Friday, November 30, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut Term Paper Assignment

A dear friend of mine that teaches at a boy's school in Baltimore sent this link to me today. I was never much for Vonnegut's work; not that I didn't appreciate his entries and influence over the entire canon, I just never felt an affinity to his work that others have. Regardless, I had a professor in my undergrad philosophy department that gave us take home mid-terms and finals that read a bit like this, which I always appreciated. The creative effort put forth by the professor tended to, at least personally, bring a bit of joy to an otherwise dreary piece of the semester. It also forced me to be more creative which meant I really had to know the material. There was an onus placed on us students to go above and beyond the normal test-taking mentality and create something worth reading.

David Foster Wallace (a favorite of mine) also had fun with his classes. His syllabi can be found HERE.

I think if more professors were able (or willing, really) to present these kinds of fun/creative educational hurdles to climb, we would find ourselves with a vastly different kind of educated graduate being flung out into the world. I also think it would be to the world's benefit.

and ultimately, from Dan Wakefield's book Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

November 30, 1965
This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”
As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all ...”
I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children ...”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.
Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.
Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.

And should you be curious about the stories contained in the book discussed, you can find the list below. A couple friends thought this was a cool enough idea to actually do it on our own time, so...looks like I've got a little project to get into during the next few weeks.

John Galsworthy "The Apple-Tree" 39
Saki (H. H. Munro "The Seventh Pullet 104
W. Somerset Maugham "Lord Mountdrago" 112
A. E. Coppard "Arabesque: The Mouse" 141
E. M. Forster "The Celestial Omnibus" 150
James Joyce "A Little Cloud" 170
Virginia Woolf "The New Dress" 187
D. H. Lawrence "The Rocking-Horse Winner" 197
Katherine Mansfield "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" 216
Stella Benson "The Desert Islander" 242
Aldous Huxley "The Claxtons" 266
Edith Wharton "The Debt" 300
Sherwood Anderson "Brother Death" 318
Ring Lardner "Harmony" 338
Conrad Aiken "Mr. Arcularis" 361
Wilbur Daniel Steele "For They Do Not Know What They Do" 385
Katherine Anne Porter "Maria Concepción" 409
William Faulkner "The Bear" 433
Stephen Vincent Benét "Too Early Spring" 453
Ernest Hemingway "My Old Man" 470
John Steinbeck "Flight" 487
William Saroyan "The Pomegranate Trees" 511
Eudora Welty "Old Mr. Marblehall" 526


Monday, November 26, 2012

(Review) Chris Adrian's "A Better Angel"

About two years ago, while doing some drunken book shopping with Surya at City Lights Books in North Beach, I stumbled across Chris Adrian's second novel, "The Children's Hospital," and was completely fascinated with the story. A kind of Noah's ark, but with a hospital and set in modern times. I wish I could say that I've completed the book, but I haven't...yet. It's fat and dense and completely interesting.

But my ever-changing, ever-adapting taste has moved to reading more short story collections at the moment since that's the kind of project I'm working on now. I started writing poetry in my younger days, moved to flash fiction, then right on into full novel-length manuscripts when I realized my poetry was pretty awful. So when I found myself, yet again, doing some drunken book shopping at City Lights, I stumbled across this collection of Adrian's that I'd never heard of before. I pulled it off the shelf, read the back, and immediately bought it.

Adrian is a bit of an odd duck; not only is he a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, but he is also a doctor now finishing up a pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at the University of California in San Francisco. This is all to say, the guy is no slouch and his writing shows it. Even when he brings up a lot of medical terminology (which I have zero clue about), it feels natural and essential to the story rather than bogging down the text, which I appreciated immensely. The jargon added to the stories; it never hampered them.

I'm envious of Adrian's imagination; it's far out there and certainly pushes a few boundaries, much in the way I like to think my own writing aspires to do as well. While there was almost an overbearing relation to the events of 9/11 in some of the stories, I didn't seem to mind (even having just read DeLillo's "Falling Man" right before, itself an entire novel based around the events of that day eleven years ago).

Even with his obviously elevated educational pedigree, Adrian comes at the reader in a simple, but fantastic, way. It would be easy for him to slather on the thesaurus-worthy verbage or use entirely too large phrasing to make the same point, but he avoids this and it's to his credit. A 26-page story reads like a fraction of that length and still packs the right amount of punch. These stories ride that fine line between dark and twisted, never really venturing too far off to either side, but stradling each perfectly without the possibility of alienating the uninitiated reader.

What struck me the most about each story was the foil each main character seemed to have with them. In the title story, "A Better Angel," the son of a dying father is followed around by a kind of mythical conscience/guardian angel from an early age. She attempts to keep him on the "right" path, but as he ages and their relationship continues, she reveals that not all people with angels turn into good people. But she is always there, always playing against him and he against her.

"Yet awakening lust wasn't the problem, though eventually the lust that awakened made me a monster and a fiend, and I would waste, and still waste, half my life in thrall to it, screwing whoever would hold still for me in high school and forever beyond, to the exclusion of work and food and sleep, but never of drugs."

"The Sum of Our Parts" was an absolutely beautiful execution of moving from character to character to character and getting into each mindset before flowing into the next through action and dialogue. It's a technique I've always wanted to try myself and Adrian absolutely nails it through the interactions of hospital lab techs and their inner desires for each other. Imagine a room full of sexual tension where no one is attracted to the people they want attracted to them...all while under the supervision of a woman having an out of body experience, waiting to die.

Of all the stories in the collection, however, I think "The Changeling" had to be the most disturbing of them all. A son, a father, and a grandfather living in the same house. After an accident, the youngest son seems to be inhabited by a "chorus of voices" that bite at and snap at the father. What is an obvious story about demonic possession becomes a much deeper tug-and-pull until the final scene where the father proves to the demons inside his son exactly how far and how deep the love for his son actually is. I worried that I'd be turned off by this one, having seen or read about other possession/exorcism style stories, but I was hooked until the end. None of the standard cliched nonsense of floating beds or children puking or screaming at the caregivers, just flat out good storytelling with tension being heightened appropriately along the way.

These are just three of the stories that really stood out for me, but the entire collection is phenomenally solid. Had I not been on vacation when I started (and finished) it, there's a very good chance it would have taken me two days, tops, to finish. Adrian's prose style is fluid and truly moves across the page in a very readable, yet vibrant, way. This will be one I recommend to anyone looking for some new reading by someone they may have never heard of.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Books On Deck / Up Next - Pt. IX

Like most people, I headed back home for Thanksgiving. I had been on a hunt for a few books out here in the Bay Area and, for whatever reason, couldn't find them. Strangely enough, I found most of them in Kansas City (which isn't necessarily known for its vast literary collections).

So, I came home with a stack of new books and more on the way. I stumbled across a few that seemed interesting along with the ones that I had searched out and here's what is on my reading list for the last part of the year. I'm certainly not going to hit my goal of reading 100 books this year, but I've read some pretty good ones since January and that may be good enough. Quality over quantity, as they say.

I also just finished Chris Adrian's story collection called "A Better Angel," which was one of the best things I've read all year. Look for a review sometime later this week once I've detoxed and decompressed from the holiday.

Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate.

Optimus Yarnspinner, a young writer, inherits from his beloved godfather an unpublished short story by an unknown author. His search for the author's identity takes him to Bookholm--the so-called City of Dreaming Books. On entering its streets, our hero feels as if he has opened the door of a gigantic second-hand bookshop. His nostrils are assailed by clouds of book dust, the stimulating scent of ancient leather, and the tang of printer's ink.

Soon, though, Yarnspinner falls into the clutches of the city's evil genius, Pfistomel Smyke, who treacherously maroons him in the labyrinthine catacombs underneath the city, where reading books can be genuinely dangerous...

The Golden Age is a fantastical travelogue in which a modern-day Gulliver writes a book about a civilization he once encountered on a tiny island in the Atlantic. The islanders seem at first to do nothing but sit and observe the world, and indeed draw no distinction between reality and representation, so that a mirror image seems as substantial to them as a person (and vice versa); but the center of their culture is revealed to be “The Book,” a handwritten, collective novel filled with feuding royal families, murderous sorcerers, and narrow escapes. Anyone is free to write in “The Book,” adding their own stories, crossing out others, or even ap- pending “footnotes” in the form of little paper pouches full of extra text—but of course there are pouches within pouches, so that the story is impossible to read “in order,” and soon begins to overwhelm the narrator’s orderly treatise.

* Philip K. Dick Award finalist* Locus Recommended Reading Here are 33 weird, wonderful stories concerning men, women, teleportation, wind-up cats, and brown paper bags. By turns whimsical and unsettling—frequently managing to be both—these short fictions describe family relationships, bad breakups, and travel to outer space.    Vukcevich's loopy, fun-house mirror take on everyday life belongs to the same absurdist school of work as that of George Saunders, David Sedaris, Ken Kalfus, and Victor Pelevin, although there is no one quite like him. Try one of these stories, it won't take you long, but it will turn your head inside out.

The Street of Crocodiles in the Polish city of Drogobych is a street of memories and dreams where recollections of Bruno Schulz's uncommon boyhood and of the eerie side of his merchant family's life are evoked in a startling blend of the real and the fantastic. Most memorable - and most chilling - is the portrait of the author's father, a maddened shopkeeper who imports rare birds' eggs to hatch in his attic, who believes tailors' dummies should be treated like people, and whose obsessive fear of cockroaches causes him to resemble one. Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew killed by the Nazis in 1942, is considered by many to have been the leading Polish writer between the two world wars.

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.

The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine.

It is the Afterlife. The end of the world is a distant, distorted memory called “the Age of F***ed Up Shit.” A sentient glacier has wiped out most of North America. Medical care is supplied by open-source nanotechnology, and human nervous systems can be hacked.

Abby Fogg is a film archivist with a niggling feeling that her life is not really her own. She may be right. Al Skinner is a former mercenary for the Boeing Army, who’s been dragging his war baggage behind him for nearly a century. Woo-jin Kan is a virtuoso dishwasher with the Hotel and Restaurant Management Olympics medals to prove it. Over them all hovers a mysterious man named Dirk Bickle, who sends all these characters to a full-scale replica of Manhattan under construction in Puget Sound. An ambitious novel that writes large the hopes and anxieties of our time—climate change, social strife, the depersonalization of the digital age — Blueprints of the Afterlife will establish Ryan Boudinot as an exceptional novelist of great daring.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Philipp Striebe's "45 Seconds" Exhibition

Philip Streibe

For those of you that follow the blog, you’ve probably already picked up on the fact that I like hyping up and promoting the work that friends or friends of friends do in any artistic manner. Whether it’s teaching at the Writing Salon, doing collage work in their spare time, or seeing the world through the eye of a camera lens, I’m all about helping out my fellow artists of any stripe if I can, even if it means simply writing a blog post and pestering the hell out of people with promoting it.

Having said that, my friend Philipp Striebe has a project I’ve been following for awhile through his Facebook posts over the last several months. I’ve seen some of the sample photos and they’re straight up fantastic. I dig the concept as well. I've seen some of his other work and Philipp has got a great eye for imagery. 

In order to cover the costs of curating his show, Philipp has started a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise money to put on the exhibition. You’ll find a link to the Kickstarter page at the bottom of the post. Here’s a little explanation of the project:

“45 seconds...the time it takes a 664 Polaroid to develop at room temperature. These 45 seconds command you to relax and be present. There is no reason to rush and no possibility of expediting the process of shooting the desired photographs. The 'common sense' of shooting portraiture in our shiny and bold digital age of photography is being de-programmed. The usual vast volume of produced images is purposely diminished, but the promised delivery of an instant proof, an image to observe, still remains. This project is the result of my venture into Polaroid portraiture and my vision of photographic aesthetics in capturing people. 
The initial foundation for the Polatrait Series and this project was set in 2005 when I came across a 1937-built Zeiss Icon Nettar Camera at a flea market in my hometown of Bonn, Germany. After this (unknowingly significant) purchase and the first wave of photographic excitement – expressed in exposing the incredible amount of 3 rolls of 120 film - the camera was set aside and forgotten. Life went on and I went strictly digital for the majority of my photography and forgot about this camera.
At some point I bought a Polaroid back for my Hasselblad and started to use Instant pack film, made by FUJI. It was the beginning of what you will witness in the essence of this book. This acquaintance finally initiated the creation of the Pola-Zeiss Camera I used throughout this entire project to photograph my models. 

What transpired next? After using the Hasselblad with the Polaroid proofing-back for a bit, I finally had the idea to merge my old Zeiss-Ikon with this particular film back. The result was the birth of a unique instant camera, paired with original old Polaroid 664 b&w pack-film – the perfect tool to create soulful imagery. The confluence of the flaws and rather soft qualities of the over 75-year-old Ettar-Anastigmat lens / Zeiss-Ikon Telmar shutter birthed a unique portraiture style that captured both the beauty and imperfections of each subject in an organic way. The unpredictable textures and distribution of chemicals in between the Polaroid sheets created photographs that were (and still are) like the purest fix for any addict to this medium.
I decided to use this unique creation exclusively for portraiture. Due to technical facts and fixed parameters - such as an extremely narrow focusing range due to the set back focusing plane and an un-adjusted prism viewfinder - I was working completely outside common expectations. I was able to interact with each participating model on a new, different, and more intimate level. The set would primarily be an authentic reflection of their personality through which they could express themselves organically. The use of a simple white background in combination with b&w film was chosen to highlight the true, unadulterated form of each individual.”

Philipp also sent me an email describing the setup of the exhibition and his reasons for starting the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds:

From December 8, 2012 - January 13, 2013 I have the incredible opportunity to exhibit this work in a solo show at Photobooth, a well-known gallery in San Francisco highlighting the work of artists who do Tynotype and Polaroid portraiture. In order to fully curate this show I've developed a Kickstarter campaign to help raise $2500 to fund this project and help to make this show at Photobooth happen. But here's the catch: I must raise all of the $2500 in only 10 days. If I do not raise the total amount, I'll receive none of the contributions.
To learn about my project and make a contribution, please visit my Kickstarter project page here:
All those who contribute will receive a special Polaroid Portraiture gift in return! Also, my show's Opening Night Party will take place on Saturday, December 8th from 7-10pm at Photobooth in San Francisco. All are welcome!
I reach out to you with tremendous gratitude for any monetary contribution you can offer. Also, the more exposure the better, so please also feel free to forward this to friends and family and/or post to you Facebook, Twitter, etc. pages!
Thank you again!
Philipp Striebe

So, really, you probably want to support this. You should be able to tell through the video on his Kickstarter page that Philipp takes his craft and the viewing of his craft seriously. Show some love, spend some dough, get some fantastic art in the process. Passion begets art, art begets passion...and the whole world keeps spinning 'round because the two work in tandem. Get you some. 


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Soundtrack to "Scaring the Stars into Submission"

I've mentioned before here that I put a playlist together before writing. I try to pick music that evokes certain kinds of emotions or feelings that jive with where I want to see the piece going. Almost all of the short stories in this collection have been written entirely on my phone, which is unusual for me as I typically hate utilizing technology. What I found, however, was that the app I was using (called "A Novel Idea") helped eliminate the issue of too much white space left on the page. When I'm at my laptop, there's an ocean of white that needs to be filled. When I used my phone, I found myself looking at a significantly smaller screen, which in turn helped me focus more intently on the minutiae of the moments I was writing. I honestly feel that many of the stories are deeper and more detailed in ways that my novel is not for this reason.

Since I was writing on my phone, I filled up my music playlist with things I could listen to through my headphones while on public transit or while outside having a cigarette at the end of the day. Here are some of those choices.

"Isle of the Dead" by Rachmaninov

"I Waited For You" by Miles Davis

"Anaklasis" by Penderecki

"Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky

"Krasnagorsky" by Nikakoi

"A Symphony Pathetique" by A Winged Victory for the Sullen

"Danse Macabre" by Saint-Saens