Monday, April 25, 2011

Pinsky: Poetry in a world of Facebook, Kindles

Originally printed April 23, 2011.

The following interview is with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who is in town today as part of the local celebrations of UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day.

» JCC: Since you're coming to Iowa City -- UNESCO City of Literature and home of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop -- how would you describe the role that this community has played in American poetry?

RP: Historically, the Writers' Workshop was the pioneer graduate program in creative writing. Like the GI Bill and the Morrill Act (establishing land-grant universities) the growth of MFA programs has made American education and culture, including the art of poetry, more available. Creative writing as a discipline has had a democratic effect. (That the degree-granting programs also incur the risk of becoming an obnoxious guild is part of the way things work, I guess.)

» JCC: How has the so-called "Program Era" (à la Mark McGurl) influenced American poetry and fiction in the past half-century? How is/isn't that influence waning in the present?

RP: I hadn't heard that phrase before. In a way, I'm not qualified to answer -- I've never attended a creative writing program or taken a regular creative writing workshop. And the MFA program where I teach, at Boston University, there is an unusually intense emphasis on studying literature, learning languages and other cultures, etc. Louise Glück, Rosanna Warren and I (and before that Derek Walcott and I) teach students who must complete four graduate-level literature courses -- the same courses that Ph.D. students take. And they must complete a foreign language requirement. In many ways, I remain an outsider to the world of "The Program Era" -- a mostly benign outsider, as indicated, I hope, by my answer about the democratizing nature of the MFA programs.

» JCC: How are your creative writing students different now than they were 30 years ago?

RP: I'm not sure. Possibly, they are more hungry for what used to be supplied by English departments?

» JCC: Why do people go to poetry readings to hear "famous poets"? And how has the poetry-reading circuit affected how you write/read?

RP: I think the best reason to attend a poetry reading is to get some hint of what the poet hears while writing. In other words, I personally don't put much value on the reading as a good show -- for that, I'd rather watch TV. Elizabeth Bishop didn't give an amusing or dynamite performance, but I loved hearing her read her work (though she hated giving readings) because it helped me think about the shapes of her lines and sentences. It gave me some insight into the work of a great artist.

» JCC: The role of poetry in the United States seems much less important to the lives of everyday people than the role of poetry in almost any other nation in the world. Which culture/nation do you think has the healthiest appreciation for poetry? And what are the key differences between what they do and what we do?

RP: I urge you to look at (and listen to!) the video segments at www.favorite (In a friendly spirit, not meaning to offend, I think you may sentimentalize "they" and underestimate "we.")

» JCC: How has social networking changed your approach to poetry and reading/writing communities?

RP: My main reason for being on Facebook is to help people know about the Favorite Poem Project-- the anthologies, the videos at, and the Summer Institute for K-12 Teachers. I fell into FB because, in some way I still don't understand, someone else started a "Robert Pinsky" page. I'm just a zaydee; I don't really know what I'm talking about.

» JCC: How is reading a poem on a Kindle different than reading it in a book, journal or magazine?

RP: I've never bonded with my Kindle -- I use it to read a chapter or two of Dickens or Bronte or Elmore Leonard on airplane rides. On the one hand, I guess it bothers me that visual lines are wrecked on it. On the other hand, those Latin poets wrote lines so firm in rhythm that the poems were read, and survived, on scrolls where they were all run together, like some wacky digital printout. Or am I wrong about that? Anyway, I'm not a Kindler. But I do have about 200 poems on my telephone -- a statement I wouldn't even understand a decade or two ago!

» JCC: I've been rereading "An Explanation of America." So much of what you wrote then still seems timely today. How did writing that poem help prepare you for the impressive, large-scale projects you undertook as poet laureate?

RP: I've never liked titles and official prizes like "poet laureate"; always felt I was not cut out for them. The Favorite Poem Project is in a peculiar way a critique or resistance to expectations: Instead of marketing or missionary work or telling people to read poems, the FPP asked people what poems they like. Instead of a poet reading his or her work, or a famous professor talking about a poem, the voices and responses of readers. Instead of "advocacy," attention.

Your question makes me wonder if in a similar way, the rather eccentric, drastically unconventional book-length poem "An Explanation of America" resists expectations about poetry. ... I'm not sure I've written anything else as nervy and cuckoo as that book.

» JCC: How would you approach "An Explanation of America" differently if you were publishing it in 2011 instead of 1979?

To think about this question is upsetting for me: I fear for the world, and for the future, more than I did 30 years ago. On the one hand, the poem tries to imagine disaster and ugliness as well as some hope -- its concluding passages express some disgust at hope itself. But on the other hand, I hadn't imagined that "nature" in the sense of something untouched by human industry would no longer exist. I hadn't imagined that the Supreme Court would confer on corporations the freedom of speech rights of actual people. I hadn't imagined the recurrence of something resembling the Thirty Years War.

» JCC: And given that "Explanation" was subtitled as "A Poem to My Daughter," how does she like the poem? Would you recommend the book-length poem as a form that other fathers should use for explaining concepts that "cannot be known or told in final terms"?

RP: The daughter addressed in the poem wrote the excellent notes to my "Inferno" of Dante. She has three children of her own. Like her and me, they enjoy poems by Walter de la Mare and Edward Lear. And William Blake and Emily Dickinson.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

Harding: Not just tinkering around

Originally printed April 21, 2011.

Paul Harding's year as the reigning Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction ended Tuesday when the Pulitzer committee announced novelist Jennifer Egan as the 2011 winner.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Harding said he had noticed a drop-off in the number of the domestic appearances related to his award-winning debut novel "Tinkers." But he also has seen a ramping up of international interest. With several translations of "Tinkers" in the works, Harding already has readings scheduled in such international cities as Paris, Capetown, Hamburg and Dublin -- one of Iowa City's fellow UNESCO Cities of Literature.

"But how do you translate 'Tinkers'?" I asked. "It's so language-driven rather than plot-driven."

"Its language-based aesthetics actually help the translation," Harding said. "The translators aren't limited by trying to find just one corresponding word in the other language."

I'm not sure how international audiences will react to the very stylized and regionalized rural Maine setting for Harding's tale of a dying watchmaker, George Washington Crosby, whose final thoughts flash between his hospice stupor, the memories of his father, Howard, and memories of his unnamed grandfather. (Each generation, it seems, passes further into an almost mythic past.)

But those international audiences probably will have the same reaction that American audiences have. Those who love the book will really love the book. (They'll also love the Cinderella publishing story that makes "Tinkers" the first Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 30 years to have been printed on a small press -- let alone on a small press such as Bellevue Literary Press, which is run out of New York University's School of Medicine

But that "love" only comes with a struggle. "Tinkers" is still a "literary novel" that makes far more strenuous demands on its readers than your standard book-club fare. Anyone expecting to whip through the slim, 192-page book is in for a surprise. In addition to the shifts in time and voice, the novel also is filled with fictional excerpts from centuries-old manuals on clock-making and horticulture as well as prose-poetic passages that often make sense only after multiple readings.

For most of the translations, Harding sees only the finished product. But some of the translators do check in with him periodically to ask questions about particular American phrases or to ensure they understand a passage correctly.

"The Italian translator wanted to get all the Latin in the book right," Harding said. "Which is interesting because ... well ... I was always just making it up. All those references to 'borealis.' It's kind of an ersatz fairy-tale Latin. But he wanted to correct the declensions and the conjugations ... and was somewhat shocked when I said, 'Do whatever you want.'"

Harding hasn't moved on from the characters and setting of his debut novel. Following in the footsteps of Marilynne Robinson and William Faulkner -- novelists he considers among his "literary aunts and uncles" -- Harding already is working on several stories and a new novel set in Enon, the town where much of "Tinkers" takes place.

The 2000 Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate also said he's not at all concerned about the so-called "sophomore curse." Having signed a two-book deal with Random House even before last year's Pulitzer announcement, he's confident his next book will be a worthwhile follow-up to "Tinkers."

And now that the spotlight is shifting off him -- even slightly -- Harding just might have enough time to finish that next draft.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

Kasten: Don't judge a book by its title

Originally printed April 20, 2011.

Kate Kasten's self-published novel, "The De-Conversation of Kit Lamb," provides a lesson in never judging a book by its title.

I, like many other readers, approached the novel thinking it would be a thinly veiled, philosophical tract in which Kasten's anti-evangelical motivations would overshadow any literary pleasure she could possibly present to her readers. And when I learned that Kasten viewed the novel as "an alternative" to the the apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, I feared my worst expectations would be quickly confirmed.

I was surprised at how nuanced the religious characters were -- even at their most dangerously naïve -- especially the 21-year-old missionary Kit Lamb and his stateside pastor. And I was downright shocked at how well Kasten captured all the evangelical code words I'd grown up with -- even to the point that Kit's eventual falling way from the faith is left open-ended enough to still fit squarely within a "born again" worldview.

But I was unprepared for how perfectly early 1980s Guatemala -- under the brutal rule of real-life, born-again dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt -- would serve as a setting for a novel exploring the relationship between faith and politics. No matter how sincere Kit's beliefs -- no matter how much he has found meaning within his church -- there's no way he can reconcile his faith against the torture and other horrific acts that took place under the rule of "Brother Efraín."

Kit's de-conversion, in fact, is a kinder, gentler updating of Huck Finn's blunter statement, "All right, then, I'll go to hell."

After her travels to Central America and years spent researching Guatamalean history, Kasten said she was confident in her ability to tell the political-historical part of the story. But she was far less confident about her ability to write from a "born again" perspective.

"I think faith is something that is so dear to people's hearts that it's not something you mess with in a hostile or confrontational way," Kasten said in phone interview last week.

Kasten said "The Poisonwood Bible" came very close to accomplishing what she set out to do in "The De-Conversion," but even in Barbara Kingsolver's novel, the character of the missionary father comes across as as such "an abusive guy" that he seems more of a symbolic caricature than a character to empathize with.

So Kasten decided to visit a variety of born-again congregations -- mostly from a mix of evangelical, charismatic and pentacostal denominations.

"I wanted to get a sense of the language that people were using and of the feelings behind those words," Kasten said. "I got a strong sense that the people in these churches had found a wonderful community that made them feel really good. That they had found a sense of the meaning of life."

Kasten's language was so accurate, however, that many of her early readers began to wonder if she was writing Christian fiction herself. That's why she eventually decided to use a title that diminishes, rather than enhances, her story.

"I decided it would be OK to let readers know from the beginning where the book was headed," Kasten said. "I wanted to make sure this (de-conversion) wasn't just something that happened overnight."

Kasten, who has been teaching English as Second Language at the University of Iowa for 21 years, was able pull on local expertise to make her self-published novel as eye-catching as possible. Sara Sauers, who works for the UI Center for the Book and has her own local press, designed the interior. And Benjamin Chait and of his staff artists at Chait Galleries designed the cover.

The distractingly titled result is an imperfect but beautiful book, inside and out.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

'Unremembering' Laura Ingalls Wilder

Originally printed April 16, 2011.

It's hard to pinpoint a genre in which to place Wendy McClure's long-titled "The Wilder Life: My Adventure in the Lost World of 'Little House on the Prairie.'"

The book is somewhat like "Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism," in which New Yorker staff writer Joan Acocella's stakes out a new scholarly position on the great American novelist. But McClure, although a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, isn't really looking to make any academic statement.

It's a little more like "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia," in which Laura Miller chronicles her disappointment with revisiting C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories as an adult. But McClure, although an editor who knows the business of children literature inside and out, isn't disillusioned at the end of her quest.

It's probably most like "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen," but only if Julie Powell were endowed with the same wit, wry sense of humor and historical insight that "This American Life" contributor Sara Vowell brings to her books, "Assassination Vacation," "The Wordy Shipmates" and "Unfamiliar Fishes."

In "The Wilder Life" McClure creates a sort of literary GPS through which she triangulates her personal experiences of Laura Ingalls Wilder from three main sources:

» The travels and life of the historic Ingalls family.

» How those life experiences were unremembered in the "Little House" books.

» And how those books and stories have been unremembered through various television adaptations and other public cultural incarnations over the past half-century.

The word "unremembered" becomes the key concept behind the project.

McClure first came upon the word when looking through Donald Zockert's "Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder" -- one of the countless biographies, amateur histories, academic treatises, memoirs and "Little House"-themed cookbooks that she read over the course of her research.

"The wagons started by the early light of morning," Zockert wrote. "One went north from this little unremembered house on the Missouri prairie, north toward home. The other went south."

Near the end of "The Wilder Life," McClure explains that she knew that the word simply meant "forgotten," but after ruminating on the concept, she came up with a new, more personal, definition.

"To me," she wrote, "unremembering is knowing that something once happened or existed by remembering the things around it or by putting something else in its place."

So McClure started documenting the ways that the life of the historic Ingalls and Wilder families have been unremembered (first by Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, when writing and editing the books, and then by the broader culture). At the same time, McClure started documenting how she was unremembering her own childhood fascination with the "Little House" books (what she affectionately calls Laura World) and replacing it with a more sophisticated, adult-appropriate appreciation for where Laura World does and doesn't connect with the real world.

It takes McClure a chapter or two to find the right anthropological balance between describing herself as an observer and describing what she actually observes. But as soon as she takes off into the Big Woods (both literally and literarily), McClure provides a book that is as fun, insightful and exciting to read as it must have been to write.

» Through her exploration of what exactly the Ingalls family was doing illegally squatting deep into Indian Territory, McClure raises a number of grown-up questions about Charles Ingalls' business decisions -- complicated questions whose answers get glossed over in the books' rather vague use of dates and imprecise locations.

» In her chapter on the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Laura and Rose -- as well as the academic debate over the degree to which Rose helped shape her mother's vision of the books -- McClure cuts to the heart of how these stories have been transmitted from one generation to the next.

» Through her discussion of current religious home-schooling curriculum based on the "Little House" books, the agnostic McClure finds a way to explain why she always preferred the Ingalls family of the books to the family's overt sappiness and sentimental religiosity in the TV series.

» And through her contrast of the Walnut Grove of reality and the Walnut Grove of the small screen, McClure provides a case study for the complicated forces unleashed by unremembering. She takes special relish in explaining how, over the past three decades, the large number of Hmong refugees who decided to settle in Walnut Grove -- largely because of the town's television reputation -- has helped stabilize the town's property base and saved its school.

In the final chapters of "The Wilder Life," McClure does admit to tiring of her trek into Laura World. But even her disillusionment makes for interesting reading. After more than 300 pages of historical and pop-cultural context for unremembering Laura Ingalls, readers will need some time to reconcile their own Half Pint perspectives with a fuller portion that is appropriate for their adult lives.

As McClure explains, "I'd always been a little at odds with this woman, the Bessie or Mrs. Wilder or whatever she was really called, who was not quite Laura and not quite not her, but I felt like I finally knew the story that continued, that I'd been where it had gone."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

Khalastchi making sure 'all is accounted for'

Originally printed March 22, 2011.

The world is simply too disjointed for Daniel Khalastchi to put his faith in line breaks alone as a means of giving form to his poetic vision.

In his new collection, "Manoleria" (Tupelo Press, 2011), the Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate invites readers to absorb his poetry through drips and drops. As suggested in his long-titled "Small There. The Screen Was. Out: (Morphine Drip)," Khalastchi uses his poems as if they were IV drips directly hooked into to his readers -- providing short bursts of linguistic experiments that are allowed to puddle on the page. It's a poetic world in which images "Combine as Assets" and yet celebrate how poets and readers are left with "Insufficient Funds."

The Khalastchi persona presented in this collection usually is deprived of the necessary sustenance that he seeks (as in, "By a Fallen Tree I Wait for My Salesman"). He often finds himself ruminating while playing the victim of medical procedures (as in, "With Regret, They Make Moves to Sell My Kidney" and "The Doctors Believed They. Were Out of Rubber: [Recovery])"). Or, as in the many titled "Manoleria," Khalastchi provides long lines of poetic prose that capture an extraordinary moment's quiet panic and confusion.

"The box is then sealed with Saran Wrap," Khalastchi writes. "I am reminded to be conscious of air supply. I'd say something back, but I'm already worried."

Several of the poems in the collection are mere puddles of fragments and half-finished phrases all beginning with the word "Because."

"Because rain. Because hard. Because / pain in my ribs. Because buckle and / wait. Because cramping. Because / kneeling low. Because pause," begins the introductory poem, "The Maturation of Man."

In these poems, the lists of "because" clauses seem to build to the last line:

• "Because from a bench I / step to the air -- watch as my city / folds down to a circle."

• "Because under the branches / they tell me we find it."

• "Because bugs in my / cuts I yell out for new moon."

• "Because children with / smiles they let out the lions."

• "Because / deep the incision we fall back the night."

But unlike the "whereas" clauses in official resolutions and proclamations, none of those last lines offer any official pronouncement. The poems, instead, suggest that resolution isn't possible. They simply connect what otherwise would be unconnectable.

As D.A. Powell blurbs in his praise for the collection, "Formally, the poet is literally taking us through the emotional work of picking up pieces. Despite the splintering, despite the hemorrhage, somehow 'all is accounted for.'"

Khalastchi, one of the founders of the Wisconsin-based Rescue Press, will read from "Manoleria" at 7 tonight in Prairie Lights Books.

Press-Citizen Opinion Editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

Novelist Chang-rae Lee never surrenders quality

Originally printed March 9, 2011.

When you read the first chapter of Chang-rae Lee's novel "The Surrendered," you can't help but feel that all hope is lost. That the world has come crashing down. That a child left orphaned and sibling-less surely won't be able to survive the chaos caused by the rupture of North and South Korea.

Keep reading that you see that the child, June Han (later Singer), shows the same power and force at work in the main characters in Lee's earlier novels -- "Native Speaker" (1995), "A Gesture of Life" (1999) and "Aloft" (2004). And by the time the novel shifts to the 1980s -- and we see June in New York and Italy, suffering through the end stages of stomach cancer -- it's clear that it wasn't the war that made June so tough; she would have been that way however her life would have unfolded.

In "The Surrendered," Lee has chosen not to tell the story from any individual's perspective, but with a more traditional third-person omniscient narrator. So we experience much of the story told through the eyes of Hector Brennan, a discharged American soldier/classic-loser-alcoholic who works as a janitor at the Korean orphanage June finally finds her way to. And both June and Hector fall in love with Sylvie Tanner, the enigmatic wife of the minister who ran the orphanage.

Nearly all the critics praise Lee's ability to craft a haunting sentence and paragraph, yet some reviewers worry whether the storyline goes beyond heart-wrenching and surrenders too willingly to the power of melodrama.

Given the novel's length, perhaps they were right -- at least initially -- to be worried.

As Laura Miller noted in her review for Salon, "Big novels, like big dogs, are more appealing when imperfectly groomed, and for that reason I approached ... 'The Surrendered' with some trepidation."

But the jostling between war-time survival of the 1950s and the end-of-life experiences in the 1980s requires an acceptance of the unpredictability of life that melodrama can't endure.

And if there's one thing all three of Lee's characters know how to do, it's endure.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

Prairie Lights getting into the book club business

Originally printed March 8, 2011.

Although Prairie Lights Books has been in business for nearly three decades, the store's first official book club meeting kicks off at 7 p.m. today.

"We've had a lot of book clubs bring their meetings here before," said Paul Ingram, longtime bookbuyer for Prairie Lights, "but we've never had one in which we choose the books and set the discussion."

And anyone who enjoyed the recent Coen Brothers remake of "True Grit" will be interested in today's discussion. To begin what he hopes to be a monthly event, Ingram has chosen to talk about Charles Portis' 1979 novel "The Dog of the South."

"It's one of the funniest books I've ever read," Ingram said. "I wanted to start off with one of that was funny."

Although not as well known as Portis' 1968 novel "True Grit" -- the novel on which both the 1969 and 2010 films were based -- "The Dog of the South" received an even better critical reception when first published. And thankfully the success of the Coen Brothers' film has brought all of Portis' other novels -- "Norwood" (1966), "Masters of Atlantis" (1985), and "Gringos" (1991) -- back into print.

Although Ingram hopes "The Dog of the South" sets the right tone for future discussions, he said he will strive for a wide variety of books and topics.

"I'm going to be choosing books that I believe are absolutely fascinating yet seldom read," Ingram said. "They'll only be books that I have a strong, emotional feeling about one way or another."

Although the book club officially bears his name, Ingram said the one thing he won't do is dominate the discussion. Because he'll choose books that largely speak for themselves, he hopes that all he'll need to do is provide a short introduction for the session and then get out the way as people begin to talk.

For information about the Paul Ingram Book Club -- which the bookstore's website describes as being "named after our buyer's ego" -- visit

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

Hale's "Bruno": Not just another ape novel

If you go to the University of Iowa Main Library and read through the 2008 thesis Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate Benjamin Hale submitted for his MFA, you'll see some flashes of the narrative power Hale unleashes in his debut novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" (Twelve, 2011).

You'll read a long-titled novella -- "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" -- that tells the story of characters who are overwhelmed by the sound and fury of their lives. You'll see Hale's fondness for weaving literary allusions -- especially direct biblical quotes -- into inappropriate situations. You'll see characters who can look beyond their immediate problems, turn their gaze to the nighttime sky and imagine the awe that filled their ancestors long ago.

And, yes, you'll read a lot of descriptions of sex acts -- sometimes disturbing, sometimes violent and sometimes unwanted.

But you won't hear the voice of Bruno Littlemore, the chimpanzee narrator of Hale's exhilarating new novel. You won't experience the 578 pages of first-person narration from a character critics are comparing to Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert ("Lolita"), Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy ("Portnoy's Complaint") or the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man."

"Bruno was always a separate entity from the rest of my writing," Hale said in a phone interview Friday. "The book, the character and the voice were all the same thing. It was a persona that was a lot of fun to slip into."

Hale said the premise for the novel "slowly congealed." He was inspired largely by Franz Kafka's story, "A Report for an Academy," in which an ape named Red Peter presents a scientific paper on how he acquired language and became a 19th-century gentleman of letters. Hale wanted to see if he could write a book-length homage to Kafka's short character sketch.

Toward the end of his first semester in the Workshop, Hale had an "initial gush of inspiration" and wrote what now is the first 50 pages of the novel over a two-week period. He then wrote the last chapter of the novel and then spent the next three years trying to tie those two points together.

Although inspired by the Kafka story, Hale become aware of other talking ape novels over the course of writing: From John Collier's "His Monkey Wife" (1930), to Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" (1992), to Will Self's "Great Apes" (1997), to Sara Gruen's "Ape House" (2010), to Laurence Gonzales' "Lucy" (2010).

Hale said he refused -- and still refuses -- to read those novels for fear he might become too influenced ("even retroactively") by them.

Instead, the first-time novelist immersed himself in research about the history of ape language studies. And that research included many trips to Great Ape Trust in Des Moines and long conversations with the few scientists who actually are involved in studies about animal consciousness.

As a result of all this hard work, the 27-year-old Hale was able to take the "absurd premise" that Kafka had worked over in just a few pages and stretch it into a "feast of narrative" about growing up in America in the 1980s and 1990s. The world of Bruno Littlemore a cartoonish world à la Dickens and Pynchon, but one that grows more disturbingly real over the course of the novel. And Hale manages to keep his long, divergent storyline in check through the contrast between Bruno's narcissism, charisma, overblown erudition and utter cluelessness.

The novel received a lot of pre-publication hype because of concerns over the complicated sexual and domestic relationship that develops between Bruno and Lydia Littlemore, the female scientist who teaches Bruno language and from whom he takes his last name. But Hale has worked hard to ensure that the relationship -- as well as the fits of violence that the encultured Bruno still remains capable of -- comes across as "natural" and "necessary" to the story.

In the end, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" tells us much less about the mystery of animal consciousness and much more about what it means to be human.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

Martel defends the power of allegory

Originally printed February 27, 2011.

Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Yann Martel will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Iowa City Public Library.

Martel will be reading from his recent novel, "Beatrice and Virgil," an animal-based allegorical take on the Holocaust and the process of writing about the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, "Beatrice and Virgil" hasn't been received as warmly as was Martel's 2002 fantasy adventure novel, "Life of Pi."

I managed to get a hold of Martel on Friday as he was being driven to another reading. Here's an edited account of our conversation.

JCC: You've said that you're much more interested in stories with a capital "S" than stories with a small "s." What's the difference between the two.

YM: A story with a small "s" is a mere anecdote or mere entertainment. A Story with a capital "S" is grander thing -- something that explains life, that gives us direction, that gives us a sense of life.

The main example of capital "S" Stories would be religious stories, but they're also the grand political stories. The Story of George Washington is both history and story. The story starts to becoming mythological and eventually becomes a Story giving Americans a sense of who they are.

Stories take on a reality that becomes reality.

JCC: So why does allegory work for you as a way to move from stories to Stories?

YM: Allegory has a power of encapsulation. And it presents a reality that already is discontinuous.

When writing about the Holocaust, for example, the primary mode has been as an act of witness. And the dominant genre has been non-fiction and memoir.

With allegory, however, you can describe the tragedy more simply. You can get to the heart of the issue without becoming lost in the details.

Take "Animal Farm," a delightful allegory, in which George Orwell gives the essentials of what life was like under Stalin. It's not factually true because there are too many facts to render. Yet it stays true to the spirit.

In the same way, the Holocaust is just too much to take in by itself. It's too vast a canvas -- taking place over years, over several countries, involving millions of people.

You need to get it down to the essentials.

JCC: With so many negative reviews of the novel, it appears many critics disagree with what you consider the essentials of the Holocaust story.

YM: People don't seek out Holocaust stories for entertainment. They might see a new, big Hollywood movie on it or read a new memoir, but most people won't choose to go right up to the pit. And if they do, it's usually because they are looking for some cathartic experience.

As a result, we get all these books on the Holocaust that end up being so homogenuous.

And we get all these critics who come out and say that they "hate the book" -- or worse, that I'm somehow "trivializing the Holocaust."

I'm left amazed that we have all these literary critics -- all these professional readers -- who basically say that you can use allegory and metaphor for everything except the Holocaust.

JCC: What are you working on now?

YM. I'm working on my next novel, which is going to feature animals, because using animals is such a wonderfully versatile tool. It's going to be called "The High Mountains of Portugal" and it's going to feature a chimpanzee and a rhinoceros

Even though "Beatrice and Virgil" is a short novel, it took me so long to write because of all the limitations placed on me by the story.

Now I'm liberated from that, and I have same ambition and freedom I did when I wrote "Life of Pi."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

Lewis-Beck writing out of both sides of his brain

Originally printed February 22, 2011.

"What possessed you to think you could write a novel?" I half-kiddingly asked University of Iowa political science professor Mike Lewis-Beck in a phone interview last week.

After laughing, Lewis-Beck explained that his novelistic aspirations actually go back more than 20 years, back to when he wrote the first full draft of his newly published "Death Walks the Riviera."

Back in the late 1980s, Lewis-Beck was a fellow at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. While there, he realized that the study center would make an interesting setting for a murder mystery. Modeling his style after the academic novels of David Lodge and stories of Richard Russo, Lewis-Beck invented a series of fictional murders in what he renamed the Calendal Foundation. He then imagined how the assembled scholars -- philosophers, sociologists, literary critics, pianists, historians, oboists and linguists -- would react to the killings.

"I would describe the book as a comedy of manner," Lewis-Beck said. "It's about how amusing academic, writers and artists are when you look at them from the outside. And I include myself in that list. We're a pretty funny crowd -- funny in both senses of the word."

Lewis-Beck said the writing process had been enjoyable, but he put the novel in his desk drawer when he got back to Iowa City.

He only got it out again after his wife, an adjunct professor of book design, asked if she could use the manuscript as a teaching tool for her students -- showing them how a book moves from words on a screen to a bound object of art that authors can hold proudly in their hands.

Expecting to cringe at the clunkiness of his 20-year-old prose, Lewis-Beck instead found himself impressed with a storyline and characters that he had put out of his mind.

He was pleased the novel was to be put into print, but he wasn't sure how his story would hold up under the critical gaze of some of his more literary-minded colleagues.

"I reached the point in which I said to myself, 'I'm not ashamed of this book,'" Lewis-Beck said. "But I was frankly worried that it wasn't good enough to show to people of that caliber."

The overall local response, however, as been quite positive.

Holly Carver, former director of the UI Press, says the book has a "gripping storyline, real-time dialogue and snarky insights into academic self-obsession."

Jim Harris, former owner of Prairie Lights Books, calls it, "Delightful, insightful, vengeful!"

And UI professor of English Garrett Stewart writes, "If academic thriller sounds like an oxymoron, that's because you haven't yet sampled this book."

Lewis-Beck will read from "Death Walks the Riviera" -- as well as be available to talk about novel writing, political science or a host of other topics -- at 7 today in Prairie Lights Books.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

Brockmeier's novel is afire

Originally printed February 16, 2011

Imagine that you've nicked yourself shaving, but not only do you have to worry about stopping the blood, you also have to worry about specks of light shining out of the wound.

Or imagine that you're in a car accident at night and you don't have to worry about calling anyone because streams of light are gushing from your injuries and alerting everyone for miles that a near fatal crash has occurred.

Or imagine that you find a man beaten and left for dead in alley, but no one pays any attention to him because, although "his wounds burned out of him like a fire ... his pain would cease, and his body would heal, and the light would last forever."

That's the magical-realist setting Kevin Brockmeier -- author of "The Brief History of the Dead" -- describes in his new novel, "The Illumination" (Pantheon Books, 2011).

Brockmeier imagines a world in which, for some unknown reason, human pain takes on a luminescent quality. Hospital workers triage patients just by noting the color and brightness of the light. The chronically ill can't hide their conditions because their pain shines through like visible x-rays. Overnight the world has to come to terms with private pain suddenly providing a public -- and often beautiful -- light show.

Brockmeier's extended conceit could have gone wrong in so many ways. At any point, the philosophical speculation could have fallen flat and been discarded as a failed experiment. And over the course of its 257 pages, the novel risks being the literary equivalent of a Saturday Night Live skit allowed to go on for far too long.

But Brockmeier's conceit, while overarching, never gets overwhelming. It simply provides him a unique novel-writing tool for shining light on the psychological dark corners of his six, interlocking main characters:

• Carol Ann Page, a recently divorced woman fascinated by the light gushing from her soon-to-be amputated thumb.

• Jason Williford, a 35-year-old photojournalist who survives a car accident and, in mourning for his wife, learns the visual beauty of self-mutilation from a group of older teenagers.

• Chuck Carter, a neuro-atypical 10-year-old who was attentive to the visual aura of pain long before the worldwide illumination and who can see similar auras coming from plants and beloved objects.

• Ryan Shifrin, a missionary for a new religious denomination that grows out of the newly illuminated world -- its tracts prominently quoting Revelation 22:5: "For the Lord God will illumine them."

• Nina Poggione, a writer/character who is to Brockmeier what Kilgore Trout was to Kurt Vonnegut in "Slaughterhouse Five" -- someone who helps ground the novel's imagined world in reality by contrasting it against even more fabulistic titles and fantastic plot possibilities.

• And Morse Putnum Strawbridge, a homeless bookseller whose pain and death bring the novel into its final focus.

Most amazingly, Brockmeier's literary ability lives up to the hauntingly appropriate epigraphs from great writers he uses to introduce each new section -- from Hugh Blumenfeld ("The light is worth the pain"), to Whittaker Chambers ("There is nothing more important than this wound"), to J.G. Ballard ("The world was beginning to flower into wounds"), to Simone Weil ("Pain is the color of certain events"), to Joy Williams ("To eradicate the sickness would be to eradicate the self") or to Franz Kafka ("It is enough that the arrows fit exactly in the wounds they have made").

To ask Brockmeier about his inspirations and literary ambitions, come to Prairie Lights Books at 7 p.m. Feb. 16.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

Egypt reclaims its dignity

Originally printed February 14, 2011.

To help make sense of last week's announced resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I turned to Ahmed Souaiaia, a University of Iowa professor who teaches classes in Religious Studies, International Programs and Law.

• Q: What do you think was the final straw to trigger the recent revolution in Egypt that led to last week's resignation by President Hosni Mubarak?

• A: I am surprised by the quick success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, but I was not surprised by the launch of the uprisings. Anyone who follows the Middle East news on a regular basis and who takes the time to read the comments on Aljazeera and Alarabia websites would see the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. The success of the Tunisian revolution, which was ignited by Mohamed Elbouazizi's dramatic self-immolation, was the singular event that pushed the Egyptians beyond the threshold fear and into hope.

The Arab world was the only block of countries to not experience political reform. It was a matter of time, not a matter of whether a revolution would take place.

• Q: What role has the media played in bringing out this transformation?

• A: Social networks have played a major role during the events (updates and coordination), but I am not sure that these tools played a major role in preparing Arab societies for transformative events.

I do believe, however, that Aljazeera television stations have played a major role in shaping public opinion. Aljazeera is the only Arab television channel that is credible enough to be trusted by millions of people across the Arab world. Aljazeera achieved its status because of its consistency. For more than a decade, Aljazeera was subjected to repeated bans by authoritarian regimes, which only added to its credibility.

• Q: What happens next? If Tunisia led to Egypt, what does Egypt now lead to?

• A: That is a little difficult to predict, but if I were to try, I would look at countries whose governments have banned Aljazeera now or in the past. This is not to say that Aljazeera is orchestrating the events, but regimes that ban Aljazeera are afraid of free access to information, they are paternalistic, they have marginalized their citizens, they rule with fear and deception, they assassinate the spirit of belonging in their peoples, and they abuse human dignity.

Another way of gauging where the wave of change is heading next is to look at countries where one person or one party exerts an exclusive monopoly on power: they are the police, they are the judges, they are the legislators, and they are the administrators. They benefit from having that much power, but that makes them the focus of peoples' rage and anger. They are the only available targets for blame, especially in a climate when there is no credit to be gained.

This means that Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya and other Gulf states will have to adjust and allow the emergence of civil society institutions and share governance power or suffer the same fate.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions should teach the rest of Arab authoritarians that if they do not reform today, they will go tomorrow just like Ben Ali and Mubarak did. The reform cannot be cosmetic, it must be substantive, real and systematic. The rest of the Arab rulers must cede some power to their peoples or lose it all.

• Q: What should the position of the Obama Administration be right now in regards to the transition of power in Egypt?

• A: Nothing more than a declaration of respect for the will of the Egyptian people. The U.S. administration needs to realize that just as it was incapable of predicting the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian authoritarians or managing the direction of their transitions, it will be unable to influence the future of these emerging democracies. The U.S. administration must respect the will of the peoples, as I believe most Americans do, and must not dictate the terms of transition. Tunisians and Egyptians have risen up because their regimes stripped them of their dignity.

The U.S. should not remind them of the paternalistic mode of thinking and doing things; dictating did not work in the past and it will not work in the long run. The U.S. administration ought to trust that the Egyptians will do the right thing. The mutual respect that President Obama had promised the Islamic world in his first State of the Union Address must be practiced today with the peoples who rose up against dictators and tyrants.

• Q: If the Obama Administration does decide to take steps to ensure that the next Egyptian government is friendly to the U.S. (including giving access to the Suez Canal and maintaining peace with Israel), does it still have the leverage necessary to take any of those steps?

• A: I think that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were uprisings against fear. Tunisians and Egyptians rose up to reclaim their dignity as human beings, as citizens; not as subjects or as helpless children.

Contrary to what many claim, it was not a revolt primarily for bread, jobs, democracy or religion. They rose up to reclaim their dignity.

The U.S. administration can be best served by respecting the Egyptians and treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. I honestly believe that the millions of Egyptians who have slept in the cold in the streets for 18 consecutive nights, resisted the provocation and brutality of the regime and its thugs, and kept the protest peaceful and orderly, are also capable of respecting the rights of other nations.

I am confident that Egyptians will stand for world peace, but not at the expense of their own dignity and interests. If the U.S. secures its rights, the Egyptian people, represented by democratically elected government, will be a constructive partner and ally. In other words, the U.S. can no longer buy consent and compliance, it must negotiate respectfully.

We now know the fate of trusting one person or one party at the expense of the rights and dignity of people. Kings and authoritarians are destined to go, but the people will remain. For a long-lasting peace and stability in this important place in the world, I advise the U.S. administration to do the right thing, not the expedient thing.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

Belz provides a lovely, poetic thhhppppptttt

Originally printed January 28, 2011.

There's a childlike forthrightness at the heart of Aaron Belz's poetry.

Throughout his new collection, "Lovely, Raspberry" (Persea Books, 2010), Belz's poetic narrators prove to be simultaneously innocent and defiant. They each seem to be able to stick out their tongue at readers and offer the most eloquent and euphoric raspberry ("thhhppppptttt") the poet can muster.

Rather than discuss love-hate relationships, one of Belz's poetic personas ruminates on "the love-hat relationship." And what looks like a simple spelling mistake suddenly becomes a serious/satiric poetic conceit in which Belz offers the sage/silly advice: "We all enjoy hats, / but they're not something to build an entire relationship on."

Belz seems determined to thwart all of his readers' expectations.

"You expect me to tell you about the interior of the room / in which I'm typing this, and connect that to my feeling," Belz writes at the beginning of the opening poem, "direction." "But I'd rather tell you about the interior of your room / and use that as a symbol for something less abstract."

Belz takes clichés, such as "reinventing the wheel," twists them and tries to rediscover the original poetry that the outworn phrase must have possessed when first uttered generations ago.

"I tried to reinvent the wheel," he writes, "and it was fun, / because I did. It came out better than before, / rounder, quicker, and with less friction."

Or, as he explains more directly in the poem "privacy": "When every word sounds cliché, / each turn of phrase derivative, / that's when I turn to slapstick / and boorish sexual innuendo."

Of course, Belz's wide-eyed, child-like personas also inhabit a very grown-up world. They are able to quote with ease from T.S. Eliot and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And they somehow manage to strike up conversations with historical figures such as former Vice President Al Gore (who gets asks "about the muse"), Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff (whose yard get tilled) and late movie star Katharine Hepburn (who gives a rain check for a sexual encounter).

But Belz offers something more than just scattershot bursts of aphoristic wit. Throughout the collection he walks with readers along a dream-filled landscape. His images -- both within poems and between poems -- shift through a process of association that's remarkably close to how 4-year-olds, lost in the details of their own story, interrupt themselves as they effortlessly and intuitively break all the story-telling rules.

"Why did the elk, deer, chipmunks, coyote, sea stars, orca whale, sea lions, newt, weasel, and many different kinds of birds cross the street?" Belz asks in "five beginnings of jokes."

And -- just like the 4-year-old -- he never gets around to giving an answer. He just asks more and more questions.

Belz will be available to give -- or to receive -- a raspberry in person at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

McIlrath trots out in style

Originally printed November 18, 2010

There a reason why J. Harley McIlrath's "Possum Trot" (Ice Cube Press, 2010) has such long list of blurbs from local writers: It's a book packed full of tightly written, powerful stories about Iowa. And luckily for local readers, "Possum Trot" lives up to such high praise as "an instant classic" (Stephen Kuusisto) and "an entertaining, timeless book" (Josh Emmons).

"If I was to tell you what Grandpa looked like," writes the narrator of "China," "I'd start with his Magnavox and then go to his La-Z Boy. Then I'd tell you about the Folgers can he spit in, and if you were still interested after that, I might think what his face looked like."

In that story, the narrator never really gets around to describing his grandfather's face, yet McIlrath still manages to flesh out the characters indirectly as he tells a story about why the grandfather's wife threw all of her expensive china into the creek before she died and why, even though years have passed, no one has dared pick up any of the pieces.

McIlrath primarily tells stories of the dirt roads and rural byways that most people never reach or that they travel only when they're tossing trash or participating in various illicit activities.

"My mom said that once the high school kids and town people left the city limits they acted like they were in the wilderness," writes the narrator in "Dirt Road," "like they thought nobody lived out there."

McIlrath writes about children like Mickey McDonald, about whom the narrator of "Micky's Dad" notes, "We all noticed how our parents doted on Mickey when he came over. Not doted, really, but treated him different. Gave him a little more attention than the rest of the guys. Our dads all tousled his hair and our moms all made sure he had everything he wanted. We didn't mind. We figured they was making up for his dad being crazy."

And while a few stories foray into more urban settings, McIlrath does so only to highlight the isolation, anonymity and mistaken identity that can be experienced by anyone, anywhere.

A few people have mistakenly described "Possum Trot" as a collection of essays rather than stories, but that's understandable given the authority in McIlrath's voice. It's hard to believe he didn't experience these events firsthand.

Many of McIlrath's paragraphs are so inviting, in fact, it's hard to fight off the temptation to read them aloud -- even in public places. That's why it's good McIlrath is in town to read them aloud at 7 tonight in Prairie Lights.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

'Ghosted': A terrifying, pissed-off, life-affirming tale

Originally printed November 15, 2010.

First-time novelist Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall learned the hard way that he needs to be more careful about what he says during interviews.

"When you start out in this process of talking to reviewers," Bishop-Stall told me in a phone interview Wednesday, "you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy."

After the near universal praise of Bishop-Stall's 2004 memoir "Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown," it's not surprising that the author was less than defensive when beginning the publicity rounds for his debut novel, "Ghosted."

In an early interview with a Canadian newspaper, Bishop-Stall told the reviewer that the first section of the novel was "genuinely funny" (black humor, but still humor), the last section was "pretty damn scary," and the middle section was neither. The reviewer took the author at his word and suggested that Bishop-Stall somehow lost focus during that middle section. Subsequent reviewers then latched on to that template and began providing their own maps for charting where Bishop-Stall is in command of his dark, deeply dysfunctional narrative, and where the storytelling itself gets lost in violence and drug-haze being described.

Some of the reviews prefer the first section, in which a 30-year-old frustrated writer Mason Dubisee finds a way to fund his drug and poker addictions by writing letters for people looking to kill themselves. Other views prefer the final section, in which one of Mason's clients is revealed to be a sociopath who is coming after Mason, after Mason's hemiplegic girlfriend and after Mason's recovery physician.

Nearly all the reviewers provide a backhanded compliment to Bishop-Stall's ability to pour so many details and storylines into a single novel, but those who prefer the first part bemoan that Bishop-Stall sold out at in the last section and provided merely a thriller with some meta-fiction thrown in. And those who prefer the last part complain that it took the novelist so long to find his stride.

And no one, it seems, knows what to make of that middle part.

"That's too bad," Bishop-Stall said. "I'm rather fond of the middle."

The reviewers seem to have missed the point, however. It's not that Bishop-Stall lost faith in the literary aspects of his novel and turned "Ghosted" into a mystery-thriller, it's that he wanted to be working in several non-compatible genres at the same time.

"I like books that overreach much more than ones that under-reach," Bishop-Stall said.

In fact, it's hard to imagine a reader capable of appreciating and identifying with the wide variety of genres, plot twists and character derangements found in "Ghosted." And given that every reader is going to be disturbed by one or more aspects of this novel, it much less interesting to have readers chart where they had to tune out for a few pages than it is to talk about the benefits of making it all the way through "Ghosted."

The novel is the result of Bishop-Stall's attempt to isolate his deepest fears and then see how far and long he can look into them.

"Suicide, as a concept, scares me," Bishop-Stall said. "Exploring how any human being could make that choice was the original impetus for the novel."

Mix in the concept of sociopathy -- "the idea that there exists out there a complete lack of human empathy" -- and Bishop-Stall was starting to write about issues he could "barely comprehend." And the more research he did, the more he realized how "amazingly little" anyone really knows about those topics.

"Those are two very dark subjects to explore," Bishop-Stall explained. "The darkness can't help but overwhelm to a degree."

The reviewers who actually have made it through the novel usually try to summarize that overwhelming experience in some long-winded closing sentences.

After explaining that the ending has "all the subtlety of a chainsaw chewing up body parts," the reviewer for Toronto's National Post writes, "But then you look back at the tale, and you realize you have just read a terrifying but moving and life-affirming paean to love, friendship, devotion, determination and all those other characteristics that make human beings such wonderfully fascinating creatures in real life and in richly imagined creations such as 'Ghosted.'"

And the reviewer for "Mystery Scene Magazine" condenses the reading experience down to, "In fact, with its lovingly drawn broken characters, ruminations about the act of writing, the fragility of life, the lies we tell ourselves to keep on going, and a GOTCHA! climactic confrontation between Mason and Seth that finally wraps all those disparate threads together, this bleak, frequently nasty but always literate novel reads like a film noir pounded out by a pissed-off, hung-over John Irving."

"I guess reviewers just like to end with really long sentences," Bishop-Stall observed.

In spirit of Bishop-Stall's poker-playing protagonist, I made a bet with the author that I could wrap up my review with a four-word sentence capable of encapsulating the "terrifying," "pissed-off," "life-affirming," "hung-over" quality of "Ghosted."

I've lost that bet.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

Klaus explores the made-up self

Originally printed November 3, 2010.

Can you hear it?

That voice sounding in your head as your eyes scan these words.

If you've met me in person, the voice may sound a bit like my actual voice.

Otherwise the voice probably sounds a lot like your own.

But there is no voice.

No sound.

Just words impersonating a personality.

Just long sentences that meander across several lines of type and that -- hopefully -- hold your attention as raptly as does Garrison Keillor's disembodied voice crackling from the radio during the "News from Lake Wobegon" segment of "A Prairie Home Companion."

Or short sentences.


Powerfully punchy phrases that accentuate the effect.

That make it really seem as if I'm talking to you -- instead of sitting here, writing these words in longhand while eating breakfast at the Hamburg Inn. Or sitting here typing my notes in my office at the Press-Citizen.

It's the virtuality (and changeability) of this kind of voice that has captivated Carl Klaus throughout his long career as a professor of nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. After becoming one of the foremost experts on the personal essay -- especially those personal essays that are explicitly about writing personal essays -- Klaus recently distilled his career's worth of insight into a slim, 150-page book titled "The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay" (University of Iowa Press, 2010).

"But the 'person' in a personal essay is a written construct," Klaus writes in his prologue, "a fabricated thing, a character of sorts -- the sound of its voice a by-product of carefully chosen words, its recollection of experience, its run of thought and feeling, much tidier than the mess of memories, thoughts and feelings arising in one's consciousness."

And the writing of such a book must have been a very difficult, self-reflective process. Not only does Klaus' analysis need to be dead on (because his fellow scholars will be familiar with much of the material), not only does his every sentence need to serve as a textbook example of felicitous prose (because his fellow writers and students will be looking for him to show and not just tell), but Klaus also can't help but be acutely aware of the many different personae he adopts when trying to create the illusion of a scholarly, friendly, intimate voice guiding readers through some of the most powerful personal essays ever written.

But Klaus then goes on to show how the supposed "tidiness" of these personal essays is itself a verbal illusion. In his careful readings of Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, E.B. White and a host of other more recent authors, Klaus shows how the "I" of the personal essay proves to be every bit as discontinuous, inconsistent and off-point as the individuals who decided to put pen to paper -- or fingers to keyboard -- and transcribe their thoughts.

"The voice of a personal essayist may, after all, be as mutable as life itself," Klaus writes.

And although Klaus presents a highly concentrated history of the personal essay over the past few centuries, his observations are equally appropriate for 21st-century writers looking to bypass the printed page altogether and create that personalized virtual voice solely in the virtual world. Whether you're writing under your own name, enjoying the pseudonymity afforded by usernames or ventriloquizing the consensus opinion of a larger group, Klaus not only helps explain how past writers have brought order to verbal chaos, but he also explains how to make sure that such imposed order always retains some of the power and mutability of that original chaos.

"Change, after all, is in the air -- it touches us, touches our words, touches our personae, as it touches all things," Klaus writes. "So, a voice for all seasons could only exist in a world without change, a life without death. The 'I' is mutable, whether we will it or not."

The flesh-and-blood Carl Klaus will be reading from "The Made-Up Self" at 7 p.m. today in Van Allen Hall on the UI campus. And although the reading is not an official part of this week's Nonfiction Now Conference at UI, Klaus -- as the founding director of UI's nonfiction program -- surely will offer a important introduction to that three-day event.

Contact Press-Citizen Opinion Editor Jeff Charis-Carlson at

Frank Conroy, Tom Grimes and the writing life

Originally printed October 28, 2010.

About a month ago, novelist Tom Grimes felt a great reversal taking place.

After a post-class session at Texas' version of Iowa City's The Mill, the director of the Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University drove one of his students back to her car. And as he parked, she began telling him how worried she was that her work wouldn't live up to his expectations and how much she wanted to make sure she didn't disappoint him.

"She said, 'You know, the way you didn't want to disappoint, Frank'," Grimes remembered during a phone interview Friday.

Grimes said he suddenly was taken back to two decades earlier, when he was an MFA student in the world famous Iowa Writers' Workshop and he sat idling in car in the alley across from Prairie Lights Books, and he told his mentor, the late Workshop director Frank Conroy, of his fears about not living up to the praise that the older writer had heaped upon his application manuscript.

"What had changed was that she was in the passenger seat, and I was in the drivers' seat," Grimes said. "I now was the guy behind the wheel."

Grimes' MFA student knew all about her professor's past fears, neuroses and anxieties of influence because the novelist describes them so extensively in his new non-fiction book about the writing life and his long relationship with Conroy: "Mentor: A Memoir" (Tin House Books, 2010).

Grimes said the project began when he was asked to write an essay about Conroy's legacy for Tin House Magazine. After rereading Conroy's oeuvre, he submitted a section of the essay that described Conroy as a stand-in for Grimes's own non-literary-minded father. The editors didn't think the direction was quite right for an essay, but they urged Grimes to keep working on "whatever it is you've started here."

The result is a book that documents just how much -- or how little -- one writer can pass along to another. Conroy loved Grimes's manuscript and offered him a fellowship to focus the younger writers' time in Iowa City on finishing the novel, but the older writer never provided any close, instructive reading of the manuscript until after Grimes's agent secured a publication bid. And Grimes seems to learn as much about writing from reading Conroy's work than from anything Conroy did in an institutional capacity.

It's not surprising to learn that many of Grimes's students and colleagues have thanked him for being so candid and thorough in describing the humbling agony that come with wrestling with language -- especially for a workshop graduate who says his ambitions may have been stoked beyond his talents.

"They tell me, 'I'm glad to know I'm not alone,'" Grimes said.

Nor is it surprising that reviewers seem to disagree about whether the excruciatingly painful writers' life Grimes describes is:

• A difficult but rewarding process worth celebrating.

• Or a strange form of literary self-flagellation that only serves to exacerbate (rather than to exercise) a writer's depressive demons.

"I understand myself through the lens of failure," Grimes said. "A lot of people might say to me, 'You must be pretty happy. You're directing a creative writing program and publishing books. It's a great life.' Yeah, but the only problem with it is that it's my life, and it's not what I expected."

At its storytelling best, "Mentor" is a well-written tale that in which Grimes honors Conroy's own 1967 memoir, "Stop-Time," without at all seeking to imitate that ground-breaking book.

And even at its solipsistic worst, "Mentor" still is a book that, as Jayne Anne Phillips writes, "belongs on the shelf of every writer, every teacher, every reader."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at