University of Iowa Press

Recommended Reads: Writer’s Edition

 

The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer

Yellowlees Douglas

Cambridge University Press

Most books on writing have the same fatal flaw: They may be inspiring and informative, but they seldom offer The Reader's Brainpractical advice. Typically, you’ll get some variation of the following: write something every day; write what you know; active voice; character before plot.

Got it.

Yellowlees Douglas wants to change that with The Reader’s Brain. Drawing on science rather than Strunk and White, she offers tips on how to be a more effective writer, whether you’re penning the Great American Novel, writing a grant or constructing an internal memo.

I spent three years and thousands of dollars in an MFA program where it was bad form to talk about sentence structure. Seeing Douglas give it the attention it deserves was refreshing.

The Reader’s Brain is not just a collection of tips and tricks. Douglas provides a compelling narrative, sharing anecdotes from her years as an author and professor, to guide the reader through the chapters.

The difficulty with reviewing a book like this is that it’s hard to give details without giving away too much information. Since it’s on the book jacket, I can say that it centers around what Douglas calls the five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision and cadence. In exploring these concepts, Douglas shows how to utilize devices such as priming and causation to create narratives that capture the reader’s attention and keeps your words in their memory.

A worthy addition to any writer’s nook.

 

Metamedia: American Book Fictions and Literary Print Culture after Digitization

Alexander Starre

University of Iowa Press

Want to start a conversation with me at a party? Mention House of Leaves. I’ll wax ecstatic on Mark Z. Danielewski’s Metamediamasterpiece for hours. So of course I loved Metamedia, an exploration of literature in the digital age, which uses House of Leaves as its jumping-off point.

For those unfamiliar with Danielewski’s debut novel, it’s… well, it’s not easy to explain. The five-word synopsis I’d offer is that it’s a found-footage film in book form, but what does “book” mean here? Sure, it’s on paper, with binding, but with its manipulation of text (sometimes sideways or upside-down or spread over numerous pages) Leaves could never be reduced to just the words themselves.

This leads Starre to ask, “How does the idea of a literary work change when we think of it not as a text, but as an embodied artifact?”

As a lover of both physical books and digital technology, I have no bias in this area. I have a classic Nook, a Kindle tablet and boxes of books that I won’t get through in my lifetime. I’ll read any time, any place, any way, and I appreciate the tone with which Starre discusses the topic.

If you’re looking for a work that romanticizes the digital frontier or deifies the paperback, this is not it. Metamedia applies history and theory and offers a unique perspective that will be of interest to academics and general readers.

And will hopefully inspire those who haven’t to read House of Leaves.

 

Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War

Eric Bennett

University of Iowa Press

As a survivor of an MFA program, there are a lot of ways I would describe writing workshops, but until reading this Workshops of Empirebook I never imagined a connection to the Cold War. Leave it to the University of Iowa Press, the publishing wing of the school that invented the Platonic form of the modern workshop, to offer this rich, counterintuitive history of the MFA.

These days, there’s nothing very revolutionary about a creative writing program. In fact, I still refer to mine as a conformative writing program, since anything that deviated from the cookie-cutter formula was dismissed.

But following World War II, Bennett argues, there developed an optimism that “the complexity of literature” would fend off the proliferation of simple sloganeering. Advances in science and technology had created weapons of terrifying power. It was time to advance the study of human nature, which happened to coincide with an increase in college attendance, thanks to the GI Bill.

“To understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere,” Bennett writes.

I’ve often mused about how the World Wars produced more great fiction writers than any others, and Bennett helps explain (in part) why this was: “Veterans wanted to write, and taxpayers were willing to pay for it.”

Bennett’s focus is on the Cold War era, particularly two of the most influential figures in the history of the MFA: Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner (who founded the programs at Iowa and Stanford respectively).

It’s a fascinating read and should be required reading for anyone enrolled in or considering an MFA program.

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Review: An Infuriating American

An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

Hal Crowther

The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:An Infuriating American

“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”

Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.

Crowther’s prose is fearless in tone and content. He is willing to editorialize and present Mencken in all his contradictions—and he doesn’t shy away from the difficult subjects, like racial discrimination. For all his bluster about defying popular opinion and pedagogy, Mencken was a sheep when it came to racism. His comments about Jews and African-Americans, as well as his complicated love affair with Germany post-WWI, are indefensible, and Crowther makes no effort to do so.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mencken drew the ire of many and never held his tongue to avoid criticism. He was an elitist and, one could argue, a misanthrope. “Human progress was one of the myths to which Mencken did not subscribe,” writes Crowther.

I would say the evidence supports this decision.

The breadth of his thought is such that members of all political factions can claim Mencken as one of their own. Crowther establishes his proper place: “Certainly Mencken was a conservative by many measures, and died conspicuously to the right of the intellectual mainstream. But it’s a grievous insult and injustice to imagine him watching Fox News, or celebrating the wisdom of Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand.”

This is a wonderful book about a complicated man, and an important object lesson for anyone pursuing a career in journalism, writing or general rabble-rousing.

And during this political season of partisan blowhards and neutered media, is there anything more fitting (or even patriotic) than revisiting an era of bold journalism, back when it was a blue-collar profession of integrity, and not something best illustrated by the film Nightcrawlers.

Final Thoughts, 2013

It’s a new year, and as much as we’re looking forward to the 2014 reading list, we have some 2013 shelf clearing left to do. Here is a round-up of books we enjoyed, but were so busy reading we didn’t have time to review.

The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty: Fully Updated and Revised

Michael B. Katz

It’s been a quarter-century since the first edition of this book was published. Some Undeserving Poorthings have changed drastically: The first edition came out at the height of the Reagan-Bush era, whereas the new edition comes on the heels of major Democratic victories in 2012.

But some things haven’t changed: The cultural obsession of equating financial poverty with moral bankruptcy.

Katz does a wonderful job of exploring the evolution of blame-the-poor politics and the invention (and ongoing reinvention) of the underclass. It’s a slippery and interesting social history, and it brings to mind Foucault’s histories of mental illness and prisons.

One of the interesting takeaways for me is the human need to compartmentalize. There is a line drawn between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Women and children tend to occupy the first category, while men almost universally fall into the latter. Politically and culturally speaking, the line drawn between the two groups is solid and severe, with those on one side garnerng support and sympathy and the others disdain and even punishment.

The trouble is that the line, in reality rather than construct, is blurry.

America’s schizophrenic attitude toward poverty shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a country that went from agriculture to industry to technology, where the Roaring ’20s gave way to the Great Depression, which segued into an unprecedented era of prosperity. Where LBJ waged a failed War on Poverty, and his successors waged a failed War on Drugs, which has ultimately amounted to a war on the impoverished.

This is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in economics, politics or social history. It may not resolve any legislative debates, but it will lend the reader more thoughtful consideration of the topic.

Dark Visions: A Collection of Modern Horror

Edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson

I have a longstanding love affair with the small horror press. They’re like neighborhood Dark Visionsbookstores: Some last, the majority fail (ultimately), but most of them are amazing while they last. And like that corner bookstore, they each have their own personality, though ostensibly they are all dealing in similar content.

Enter the first installment of Dark Visions from Grey Matter Press.

They certainly know how to plunge into the darkness: the anthology series begins with an original story from Jonathan Maberry—yes, that Jonathan Maberry. Best of all, his contribution, “Mister Pockets,” takes us back to a place I know and love so well: Pine Deep.

For those unfamiliar, Pine Deep is the small town in rural Pennsylvania that was the setting for Maberry’s first three novels, including Bad Moon Rising, the bad-ass conclusion to the trilogy that any horror fan should begin reading immediately. This is a place that knows how to celebrate Halloween—and there is plenty to be afraid of here. I loved this world that Maberry created, and I was ecstatic to return.

Like all anthologies, there is a little something for everybody, and not every story will be your cup of tea. The important thing is that the quality level is high and consistent throughout, and Dark Visions is certainly a cut above your average anthology.

There is one story in particular that I would like to single out, “The Weight of Paradise” by Jeff Hemenway. This is easily the best new horror story I read this year, and perhaps of even the past few years. It is thoroughly original, dark and morally complicated, the hallmark of great horror fiction. Unless the voting is rigged, this story should win many awards and be anthologized for years to come.

There are plenty of other dark delights as well, and I’m excited for the second installment, scheduled for a summer release.

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Amitious Dr. Abraham von Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Hospital

Thomas Doherty

Aside from having similar names, nobody will mistake this Civil War doctor for beloved Best Specimen of a Tyranttelevision dermatologist Martin van Nostrand (though his Seinfeld portrayer, Michael Richards, like the original Dr. von Norstrand, later achieved a certain level of infamy loosely related to the war between the states).

This doctor, deftly brought to life by Thomas Doherty, left behind a trail of failed business and medical practices before his appointment to superintendent of the Wisconsin Insane Hospital. What distinguishes this book from the many institutional narratives (both fictional and real) is that we get a rounded view of hospital administration. Typically, the overseers of institutions are lampooned as either sadistic villains, naïve do-gooders or bungling bureaucrats.

The reality of institutions, and their employees and residents, is much more complicated than that.

For starters, you’re working with a unique population with difficult problems—otherwise your clients wouldn’t have been institutionalized in the first place. Also consider the varying talents between workers, as well as experience, burnout, and the daily stressors of the workplace.

Want to describe a day in the life of a health care worker? Spend an overnight shift in an ER or a detox and write down your observations. Then do that almost every night for five years and go back and review your initial impressions and see how they compare with your current view.

That’s why The Best Specimen of a Tyrant shines. Von Norstrand casts a thorny shadow, and he has the complexity of Greek tragedy. This is a book for anyone with an interest in the checkered and infinitely fascinating history of mental health care.

Hell Gate

Elizabeth Massie 

In my MFA program, I was often teased for setting a majority of my stories within an Hell Gate - Elizabeth Massieamusement park or carnival of some kind. What can I say? I’m a fan of works that intersect the routine reality of the everyday with the manufactured reality of the spectacle (see Something Wicked This Way Comes, Rides of the Midway, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, etc.).

Therefore, Hell Gate combines some of my favorite themes. The story’s centerpiece is the friendship between a psychic and an orphan against the backdrop a series of grisly Coney Island murders. This will appeal to fans of historical thrillers and anyone who’s ever snuck backstage at the circus.

Review: Fangasm

Fangasm: Supernatural Fan Girls

Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis 

While I enjoyed Fangasm from page one, I have to admit I was confused at first. What I Fangirlsthought would be an academic account of fan culture, particularly surrounding the TV show Supernatural, turned out to be something altogether different.

Two professors—Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis—geek out over the hunky stars of their favorite television show, attending conventions, joining an online community and penning racy fan-fic, all the while discussing the book they were going to write.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t that book.

The original output of their research was the 2012 academic study, Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships. Fangasm, on the other hand, is the reporter’s notebook of their exploration.

Once I realized this, I settled in and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Along the way, the authors feed each other’s “squee”; stalk hunky TV stars; and struggle with strained family relationships, their careers and even their friends. It’s a riotous, road-trip affair, and it’s refreshing to see the lighter side of the uptight academic.

But there’s a serious side to the book as well. In exploring fan-fiction, the duo encounters a diverse body politic. A bulk of the viewer-produced literature is sexual in nature—and due to the make-believe subject matter, and the lack of publisher gatekeeping, fan-fic writers often delve into places even pornographers fear to tread. (Hint: the show’s leading men, though not actually related, play brothers on Supernatural—take that ball and run with it.)

Also on the serious tip are the self-esteem issues that arise. Unfortunately, the shaming of fangirls is not limited to the mainstream community. While the conventions can be a refuge for those who otherwise feel displaced from society, there is an internal enforcement of etiquette that can be just as stratified and exclusionary as the mainstream. It’s a dark and curious sociological paradox.

Ultimately, I would have preferred to geek out with the academic text, but hey, there is no wrong way to get your nerd on. While I don’t approach the level of fanboy status held by Larsen and Zubernis, I know my way around a convention, and I’ve spent thousands of dollars on rare books, albums and KISS memorabilia. I can relate to this duo, and I find it refreshing to learn about a pair of obsessed academics letting their geek flag fly.

Review: A Brighter Word Than Bright

A Brighter Word Than Bright

by Dan Beachy-Quick

Although A Brighter Word Than Bright is about Romantic poet John Keats, I couldn’t get Keatsmy favorite Oscar Wilde quote out of my head while reading it: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

It’s a cruel irony that nonfiction is thought to be the most accurate medium for Truth—reducing reality to the recitation of facts. If that were so, then the minutes of a company meeting should have more cultural sway than Shakespeare, right? Yet when I was in London, there were scores of young and old gathered at the gates of the Globe Theatre.

I didn’t take a poll, but I’m confident that when people think of London in 1599 (when the original Globe was built), they think of Shakespeare rather than that year’s landmark court ruling, Edward Darcy Esquire v. Thomas Allein of London Haberdasher, which established the foundation for modern antitrust law.

I didn’t see anyone perusing court transcripts outside the Globe.

That’s why Dan Beachy-Quick’s biography of Keats is so refreshing. Rather than retelling his life story or critiquing his work through some previously unexploited element of his personality, Beachy-Quick gives us the biography of the poet’s imagination.

Which, of course, requires a lot of imagination.

No shortage there. Beachy-Quick, author of nearly a dozen collections of poetry, essays and criticism, weaves a fever-dream narrative that treats its subject as more putty than marble, so that Keats, the man, vanishes at times.

Or perhaps Beachy-Quick brings us so close we no longer recognize him.

Either way, A Brighter Word Than Bright engages the reader’s imagination, and the author states from the beginning that:

“I have little interest in offering a portrait of Keats more accurate than those already available… I am more concerned with returning Keats, as best I can manage, back into that half-light that obscures accurate rendering so as to make more brilliant those sudden flashes in his poems and letters that, lightning-like, reveal the storm-tossed grasses in the ceaseless field even as darkness closes the vision again—sudden clarities, and the afterimage that lingers long past the lightning’s strike.”

Our subject is deliberately blurred, grated into the environment with an opacity that is oddly revealing. From an early age, Keats is displaced, yet absorbed by the world. Or perhaps consumed is more like it. Beachy-Quick sketches a grief-burdened man-child weeping beneath a desk for his dead mother. Yet, the boy is not separate from the desk, nor the desk from the room. All is connected in this tragic tableau: “Some music sobs up into song. Some song digs down and confronts what it also must comfort.”

Keats is tormented by his talents, a gift on par with Greek tragedy. Much like Darrin McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius, Beachy-Quick views genius as something that possesses, rather than something one may possess:

“To listen to genius is to let oneself be guided by that voice in the self that is not the self’s own. It implies an otherness exactly where we expect to find identity; it speaks within us a rumor to us, that we are least ourselves where we are most ourselves.”

This duality zigzags throughout the book, at times we are uncomfortably close and at others removed, disoriented, flipping between past and present tense to remind that art, and the artist’s struggle, belong to all ages. That like Keats’ poems, all is absorbed into a timeless moment—infinity in a single instant and vice versa. (Beachy-Quick cleverly enforces the point with reference to the work of the paradox-obsessed Greek philosopher Zeno.)

As we progress chronologically, Beachy-Quick peppers in some academic critique, for example going through the Odes and incorporating Keats’ letters for context. I was particularly struck by one passage from Keats to his wife, Fanny Brawne:

“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world; it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.”

Would it be fair to say Keats was the first emo kid?

Actually, that may be as fair as any other portrait. No biography has been able to capture the man in full, which certainly adds to his appeal. Beachy-Quick, with this unconventional and highly original biography, gives us something better than the Truth. He gives us the febrile terror that inhabits the artist’s soul.

Review: Skull in the Ashes

Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America

by Peter Kaufman

University presses aren’t usually known for producing pot-boiling thrillers, but that’s Skull in the Asheswhat the University of Iowa Press has done with Skull in the Ashes. In 1897, the quiet eastern Iowa town of Walford was awoken by a fire at the general store. When the flame had died, they discovered a charred corpse with some belongings of the store’s owner, Frank Novak, who often slept there.

The timing was curious as Novak, heavily in debt, had recently purchased multiple life insurance policies.

Oh yeah, and the skull they found in the ashes had been bashed in, which is atypical behavior for your run-of-the-mill house fire.

Here, the lives of three men intertwine: Novak; M.J. Tobin, the new county attorney; and Red Perrin, a near-superhero whom we’ll discuss later.

There may have been a time when folks wouldn’t have asked too many questions about the fire, odd though it was, but Tobin utilized emerging forensic tools—such as dental records—to identify the corpse as someone other than Novak. Tobin’s quest crossed multiple state lines and even involved the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency. But the trail went cold in the Pacific Northwest.

Enter Red Perrin.

Perrin was a detective in Arizona who had a reputation for tenacity and toughness. He was the only one trusted to venture into the Yukon and return Novak alive.

The amount of research that went into this book is evident. Kaufman worked his butt off on this book, and he does a good job of balancing information with narrative. Where he is strongest, though, is following Perrin—which, ironically, was probably the toughest to recreate. The trek through the mining territory is difficult. Perrin hires a team, hikes for days through the mountains and brings along with him a boat builder.

That’s right, a boat builder.

On the other side of the mountain pass was a treacherous waterway, which Perrin would need to traverse to get up to the mining camp where he suspected Novak was living under an assumed name. But they couldn’t carry a boat through the mountains, so once completing that leg of the journey, Perrin and his partner chopped down trees and built a craft sturdy enough for the rapids.

That’s pretty bad ass.

Skull in the Ashes is divided into three parts, and this is by far my favorite. Part one is the story of Novak and Tobin; the town of Walford; and the crime and initial investigation. It’s a bit like a murder-mystery, although we already know whodunit. The narrative here is about history and evidence, and I really enjoyed this section.

Part two is an adventure tale. Kaufman creates lavish scenery, strong characters, high tension and the thrill of a pulp wilderness expedition. I think of it as Thoreau’s The Maine Woods meets The Fugitive. The plotting is well-paced, and Kaufman rightly pulls back on the history and lets the action take center stage.

Which brings us to part three: the aftermath. Unfortunately, this is where Kaufman runs out of bullets. It’s not his doing, but simply the climax of the story. The final part covers Novak’s trial and incarceration and ties up the storylines of all involved. As with the other sections, it is well-researched and –written, but we spend too much time on the trial.

I did enjoy the sociological aspects of the book’s conclusion. Kaufman describes prison life at the time and reforms that were making it more humane. There is also the importance of the Novak trial for its use of forensics and circumstantial evidence. Kaufman clearly describes a time of transition in American history: the advance of science, the sophistication of law enforcement, and the expansion and opening of the world, such that a local crime committed in small-town Iowa would involve the federal government, multiple states, two countries and a wilderness chase.

And so Iowa, and America, looked ahead to the 20th century.

To sum up, Skull in the Ashes is a thrill ride for history buffs and fans of narrative nonfiction and an unexpected, and delightful, blend of pulp and scholarship.