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.