UC Irvine MFA Writers: Your Clip-and-Save Review

The end of the academic year approaches, which finids Mr. Bib looking forward to the arrival of annual literary journals sponsored by local colleges and universities. Alas, The Ear, Irvine Valley College's magazine is long gone as, it appears, is Orange Coast Review, out of OCC. Still UC Riverside publishes the terrific Crate, and University of Redlands does The Redlands Review. I am probably forgetting somebody. Sorry.

One of the best institutionally-sponsored regional journals of writing, photography and graphic art is UC Irvine's own Faultline, edited this year by Jon Keeperman. Mr. K. tells me the spring issue will be out and for sale at a reading celebration on Thursday, May 31 at UCI's bookstore, managed by the heroic Matt Astrella.

While I wait for Greg, my intrepid and friendly UPS man to deliver copies of some or all of the above, this morning seems an opportunity to celebrate Faultline and the perseverance of the battered public university English department which continues to support it financially. Thanks! The mag contributes, of course, to the school's reputation and its bigtime MFA creative writing legacy. See below.

I know, I know, you've read ad nauseum that Irvine is one of the nation's best creative writing outfits, but assessing the tiny Masters of Fine Arts in fiction and poetry kind of supports that bit of self-congratulation from the publicity machine. Indeed, you can't swing a dead anteater or a list of recent American "notable books" without hitting, happily an alum. Aspiring or experienced, shy or flamboyant, young writers from all over the country and world arrive in the unlikely suburban environs of, as my funny mentor writer Jim Krusoe calls it, "Irving," to complete two years of intensive work. Workshops are led by a who's who of visiting writers and the program's core faculty. Currently, that's poets James McMichael and Michael Ryan, and prose writers Michelle Latiolais and Ron Carlson. All four are working, teaching authors with impressive careers of their own, a good place to begin my scattershot survey of the so-called "magic workshop," by way of a short reading guide. I've mentioned some of these players before. No wonder! McMichael's Capacity was a finalist for the National Book Award. Ryan wrote the memoir Secret Life and, recently, This Morning, a new collection of poems.

Carlson is the award-winning short story writer whose novel Five Skies you should read, and Latiolais's newest collection, Widow got big praise on the heels of her luminous novel A Proper Knowledge. I was lucky to be in the crowd last week when she read what I take is a new short story for her presentation at the Campus Writing Coordinator's Distinguished Writers' Series

These mentors fill big literary shoes, from those worn by fiction program co-founders Oakley Hall (Warlock) and MacDonald Harris (The Balloonist) to E.L. Doctorow, who wrote much of The Book of Daniel at UCI, a singular scene set, as I go on and on about, in Corona del Mar. You might already know some of the program's legendary alums, from California poet Gary Soto (New and Selected Poems) and Garrett Hongo (The River of Heaven) to novelists Richard Ford (Independence Day) and Maile Meloy, author of instant-classic short stories in Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.

More recent stars: Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), David Benioff (The 25th Hour), Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) and poets Patty Seyburn (Hilarity) and Ralph Angel (Exceptions and Melancholies).

So, yes, a curious reader could do worse than picking just about anything by a UCI grad. Here's some further help finding more of the best. Some of the recent decade's highlights include Vicki Forman's This Lovely Life, the memoir of her serverely disabled preemie twins, Danzy Senna's nonfiction Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, on romance and race; Aimee Bender's delicious The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and Rhoda Huffey's The Hallelujah Side, about a girl growing up fundamentalist. Huffey, by the way, has a new story in spring Santa Monica Review, no kidding!

But you might be forgiven for having missed some other perfectly wonderful writers who happen to also have built their art in the "magic workshop," including a few who've written about our county, perhaps inspired by the view from a room on the fourth floor of the Humanities Instructional Building, watching the planes arrive and depart from John Wayne Airport.

Chieh Cheng, author of A Long Stay in a Distant Land, was born in Hong Kong, though he grew up here, like the protagonist in his gently hilarious coming-of-age and staying-in-a-dysfunctional family debut novel. The Lums, as pecieved by young Louis Lum, seem fated to grimly comic death and tragedy, all offered in deadpan character sketch and multi-generational resentment, with plenty of fun with idiom and digging for ethnic roots, tenderly. In his Fearful Symmetry, Greg Bills writes an erotic love triangle tale in an upscale condo complex in the weird Newport neighborhood of the confusingly geometrically-metaphorical Triangle Square retail experiment: The Story of O set in the OC.

His first novel was my pal Louis B. Jones's Irvine MFA thesis, called Ordinary Money. His newest, Radiance, is sequel of sorts to Particles and Luck, about love, physics and real estate. And the physicist hero has OCD. Jones co-directs the fiction writing program at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley each summer. Poet and essayist Colette LaBouff Atkinson used to work at UCI's International Center for Writing and Translation by day. Now she lives in New Mexico, lucky her. Her collection Mean wins for best poems about seeing the world from the freeway on your drive to Orange County. Self-Portrait With Crayon, Allison Benis White's prize-winning prose poems, use Degas drawings as title, as lines within which she redraws and retells stories of absence. These autobiographical "sketches" explore possible alternative stories, variations, portraits. Varley O'Connor has a new novel out, The Master's Muse. Her earlier, The Cure, was about a family's story of living with polio. Ryan Ridge, with short stories in Hunters and Gamblers, seems to be riding the same wonderfully dusty trail as Donald Barthelme, a hero to all.

Belle Boggs, whose first collection, Mattaponi Queen, got rave reviews, has part of a memoir in the most recent Harper's.  By the way, it appears all these people are not only talented but also attractive.  I'll stop for now, and come back for more in a future post, with perhaps some really smart yet homely writers! 

Meanwhile, here's something for your refrigerator, or your next trip to an indie bookstore or the public library: an incomplete yet helpful handy-dandy OC Bookly easy-to-use bookmark timeline featuring some of UCI's Literary Notables.

1958. Warlock, by Oakley Hall. The creators of Deadwood surely must have read this Western literary classic about a fictional Tombstone. Thomas Pynchon calls it one of America's best.
1976 Donald Heiney's (MacDonald Harris) The Baloonist is nominated for a National Book Award.
1984 Kem Nunn drops in with Tapping the Source, the best surf noir novel ever written.
1988 The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon makes UCI (and Chabon) famous, really famous.
1994 Poet Yusef Komunyakaa wins Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular.
1995 Whitney Otto's How to Make an American Quilt becomes a film starring Winona Ryder. (The book is better.)
1996 Richard Ford wins a Pulitzer for Independence Day. Now everybody wants one.
1997 Chez Chance, a novella by short story writer Jay Gummerman (We Find Ourselves in Moontown) does a fictional take on our magical kingdom county.
1999 Connie Voisine wins AWP award for Cathedral of the North.
2000 Hector Tobar, LA Times reporter, graduates from the program, as if his journalistic success weren't impressive enough. Writes The Tatooed Soldier, soon to be a major motion picture.
2002 Alice Sebold's memoir of rape and recovery, Lucky, is published. It could be even better than the famous ghost-girl mystery novel bestseller.
2009 Sunnyside, Glen David Gold's (Carter Beats the Devil), second novel arrives, a historical romp through Charlie Chaplin's time in Hollywoodland.
2012 A second novel from Tobar, The Barbarian NurseriesShards by Ismet Prcic, about two young Bosnians in the war-torn 90's and their impossible choices, wins all kinds of prizes. One man escapes to America, the other fights in the Bosnian War. Izzy is one of the smartest, darkest, funniest writers to come out of the program.  

And more, no doubt, on the way...

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California. 


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