Des Moines Register article on Sam Chang

Here is the article. Bonus: In it, Sam mentions TLB's upcoming novel!

Their problem child

Here's one of those darned stories that never quite seems important enough to grab attention in the U.S. media. Maybe it's too trivial. Anyway, according to a declassified document, it seems the Pentagon seeks to gain "control of the entire electromagnetic spectrum."

As the article puts it:
The US military seeks the capability to knock out every telephone, every networked computer, every radar system on the planet.
Part of its plan to "fight the net." Which is funny, because it created the net in the first place. Kinda like the story of LSD, which boils down to: "Dang! It's doing things we didn't mean for it to. Reel 'er in, boys."

If the Internet vanished tomorrow ... would you miss it?


Writers' Workshop Lecture Series

A cool idea from Sam Chang:
I just wanted to say hello, and to let you know about a new tradition, the Writers' Workshop Lecture Series. These monthly faculty lectures will be open to the public, and I'm especially hoping that those Workshop alums living in/near Iowa City will feel free to attend. It would be nice to see all of you. Would it be possible for you to let people know via Earth Goat? Faculty poet Dean Young is giving the first lecture in the series on February 17, 4 p.m., at Shambaugh House. His topic is "Surrealism."
Doin' that. Love this lecture idea in general.


Guided By Voices Fan Fiction Contest

So this was my entry -- I can't find out who won, but I'm guessing I have lost yet again. The last thing I won was a chocolate Easter bunny at the church Easter egg hunt when I was 6. It was hollow. If losing this contest doesn't prove that an Iowa MFA and $1 will get you a cup of coffee, I don't know what does.

My entry (almost all of the phrases are GBV song titles):

Near Huffman Prairie Flying Field, in the House of Queen Charles Augustus, the exploratory rat fink committee tested their fresh threats, salad shooters, and zip guns everyday on glad girls, dusty bushworms, a dungeon of drunks, and even Bozo the fucking clown -- eventually, Little Jimmy the Giant was the last punk standing, alone, stinking and unafraid, in his burning flag birthday suit and glass boots, growling "Hey, Baby, if you think it's easy, like I do, what about it?"


Second accordion lesson

"Our dog is going to have puppies any minute," she said, opening the door quietly, "so I'm just letting you know, if that happens the lesson will have to be cut short."

Hesitantly I went in, lugging my box. "What will you do? Like, do you call an animal ambulance or something?"

"I'm going to deliver them myself."

In the kitchen, the table had been transformed into a kind of manger, with sheets and old pillows. The border collie slumbered peacefully in the manger. We tiptoed out. In the living room, where the lessons take place, slouched a very old man, also slumbering, in an old chair, with a book on his lap. When he heard the first accordion sounds, he roused, struggled out of the chair, and made his unsteady way to the manger.

"So did you buy that Palmer-Hughes book?" she asked. I admitted that I had not. "It's okay," she said. "I found one you can borrow for now. It's older than the other edition, but it has similar songs."

Older than the other one. She flipped through it. Copyright 1952. She taught me the songs "The Kickoff," "Batter Up!" and "Skating," during all three of which I fervently cocked a hopeful ear for puppy squeals. No dice.

Her teenage daughter stuck her head in the room. "I'm going to walk the neighbor's dog. And by the way," all innocent, "sounding great, guys." Flicked a smile at my burst of laughter and was gone.

At the end of the lesson, I flipped through the book and, after picking up my jaw from it, stared at this:

Injun song

Here are the lyrics to "INJUN SONG!":

I know what the Injuns know.
I go where the Injuns go.
I watched Big Chief smoke his peace pipe.
To the papoose I'm a friend.
For the squaws I carry candy.
On me Injuns all depend.

1952, people.


"The Cryptozoologist" by Tony Earley and "Three Days" by Samantha Hunt

New Yorker fiction -- January 9 & 16, 2006 issues

green light
Oh boy, are these good. They each deserve a full analysis, but I only want to point them out and scratch their surfaces so that you, dear reader, in your spare time, might take the time to read them and apply your own analysis.

Both stories are examples of what I think of as free intuitive symbolism. Here is how I would formulate a rule to incorporate FIS: Allow the story to synthesize two or three ideas or events that don't have any apparent connection to begin with and let the story work out its own meaning beneath the surface. This approach has at least a couple of advantages. For one, it allows the writer to access yummy, Jungian, subconscious material. For another, it lets the story work on a level that is both entertaining and meaningful, while avoiding the appearance of being manufactured or too self-consciously deliberate.

Flannery O'Connor used to advocate this kind of story. I don't have the exact quote readily available (I believe it was in the extra material included in the Charters Literature and Its Writers book, which I discarded after teaching from it). But she said once in a lecture something about great writing requiring both sides of the brain to come together, and that if you write long enough, eventually you will learn to trust your creative intuition -- even though (or perhaps because) you may not know the meaning of what it comes up with -- and let it work in full partnership with your meticulous inner craftsman.

Any well-written story that has the character mistaking a fugitive abortion clinic bomber for a Southern "skunk ape" in her orchard or getting high and riding a horse to Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving deserves a read. I hope there is no question about that. The question is does the story succeed in saying something new and interesting about people, and both of these stories do that, I think.

In the "The Cryptozoologist," the POV character is the widow of a cranky, reclusive art school professor, who seduced her while she was in his painting class and whom she married young. Their relationship actuated his dismissal from teaching, and he brought her to rural Georgia, where they attempt to get back to the land. The story flows freely, allowing seemingly disparate elements such as his sentimental paintings of Cherokees and the Trail of Tears and hers of landscapes, an abortion clinic bomber on the loose, an FBI agent, and a mysterious Bigfoot-like creature to connect up somehow, leaving the reader, upon departing the text, with the feeling that some elusive, deep meaning was not only very nearly grasped by the intellect but was definitely bumped into by the reader's own intuition. After all, is a husband who never even told you he was Jewish any less strange than a man who blows up Planned Parenthood, or an undiscovered species of American ape? This is taking the Southern gothic and grotesque and letting them sift into the text like right-brain fairy dust.

"Three Days" begins as a come-home-to-wacky-family-for-the-holidays story, but gradually twists itself into something else entirely: a meditation on the death of a parent in the middle of a bizarre and very touching plot turn. Through FIS, the author is able to say something new about how we deal with death by putting her characters on a horse bound for Wal-Mart. Is the horse on the ice behind the store a symbol of their father, or of his death, or of the death of their family's structure, or of the death of rural Mom & Pop America, or of the death of national and personal mythology? Check out her mother's occupation, selling myths to marketers. This alone should hint to us that something is working underneath. Where does the horse go? Into those waters whence the story itself springs. (btw, I can't remember the last time my eyes got moist while reading a short story.)

I hope these stories are harbingers.


Goats in the Press-Citizen

A couple of Goats are quoted in this article on the arrival of Samantha Chang to lead the Writers' Workshop. Wahoo!


Just for Fun

Here, in another time-wasting maneuver on my part, is the Lulu Titlescorer, which will tell you what chance your book has of being a bestseller based on the title alone.

"Icebergs" had a 63.7% chance of being a bestseller, but that means it has a better than one-third chance of being pulped to make toilet paper, too.

Thanks to Bookslut for the link.


Here we go again (Iowa yay! Iowa boo!)

Even as I link to this Galley Cat piece, I regret yet again lifting the lid on such a fruitless squabble and re-releasing those noxious fumes, but there are some who like to get their ire up every quarter, and this is a blog about the topic in question, so here you go. In brief: An MFA Handbook has downgraded Iowa out of the top ten MFA writing programs. Now that I think about it, this could be a brilliant publicity stunt to boost sales for the book.


Why don't Americans read more short stories?

Over at Powells.com, Elissa Minor Rust contemplates something I've been thinking about a lot lately: why short stories don't command more of a market in the fiction world these days.

Short stories are so wonderfully compact, when they're done well, with all the depth and breadth of novels, and yet when I want a really good read, I always choose a novel. Something about picking up in the middle of a story that I've been a part of for days, or even weeks, already, is just so much more satisfying reading. You can't get that with a movie, which is over in two hours (or so), or a TV show. A story that goes on for days or weeks becomes to feel a part of your life in a way that short stories never do.

Or do they?

(via Bookslut.)


Random House is telling people who bought Frey's memoir directly from them they can return the book for a full refund. Those who bought it from a bookstore are being encouraged to return the book to the bookstore for a refund.

No matter what you think of Frey's writing (and I know at least ONE IC resident who said he was full of crap a long time ago), doesn't this seem like a bad idea?

Also, for another take on the issue, see Brando's latest bit of naughtiness over on Circle Jerk at the Square Dance.


First accordion lesson

My lovely wife surprised me with an accordion for Christmas. Here it is in all its golden sparkly splendor:


Through Eble Music I found a woman in our neighborhood who teaches it! And yesterday I showed up for my first lesson. She seemed really nice, big smile, sturdy, early to mid-forties, ... I don't know why, but I expected someone like Granny Clampett. Anyway, as I came in her other student was packing up his axe. He was around 65, I'd say. She introduced us. I sat down and asked him how long he'd been playing.

"Oh, about six months. Course I've always had the accordion."

"And what spurred you to pick it up again?"

"I expect it was Myron Floren." He eyed me with a mysterious grin to see if I recognized the name. Seeing that I didn't, he continued. "He was Lawrence Welk's accordionist. And he was from the same part of South Dakota as me. Why, he had to be one of the greatest of all time." To Jill, the teacher: "Wouldn't you say?"

"He was certainly very famous, in his day."

"The way his fingers would fly!" The man slapped his leg. "Why, when he got ahold of some of those numbers..." He shook his head, as if struck speechless at the thought of Myron Floren taking on a polka. He recovered. "You know, they rerun those old Lawrence Welk shows. You ought to try and catch old Myron, if you want to witness some real accordion playing."

I nodded. If I wore a watch I would have glanced at it. The old fella was eating into my lesson time.

"And the kicker was, every week, at some point in the show, he played a solo! Well, thanks, Jill." He shuffled out the door.

She opened my case and took out my instrument and sat down opposite from me and strapped it on. "Oh, how nice! Look, you have a vibrating switch, so you can play Irish and French and Italian-sounding stuff."

I told her I was interested in Irish accordion, and she recommended a book, 100 Irish Tunes for the Piano Accordion. She then showed me the book she uses for instruction. It was for, um, young players and looked like it hadn't changed its design in fifty years:

music book

Strolling along a giant keyboard that seems to be floating in mid-air? And inside were more pictures of those kids playing fast and loose with reality in dubious service to the actual topic at hand. For example, they blew a humongous bubble that was somehow supposedly a whole note, and to illustrate how a dotted half note lasts one extra beat, the two horrid accordion children had each taken hold of one end of a dachsund and were pulling and stretching the poor creature! Most disturbing. She advised me to ignore the pictures, but that would be impossible.

Anyway, she asked questions, trying to gauge the level of my musical ability. I told her I play bass pretty well, and guitar sort of, and piano in the most minimal way and that I am trying to relearn to read music.

"So you know key signatures?"

"Well, I know" -- and here, beginning to sweat, and desperate to "test out of" the books with those cruel accordion children, I winged it, as I had a dim memory of Bach's "Minuet in G," which I had been trying to learn, being in G, of course, and that there was a B flat in it --
"Like G has a B flat. Stuff like that."

Her smile never faltered. "G has an F sharp."

I cleared my throat. "Then I guess no. Would be my answer about key signatures."

"I can teach you from a different book."

"Oh, good!"

She strapped on her own squeezebox, "the accordion I've been waiting for all my life" -- it looked like an accordion you might see on Star Trek -- and away we went oompa-ing. Such fun! She taught me little hints and techniques I never, ever, ever would have figured out for myself.

Her son stuck his head in the room to remind her she had to drive him to high school. I guess they were having a half day or something, because it was noon. I packed up and asked her what she charged.

"I never know," she said, laughing. "I called up West Music and asked and they said to charge $15 for a half hour." I had been there an hour. "But you write down whatever you can afford, because money should never stop anyone from learning the accordion."

The Chronic - what? - cles of Narnia

This SNL short film is a must-see. I had lost the link, so thanks to Traca and Nicole for reminding me how funny this is.


Adventures in Saunders-land

Chapter 1. Holy Land Theme Park on the shores of Galilee.

Chapter 2. Imitation Iraq. (Straight-faced version from the Economist; snarky blogger re-take; and, if you have the January Harper's, there is the Wells Tower piece, "Under the God Gun," written with a post-Saunders eye.)

Chapter 3 (forthcoming). Pseudo-Congress.