Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Momentary Pause In Our Programming

USK is not on vacation or in bed with swine flu although both forms of hiatus are considered infectious and well respected; rather, it is papergrading season among the minor leaguers of academia, all of us destined to peruse the texts created in the freshman comps and sophomore lits of our undergraduate world. We will return with a vengeance soon, whereupon we will recommit to propagating our global conspiracy to keep literature alive!

Yes, we will be burning novels into the flesh, tattooing the classics onto the blob that is belly, even as we buffer books with high heat into all of the table tops and living-room furniture in the land.

Do you spy an empty wall in your neighborhood??? Well, keep it legal, but you catch my drift... apologies to the more genuinely revolutionary writers among us.

This message has been brought to you by a grant from our readers. Thank you.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Correction: Bitter Lemon Presses More Than Just Levison

I'd like to clarify that Iain Levison's new novel is published by a British press which focuses on international mysteries and thrillers. You can see their fine selection of books at bitterlemonpress.com. It looks like their focus is on mysteries and thrillers that present the darker side of larger cities--quite a page-turning way to tour the underbelly of glocal urbania. I stumbled upon one of their titles, Night Bus, in the lower depths of the Clemson Library, and it looked like a page turner. It was hard to resist checking out another novel. If you deal in the literature of the urban murder and mayhem, then Bitter Lemon could be the press for you. Props to the tart limeys keeping books in print! Safe journey.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

T.S. Eliot, Hitler, Tax Day, or Columbine?

Although (arguably and in fact easy to disprove) English Literature began with Chaucer's "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote" and offered the promise of Spring rain, birth, and new beginnings (unless we recognize The Canterbury Tales as satire of such), it seems T.S. Eliot's version of April dominated the twentieth century in most of its real and imagined states. In "The Wasteland," he rejected April's life-affirming rains and warmer weather, insisting in fact:


April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

When he wrote those lines, Eliot most likely did not imagine the continued devastation and false promises of Aprils throughout the twentieth century. Did Eliot anticipate a second world war?

Perhaps in reference to Chaucer and Eliot, Tim O'Brien chose April as the month to set his soldiers' sad, aimless wandering through Vietnam. In O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" the month's symbol is the fallen Ted Lavender, he of the spring-colored last name and tranquilizers and marijuana, killed several times over in a text that uses repetition in an almost Nietzschean sense of eternal recurrence.

So America will have Columbine and Tax Day and Hitler's birthday and all the other unfortunate serial killers to dwell upon each April, but I do want to leave you with the positive side.

Let our rebirth or rejuvenation this month echo perhaps a misinterpreted, sincere Chaucer when we think of warm sun and pleasant rain and opening day and the relief our taxes are paid(!) and the end of semesters and even vacations or "staycations" or long walks through our neighborhoods and towns. Summer be not proud as you bring stifling heat, humidity, and the false sense of cool our controlled environments provide.

April is shockingly awesome! Everything is in bloom. Even our adverbs will be fruitful and multiply!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who's In Charge Here?

I enjoy stories like the following:

Bogus waiter tricks customers at 2 NJ restaurants
The Associated Press
HOBOKEN, N.J. - Police say a man posing as a waiter collected $186 in cash from diners at two restaurants in New Jersey and walked out with the money in his pocket.
Diners described the bogus waiter as a spikey-haired 20-something wearing a dark blue or black button-down shirt, yellow tie and khaki pants.
Police say he approached two women dining at Hobson's Choice in Hoboken, N.J. around 7:20 p.m. on Thursday. He asked if they needed anything else before paying. They said no and handed him $90 in cash.
About two hours later he approached three women dining at Margherita's Pizza and Cafe. He asked if they were ready to pay, took $96 and never returned with their change.

I'm tempted to wonder how often this has occurred in college classrooms. Presumably, the "perp" would have to linger in a hall full of crowded classrooms, wait for one room full of students to appear to lack an instructor, and then seize the day. He would also need an escape strategy should he choose a classroom blessed with the chronically late instructor. (In grad school, I remember one professor arrived thirty minutes late for every meeting but routinely kept us past the end of class. To this day, I am unsure if he even knew the exact hours class was to meet.) Most college students do not pay their tuition directly to the instructor on a per diem basis, and despite the increase in part-time faculty and raises that do not keep pace with the cost of living, very few instructors are using a tip jar or open guitar cases in their classrooms. I thought of this idea many years ago, deemed it too risky for the classroom but told it to my father, and he did have success with a tip jar at work. Of course, that was white collar, computer work, and I imagine many of the employees there had change to spare.

I'm thinking the fake instructor could shake the students down for something but not necessarily thick wads of American dollars. In the first place, the students are there, in college, so they have already proven to be gullible when receiving a sales pitch or marketing material. They've listened to a full chorus of K--12 teachers telling them college is the way to go; they've digested the brochures full of grassy green multicultural scenery (if a campus only has one black student and one square yard of grass, guaranteed the PR guy will find a way to photograph him smiling on the green) and high starting salaries for all manner of professions with a decided lack of fine print showing how many lawyers, programmers, and copywriters now work on temporary contracts. The regular professor has been selling them "a bill of goods" (thanks, Tennessee) all semester long about his own take on his own discipline and its relation to the world with perhaps some stock picks or NFL winners thrown in along the way. And the students in the room are still showing up.

It seems evident that the determined confidence man would be able to get something out of the classroom... cash? laptops? cellphones? conversions to Christ? or merely a phone number or two from friendly coeds? When this fake waiter guy gets caught, we'll have to interview him on how he'd execute his con on a college classroom.

For more soft con, I recommend David Mamet's House of Games. I've shown this movie to teach sales strategies as part of my Business Communications curriculum. As a final note, consider all of the "real" employees with real titles who must work their way around the "whole truth and nothing but" to earn their living. I'm thinking of stockbrokers, real-estate agents, and sales and leasing professionals dealing in all manner of goods. Perhaps this wannabe waiter fellow is a laid off broker of stocks or homes? Of course, it is more likely he is a poor college kid trying to pay for school.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Happy Seder Party People!

I hope those of you celebrating Passover enjoy a delectable meal as well as the bitter root; if you're vegan' it, chow some eggplant for yours truly, and if you plan to thump bible (down with the OT?) or discuss Israel's position in the world, enjoy that too. As every discursive Jew should know, there's nothing wrong with a little debate at the dinner table.

In honor of my Sederless South Carolina existence, I wanted to note a famous Hollywood omission of the Passover scene. The movie version of The Wonder Boys omits the long seder scene that fans of Michael Chabon's original novel no doubt enjoyed. In honor of old Chabonet, I bought a remaindered copy of The Yiddish Policemen's Union for half off a $6.98 sticker price. In the moment, I was not connecting the purchase in anyway to Passover, but I look forward to learn how the Jews of Alaska would have celebrated. I stand in solidarity with Michael Douglas and all other x-husbands denied a seder in the movie version of their fictional lives.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Chump Change Published by Harper Perennial!

In a win for Dan Fante, fans of Dan Fante, and all literature of the lower life, drinking life, skid row, or otherwise down-and-out parts of America, Harper Perennial appears to be publishing a trade paperback of Dan Fante's Chump Change. According to amazon.com, the Harper Perennial Chump Change is due out in December 1, 2009 and will presumably be available "wherever books are sold." In fact, all three novels in Fante's "Bruno Dante trilogy" will be published by Harper then.

To me, the fact Harper is publishing his novels eleven years after Sun Dog Press published Chump Change (1998) is just another sign that American literary agents and publishers are not always the best judges of talent nor are they always in tune to what will sell. We can all see there is plenty of room on the shelf for Harry Potter, Terri McMillian, Stephen King, and other mainstream dominators of book markets, but I believe many, many readers are looking for more realistic versions of reality. So to speak. We don't have to read that 1 in 10 Americans receives food stamps or see 600,000 jobs lost each month to know that the other side or underside of America is more likely the one we live in, come from, or understand to describe the majority around us.

Fante is one of several American authors published in French translation even before his books were published in the United States. Iain Levison, talented and sardonic author of A Working Stiff's Manifesto, appears to have been in a similar position with his most recent book, Dog Eats Dog. Based on my research on amazon, Levison's third novel was published in French before English. I am not familiar with Bitter Lemon Press, but it seems possible this is Levison's own press, and like many other authors, he has determined to take American marketing and distribution into his own hands. The French have always had a taste for the sad side of the American Dream, and to some extent, it seems like we owe them thanks for alerting us to some top-shelf prose written by living Americans.

My sense is that literary agents and publishers are so certain that America demands an optimistic, palatable version of America that readers will shy away from titles like these that describe the grittier side of our streets. When one considers just how central failure is in the American literary canon (Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Herzog, A Fan's Notes, etc.), it doesn't make sense that these books would be ignored. For now, we can send kudos to Fante for keeping his books in print and do our rain dances for underdog book sales everywhere.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Brief Introduction to Offutt's The Same River Twice

Chris Offutt’s The Same River Twice, like Paul Auster’s “Portrait of an Invisible Man,” is a memoir with a compelling narrative structure. In this case, unlike Auster’s fragmented approach, where paragraphs and even sentences stand alone as their separate scenes or sections—at times, almost like epiphanies or aphorisms—Offutt has two main narrative strands—a past and a present—that intertwine and then merge toward the end of the book. It seems possible you can compare this narrative approach to a movie you have seen or perhaps another book. Thomas Pynchon’s V—yes, that is the full title—famously introduces us to the same narrative strategy, and if you look at a V as an intersection between two lines, you can see Pynchon’s title alludes to the dual narration. Unlike Pynchon’s novel, in Offutt’s memoir, the author is the main character in both strands of narration. In any memoir, thus, the writer is also the “protagonist” although Offutt uses honesty, self-effacing humor, and humility to create a likeable “I” more than a self-absorbed narcissist.

Offutt’s Title: On page 54, Chris Offutt elaborates on the origins of his title. “You can’t step into the same river twice” is an aphorism you have probably heard before. It comes from Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher who lived and thought before Plato and Aristotle. The saying literally implies that because the water is always moving, whenever we step into the river, we are stepping into a distinctly different part of the water; we are never in exactly the same water. As a metaphor applied to our lives, our current experience with anything from our past—parents, cities, towns, old algebra textbooks—cannot be completely the same as our previous experience with that person, place, or object. Maybe you have had this experience of returning to a favorite place or film and being surprised or disappointed by the changes? For a film, once you have seen the entire film, your second viewing cannot be the same as your first because you will remember more and more of the film as you are viewing it a second time.

Chris Offutt’s next paragraph on the top of page 55 offers an ironic twist to Heraclitus’s “deep” idea, pointing out that for Offutt’s practical neighbor, “the river is always the same, moving past his house, providing food.” I enjoy the way Offutt mixes low- and high-brow philosophy, humor, and anecdote; it is exactly when he approaches pretentiousness that he brings us back to earth (sometimes literally). For your further contemplation, consider this saying also attributed to Heraclitus: “Water flows through a rock.” Yeah. What is the “deep” thought under the surface of that one?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cut the Cord!

We cut the umbilical cord over a month ago, or I should say circumstances allowed for our lives with television to end. April Fools? In fact, not.

When a few repairmen next roof over forgot to correctly replace our digital satellite, we chose to cancel our membership to the club of millions (or well over a billion served?) of people with TV reception. We are in a relatively remote part of the country, so we do not receive any channels without cable; it is possible we will purchase an HDTV with antenna to see if we are able to receive channels, but for now we are enjoying this welcome break from the screen of all screens.

Professor Li watches hardly any television, and I've noticed the baby much prefers toys with blinking lights and objects that can be chewed on to any kind of TV viewing. Indeed, chez Li-Kudera, I was the bloomberg addict, the one opting out of the last three episodes of ER, and pre-emptively striking against the NCAAs as well as NBA playoffs. So far, I can report that I am still alive and functioning. I've noticed a definite trend toward more internet use from home (we do not have enough broadband to enjoy streaming video), and on campus I find myself retrieving free paper copies of the New York Times and USA Today. It is easier to enjoy "quality time" with the baby without any background reports of falling Dows or rising futures. Yiyi will look and listen intently to seven or more board books in a row, and TVlessness contributes to this positive experience.

Travelling over Spring Break, I did find that I turned the TV on almost immediately after entering the hotel room in San Francisco, further proof that I am one who should not be living with access to bloomberg, espn, cnn, nbc, and even the dreaded Fox (yes, my theory is the people who dislike their programming might watch for this reason, just as the "dislikers" watch Simon on American Idol).

Do I agree with Pynchon's Thoth that TV is in fact, "a filthy machine"? To some extent yes although I believe many families are able to function with quality reception without allowing that access to dominate their home life. Is it invariably a "boob tube" or "idiot box"? I would say no, that in fact there is some so-called "good" programming, a lot of "good and bad" programming, and that in general, television helps some people relax, take their mind off their problems, and provide some laughs. Do I plan to rent a few movies over the next several months? Yes, we can still play tapes and DVDs.

So in my adult life (as in post-college years), I've lived without TV for seven years, then with some access to TV for eleven years (full satellite access for only the past 18 months), and now I am beginning a new streak. I will let you know when we plug in again. I am hoping it is not before I have published a novel.