High school student sneaks into Iraq for school project

Sixteen year-old from Florida claimed he was "going the extra mile" for his experiment in "immersion journalism."

"The Word" by Vladimir Nabokov

New Yorker fiction -- December 26, 2005 & January 2, 2006 issue

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A sumptuous feast of language, a glorious celebration of magic and transcendence, a completely surreal, psychedelic, short, precocious, nearly humiliating display of writing virtuosity. In other words, just what I had hoped for.


Lan Samantha Chang interview, part II

Lan Samantha Chang, author of the acclaimed book of stories, Hunger, and a novel, Inheritance, that was ten years in the writing (see? stop stressing out, people!), will become the Director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the start of the next term, just a few weeks from now. In the middle of preparing for yet another move, this time from Harvard back to her native Midwest, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us. It's exciting to have Sam heading back to town!

What is the first thing you did or will do as director?

Since I'm not the director until January 10, 2006, I haven't officially done anything yet. But it was my pleasure last spring to invite George Saunders to judge the Iowa Short Fiction contest. He will also read and give a masterclass on campus in spring, 2006.

What will the program be like under your direction?

The most important activities at the Workshop are writing, teaching, and learning. With this in mind, I'd like to support our most signficant resources, our students and faculty. I look forward to working with the university administration to locate funding for visiting faculty and financial aid. Thanks to the administration, the UI Foundation, and generous donors, we will begin Fall 2006 in an expanded facility. The expansion will include two more seminar rooms, four office/classroom spaces, and the Schaefer Library, which will provide meeting and reading space for up to 100 people. The library will have high ceilings and wood floors. It will be furnished with couches, tables and chairs, and a coffee machine.

Many former fiction students valued Frank's direct, unstinting, no-sugar-added method above all else. How does Frank's passing affect the palette of pedagogical styles at the Workshop? In other words, is anyone going to bluntly and publicly kick the asses of those who might benefit from it, or is that in the past now?

Frank is irreplaceable, and his passing will certainly be felt in workshop, but I don't believe that he has taught in vain. Hundreds of his former students, all over the country, think of him every time they enter the classroom. In my own teaching, I honor Frank's method, but I will admit that I do include positive remarks.

What do you think of the suggestion of mandating that the faculty hold office hours and meet with each student individually after their workshop, as you do?

I don't mandate individual student conferences for myself, and I don't plan to mandate them for the other faculty. My students always have a choice as to whether they'd like to meet with me or not. Many of them choose not to, and I respect this.

What about the TWF system? Is there any possibility of assigning financial aid for two years to eliminate the need for reapplying and the awkwardness of uneven distribution that sometimes results? Or is that kind of competition good for writing?

Ah, this is a good question. Currently, the way in which our program receives funding from the University and is given TA positions from different departments makes it necessary that we reassign funding in the second year. In the next few years, I will look into this system
and see if there is anything I can do. Frankly, I think it would improve the Workshop if all students received full and equal financial aid. It's up to Workshop alumni, donors, and the University to help bring this about.

Since so many students end up teaching creative writing studio for the English Department, what would you think of a kind of "boot camp" seminar that would give everyone at least a ground-level familiarity with the mechanics and terminology of poetry and fiction? The big stack of materials our class got seemed unwieldy.

Stay tuned on this--I'm aware of the situation and I'm definitely going to undertake an investigation.

Do you plan to retain the Workshop's focus on writing and the de-emphasis on the formal bureaucratic processes found in most graduate programs?

For the past seventy years, the Workshop has given our country an outsized percentage of its most accomplished and farsighted poets and novelists. As a Workshop graduate, I have enormous love for the place both as an institution and as an potent--and, in certain necessary ways, untamed--community where much of the work that takes place is undeniably mysterious. In other words, the work in this place has thrived to some extent because people are left alone. I don't want to enforce strictness on the creative process. However, I would like to encourage everyone in this community to think about the needs of his or her own artistic education. I want you all to feel free to take what you need from our rich community and its unmatched resources.

What are you working on in your own writing now?

I've been thinking a lot about the passage of time, which is, they say, the novelist's true subject. This fall, before a spate of traveling for the paperback of Inheritance, I wrote a 10,000 word draft about two characters who find themselves in a troubling love affair in which they are separated by time. I am waiting to see if this fragment will eventually grow into part of a novel or whether it would be best as something short.

Here is Part I of the interview, back in February 2005.

Your Christmas presents

Earth Goat is about to turn one! It's been a lot of fun, and as a thank-you to all who have read and contributed, here are some original versions of Christmas carols and songs, created last weekend by Grendel and Traca de Broon (who only posts here in invisible pixels). What would happen, we wondered, if we combined an antique toy piano, some kazoos, wine, beer, jingle bells, a bodhran, and audio software?

In the interest of serving humanity, we decided to find out ...

Download all songs (9.5MB - Zip file)
Download all songs (9.5MB - StuffIt file)

* If you know the real name of this piece of music, please post it in a comment.

(c) 2005 A Kazookeepers Recording. Produced by The Mad Little Elves. All arrangements by Da Broon and Grendel.


"Twenty Grand" by Rebecca Curtis

New Yorker fiction -- December 19, 2005 issue

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Retrospective child narrator, vigorous plot, nice characterization, and okay writing combine here to make up a pretty solid story, but one I do have a few problems with. It's a story of poverty and desperation leading to a tragic mistake -- perfect for Christmas in that "Gift of the Magi" way -- but it's the specifics of the mistake that I wasn't quite sold on.

There is a coin, an old Armenian coin, that the narrator's mother has.
It was silver and heavy. One one side was a man with a craggy profile, a square crown, and one sleepy, thick-lidded eye, and on the other was a woman. The woman was voluptuous, wearing a gown, and holding something in her outstretched hand -- maybe wheat. The coin wasn't a perfect circle, and its surface was pocked. But it had been my mother's mother's, and she kept it in her purse.
Never mind the fact that she keeps this one keepsake from her mother in her purse, or that her mother never told her just how valuable it is. I can swallow that. I'm not sure I can swallow the fact that, despite the story being all about how poor the family is (the father works away on a military base, where he often stays, and they have to pass through a toll-booth to visit him to weasel $5 more bucks from him for groceries), she never once had the coin appraised. Oh, but her husband did. He found out it was worth ... have you guessed? Twenty grand. But he never told her this, despite their poverty. And he let her carry this thing around in her purse. Okay? I did mention the toll-booth, I believe.

Also, I wasn't aware that single-parent military families in the 1970s were so poor they suffered chronic, serious food insecurity. Why are they so poor? Only two kids, and the land their house is on was given to them free by the husband's mother...

So - but this is a neat little plot. But to have a neat little plot, you'd better get things like motivations and plausible actions down cold. Is this situation plausible? I just don't quite think so, and it somewhat ruins the otherwise good story for me. And maybe there were Armenian coins worth $20,000 in 1979, but this morning, the most valuable coin on eBay? Buy It Now for $14,500. I'm not saying ... I'm just saying.

Otherwise the piece is pretty absorbing. It has a sweet last line. The obsession with the coin leads the parents to leave the kids at the toll plaza long enough for them to escape and try to go to McDonald's (with what money? never mind) and be picked up by a couple who listen to their exaggerations about how poor they are and they've only had crackers to eat. Kids missing ... suddenly $20,000 fades in importance. But the kids are found immediately and there is a comic police station scene. All enjoyable. But... I just can't get past the fact that the author didn't convince me about that damned coin.


MFA / Iowa bashing

Sometime commenter Saltwater Farmer alerts us to this article in the New York Press by Sam Sacks, a freelance writer in NYC. Pretty much rehashes every complaint ever made about MFA programs, but also says Iowa's laurels are getting dusty: "...with the possible exception of Marilynne Robinson, who teaches there, no major writer has come out of the Workshop in decades."

Bill O'Reilly, novelist

As Brando points out in his "Bill O"Reilly's Brain Flees Body" post on Circle Jerk, The Factor's host has written a ... has written ... written a ... a .... novel.


Random advice from the trenches

I just finished Kazantzakis's marvelous Last Temptation of Christ, and boy are my arms tired. The House of the Seven Gables is a wonderful mystery, as is the apparent scarcity of editors in the 19th century. A hundred pages into Bleak House finds me hoping all the lawyers on this blog have read it or plan to, as it involves a legal case so hopelessly complicated and wretched with "bedevilment" that nobody knows what it involves anymore, except fees.

But a dog may well show up on the porch with his front paw somehow thrust up through his collar, his wrist hanging comically over that collar, looking for all the world like Paul Lynde dropping a bon mot, except with a more humiliated, impatient expression. A year and a month into a microwave's one-year warranty, it's time for its light to stop working, and no it's not the bulb, and it may take three visits by a man who literally cannot speak, except to sort of snuffle through his nose and beard, to fix it, after having ordered the wrong part, and when he comes back he may well have forgotten his laptop's cord again, and be unable to look up the right part, again.

When my wife sneezes once, we say she's had a cold and understand that very soon I will be off on a four-day TheraFlu/NyQuil Magic Carpet Ride, in the middle of which will be the suddenly remembered Provincetown application deadline, precipitating hilarity. It's a good idea to proofread such materials before cheerfully dropping them in a mailbox, and not after you come home and collapse on the bed. When you turn a built-on afterthought of a kitchen pantry into a new bathroom, make sure the workers remember to create a barrier between its floor and the -1 degree outside air, or your feet and the waterlines are likely to freeze. Snow on the deck makes that deck part of the yard/toilet system, according to dogs, and a Robomaid skittering about the floors is just as fiendishly interesting and objectionable as a squirrel.

It's pretty bad, I guess, when the mailman leaves a note asking you to shovel the path to your mailbox. Also it seems that furnace filters need to be changed more than once every six months. It would have been a good idea for the previous owners of a house to have placed the thermostat in a different room from the fireplace -- that way the fireplace would be a useful appliance, rather than a method of freezing every other room. There are better ways to wake up at 5:52 than to the sound of a dog vomiting, and better things, surely, for dogs to have in their stomachs than sketchy green foam.

Don't laugh "that" hard when your Methodist grandmother tells you she just bought a new car, a bright red Catholic. When painting a wall, try to remember to keep the freshly filled roller tray, which you have for some reason decided to hold in your other hand, level while you're bitching to your wife about something, especially if you don't bother to cover the new tile floor with a tarp first. And don't place a Styrofoam take-out box, heavy with Hamburg Inn #2 mashed potatoes and gravy, on the passenger-side dashboard right before your wife takes off down a pothole-strewn alley, unless you need a way to get dogs to lick your pants, and try to remember to wear different pants the next day, or your dog's resumed licking will make it your turn to wear the humiliated, impatient expression. Finally, check the labels before putting your wife's sweaters in the dryer, except when you are trying to make doll clothes.

Update: Before blogging on Trash Day morning, remember to take out the trash.


The Political Compass

If you ever wondered where you fall on the political map, take the test at The Political Compass and find out. It only takes about ten minutes, and then you get to see, in a fascinating four-quadrant graph, where you would fit among several examples of world leaders. Going beyond the simplistic left-right economic spectrum, it adds a social authoritarian-libertarian axis.
Surprising: George Bush (and John Kerry!) are actually to the right of Adolph Hitler on the economic axis, but more libertarian. Ariel Sharon and Hitler aren't that much farther apart than Stalin and Saddam! Not surprising: I'm pretty much opposite of W -- down there in the Left-Libertarian camp with Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela (and, presumably, though he's not shown, Jesus). I scored a -5.75 / -5.13. If you ever wondered what those numbers are at the bottom of some posts and comments on DailyKos, this is what they mean.

Could require a small grain of salt when it comes to world leaders -- the site claims they were plotted by plugging in their public positions and actions. Very interesting that the bottom-left is where we find several heroes of religion, class struggle, and civil rights, but it's the upper-right where you find American politicians. Some cool supporting material in the FAQ, including praise from economic, poli-sci, and law professors who make their students take the test as a starting point for discussions. The test itself is impressive in its simplicity and ability to make you really think about where you stand on certain issues and statements.


Vollman on editing himself

From Michael Wood's review of Europe Central and Expelled from Eden, in the December 15, 2005, "New York Review of Books."

Vollmann, born in 1959, has published eight novels (four of which are part of his Seven Dreams series, a historicofictional account of the settlement of North America), three collections of stories (including The Atlas), a memoir about his experiences in Afghanistan, and an extraordinary seven-volume, two-thousand-plus-page meditation on violence called Rising Up and Rising Down (2003). In 2004, he produced an abridgment of this last work (just 726 pages, not including the acknowledgments) and the tone of his preface makes clear why it is so easy to like him and also why you might not want his company all the time. "The longer version of Rising Up and Rising Down," he says, "took me twenty-three years, counting editorial errands. The abridgment took me half an hour." And:

"The single justification which I can offer [for the length of the original version] is that I believe it needed to be that long. This abridgment likewise has only one justification: I did it for the money. In other words, I can't pretend (although you may disagree) that a one-volume reduction is any improvement upon the full version. All the same, it's not necessarily worse. For one thing, the possibility now exists that someone might read it."

The complete review, which I didn't finish, is here.

Black Sabbath finally inducted into Rock Hall of Fame

Ozzy, though, couldn't give a flying fuck, as he finds the R&RHoF "totally irrelevant."

I knew something was up with Sabbath. This weekend we signed up for iTunes, and the first song I downloaded for our hearthside jukebox was "Heaven and Hell," from their majestic post-Ozzy release Heaven and Hell, which I hadn't heard in more than 20 years due to it was Gwarbot's vinyl. I must say, it held up admirably, Dio or no.


"Unresistant and frothy"

The Guardian has the complete excerpts of the nominees for this year's Bad Sex in literary fiction award. I was shocked to see Updike nominated. Shouldn't he have won a Lifetime Achievement Award by now? Anyway, do read. I'm rooting for Marlon Brando, or the one about the lobster.

Buy blue

If you haven't found Buy Blue, check it out next time you're thinking about holiday shopping. It keeps a database on which companies are naughty, which are nice. Just go to the site and type in a company name.

For example, if you're thinking of buying books, I noticed that Powell's gives 100% of its political contributions to Democrats, and Barnes and Noble gives 92% to Democrats. Amazon, which made the Buy Blue naughty list last year for giving 61% of its contributions to Republicans, has lately turned that around (58% to Democrats, via the Open Secrets Web site).

Apple and Gateway lean donkey, whereas Dell and HP have noticeable trunks.

Some others that lifted my eyelids:

Wendy's: 94% Republican
Burger King: 70% Republican
Arby's: 62% Democrat
McDonald's: 95% Republican
British Petroleum: 62% Republican
Chevron: 89% Republican
Exxon: 95% Republican
Anheuser Busch: 64% Republican

And if it's between Jack Daniels and Canadian Club for your Diet Coke, you'll want the Jack.


A Thanksgiving Prayer

by William Burroughs

"To John Dillinger and hope he is still alive.
Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986"

Thanks for the wild turkey and
the passenger pigeon, destined
to be shit out through wholesome
American guts.

Thanks for a continent to despoil
and poison.
Thanks for Indians to provide a
modicum of challenge and

Thanks for vast herds of bison to
kill and skin, leaving the
carcasses to rot. Thanks for bounties on wolves
and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream,
To vulgarize and to falsify until
the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK.

For nigger-killin' lawmen,
feelin' their notches.

For decent church-goin' women,
with their mean, pinched, bitter,
evil faces.

Thanks for "Kill a Queer for
Christ" stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition and the
war against drugs.

Thanks for a country where
nobody's allowed to mind his
own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for all the
memories -- all right, let's see
your arms!

You always were a headache and
you always were a bore.

Thanks for the last and greatest
betrayal of the last and greatest
of human dreams.


The few, the proud

And by that I mean those who stick to their convictions, even at great personal cost. My friend Dave Awl, performance artist extraordinaire, alarmingly between writing/editing projects in Chicago, just sent me the following email:
Just wanted to share a war story from the job hunt. Literally, as it turns out.

I got a call on Friday afternoon from one of the SEVEN staffing agencies I have now listed myself with. I was out running an errand when the call came, so the rep left a message and said she had a three-day position at an ad agency writing banner ads for Web sites, and I just needed to call and confirm that I was still available.

I'm saved! I thought. Finally a way to pay my rent this month. Whatever it is, wherever I have to go, I'll take it, I thought.

She did say in the message that I would need to be able to write in a "tough guy" tone of voice. That gave me a little pause, me being me, but I've had to do it a couple of times before. In August I had to write copy about Sears Craftsman tools for a NASCAR tie-in, so it was all this "winners never quit" stuff and I'd logged some experience trying to fake the sound of testosterone.

So I called the rep as quick as I could dial and told her I was still available.

That's great, she said. So, it starts on Monday. It's on-site work, writing banner ads for Web sites, and the client is ... wait for it ... the U.S. Marines.

Long pause while I beat my head against the desk. Then I explained as diplomatically as I could that I wasn't a good fit for this particular job, and thanks for thinking of me, etc.

And that's the only concrete offer of work I've had since we last talked.

I do have the consolation of knowing I'm not the only one who has turned this gig down. Yesterday I interviewed at yet another staffing agency, and the rep and I clicked pretty well, so we had a nice conversation. And I wound up telling her the story about the Marines job.

As soon as I said the words, "tough-guy tone of voice," her eyes got wide and she said, "I have that exact same posting!" She said that the ad agency hadn't been able to fill the position because no one would take it.

So at least it's nice to know that right now there aren't a lot of Chicago writers who want to convince teenagers to go get shot at in Iraq.

What a long way we've come since Sept. 11.
If you or anyone you know is looking for freelance writing, editing, or proofreading, check out his portfolio site. We go back a long way. He is a hilarious poet, raconteur, and real professional.


"The Year of Spaghetti" by Haruki Murakami

New Yorker fiction -- November 21, 2005 issue

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What in the hell is up with this "story"? Now, I have liked some of Murakami's New Yorker stories in the past -- they are at least always interesting -- but this is nothing more than a sketch, some ghost of an idea for a theme for something. Spaghetti as obsession, as loneliness, spaghetti as symbol of alienation and despair, spaghetti as the unruly mass of chaos it is better to swallow than face. Give me a break.

The narrator can't handle human interaction anymore. People disappear "into the shadows," but there is always spaghetti! A pleading phone call from the ex-girlfriend of a B team friend is the only action here, and our narrator begs off to cook some imaginary spaghetti, then regrets it later, pointedly invoking spaghetti as the stand-in for his loneliness. Curtain.

Come on! Boooo! And I don't blame Murakami. I mean, if I wrote a short sketch about, say, Hostess Cupcakes as a symbol for my shallowness, and my agent sold it to the New Yorker (stop laughing! this is theoretical), what am I going to say? No? Not unless I'm an idiot. "Nineteen eighty-three was the Year of Hostess Cupcakes..." Why the hell not! Print it, you magnificent bastards! Print thousands and thousands of copies, mwa haa haaa!

Or it could be I'm missing something. If so, please elighten me.


Before language there was still swearing

I don't know how much to trust a linguistics site unfamiliar with "interjection" (no "Schoolhouse Rock" in England, I'm afraid). Still, "infixes" was new to me. Are swear words really the only ones that get infixed?


Austin Wild Party 2006!!!

It's almost time! Come rock the casbah at the AWP conference in Austin TX. It's March 8-12, and beyond the plethora of poets and fiction writers from across the land, early headliners include Walter Mosley, the uber-tag team of Robert Boswell and Mrs. Boswell/Antonya Nelson, Kevin Clouther, Dagoberto Gilb, Hugh Ferrer, Chita Divakaruni, Tim O'Brien, Sarah Rogers, Denis Johnson, and your own El Gordo de Amore. An all-star group of Baby and Goat mafia assassins will discuss, fittingly, The Death of the American Novel, after which they will adjourn once, twice, and yes, three times!!! to warm desert nights brightened by Texan tequila concoctions and an epic throw-down set to Michael Jackson's "Beat It" against the MFA kids at both Texas State and UTexas (with El Gordo slaying on the axe!!!).

Register now and prepare to kick literary butt, mafia-ninja-style! We'll be hitting the mattresses at the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown (1800THEOMNI, mention conference for cheap rate), so bring your pens and Thompson guns.

Shareef he do like it!

Vollman, Merwin, Didion win NBAs

I'm shocked, shocked that an 800-page novel with footnotes has won for fiction. This will probably force me to seek out his shortest book and fearfully crack it open (anybody read him? El Gordo? Dunkeys?). But it's about time for Didion and Merwin, it seems. Here is the NYT take.


Submission stories

Suddenly realizing that I have dozens of stories just snoozing on my hard disk, I've started sending them out. The last time I did this was in 2003, with no acceptance, and once in 2004 which resulted in success. I looked over my Excel spreadsheet and realized more than half of the ones I sent out got personal rejections. This should have encouraged me, but instead I laid low for two years, maybe because of the hassle, or my own laziness, or maybe out of sullen, grumbling spite, I dunno, but in practical terms, it was stupid. Editors are not going to knock on my door and say, "Whaddya got?"

I'm interested in advice on what has worked for people and what hasn't. Who's had success recently, and how did that come about? Is getting published really a statistical proposition? What methods or schedules of sending stuff out have people come up with? How much time should a writer spend per week? How many simultaneous submissions do you feel safe having out at once? What's your cover letter like? What do you mention, what don't you mention? Even something like: do you staple the manuscript pages together or paperclip them? A few Goats edit journals -- what do you look for? What makes you set it aside immediately? Do you even read the cover letter?

Anything, anything ... I keep stumbling by accident on Goat bylines in magazines, and yet I hear over beers that people don't much bother sending stuff out. How can we all get published more?

Addendum: First, I'm kind of surprised just how many stories got written in the workshop years. And when I open them up now, after letting them lay fallow, what's wrong with them literally jumps out at me, and they're easy to edit. Their stems are visible now, when before I believe I was blinded by their foliage. If you haven't looked at your old stuff in a while, take some time and comb through it. You may be pleasantly surprised.


National Book Awards finalists

Any one read any of these? I feel some pull toward the Doctorow.

Unclear on the concept

Reality TV writers bust in on meeting, demand more payment.

Um ... if they are "reality TV" shows, why do they need writers?

While We're on the Subject...

I wonder what Nicole Richie's new novel is about? I'm sure it's sooper.

Who else? I bet Dick Cheney has a great novel of hideous evil lurking within him. Or Condie's hilarious novel--a comedy of manners. And Tyra Banks...the possibilities are endless. Who needs real writers anymore? Ghostwriters will do.

50 Cent, novelist

Need one say more?

p.s. Lapham going? I'm dying inside.

Harper's editor to retire

Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's, thinks it's time for him to begin at least three new writing projects that will take too much energy away from editing the 155-year old magazine. He is 70.


Barbara Boxer, novelist

I have not read this, and I doubt I will. It's just not my kind of book. But add this to Scooter Libby's novel (being hastily reprinted), and we have the makings of a trend, perhaps? Famous people become politicians because of name recognition, and now politicians become writers for the same reason? I keep seeing Newt Gingrich's alternative Civil War History novel at The Book End, too (Lee surrenders two years earlier). Both Boxer and Gingrich used "co-authors" -- at least Libby apparently did it on his own.

I suppose I'm mostly jealous and bitter.


Tony Swofford reading

The workshop grad and Jarhead (343 Amazon reviews?) author will read from his memoir tonight at 7, Prairie Lights. It will not be broadcast (anyone know why?). An interview may whet the appetite.

Let us recall a snippet from Michiko Kakutani's glowing review:
By turns profane and lyrical, swaggering and ruminative, ''Jarhead'' -- referring to the marines' ''high-and-tight'' haircuts, which make their heads look like jars -- is not only the most powerful memoir to emerge thus far from the last gulf war, but also a searing contribution to the literature of combat, a book that combines the black humor of ''Catch-22'' with the savagery of ''Full Metal Jacket'' and the visceral detail of ''The Things They Carried.''
I know at least a few folks are planning to shuffle down to the Atlas basement afterward to convene amid mojitos and, I predict, debate the movie more than the book. Come join us!


Amy Tan lecture

Englert Theater, 8 p.m., admission free. She's on Talk of Iowa this morning as well (AM 910) and will be meeting with workshoplets this afternoon.

Scooter Libby, novelist

Okay, even Scooter Libby found time to write and publish a novel. To those out there, myself included, who complain about not enough writing time . . . the book, called The Apprentice, has surprisingly good cover blurbage from both Washington Post and New York Times. And it's quite steamy, apparently, with "lavish dollops of voyeurism, bestiality, pedophilia and corpse robbery," according to an Amazon reviewer.


John Fowles, RIP

John Fowles, author of The Collector, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and two of my absolute, all-time favorite novels, Daniel Martin and The Magus, has died.

Girlcott prevails, A&F pull controversial shirts

This is actually pretty amazing. A group of teenage girls got together and brought down an Abercrombie & Fitch product line. Not sure where I stand with this. On the one hand, it's hard to rally behind t-shirts that say "Who needs brains when you have these?" and "I make you look fat." On the other hand, I find it hard to support censorship of anything. Surely there are more offensive t-shirts out there? Why stop with these? (Note that A&F pocketed a 31% increase in sales in October -- apparently not all girls were girlcotting -- and then decided to pull the shirts.)


.99/Song, .05/Page

Today's Times discloses that those Mom and Pop operations Google and Amazon are teaming to create the iTunes of the written word. Theoretically, this could mean more money for us, though I wouldn't start buying on credit yet.


Elizabeth McCracken interview

Elizabeth McCracken, author of Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry, The Giant's House (National Book Award Finalist), and Niagara Falls All Over Again (winner of the PEN/WINSHIP award), took time out from her busy schedule nibbling French cheese to answer a few Goatish inquiries.

EG: People in general miss you terribly. Where are you and Edward living now, and is there the equivalent of George's there?

EM: Until two weeks ago, we were living in an actual garret in Paris, around the corner from the Pompidou Centre. Eventually we decided that we'd exhausted that particular expat writer cliche, and moved into a mouse-infested farmhouse in the southwest of France. (We'll probably end up in Morocco, surrounded by drugs and young boys.) This house used to be a home for unwed mothers. Basically we moved because it's cheaper to rent an enormous house in the middle of nowhere than a 2 room apartment in the middle of Paris, plus we're hoping that we'll actually write something if there's nothing else to do.

We have not really explored the fleshpots of Duras (the nearest town). There is, however, a bar called Le Daquiri. I plan to go in next week and demand a PBR.

EG: You're often described as the greatest living writer of Elizabeth McCracken novels. What are you working on now?

EM: Well, I'm delighted that some people still think I hold the title--though I note, Corbin, that you steer clear of committing yourself on the issue. There actually is a dead writer named Elizabeth McCracken, who wrote some short stories and a few books but I think no novels. Once I appeared on a panel at a conference, and on the handout where they listed the participants' bibliographies, they listed her books under my name. This wouldn't have been so strange had they not also included the dates of publication after each one: 1912, 1921, etc.

Anyhow, I'm working on an Elizabeth McCracken novel.

EG: The last time I talked to Edward, he mentioned something about constructing a large puppet that wore a wig made out of your hair. Do you find that to be normal behavior? What was the deal in general with the puppet, and has Edward created anything else disturbing lately?

EM: It's not nearly as abnormal as you make it sound: it's only sort of a half wig, and I got a haircut for it--it isn't like he gathered the hair piece-by-piece off my pillow to weave it together. I got the haircut in Ireland, by the way, and explained to the woman who did it why I wanted to save the hair; when she finished, she said, "Himself will be t'rilled." Anyhow, it's more a mannequin than a puppet. She has glass eyes, which Edward bought in Prague: we were in an antique store, and I overheard him saying to the proprietor, "Do you have any glass eyes?" and I was just starting to think, "That is the most RIDICULOUS question I have EVER heard! You don't just waltz into a store and ask if they have glass eyes!" when I heard the man answer, "Yes. I have three in the back." This taught me a valuable lesson about judging the normality of Edward's behavior.

Since then he has made a wooden head named Harriet Halfhead, who is currently languishing in the backyard in the hopes she'll get some really good mold going. (Since it's Edward's project, I suppose I should say "mould.") And also he carved a death mask out of clay, and then had it cast, 2 copies in plaster and one in wax. For a while they were lined up on a table in our house in Iowa City, looking sort of like Martha and the Vandellas.

EG: What have you read lately that knocked your socks off? I was wondering if you'd read Tristan Egolf's Lord of the Barnyard yet. I thought of you as I excitedly started that book amid gales of laughter, but not when I quietly put it down halfway through.

EM: I am halfway through The Half Brother, a Norwegian novel, which was recommended to me by either Chris Merrill or Paul Ingram, I can't remember which. It's fantastic. Also I recently had the following humiliating conversation with my friend Paul.

Paul: What are you reading?
Me: Well, I'm nearly finished rereading my favorite Oz book.
Paul: Is it good? Should I read it?
Me: I hadn't realized how influential it was on my work. It's very strange. Did you know that the Tin Woodman's real name was Nick Chopper?
Paul [after a pause]: I thought you were talking about the Israeli novelist.

I would have sneeringly said, "That's pronounced *OZE" but I felt my ability to sneer had been seriously undermined.

EG: Any plans to come back to Iowa City for a visit or a semester of teaching?

EM: No immediate plans, anyhow, which is very odd. We were in Iowa three falls in a row--but the farmland in these parts looks sufficiently Grant-Woody. I'm not entirely sure what my plans are after May 26, after we get bounced from the unwed mother's home for summer guests. I'll always come back to Iowa City to visit, if not to teach.

EG: Did you happen to read the Ben Marcus article slamming Jonathan Franzen in Harper's last month? If so, what did you think? Should workshop grads be writing weirder stuff? In class you once said, "Write something STRANGE," and I've taken that to heart probably more than anything else.

EM: Not yet, dammit. I live off my friends' subscriptions to American magazines--they bundle them up, several at a time--so I'm several months behind.

EG: Do you still think about Frank when you're going over a manuscript? What was the best advice he ever gave you?

EM: When I was in Frank's class, people were always pointing out that if Kundera had written the story that was up that week, he would have done a much better job. (Lord, most of my classmates in that particular workshop were a real drag.) One day someone submitted a story that was largely about someone having sex in a patch of poison ivy. I swear to God, every single critic cited a different piece of literature about poison ivy, and how it was better than this particular story. They were probably right. When the discussion got to me, I said, "Well, the only people I know who wrote about poison ivy are Leiber and Stoller."

Frank looked at me with great affection, nay, admiration. He'd been silent the entire discussion. "Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber," he said to me. I nodded. Nothing more was said. It was as though we were alone in the room, and it remains of the great moments of my life.

(Note for people less hip than Frank 'n' me: Leiber & Stoll wrote "Hound Dog," as well as "Poison Ivy"--you know, "Late at night while you're sleepin'/Poison Ivy comes a-creepin'/A-roun-hou-hou-hound.")

I think I probably think about Frank more when I teach than when I write. He was so passionate about his students, so proud of them, believed so deeply in the workshop process and in The Workshop. If I bumped into him in the halls on a Tuesday when I was teaching there, he'd say something about the stories up in his class--"A real interesting story this week. I wonder if they'll get it." He was as interested in how things were going to go over as anyone else. He saw teaching absolutely as a calling, separate from the calling of writing. His belief that bad stories can get better, that young writers will write terribly before they write something interesting, that the whole ridiculous process of sitting around a table and discussing a piece of fiction as though the writer weren't there--well, because Frank believed in it, I can believe in it, too. And so I do.

The Onion doesn't cease, doesn't desist

In an email, occasional commenter "Chummy" points us to this delightful magazine cover, courtesy of The Onion, which was recently asked by White House lawyers (Harriet Miers?) to stop using the presidential seal.


Cracker Unplugged

David Lowry (of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) and Johnny Hickman (of Cracker) will be acoustically playing The Mill next Thursday, November 3, at 8 p.m. The last time I was at The Mill was for either Vampiro's or Segall's TalkArt. This show will certainly pale in comparison, but folks of a certain age will probably find it highly enjoyable -- the last time I saw Camper they were incredibly energetic, breaking as many strings as eardrums and hearts. Advance tickets are $15 at the Record Collector.


Poets Against the War -- Nov. 5

Sam Hamill's Poets Against War has called for an international day of poetry and consciousness-raising on November 5. The Iowa City event will be 3-5pm in Shambaugh Auditorium. Free, of course. For the current lineup, please check out this post on babies. Come on out if you're in town.

"Summer Crossing" by Truman Capote

New Yorker fiction -- October 24, 2005 issue

green light
For once, I'm sure this is a novel excerpt and not a short story, and for once, I couldn't care less. The writing here is striking, scrumptious, seductive -- all the more incredibly so when you think that he wrote this in 1943, at nineteen years old. The piece is proof that his talent was solid early on, and if the whole novel is this good, it is likely a good novel, Ms. Kakutani's review notwithstanding. She -- or Holly -- calls it "a smidge contrived" among other things. As if fiction by definition isn't. If Breakfast was his Gatsby, Crossing may be his This Side of Paradise -- not as brilliant, certainly, but enjoyable and admirable in its own right. The piece is worth reading for the sentence structure alone, or the mood alone, or the characterization alone.

The 17-column snippet here tells a simple story of an eighteen year-old girl named Grady's two love affairs, beginning with one in the present (with an inattentive parking lot attendant), flashing back to one from a previous summer (with a husband whose wife is pregnant), and returning to the present with the former events still fresh in mind. Grady is a darned advanced and independent young girl for the early Forties, and her tragic, almost masochistic taste in men forms the basis of her story. Yes, like Holly Golightly. So what?

The atmosphere of mid-century New York -- often combining seamlessly with Grady's interior monologue -- is as vivid and broad-stroked as a Hopper painting:
Since she had turned seventeen, however, she had liked only to walk around or stand on street corners with crowds moving about her. She would stay all afternoon and sometimes until it was dark. But it was never dark there: the lights that had been running all day grew yellow at dusk, white at night, and the faces, those dream-trapped faces, revealed the most to her then. Anonymity was part of the pleasure, but while she was no longer Grady McNeil, she did not know who it was that replaced her, and the tallest fires of her excitement burned with a fuel she could not name.
That last line could probably only be seriously written by such a young writer, but such occasional, mild purpleness for whatever reason just makes the piece more charming for me.

Grady's perceptions of people are both precise and dreamlike -- here she is on the topic of her ex-lover's pregnant wife:
She was a trifle of a person, like a seashell that might be picked up and, because of its pink frilled perfection, kept to admire but never put among a collector's serious treasures; unimportance was both her charm and her protection, for it was impossible to feel, as Grady certainly didn't, threatened by or jealous of her.
Using long sentences like that, Capote drums up a fairly funky rhythm, a slightly odd sytax, that sustains an unusual loping sound in the writing. Try this one, about her new interest:
Clyde Manzer's voice, grouchy with sleep but always fairly hoarse and furry, had some singular quality: it was easy to get an impression of whatever he said, for there was a mumbling power, subdued as a throttle left running, that dragged the slow fuse of maleness through every syllable; nevertheless, he stumbled over words, his pauses occasionally separating sentences so much that all sense evaporated.
Then a dash of dialogue, and then Clyde is rendered even more vividly with another, single, virtuoso sentence:
The four-lettered scholarship that carries a diploma in know-how -- how to run, where to hide, how to ride the subway and see a movie and use a payphone, all without paying, the knowledge that comes with a city childhood of block warfare and desperate afternoons when only the cruel and the clever, the swift, the brave survive -- was the training that gave his eyes their intensity.
Grady is pulled, anxiously but not reluctantly, into this man's control. She is willing to suffer through and forgive humiliation, indifference, lewdness -- pretty much anything -- in order to just be with him. She's young. It's simple. We've all been there, and we've all written about it, but the young Capote is writing in a fever dream here, the momentum carrying him into subtle, lyrical areas most writers either get bogged down in or skate over. No wonder Normal Mailer called him the most perfect writer of his generation.

Toward the end we start to get fairly cliche and simplistic metaphors as the story reaches a kind of New York afternoon in the park crescendo: a balloon for her love, a ship for their relationship, the big cats at the Central Park Zoo for her mysterious urges and longings, a 3-way mirror for her conflicted emotions. Somehow the sheer power of the writing slaps a fresh coat of paint on all of them, which still looks new after 62 years. I don't know how he does it, but I do know that he does do it. Maybe we have forgotten the beauty of clear-eyed sincerity. They don't make writing like this anymore.


Alter-ego reviewing

Michiko Kakutani reviews Truman Capote's new novel as Holly Golightly. Is this a new tack for Miss K? Will she review Philip Roth's new book as Nathan Zuckerman?

The War on Tourism

We're back Empire-side. The overall impression I am taking from the trip is that Europe is strengthening and moving forward with putting people first, while America is weakening and moving backward with putting criminal politicians and corporations first. Some sort of new breaking point surely lies ahead. Our paths are diverging.

First, Holland, where when you start a job you get six weeks vacation. If you get pregnant, you get three months paid leave. No one argues about these things. In fact, the issue in the news (here and in Britain) is how much to extend such benefits as self-evident contributors to actual family values (in Britain you currenty get six months maternity leave -- now going up to nine). Numerous political parties represent such citizen initiatives, and the government responds accordingly -- instead of having its hands tied by massively funded corporate lobbyists who, naturally enough I suppose, in their self-interest, don't want to give up a red cent in benefits, and who base their political power on fanning the flames among the most ignorant, fearful constituencies. It's just bracing to be in a place, however briefly, where the main things the people are concerned with are improving and expanding public benefits, transport, and rights -- instead of bogging down in the intricacies of incessant right-wing politics. America by comparison is terribly disfunctional.

The Netherlands remains among those at the forefront of tolerance and progress. It is hard to be a criminal in Holland. The police don't have to spend time and (macho) energy on "soft" drug users or prostitution. This opens up vast opportunities to focus on actual crimes with actual victims. Marijuana and magic mushrooms are grown, sold, taxed, and distributed within a well-organized and established system of coffeeshops and smartshops. Prostitutes have unions, safe, monitored areas to operate, and the same free health care as anyone. The dangers of such vices remain, of course, as they have everywhere since the beginning of time. The difference is that the society is not obsessed with spending huge sums of scarce money to hunt down, harass, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate those who engage in them. Instead, they "fence off" such activities and easily monitor them because they're now above ground. The police in the red light district patrol, watch over, and isolate trouble when it happens instead of simply treat it all as illegal. We strolled around these places for five nights and never once felt unsafe. Unsavory, perhaps, but never in danger. More to the point -- if you don't like it, don't go there. Holland is the actual land of the free and home of the brave. They should be able to sue us for usurping those terms.

As for Ireland, we were in Galway and Dublin, and the impression is a booming economy bent on continuing to transform the country from an impoverished traditional culture into a modern, wealthy one. Construction is everywhere, roads are being built and widened (with proud signs: "Paid for by the EU and the Irish taxpayer"), and stores are bigger, more varied, and open later. Progress is in the air. (Smoke is not, by the way. Unlike the situation in Holland, where you may as well smoke, you cannot smoke in pubs in Ireland.) We stayed with family in Dublin, where they have a bright, clean new rail link from the particular neighborhood to the city centre. Extending rail service into the suburbs cuts down on traffic, pollution, and fossil fuel use. Duh! It is a very strange feeling to be struck about the head so much by common sense. In Holland, too, they are beginning to restrict "big cars" from city centres. Because why in the world do you need to drive an SUV into the middle of a city? There are cars in these countries that are barely bigger than a riding lawn mower -- that can park in the bicycle areas. But mostly, of course, you don't need a car at all. Gas is taxed to the hilt, both reflecting the true cost of fossil fuels and acting as a disincentive to pollution and energy waste. Duh! Duh duh duh. The people we were with in both countries bestowed on us kind, sympathetic smiles (was there a hint of told-you-so pride? Hard to tell). I was patted good-naturedly on the back more than once when the topic of my country came up, when what I (and all of us) really deserve is a scowl and a swift kick to the bum.

So while Europe is moving aggressively forward into an era of sustainable, people-centered policies, their economies are booming, and the receipts are channeled back into furthering the progress. It's astonishing how strong the Euro has become. It's been less than four years since its introduction in Holland and Ireland. Remember how it was mocked in the beginning? Maybe even that wasn't newsworthy here. Well, in that short span of time the Euro has increased in value by 25% against the dollar -- roughly 6% a year. So it wasn't just from a social progress standpoint that it seemed I was a visitor from some backwater, dictatorial nation -- from an economic standpoint, I felt like a Guatemalan coming to America. "If we could only make Euros!" we kept saying.

And it all feels of a piece with the Bush era. The Furners are to be kept out, the Murcans kept in. Mordechai, the Israeli who owned the shoarma shop underneath us when we lived in Holland in 2001, has always wanted to move to Miami, because his sister is there and he thinks he could make shoarma popular there. "Is difficult now," he just told us. "You can be coming to the U.S., but only for short time, and is difficult to make shop there, and if you stay even one day more, you can never return again. Is too difficult." Difficult! A lifetime ban for overstaying a visa by one day. The harshness of merely visiting the US from Europe is legendary there -- photos, fingerprinting and so forth. The indignity alone of rough treatment has turned many a tourist Euro elsewhere. Meanwhile the newspapers here are not reporting how far behind we are falling compared to Europe with regard to standard of living, and the monetary policies are making it harder and harder to go experience the bloody thing for yourself. Stay here and read and swallow the lies that say we are okay in the good old USA. Buy a car, eat a cheeseburger, vote for Coke or Pepsi, watch TV -- but whatever you do, don't go to Europe.

Care for a final, mind-blowing stab in the eye? In Holland and Ireland, writers pay no taxes. That's so liberal, even I can't really agree with it. I mean, gimme all that stuff, but shouldn't I pay like anyone else? (Not that I would, heh heh, um, currently qualify...)



I'm blogging from the sanity/insanity capital of the world. We're here till Friday, then off to Ireland for two days, back to Iowa next Sunday.

All expectations for Amsterdam smashed. Had heard of crackdowns on coffeeshops, that you couldn't smoke weed in them anymore, that since the attack on Van Gogh's great-great-grandson, the whole nation is becoming less tolerant, etc. It's all a bunch of ballocks and rubbish. Everything is the same here and feels like it always will be and should be: Disneyland for Adults. The maturity of immaturity.

We heart the houseboat we're renting, just outside the red light district. Would post pictures but forgot digital camera. Kicking it old school with 35mm film. Today heading to Utrecht, our old stomping grounds. If anyone (bR!) sees Luka or the Real Grendel, tell them we miss them and drink to them several times a day. We hope the housesitter is doing a great job.

Getting rid of the Hurricane Housing link somehow took with it the Contributors list, will have to fix upon return to Evil Empire.

Quote of the day: "Oh, that's terrible." Irish fella on hearing our reply to his "Where you from?"


More on dogs

Jim, the guy retiling our kitchen floor, on the subject of dogs, as we watched The Real Grendel chase Luka around and around and around the yard:

"Now, these dogs are friendly, I don't have a problem in the world with them. But I had a job a while back at this house where the woman had just took in two pups from a litter of beagles. When I showed up next morning, the one had killed the other one. Just bit it till it died. She was crying, and she has a little boy with Down's syndrome, you know, and it was too much of a risk, so I went home and got my shotgun and ... well, killed it. Another time on a different job, I let myself in the gate and wasn't halfway to the house when something hit my ankle. I looked down and there's this growling mutt clamped onto my boot. I kicked it off and told the woman, look I'm not coming back here until that dog is put up somewhere, because if it's me against the dog, I'll give you one guess who's going to win. That very afternoon the dog got out and went down to the neighbor's and went after that guy in his own yard. Now that guy blew him away, just blew away that dog, so that didn't turn out to be a problem for me anymore. My neighbor has three huge St. Bernards, huge, huge dogs, and this tiny little girl, and they made a kind of saddle for the dogs, and that girl just rides one around like a horse till it gets tired, then they saddle up the next one, and so on. I love dogs."

Harold Pinter Wins Nobel

Thought I'd post this over here since this is where the Nobel discussions have been a-brewing.


NBA finalists

The John Roberts look-alike of American letters, one Mr. Grisham, announced the National Book Awards finalists this afternoon. Leading the pack in fiction is E.L. Doctorow's "The March," and the poetry front-runner appears to be the estimable W.S. Merwin, for "Migration."

But Doctorow Probably Won't Win the Cy Young

Awards. Awards. Everywhere. The Booker yesterday. The Nobel is tomorrow in the a.m. And here are the National Book Award nominees. I've had The March on the shelf for a while now and have been putting it off for reasons that baffle even me. Kim's copy of Veronica just arrived in the mail today.

I just hope somebody accepting one of these pulls out a cellphone they've stashed in the podium and calls their mom. Or whips out a Sharpie and autographs the trophy.

New York sends in the Egans

In the ongoing efforts to rebuild New Orleans, the City of New York has decided to send in my mother-in-law and brother-in-law, Daniel. Mom Egan will be doing public health nursing, while Dan is driving some kind of emergency relief vehicle.

Apparently, driving an emergency relief vehicle is quite high on the "cool" totem of jobs to have -- mainly because you get to decide how and where to deliver food and supplies. Dan drives around blasting Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to lift up the spirits of the locals (although, if I was in their position, I think "911 is a Joke" is a litle more appropriate). But, by all reports, people seem to like it. I see Dan as driving some kind of crazy ice cream truck.

In fact, he was on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour the other day -- driving along shouting "Free Food! Get Your Free Good Food!" in his most hilarious New York accent.

He says it's still a war zone, and the smell is incredible. But he seems to be in good spirits. Mom Egan arrives in the next few weeks.

"I'd call a cab because a cab would come quicker." -- Flavor Flav


Irish Eyes Are Winning Giant Prizes

John Banville won the Booker last night. Anyone read the book? Any good?

A frosty morning in hell

Pigs are flying, and lions are sharing hammocks with lambs. I know these things because Bono and U2 are playing a fundraiser for Senator Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum (R-PA). What in the bloody hell is going on with this? It's not April first... I can't figure it out.


Grace Paley out, Engle memorial in

According to the UI Arts Calendar, Grace Paley's reading for tonight is cancelled. Anyone know why? In its place, it seems, there will be a Paul Engle memorial reading. 8pm, Shambaugh, main library.

Nobel Drama?

Following up on last week's posts: Interesting scuttlebutt surrounding the (apparently) delayed awarding of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.

Wear your love

Many of you might already know about this, but on the site for George Saunders' newest book - reignofphil.com - you can buy Reign of Phil t-shirts (you also get a handful of temporary tattoos with your purchase). T-shirts! I bought one of course, because I'm a GS dork, and I keep getting compliments when I wear it. It's so great to be able to say, oh, it's for a book. Bands have t-shirts, why shouldn't books? Check it out.



Since this was the place we had our big discussion about "No Country for Old Men," I thought it was the best place to recommend Percival Everett's new book "Wounded," which seems to take the same raw material and apply to it the exact opposite impulse. It's just as brutal but infinitely more human.


New Yorker College Tour

For those of you who are interested, the Iowa City schedule of events for the New Yorker College tour.


George Bush--master poet?

One of my students cited a quote from GB:

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda--"

in response to a discussion we're having about repetition and the villanelle form. Never have I been more pleased to hear from our illustrious leader. Now, it'd be interesting if he did adhere to more closely to the constraints of form (villanelle, sestina, pantoum.....) rather than just mocking them.

A History of Violence

I was very excited to discover that David Cronenberg has a new movie out. In college, I earned a tremendously valuable "Certificate in Film Studies," and the capstone was a long paper I wrote analyzing the films of David Cronenberg. Videodrome is one of my all-time faves. Loved The Fly, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, eXistenZ ... appreciated Scanners, The Dead Zone ... wasn't crazy about Crash (1996, not the one last year that rocked), but everyone is entitled to stumble.

I was horribly disappointed in A History of Violence. What happened to David Cronenberg? It's one thing to stumble, and quite another to dive off a roof. History is the most tedious film I've seen since Signs. The first scene is the slowest and most boring I have ever seen in a film. The story unfolds about as fast as a fern frond, revealing itself to be a string of dismaying mobster cliches. Has he never even seen The Sopranos? There are no surprises -- the viewer has guessed everything up front -- except for the one in which such an established director could think this dreck was good enough to distribute. The acting is stiff. The ending is a groaner -- obvious, premature, perfuctory. The whole movie managed to even look boring. And there is an irritating Howard Shore score that doesn't fit the action -- I can't remember the last time I was actually angry at the music in a film.

Granted, David Cronenberg is not the most stylish or deft director around -- in fact, he's often downright clumsy -- but at least his films have always been interesting. But this dog ... I simply can't explain. It lacks any of the bizarre, gruesome, and radical ideas that are his hallmark. Why? Moreover, it was based on a graphic novel -- which means it came into his hands already storyboarded -- and he still either missed that the graphic novel sucked or screwed up in the relatively simple transfer. Where is Frankenstein, his long-rumored magnum opus? He could sink his teeth into that. He was born to direct that. My boy is seriously off his game. Avoid.



Any early bets on the Nobel Prize? Anyone care to create silly analogies to picking Supreme Court justices? Any takers on whom you would choose given the opportunity? I'd love to give it to Old Alice or P Roth, not because they need the attention, or because they need the cash, but because they both can throw down and have been throwing down well for some time. I'm sure some of you have more original picks than those two.


Rezoning Iowa City?

I know very little about this, but there will be a public meeting Wednesday at 7 at City Hall to discuss proposed changes to Iowa City's zoning ordinance. I know, I know, I hear the word "zoning," and it sounds like somebody snoring in a gently swaying hammock, and it makes me very... must keep eyes open... as does the very notion of sitting through a public meeting at City Hall.

However, the issue was presented to me by Todd at Artifacts as having the potential to reshape the face of the town. For example, he said that the block along Market Street, starting with Artifacts and including Motley Cow, the suspiciously cheap pizza place, and across the street to encompass -- GASP!!! -- George's... a moment of silence please... could all be affected. Some developer supposedly "is drooling over that huge parking lot" between George's and the paint store, and this rezoning effort is the stealth method of replacing this lovely, historic, useful part of town with soulless, hulking apartment complexes that have kegs flying from balconies. Or something. And that nobody but the developer has been talking to the city council about this. Now, maybe that is all rumor. Or maybe They want me to think it's all rumor.

Anyway, if you're curious what might be in the works, you might check out that meeting... I'd love to hear (or shout) things like, "Sit down, sir! Sit down!" or "No, you're out of order!" or "Has the culture of cronyism trickled down this far, ladies and gentlemen?"


Better than. . .

For IC local Goats and others who might be interested, Better than Ezra is playing tonight on the Pentacrest after the parade and pep rally.


Wedding Readings?

Sorry for the cross-post, but I am desperate. Anyone got any good ideas for wedding readings? Please see this on BAF for more info.


Marcus vs. Franzen

Who wants a piece of this one? I don't think there is a link for the wonderful Harper's essay in which Ben Marcus tears Franzen and all he stands for a new one. So if you don't have it, run out and read it in the magazine aisle. I don't have a lot to say about it (that's the problem with near total agreement) but am curious about the fiction response. I'm going to come down on the side of "experimentalism" almost every time. Seeing quotes from Tender Buttons anywhere tends to reaffirm my faith in man (or woman as the case may be). I find the blurring of reader and customer to be particularity troubling. It seems to be happening in the poetry world as well.

Playboy fiction

Anyone know how to submit a short story to Playboy? I don't see anything on the Web site...

Actually, does anyone have a link to a good updated list of mags and addresses -- or should I just bite the bullet and buy the latest Writer's Market?


Respect for a Goat

Mr. Ian David Froeb's "The Cosmonaut" has received an honorable mention in this year's Best American Short Stories (Michael Chabon, ed.).


I think I hit all the Babies, but I'm missing email addresses for a bunch of Goats. Thus: BBQ, my house, this Sunday, 1 pm. If you don't have my address, email me.


Sharon Olds turns down Laura Bush invite

"... So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."

Her full letter to the First Lady is here.


Whitney Terrell Reading and Party, Weds., 9/21

Whitney Terrell, Workshop graduate, will be reading at Prairie Lights tomorrow, Weds., 9/21, at 7pm. His first novel, The Huntsman, was highly acclaimed, and now he's reading from his new novel, The King of Kings County. Come watch/hear him read and parry the usual assortment of Qs; afterward, there will be a party chez SER, B., and Mark. Hope to see you then!

If the Bush Administration’s Response to Hurricane Katrina Were Workshopped by BAF

SER posted a side-splitting dramatization of Hurricane Katrina: The Workshop over at the Babies That Do Not Ignite blog. Very funny, and she even included my favorite faculty-related joke at the end.

Jonathan Letham wins MacArthur genius grant

I mean, I loved Motherless Brooklyn and thought Fortress of Solitude was okay, but sheez!... $500,000? Good for him. He's definitely doing something right. "You probably ought to check in with me in six months," he said. "I think I can safely say it's going to give me a lot of the security and freedom that any artist craves."

btw, anyone read anything of his besides those two books that they'd recommend?

Embedded with Oprah

Good news from the battlefield. I've talked with a few of you before about how happy I am with the second iteration of Oprah's Book Club. Not that I've ever watched an episode or checked out the web content or read any of the books in conjunction with her recommendations. (Okay, I reread Light in August last month--good, but not as good as I remembered it--but I bought a beaten copy from a used bookstore, rather than the spiffy 3-book set and I didn't actually participate in any book clubs; and I'm now reading Anna Karenina, but only because the Oprah hullabaloo informed me that Pevear had turned from translating Dostoevsky to Tolstoy.) So when I was reading Light in August, I was curious just what Oprah was doing with these books, especially the more difficult Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. This article, when it doesn't digress into Lit-lectures on Faulkner, gives a bit of a scoop.

I suppose I loved the rise of OBC2 because it was putting in lots of people's hands not only good books, but difficult and original and good books. But I figured that the vast majority of [insert your assumptions about Oprah viewers] would give up a few pages in, and only a minority would get anything out of it besides exposure to something Great. In my mind, a little exposure was good, and that a handful of people might fall in love with it (I remember my silly, ignorant self and how dramatically he was changed by As I Lay Dying) was marvelous. I'm pleasantly surprised to find that maybe people are more willing to work hard for good fiction than I'd thought (as long as someone they respect is prodding them to). It's interesting. And with all the talk of declining readership and lazy readership, it's nice to see something good.



Oh sure, NOW they come up with Kidsbeer. It's so not fair! My only consolation is they'll never sell it in this country. Their slogan will surely sweep every ad award: "Even kids cannot stand life unless they have a drink."

Talk Like a Pirate Day

I was just walking up Clinton Street and there was a table set up in the Pentacrest. It had a sign that read, "September 19: Talk Like a Pirate Day." A dude in full pirate regalia was ahoying and arr-ing away. I was suspicious and did not engage the pirate in piratical conversation. I just saw on DailyKos, however, that it is indeed an international initiative. Ahoy.

Jane Smiley reading tonight

She's touring for her new nonfic book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. She was writing page 280 of Good Faith, her latest novel, on September 11, 2001, when her book "suddenly came to seem trivial." So she set out to reexamine the art form in which she had already won a Pulitzer. She proceeded to read 100 novels, from classics to contemporaries (I'm naturally gratified by no. 79), and then write a book about the experience. The reading is at Buchanan Auditorium in the Pappajohn Bidnass Building at 7pm. I believe there is a party after. And poets, you gotta like that title!


Let's Take A Break From All This Serious Stuff

How about another excerpt from an IMDB Discussion Board. This one is a lot shorter than the famous Grendel post, and I didn't contribute at all. Just happened upon it. So without further ado, here are the entire, uncensored contents of the "Why did they cancel this show?" thread from the Wayne Brady Show Discussion Board:

I liked the show. Does anybody know why they canceled it? They should bring back Wayne Brady.

I am very mad. :(
There are 3 kinds of people:
Those who can count and those who can't.

It's obiously because more women like to watch a windbag like Tony and boy does it irritate me. Wayne was killed by Tony Danza and people like it and don't care aout Wayne Brady That's just wrong!

Because no one came to his IMDB message board.
"I'm Wayne Brady, b!itch!"

>>"I'm Wayne Brady, b!itch!"
You sidew with Tony do you pal! Go to hell with him you son of a damn BITCH!

Yes, I do! Have you seen him in A League Of Their Own?
"I'm Wayne Brady, b!itch!"

This message has been deleted by the poster.

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You are the one that started bashing at Wayne first. It's you that started it. Not me. So you are trying to outsmart me by being one of the IMDB people huh? After you sided with Tony and bashing Wayne, you throw me this? Just wondering are you part of the IMDB people? If you are, you have alot of nerve trying to frisk me. You tried to retaliate by sending this message just over your hatred of Wayne and love for Tony. Nice Job Pal! I'm sorry about saying all of the bad messages of Tony but to tell you the truth I like to watch Ellen better than Tony. I will not be ashamed of myself for having an opinion.

My posting here has remained unchanged, and you should be able to tell that you were the one, not me, who went overboard. I in no way shape or form insulted Wayne Brady! It's just that you took my quote as such. I'm a huge Wayne Brady fan, having seen his stand-up several times before he was famous. In fact, any real Wayne Brady fan should know that my Wayne Brady quote came directly from the mans mouth. I respect your opinion, but you should respect mine, even if you don't agree with it. Tony Danza, like it or not, left a TV legacy behind with his passing. We should all respect that. In a better world, Tony Danza and Wayne Brady, and even Ellen DeGeneres (SP?) would have equal ratings and would all get along. What do you say we take the first step and get along here on this board?

OK. I'm really sorry for those bad ratings. Can we both call it a truce? Thank you.

LOL the quote "I'm Wayne Brady Bitch" was from his appearance on Chappelle's show.
Anyway I was wondering why you mentioned Tony. What does he have to do with Wayne Brady's cancellation?

Tony had so much power of the fact that Wayne won an emmy the season he got cancelled! Tony worked with Disney to have deals to take Wayne's show off the air and look at his show, he didn't win any emmys nor did he win any recognitizion. Basically, he lost Ventrini, who is so obnoxious and also Wayne Brady Executive Producer John Redmann. So Tony apparently made a deal with ABC to have the power to cancel an emmy winning talk show and replace it with more mediocre madness in which Tony never even mentioned any hosting careers of Donny Osmond's work on PYRAMID like Wayne did and Tom Bergeron's work on Hollywood Squares like I said again, Tony never give a chance in the world to mention and Wayne acknowledged. SO the hell with Tony Danza and long live Wayne Brady!!! Tony killed Wayne's show so that he could have his show on the air.

You need a life seriously! All you do is post about how Tony Danza forced Wayne Brady's talk show off the air. No person no matter how famous they are and Tony Danza is not that famous can force a person off the air. Wayne's show got cancelled because the ratings sucked. Plus he never had good guests on to attract viewers. The show has been off the air over a year and you still go around everywhere complaining Tony Danza forced him off the air. Right! Why don't you look Wayne up and follow him around dressed in black crying over his long cancelled talk show? I'm sure he'll like that. Especially now that nobody gives a rat's @$$ about him. Before you argue back I'm some crazed Danza fan I'm not. Danza's an egomaniac tool!


Tom Waits sues over German sound-alike ad

And I thought such an anti-commercial attitude was long dead and gone...

"Apparently the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally naked and purring on the hood of a new car. I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor," Waits said in a statement. "While the court can't make me active in radio, I am asking it to make me radioactive to advertisers."

Call for submissions

I received this (I've edited it down a little) from Ted Genoways (an amazing guy, by the way, and a wonderful literary ally) at Virginia Quarterly Review and wanted to let you all know about it. They pay extremely well. Have a look see:

The VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW is putting together a special issue for 2006--based on an idea given to us by Michael Chabon. We are asking writers to contribute stories that take one of their favorite writers as a central character. It may be a straightforward biographical narrative, such as Robert Walser's "Kleist in Thon," which recounts an actual journey of
Heinreich von Kleist; an imagined (or even fantastic) approach, such as Allan Gurganus's "Reassurance," in which one of Walt Whitman's soldier friends writes from heaven; or a humorous take, such as Ian Frazier's "LGA/ORD," in which Frazier riffs on Samuel Beckett's claim that, had he not become a writer, he would have been an airline pilot. The length is also completely open.

If you haven't seen the magazine recently, I encourage you to visit our website. In the last year alone, we have published new work by Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, E. L. Doctorow, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, and Carol Shields. Our current issue features new work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, and Isabel Allende, and our Fall issue (on stands October 1) features a short play by Tony Kushner, the first installment of a serialized graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, and a long story by Joyce Carol Oates. In the last year we have been nominated for a National Magazine Award in Fiction (and another in General Excellence), and our fiction has been reprinted in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, the PUSHCART anthology, and HARPER'S.

The deadline for this issue is relatively distant--we wouldn't need finished stories until March 1, 2006. I hope that will give you enough time to consider this idea and see what you come up with.


The Southern Review and Hurricane Relief

I received a forwarded note from Bret Lott at The Southern Review about a fundraiser they're doing for hurricane relief, posted here with his permission.

To the Community of Writers, Readers, Teachers, Students, Editors and
Anyone Else Within the Sound of This Email--

Bret Lott here, editor of The Southern Review on the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am writing to you and to everyone you can forward this email to with an opportunity to help victims of the hurricane. Forgive this rather long email, but it is important to the welfare of many hurricane evacuees in our area -- please read this all the way through.

No doubt you know the sorrow and hardship that has been visited on residents of our state because of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding caused by the breach of the levee in New Orleans. No doubt you know as well of the thousands of displaced persons who have lost everything because of the evacuation of that city.

As a result of so many New Orleans area universities and colleges closing down for who knows how long, LSU has taken on almost 2800 new students who were displaced by losing their homes and their schools; in addition, many students who were already enrolled at LSU have also suffered great losses. These students have experienced hardships that few of us will ever know: they have lost their homes, their personal belongings, their books, their food -- everything, including, for many, the college or university at which they were enrolled. To help meet their needs -- and these are IMMEDIATE and GENUINE needs -- the LSU Foundation has set up Hurricane Katrina Relief

Strangely and beautifully and sadly enough, the latest issue of The Southern Review -- mailed to subscribers just week before last, right as the hurricane was making way for the Gulf Coast -- has turned out to be a very special issue for the artwork on the cover and that featured inside. The artist, Billy Solitario, lives near GULFPORT (and I trust you have seen the pictures of the devastation there); as of this writing, we have not been able to contact him. The paintings themselves are of the Gulf Coast -- one of them is even titled "Spiral Cloud over Levee," another one titled "Storm Over the Mississippi"; still others in the portfolio are of barrier islands on the Gulf Coast -- places that don't even exist anymore. The artwork was selected about a year ago, and the synchronicity of this is a little too much to think about -- the issue, which went out just two weeks ago, celebrates a coastland that is, suddenly, gone. Also, and again the synchronicity of this is too much to behold, the lead poems in this issue are by Peter Cooley, poet at now-closed Tulane University; we have heard that he is safe in Houston at the time of this writing.

Here is where the community of folks to whom this email is addressed can help (and please read the following instructions CAREFULLY as they are being written this way so as to allow all of us to help each other legally!).





Please note that these two actions -- your donation, our sending you a free copy -- are MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE (does anyone out there recognize yet the legal hoops I am having to jump through in order simply to help students in dire need of help? Sheesh!). Please note as well that it just so happens that the cover price for an issue of The Southern Review is $8 (eight dollars), BUT YOU ARE FREE TO DONATE AS MUCH AS YOU WISH.

Order as many as you want -- use them as gifts with the good knowledge that because of your generosity help is going to students in need; use them in your classes as a means to help your students rally to the aid of their comrades here at LSU; give them to anyone and everyone you know. And please forward this email to as many people as you know so that they might also be able to contribute to a worthy fund, and to enjoy the issue itself.


I know that to many out there this may sound like some sort of mercenary effort to advertise our journal and somehow to make money through the loss of others. Indeed, we will in fact be losing money in all this. But you have my word -- Bret Lott -- that we will in no way profit from these mutually exclusive actions.

I know the outpouring will be a great one, and please know that we here at The Southern Review are prepared to handle the deluge of good will you are already sending our way. Thank you for reading all the way through this email, and thank you as well for what you have already done for the hurricane relief efforts.

Sincerely, and with thanks to all --

Bret Lott
Editor and Director
The Southern Review

Fiction, poetry, reviewing, and the meaning of it all

Update: I'm promoting this post up in time so it appears closer to the top... it's going for the record in numbers of comments.

I've decided to suspend my weekly New Yorker fiction reviews indefinitely. A few reasons for this. The main one is that I had hoped they would generate discussions about contemporary fiction. They haven't. Plus the magazine routinely puts out novel excerpts without giving a heads up about it. That's lame and wreaks havoc with any attempted analysis. Also, it's starting to feel like a chore, and if you've ever seen the doghair tumbleweeds gliding through our house, you know I don't like chores. And I reckon I miss the old workshop and thought it would be like that. And finally, Nate's comment in the "What did you read this summer?" post --
Why doesn't anyone read poetry? Is it so bad? So insular and unapproachable? I thought this was a literary blog... Call me crazy, but last time I looked, literature went well beyond New Yorker fiction.
-- is still haunting me. Because he's right. Why don't I read poetry? I think because I don't feel up to understanding it properly. Because I never really learned to read it. Because it makes me impatient. It's like some exotic cheese meant to be savored morsel by small morsel, when all I've ever done is gobble up cheddar and monterrey jack and, it must be admitted, Velveeta.

Also, the world seems to be going to hell, and it feels indulgent to relentlessly keep on reading and writing about reading and writing no matter what or when.

Fiction's easy to read for pleasure. Right now I'm cruising through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and loving it. I look forward to picking it up, as if I'm picking up a remote control for a movie in my mind. That has never happened to me with poetry, and I think that's sad, and it means something is wrong, and I've decided to try and fix it.

So I'm starting with the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I'm up to Shakespeare right now. I'm nibbling the exotic cheese a bit at a time.

I loved when Chad was enlightening all of us with his witty responses to New Yorker poetry. But again, there is more to the literary scene than the New Yorker. I had merely thought it would be a good touchstone, something we might all have in common, a starting point to launch conversations about what is working in good writing today and why. But I'm finding you can't make a blog do what you want. Instead, it stubbornly goes about its business as it pleases, occasionally shining with brilliance, often sleeping, sometimes shuffling around grumpy or confused or angry or indignant. It just is what it is, and stays that way. Like a friend.

I'll probably still post story reviews when I get excited about something, or angry or grumpy or confused or indignant about something. I'm eyeing the Ann Beattie story in this week's with hope and anticipation. And last week's was really good, in case you missed it. But now I have to go have a plantar's wart on my heel looked at.

End soliloquy.

(See? I would never had thought of that word without the recent Shakespeare infusion.)