I heard from folks in Iowa about the visit by Jim Shepard for his “audition” for the Director spot. Shepard’s sense of humor apparently sat well with students who appreciated the levity injected into the mock workshop that Shepard conducted. The mock workshop wasn’t all funny stuff, though, and students were impressed with the thoroughness that Shepard brought to the discussion of the stories that were critiqued. The reading also went over well. Sheppard read a little from his novel Project X and a little from his collection of stories Love and Hydrogen. The reading was entertaining but also brief – by all accounts a plus for MFA candidates who doubtless sit through more and longer readings than almost anyone. For his craft talk, Shepard discussed Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency.” I’m told that Shepard’s visit was the most well-received so far, but there are also rumors going around that Shepard has reservations about taking the job, which he touched upon in this article from the Des Moines Register. Next up: final candidate, Ben Marcus.
Here are some book reviews and book related stories that have caught my eye in recent days. In the New York Times Charles McGrath reviews a forward-thinking anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. The review is tepid, but McGrath takes the opportunity to give us an interesting little summary of the state of the American short story. Also from the Times, Michiko Kakutani delivers a review of Arthur Phillips latest, The Egyptologist. She makes the book sound pretty exciting, but in the end quibbles that it is not sufficiently weighty. Despite her reservations, The Egyptologist seems worth a look. I would imagine that it’s great airplane reading.
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned Alvaro Mutis here. His book, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, is one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, though Mutis deserves to be counted among the greats of Latin American literature, aside from Maqroll, not much of his work is available in English, which is why I was excited to see that he’s written the forward to a new book that sounds interesting in its own right. The Adventures of a Cello follows the path of a cello known as the Piatti that was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1720. According to the book description:Over the next three centuries of its life, the Piatti cello left its birthplace of Cremona, Italy, and resided in Spain, Ireland, England, Italy, Germany, and the United States. The Piatti filled sacred spaces, such as the Santa Cueva de Cadiz, with its incomparable voice. It also spent time in more profane places, including New York City bars, where it served as a guarantee for unpaid liquor tabs. The Piatti narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1935 and was once even left lying in the street all night.Since 1978, the Piatti has been owned by Carlos Prieto, the author of this book and friend of Alvaro Mutis.
Today I met the author Nick Hornby. He was passing through town and he decided to stop in to sign copies of the new paperback release of Songbook (which, unfortunately, is a million times less cool than the hardcover book and CD combo that McSweeneys put out). He told me that he is halfway through a new novel, but he didn’t offer any details about it. He did, however, say that he is hard at work adapting Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for the silver screen. Should be quite interesting if it ever comes to fruition.
I heard from my friends in Iowa about the latest in the search for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop DirectorOn Feb. 24, Lan Samantha Chang was in Iowa for her “audition” for the Director position. During the mock-workshop portion of the presentation, Chang showed off her analytical skills rather than her personality, as previous finalist Richard Bausch had. There was a lot more in depth discussion about the stories that were critiqued, and Chang was adept at giving feedback and facilitating discussion. She talked about Frank Conroy, the current director, who is battling cancer right now, taking inspiration from his high standards for writing and teaching. She also quoted Marilynne Robinson, perhaps in homage to her own Iowa education, saying, “you have to have 3, if not 4, if not 5, reasons for putting something into a story.” Chang even discussed the aesthetics of words on a page. She talked about utilizing the power of the “white space” between sections, saying that the connection between two sections should, and can be poetic. She said at one point, “I’m a sucker for beauty.” If the workshop faltered at all it was in the discussion of a novel excerpt when Chang delved into more theoretical ideas that might be hard to put into practice. She read from her first collection of stories for the reading – again, perhaps giving a nod to her student days at the Workshop. It didn’t seem like anyone was blown away by her reading. Her work is quite sad and subtle, perhaps not the stuff of public performance. Chang’s craft talk was on novel structure – her first was recently published – which received mixed, but generally good reviews.Jim Shepard visited Iowa today, so hopefully we’ll get a report on him soonPreviously: Richard BauschUPDATE: Chang gets the job.