Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Interview with Alex Kudera Part 1

This the first of a two part interview with author Alex Kudera. Kudera's debut novel, Fight For Your Long Day (2010 Atticus Books) looked at 21st Century Higher Education from the viewpoint of an adjunct instructor of writing.  Fight For Your Long Day won the 2011 Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region.  His second novel Auggie's Revenge (2016 Beating Windward Press) features another adjunct protagonist with an unorthodox circle of friends who lead him into criminal activity.  Mr. Kudera has also published the e-singles The Betrayal of Times of Prosperity (Gone Do Press), Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press) , and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks).

EG: Your first novel Fight for Your Long Day followed protagonist Cyrus Duffleman, a put upon adjunct instructor of composition, through a surreal day in the city of Philadelphia. Since the novel was published in 2010 have you noticed any change in public perception on the issues facing adjuncts who must contend with low salaries, zero benefits, and no job security?
AK: Yes, I think there is a greater public understanding of the issues although I’m not certain if the majority of the public has an exact opinion on it. I think that Trump and Sanders are both doing as well as they are because a large portion of the public is not satisfied with the status quo. They see an American workforce that includes 35% contingent positions (that stat includes one to three-year lecturer or “teaching professor” contracts as contingent, I’m pretty sure), a median household net worth of about 80 grand (I’ve seen this as low as 50 grand, and then it is higher if you only include white or Asian households), and a workforce participation rate that has stayed lower than it was before the Great Recession began—between 62 and 63 percent for most of Obama’s eight years (in fact, perhaps surprisingly, it was several points higher during the better years of the W. Bush Presidency).
The adjunct problem is very much related to these more general trends, and that is one reason I have Cyrus work as part-time night-shift security guard at the end of his day—so we can think about the relationship of contingent professors to other contract workers. I think such partnerships would be valuable although academic contingents are often coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds compared to people who guard the campuses, warehouses, or anywhere else.
On the other hand, a more pessimistic view is that regular workers (the rest of America) has a lot of trouble of seeing adjunct instructors at all—the campuses themselves often appear to be booming—professional (haha) or almost professional-level sports, constant construction (sometimes the only construction in a college town is on campus or to build places for students and employees to live) that it is hard to even imagine any worker on those campuses as “marginalized” or impoverished.
Also, to clarify, as is common for many adjuncts, Duffy teaches three different courses during his long day, and one is first-year writing (composition more or less but the specific section in the novel is on the argument essay), and the two others are business writing and 20th century Eastern European and Russian literature. That is, or was, very realistic when I was an adjunct—because the wages are so low, if an adjunct seems eager and able, a wide range of courses may be available.
EG: In Auggie's Revenge, your follow up to Fight For Your Long Day, we are introduced to adjunct teacher of philosophy Michael Vittinger, but the focus is more on his life outside the classroom. Was this a conscious creative decision on your part?
AK: For Auggie’s Revenge, I had both Michael and Auggie at first, and the Auggie character was the dominant one when I first imagined the book. But then I began writing from the perspective of Michael and soon after introduced Jonny November’s voice which was a fun one for me and so radically different from my day-to-day life as a teacher and parent—unless we consider that Jonny is Auggie’s teacher and parent. In fact, a few of the Auggie voice sections were among the last sections I drafted, and Melony Sorbet’s voice was also a relatively late add although I had those four characters as the main four characters from very early on.
I don’t think I saw it exactly as “inside v. outside,” but I’m glad you noticed this. I never intended to become an “adjunct novelist,” not exclusively anyway; I’ve always had different ideas for different books although adjunct novels seem to be what I can get published right now. Although there may be mentions of universities in my other works, I hope to publish an early surreal urban novel, Spark Park, a car-sales novel, and a memoir about my father’s life and his relationship to my immigrant grandfather who served his country during both world wars. I’m not against returning to the classroom for fiction though.
EG: Both novels are set in Philadelphia, a diverse city, and your novels never shy away from how ethnic and racial tensions can manifest themselves in the classroom.  Should college instructors be better prepared for teaching in diverse classrooms?
AK: It’s a funny question because, yes, absolutely, and ideally, all college instructors should get paid diversity training, and yet, we aren’t even at the point where every college student in America knows who their teacher will be two weeks before classes start. Also, I should say that although Philadelphia is diverse, I taught at one school where it would not be uncommon to have an almost all white or only white and Asian (often South Asian) class. In the South I had many different sections of up to 34 students that would often include only one black student or two black students and one “HAPA” student or something like that. So some of the college classrooms I’ve been have been incredibly homogeneous—vast majority white to entirely white.
I’d like to note that, yes, Philadelphia is diverse, but even in 2016, it doesn’t compare to New York City’s diversity. In Philly we have entrenched poverty (the highest rate of “deep poverty” of any major city), and we still have strong non-immigrant black and white populations. America’s larger cities, such as DC, San Francisco, and New York City, are far more expensive than Philadelphia, and they also have a far greater representation of the global economic elites. So they say it is possible to walk through Manhattan and see a representative of every nation on earth, but you won’t see American black people. Philadelphia is very different, more ethnically traditional and our metro-region Latino and Asian populations by percentage are not nearly as great as they are in California or New York City.
EG: Do you have any favorite fictional teachers or professors?

AK: Peter Mickelsson of John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts was the character that got me thinking that an academic protagonist didn’t have to be “loveable” or an obvious antagonist to be the central figure in an academic novel, or any novel. Murray Siskind a supporting character from White Noise is one I’ve liked, and the scenes of all the professors of American Environments testing each other (“Did you ever brush your teeth with your finger?, etc.) make me laugh. I like the professor as central figure in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein although again, it is not that these protagonist academics are exactly “likeable” in every way. The latter is based on Allan Bloom, author ofThe Closing of the American Mind, and the narrator of that book may very well be a fictional character of sorts. It’s quite engaging, even if one doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Bloom.

EG: In Auggie's Revenge we meet a character named Jonny November who goes on hilarious and sometimes poignant rants on America being one giant Ponzi scheme. His persona reminded me of George Carlin.   Did anyone in particular inspire the creation of Jonny?
AK: I wasn’t thinking of Carlin specifically although I recognize that some of Jonny’s scenes would work well as set pieces apart from the novel. I love novels where a central male character does not fit in with society (from Fred Exley to Dan and John Fante to many different protagonists of Saul Bellow novels), and I think Jonny, Auggie, and Michael are all misfits in different ways. From film, I was thinking a little bit about the character Alan Arkin played in Little Miss Sunshine, the older guy who will spit it out, knowing and not caring that he may offend some listeners and readers. Maybe David Mamet’s films or plays also relate to Jonny’s personality although Jonny is more slapstick, too, and it’s great to hear you found some of it hilarious. Thank you.

EG: While both novels focus on adjuncts, I think they also explore some of the deeper systemic issues facing higher education.  For example, a four year degree no longer guarantees entry into the middle class.  To quote Jonny November:
Don't let them fool you.  Jobs? Careers? Yes, for the top kids, the well trained ones with the brains upstairs, it all works out, particularly if they smile endlessly and work their parents' connections. But for the rest of us.  No fucking way are we gonna leave college with anything other than egregious debt . . . If you're like me, and the system is already stacked against you, against most of us, then college is not the right move.
What are some systemic changes higher education needs to make for it stay viable in the 21st century?
AK: First of all, let me say that the novel is fiction, and Jonny is a character in the novel, and I am trying to capture a personality, and also explore some possibilities that I could feel and see when I began teaching in the late nineties, and that are beginning to get wider visibility, often with statistical proof, twenty years later. Right now though, it is still more of a “let the buyer beware” sort of problem, and unfortunately I have a feeling that the more financial aid the student requires, on average, the less likely they are to have access to the best information when choosing a college or major or deciding to attend at all.
There is also luck involved as well as far as how good or bad the economy is when one graduates. Graduating into the early nineties recession gave me some insight into how bad things can be for college grads in general although it seems like things might be worse, on average, since the much more recent “Great Recession.” I suspect that many high schools and their guidance counsellors are beginning to acknowledge the exorbitant costs, and are doing even more to guide students into colleges and majors that are more likely to lead to financial security.
If we are talking about systemic changes without regard to how to pay for them, then the intervention would be most fair, that would support democracy and the greatest number would likely occur well before college.  Make sure kids from pre-K on are getting access to the resources they need to one day make a smart decision about college, and also make sure that decision is not negatively impacted by finances of parents. That would be the ideal, that even the poorest American would be in position to choose a degree for the sake of learning. As a country, and a world, we are amazingly far away from that kind of thing.

What we are doing right now is applying “patches” to the problem, so yes we have some decent loan forgiveness programs that have been improved several times since 2007, but there is not a tremendous amount of publicity about these programs. Because adjuncts are part of the larger trend of contract work (the aforementioned 35%), single-payer health coverage would likely be the best thing for this 35% (and others), but we have patches through ACA, and it seems like they are effective for many, but worse for some in some ways.

You can visit Alex's Blog at http://kudera.blogspot.com/.

(Part Two of my interview with Alex will post next week)

Friday, May 6, 2016

My Rules for Reading: There are None!

Francis Bacon: One of the most creative readers ever.
I suppose I am about to give some bad advice.  So what. Who am I to argue with the internet?  You see, I sense a new breed of digital gurus, you know the Ted Talks/Google visionaries with seemingly benevolent agendas, at least on the surface. It's just that they have a passive aggressive/condescending way of hashing out advice with phrases like "10 things you don't know", "here's what you should do to be like me because I am suckcessful and you're not." You know what I mean.

Recently the Open Culture Website posted "7 Tips for Reading More in a Year" from creativity prophet Austin Kleon who, unbeknownst to me, unlocked the secrets of creativity artists have hidden from the empty headed masses for centuries.  He read 70 books a year.  That's awesome DUDE!   His advice is practical: less time on phone, budget your book buying, always carry a book, stop reading a book if you don't like, read hour of non-fiction (on the commute), read in bed, review the books and share them.  Very Nice.

Francis Bacon on reading: "Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly."

Yes! I would encourage such an anarchic approach to reading.  Reading books from cover to cover is for the birds. 

I once heard an anecdote about Stanley Kubrick.  His assistants said he would be in his office all day reading novels. He would typically read a pages and move on to the next one. Kubrick kept going going until something piqued his interest.  That's not a bad approach. To quote Will Hunting read "whatever blows your hair back."

As I get older, I have many books laying around. Maybe poetry, short fiction, novels, a biography, comic book, a monograph, reference books, anthologies - ephemera and classics stand side by side as equals.  

Do I read any of them cover to cover?  Sometimes. Skimming is underrated, a valuable skill. It's not about the quantity of books one reads, it's what you get out of them.  Like Indiana Jones said, "It's not the years, its the mileage."

Mash it all together!  Read Faulkner by day, Emily Bronte by evening, Stephen King by night - or do it backwards. Whatever works.  Sample a bit of everything and see what you like.  Don't go by the official canon, make up your own!

Be undisciplined.  

The internet's full of really cool people telling you what to do. Don't listen to them, just do what feels right. Read wherever or whenever you feel like it! You're in good company!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Summer of '68: The Season that Changed Baseball and America Forever by Tim Wendel

Tim Wendel's nostalgic book Summer of 68 looks at that historic year through the lens of a baseball fan.  The tensions of the decade came to a crashing head with the Vietnam War, racial tension, and political assassination dominating the headlines.  Baseball in the words of Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams, remained the only constant in American life.

The 1968 season was the end of an era (for lack of a better term).  The NFL and NBA began to overtake the baseball in popularity.  Football and basketball were much better suited for television because they were fast paced and seemingly made for the instant replay camera.  Meanwhile, baseball seemed seemed slow . . . and boring.

Even the style of the game in 1968 looks archaic by today's standards. Pitchers were still obligated to bat and were not relegated to pitch counts.  Most games were still played during the day  And there was no extended post-season as we know it today, the best two teams from the American and National League advanced immediately into the World Series.  Free agency still loomed on the horizon, as players usually remained the property of their owners.

Baseball historians remember the 1968 season for one thing: dominant pitching.  Bob Gibson (St. Louis Cardinals), Luis Tiant (Cleveland Indians), Don Drysdale (L.A. Dodgers) put up record breaking statistics.  Denny McClain won 30 games for the Detroit Tigers.

Wendel brings all these personalities to life.  Bob Gibson finished with a 1.12 ERA and struck out 17 batters in Game One of the World Series.  Wendel wrote of Gibson's World Series heroics:

For there is something in the way Gibson pitched that perhaps wasn't simply directed at the hitters he faced, but rather at the world in general . . . Gibson unleashed pitches as if he were a man on fire.
Gibson fires a fastball.

Wendel devotes most of the book to the 1968 Detroit Tigers, a motley group who ended up winning the World Series against the powerful St. Louis Cardinals.  Starting pitcher Mickey Lolich, who served in the National Guard during the 1967 riots, won three games for the Tigers, including the climatic Game Seven.

The heroics of the Tigers helped assuage a city on the edge. Baseball gave everyone in Detroit a much needed respite from the challenges their city faced.

Weidel's writes with a novelist touch, providing a acute perspective. An educational trip back in time for any baseball fan.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott

In Better Living Through Criticism A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times, makes a case for the validity of criticism.  Scott examines lofty questions of beauty, interpretation, and aesthetics - sometimes to the point of ad nauseam.

Scott relates a twitter exchange he had with actor Samuel L. Jackson over his review of The Avengers.  Jackson tweeted "A.O. Scott needs to get a real job" in response to Scott's sarcastic review. A flurry of twitter hate came down upon Scott, poster child for the elitist and out of touch critic.

Mutual disgust between artist and critic goes way back. Artists often label critics as failed artists, ever resentful of those who make a living off their art. Artists believe they go to a place critics could never understand.

Scott sees it differently; in their own way critics are also artists of a sort:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name - its proper name - for the defense of art itself.

He goes on: 

Criticism is art's late born twin.  They draw strength and identity from a single source, even if, like most siblings, their mutual dependency is frequently cloaked in rivalry and suspicion.

Many figures have blurred the line between art and criticism.  T.S. Eliot's contribution to modern literature extended to poetry and critical essays.  French New Wave filmmakers Godard and Truffaut began their careers as critics and progressed into making their own movies. Quentin Tarantino famously gorged himself on movies as a video store clerk, film school on the cheap.

I wish Scott had focused more on his own vocation of film criticism.  Instead, we get a dissonant history of art.  Some of the chapters are self-indulgent with strained analyses of culture wars, tensions between art and commerce, and post-modernism. Neither is Scott averse to placing himself among the critical masterminds of history (at one point he points out - see, I'm writing like David Foster Wallace here!)

Scott also ignores how the internet changed everything.  There's little on the bloggers who write extensively about movies.  No mention of a number of the innovative podcasts that are reinventing film scholarship and criticism. Most of these folks do the work for free, inspired by their own passion. Scott's musings wreak of the Ivory Tower, he seems to have no use for the amateurs. 

However,I do agree Scott's premise: criticism should matter.  Critical thinking about art, politics, culture are desperately needed - especially now.

Critics don't matter.  They matter more than ever.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

George Martin: An Appreciation of the "Fifth Beatle"

Tonight I got the news George Martin, the producer of nearly every Beatles album, passed away at the age of 90.  While the story of the Beatles is an often told tale, it never seems to to get old.  Many individuals played a pivotal role in the Beatles career, but few are as integral as Martin.

A longtime producer at EMI records, the Beatles came to know Martin as a producer of "The Goon Show", a popular comedy show starring Peter Sellers. 

In 1962 Martin began working the Beatles as a producer on their initial hits such as "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me."  In the early days Martin worked closely with the group and encouraged them to write their own material.

In time John Lennon and Paul McCartney surpassed Martin and they took on more of the producing responsibilities (the only advantage Martin had over them was that he could read music).  

Martin arranged many of the orchestral arrangements for the group, including 'Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby."  Some of the most sublime moments on Beatles records feature Martin.  His piano solo on "In My Life" comes to mind; my favorite moment on Rubber Soul.

The high point of Martin's collaboration with the Beatles was during the making of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. He admired the group's interest in experimentation and never stood in their way, never told them to stick to a formula. I recall a moving interview when Martin recalled the making of "A Day in the Life." He watched John perform the song for the first time and added a wistful reflection, "Even in this early take he had a voice that could shivers down your spine."
Photo from Sgt.Pepper sessions.

Martin continued to work the Beatles on their final records.  During the making of the epic "White Album" Martin grew disenchanted with the band's increasingly erratic approach to recording and often expressed his dislike of the double album for its sloppiness.  He returned to produce the Beatles final effort, Abbey Road. I suspect the lavish and poignant production on side two of Abbey Road owe much to Martin.

He went on to work with a number of other artists and continued to work with McCartney, most notably on the James Bond soundtrack Live and Let Die.

Over the years many referred to Martin as the "Fifth Beatle" and I am inclined to agree. He began as their mentor and evolved into an important collaborator on their road to immortality.  Martin witnessed all those magical moments in the studio; a guiding hand to some of the most creative music of the 20th century.

RIP George Martin (1926-2016)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's engrossing memoir on his passion for running and writing is one of the best books I've read on both topics.  In his late 50s when he wrote the book, Murakami writes of highlights from his life as a runner and his struggles to keep competing in marathons and triathlons. For Murakami the act of writing is a sort meditation activity, not unlike the act of writing.

Murakami pinpoints the exact moment he decided to become a writer.  On April 1, 1978 he attended a baseball game shortly before he turned 30.  He witnessed a player hit a perfect double down the left field line and experienced a Eureka moment:

And it was at that exact moment a thought struck me: You know what: I could try writing a novel. I can still remember the wide open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat.  Something flew down from the sky at that moment, and whatever it was, I accepted it (29).

And so he went to on to write several novels.  What I liked is that he doesn't fill the book with pretentious musings on his "creative process."  For Murakami, writing is all about determination and persistence.  That's where running comes into the picture.  Running consistently and well takes determination. It is painful and grueling. 

Murakami admits the same goes for writing novels: writing them is not a healthy activity. It means being anti-social and devoting long hours to minute details.  Naturally, writing over long periods of time can trigger anxiety, but also a unique sense of accomplishment. The same goes for running, pushing yourself to the limits is painful and confidence building, more mental then physical at times.

Two specific episodes from his running life stand out: his decision to run the historical marathon route in Greece and ultra-marathon 62 mile race he ran in Japan.  After completing the 62 miles, Murakami writes of a mental change that happened inside him, the moment he reached his plateau:

I'd lost my enthusiasm for the act of running itself.  Fatigue was a factor, but that wasnt the only reason.  The desire to run wasn't as clear before. I don't know why, but it was undeniable: something had happened to me.  Afterward, the amount of running I did, not to mention the distances I ran, noticeably declined (116-117).

Murakami's tone is easygoing and unassuming throughout. 

Admittedly, I have not read any of Mr. Murakami's fiction.  I certainly plan to now!  And for anyone that runs, the book's an awesome motivator to get out there.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review: I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy's memoir I Am Spock is humorous, lighthearted, and informative account of his lifelong relationship with the iconic fictional character he created. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, Nimoy began acting as a child. He spent years playing bit parts until his big break came when he won the role of Spock for Gene Roddenberry's NBC series Star Trek (1966-69).  The book's title is a response to to an earlier autobiography he wrote with the sardonic title I Am Not Spock.

Nimoy relates the early years of Star Trek and how he developed the character of Spock for the series. Much to the network and Nimoy's surprise, the character quickly became a cultural phenomenon, even a sex symbol (most of Nimoy's fan mail came from women). He relates many colorful anecdotes from the original shows as well.  Days on the set were long and grueling. He developed a friendship with co-star William Shatner.  After three seasons NBC canceled the series and Nimoy assumed his days playing Spock were finished.

I Am Spock also covers Nimoy's career outside of Star Trek.  He appeared as a regular on the popular ABC series Mission Impossible for a few seasons.  He had a thriving theater career with leading roles in Fiddler on the Roof, even wrote and performed a popular play on the life of Vincent Van Gogh entitled Vincent.  Despite his impressive list of credits Nimoy continued to be associated with the Spock character, sometimes to his chagrin.

As Star Trek grew ever more popular in syndication and fans began organizing conventions, the franchise found new life.  When Star Wars was released in 1977 outer space adventures were back in so Paramount green lit a movie.  The final result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in December 1979.  Although the reviews were mixed, in time Star Trek became a highly popular series of movies. They remain staples of cable television.

Nimoy's accounts of the Star Trek films are a nice complement to Shatner's own Star Trek Movie Memories.  Everyone remembers when Spock died in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Nimoy wrote of the death scene:

I'd spent many years inside this character's skin, and I felt a great deal of respect, admiration- and yes even fondness for him (210).

Nimoy directed the next two films in the series, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, arguably the best entries in the series.  He also appeared in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode and in the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek.

Reading I Am Spock, you will discover Nimoy was much more than the iconic character he created, a true artist who worked in theater, film, and photography. 

Nimoy's passing almost a year ago left a gap in a pop cultural landscape Nimoy and his character Spock did so much to create.  He will be missed.  I Am Spock belongs on the book shelves of all Star Trek fans.