Writing for Readers who Love Reading – Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler”

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‘The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” From Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, quoted in the film Stranger than Fiction.

I first encountered If on a winter’s night a traveler when I was stationed in Japan onboard USS Blue Ridge, reading voraciously during my free time at sea in an effort to prepare myself for college once my hitch was up. Published in Italian in 1979, Calvino’s masterpiece had just been translated into English. Did I come across it on a visit to the foreign literature section of Maruzen bookstore in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district? Did my sister who was working on a master’s degree in literature send a copy to me? I don’t recall. But by the time I was a few chapters into it, I sensed that I was reading a book that would endure among the important works of postmodern literature. An “anti-novel,” some have called it, for the rules of narrative it challenged and broke. When writers and literature professors caution that readers should avoid asking the question, “What is this piece of writing about?” this is the kind of writing they have in mind.

As such, the fragmented journey Calvino takes readers on is not everyone’s cup of tea. An otherwise positive 1981 New York Times review concluded by pouting that the book contains “…a sadness of its central subject, the absence of the artist, Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky…” whom the reviewer appreciated for the more linear plots they crafted.

Nevertheless, notice the names on the list Calvino’s work was being compared to: Giants.

Some years ago Barbra and I came across the film Stranger than Fiction, the story of one Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who comes to realize that he has become trapped in a novel as the protagonist and that his life is being whimsically determined by the novel’s author. In his attempt to extricate himself from this predicament, Harold ends up in the office of literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who, swinging on the pivotal phrase “Little did he know…,” offers Calvino’s observation that ‘The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death'” and observes that Harold’s first task is to figure out whether the novel in which he is entangled is a comedy or a tragedy. This is one of our favorite films, and I suspected that Barbra would love Calvino.

And so we finally got around to reading If on a winter’s night a traveler, taking turns chapter by chapter against a Chignik Lake background of darkening fall nights, hot cups of tea and a little chocolate.

If on a winter’s night is packed with quirky juxtapositions, startlingly inventive metaphors, precise language, a metaphysical examination of the act of reading and light romance. These elements are masterfully woven together, if not by a plot, exactly, then by threads that pull the reader ever deeper into a literary mystery about a literary mystery. There, I used the word “about.” That’s enough. This is a book that will delight and fascinate readers who love to read.

Point Hope, Alaska: Traditional Inupiat Dancing and Drumming

The dancers in this short video are 6th grade students at Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. They are performing traditional songs and dances, passed down through the generations, sung in their native language.

The annual school Christmas program in Point Hope is a little different than in most communities. Yes, there are seasonally popular songs and carols, but many of them are sung in Inupiaq, the language of the Tikigaqmuit, the Inupiat Eskimo people of this small whaling community on the edge of the Chukchi Sea. There is also lots of drumming, singing and dancing performed according to traditions that extend back in time beyond memory. The drums – which resonate much more loudly than one might suspect them capable of at first glance – are made from material such as the membrane of sea mammal organs stretched over wooden frames. The beautiful mukluks (boots) many of the participants wear are hand sewn from seal, caribou, beaver and other natural materials.

The dances celebrate the past and the present. Aaka Irma (Irma Hunnicutt), who volunteered her time to come to our school and teach the students these dances, has an honored place as an elder in this village. Although the students speak mainly English in their day-to-day lives, these celebrations give them the opportunity to honor their language and heritage. This is a place where traditions are still passed down generation to generation; where some of the clothing and much of the food is still provided by the surrounding land and sea; where traditions are alive and vibrant and honored.

On this occasion, the students and Aaka Irma invited their classroom teacher to dance with them.

Paul Klaver’s Short, Power Film, Eloquently Captures an Ecosystem

Paul Klaver’s 13-minute film, Alaska the Nutrient Cycle beautifully captures the critical role wild salmon play in sustaining a rich, diverse ecosystem. Unscripted but with beautiful background music, this breathtaking footage speaks for itself. This is why wild salmon and their environments are worth fighting for, and illustrates why we oppose farmed salmon.