Kyrgyzstan.

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“Chyngyz Aitmatov and his arts,” a series of Kyrgyz postage stamps.

Six years ago today, when pneumonia claimed the life of the Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov, I learned about it the old-fashioned way: from a man weeping in the streets.

I don’t mean to imply that all of Kyrgyzstan had thrown its hands up in despair at the loss of its best writer and most famous native son, though I wouldn’t have blamed them if they had. I just happened to come across an old man—an ak cakal, or “white beard,” as the elderly there are known—sitting next to a small radio on a park bench, letting tears run down his face as he listened to the news. I’d been living in Kyrgyzstan for a year at that point, halfway through a tour in the Peace Corps; my Kyrgyz was not so sharp that I could clearly understand the radio, but it was more than good enough to ask the man if everything was all right. In response, he lifted a tattered copy of Aitmatov’s novel Jamila toward me and whispered, “He’s gone.”

It’s hard to overstate Aitmatov’s importance to Kyrgyzstan’s national identity. In my time there, new acquaintances regularly quizzed me on the country’s national this and national that. Kyrgyzstan’s national food? A fried rice dish called plov. The national music? Anything played on the ukulele-like komuz. The national writer? Chinghiz Aitmatov, obviously. (My younger English students had a hard time understanding why I couldn’t as quickly recite the United States’ national writer, et al.) December 12, the author’s birthday, is celebrated nationwide as Chinghiz Aitmatov Day. After Kyrgyzstan gained independence, Aitmatov represented the young country as an ambassador to the European Union, NATO, and elsewhere. “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life,” Scott Horton wrote for Harper’s shortly after the writer died, “was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.” Read More »

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Without Compunction

May 20, 2014 | by

Doing verbal battle at the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships.

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An illustration from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, from the late fourteenth century. (No pun included.)

The only thing harder than crafting a good pun is finding someone to appreciate it. It’s not that puns are universally reviled—though their critics make it seem that way. It’s just that for every person who loves a clever play on words, there exists another who absolutely despises them; in mixed company, puns are, along with politics and religion, best left alone. If only there were an app that could match people by their senses of humor. Tinder? I barely know ’er!

If it’s difficult to pun profitably in the United States, it’s all but impossible in Mexico, where I’ve been living for the past year. Here I’m limited somewhat by my imperfect Spanish, but also by a lack of fellow punning linguists. There’s not even a word for pun in Spanish, which made it difficult to explain to friends here that after ten months of wasting my presumably hilarious wordplay on their apparently deaf ears, I’d bought myself a ticket to Austin, Texas, to compete in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. Despite its grandiose name, there is no qualifying round ahead of this “championship,” and, with the exception of a lanky Englishman in a chicken suit, all the participants were American.

“So a pun is like a play on words?” a Mexican friend asked before I set out, using the Spanish phrase juego de palabras, that most dictionaries list as the translation for “pun.”

Well, yes, I said, but it’s a specific kind of play on words. I tried to find an example, but I hadn’t realized until that moment just how difficult it is to come up with puns on the spot. The example I offered, which defined the exchange of sex for spaghetti as pasta-tution, didn’t translate as well as I’d hoped. Read More »

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