Friday, December 26, 2014

SETH CASTEEL


Interview with SETH CASTEEL

Seth Casteel is an award-winning photographer and the author of the New York Times best selling books UNDERWATER DOGS and UNDERWATER PUPPIES. Seth lives in Venice, CA. He loves 80's music and is a fan of the DeLorean automobile. He plans to one day go back in time, and change nothing. His rescue dog, Baby Nala, has accepted the fact that she will be photographed every single day. People often say that Seth and Nala have similar hairstyles. 

What first sparked your interest in photography?

CATS!

What do you love the most about photography?

To tell a story and to create awareness through a single picture.

What are your passions?

ANIMALS!

What inspires you?

DOGS!

How was UNDERWATER DOGS born?


Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Take chances and pursue a subject that you are passionate about! 

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I have a secret obsession with dragonflies! 

Friday, December 19, 2014

THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS


Review of THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS by MARINA KEEGAN

Someone gave me this book and, at a glance, I didn’t expect it would align with my literary tastes. Now I feel more like that person knows me better than I know myself! This whole collection resonated with me more than I ever could have anticipated. 

It’s a sad backstory. Marina Keegan, a gifted and determined aspiring writer, died five days after graduating from Yale. She had a job lined up at the New Yorker and this collection serves as ample evidence of her writing aptitude. Youth is coveted because it represents potential, which is why unexpected deaths often seem all the more tragic the younger the victim. Keegan had an abundance of potential, but rather than focus on what won’t be let’s instead focus on what she did accomplish, a list that includes the contents of this collection of her notably astute writing.

The collection features both fiction and nonfiction, but opens with the fiction. The first story, “Cold Pastoral,” demonstrates Keegan’s capability for capturing the complexity of real human experiences, relationships, and emotions. Keegan explores the intersection of awkward and tragic. Claire, a college student, doesn’t know what to feel when her regular hookup dies. Their relationship wasn’t defined: they spent a lot of time together, had sex regularly, and doubtless both cared for each other, but still shied away from terms like boyfriend and girlfriend. Now people expect Claire to say something at his funeral and his long-term ex-girlfriend wants a strange favor. As I read this story, I couldn’t help thinking that this is exactly the type of tense situation that overdramatic televisions shows like to utilize for huge blowup confrontation scenes. In contrast, everything in “Cold Pastoral” is coolly understated, drawing attention to the line between behaving civilly and repressing emotion. My only criticism is that I found minor mentions of gay characters reinforced some insensitive stigmas.

In the next story, “Winter Break,” another college student brings her boyfriend home and their sweetness makes her mother doubt her own relationship. Like “Cold Pastoral,” emotions and revelations are all subtle and understated. There’s little closure regarding any final decision; the story focuses more on the catalyst.

You know it’s a good collection when you struggle picking a favorite story, but “The Ingenue” definitely falls near the top of my list. This one features a young woman who suspects her long distance actor boyfriend is cheating on her with the girl he kisses every night in his play. The story builds to a positively perfect literary moment during a game of Yahtzee. However, I think the story should have ended at that powerful moment; I didn’t like the end much and think it weakens a strong story.

“Hail, Full of Grace” continues Keegan’s exploration of real, complicated life. Audrey’s home for the holidays and just knows she can’t avoid running into her ex, her ex who she dated throughout high school and into college, who clearly thought they were meant for each until Audrey got pregnant and gave up the baby for adoption. Fast forward through her life: romance hasn’t worked out for her. Everyone told her she couldn’t stay with her high school sweetheart, but she never fell in love again. Now she’s ready for kids, so she adopted a baby on her own, but it’s impossible not to reflect on what might have been. I loved this story, but still wanted Keegan to take it a little farther. It’s one of those stories that feels like it halts too soon after it starts rolling.

Moving into Keegan’s nonfiction, I had three favorites there as well. The first, “Why We Care about Whales,” uses a memory of beached whales to pose a concern: “I worry sometimes that humans are afraid of helping humans.” Keegan notes how people rush to help these whales and draws attention to instances where humans spend inordinate amounts of time, money, and effort on helping animals that might already be doomed and yet label neighbor or co-worker crises as “not my problem.” I found this essay really wonderful, not the least bit shy of asking hard questions.

I also particularly enjoyed “Against the Grain” about Keegan’s experiences as a celiac. As she’s the first to acknowledge, this is a timely subject with the popularity of gluten-free products and diets. However, she falls in the category of avoids due to necessity rather than preference. She spent much of her early years in and out of hospitals until doctors eventually pinpointed gluten as the troublesome factor. Keegan reminds her readers that gluten-free might be trendy now, but it was little known and even less understood during her childhood. This story is as much about Keegan’s relationship with her mother as it is about gluten. Once aware of the problem, Keegan’s mother championed her daughter’s health. She researched extensively, calling product companies directly for specific, accurate information. She always thought ahead, going around the neighborhood at Halloween and suggesting some gluten-free candy options to the neighbors. When Keegan went to college, her mother fought hard for new protocol in the dining hall that required a clear listing of ingredients for every food. Keegan herself struggled between gratitude for all her mother does and irritation that she frequently calls attention to how Keegan is different. Keegan shares an unsettling story about when she and her mother watched a video of Keegan’s first birthday. In the video her mother brings out the birthday cake and they all start singing “Happy Birthday.” In real life her mother starts hyperventilating and crying and repeats, “I’m killing you. I’m killing you.” Keegan’s real death adds another emotional layer to all her musings here, because she spent so much time working to ensure minor amounts of gluten don’t ultimately shorten her lifespan - and then she died at age 22 in car crash.

The last of my favorite nonfiction pieces is “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology,” in which Keegan puts her own struggle with the meaning and purpose of life and mankind on paper. We’re all going to die eventually, she points out - not in the individual sense but mankind will die eventually. Despite all this understandable concern over pushing back on environmental issues before they catch up with us, the earth has a lifespan. When the sun dies, so will life on Earth. Now we’re talking billions of years, but what made this essay so fascinating for me is that Keegan poses the theory that mankind is being tested...from a scientific perspective rather than a religious one. This test has a time limit, though. The only task: develop our technology enough to find a sustainable way to either live in space or relocate to another planet before the timer (the sun) runs out. It’s a short essay that mostly initiates a discussion rather than runs with it and you can easily argue that it’s all a moot point if we kill ourselves off long before the sun dies, but nevertheless it’s an interesting and engaging debate.

I found Keegan’s work a little stronger on the fiction side, but that could easily be my personal preference for fiction talking. Across both formats, she keeps her work smart but simple with understated messages. Both her fiction and nonfiction are clearly very well-researched with her fiction featuring characters from all kinds of different backgrounds. Her fiction simply feels real, with dynamic characters and a natural voice.

By the end of this collection, I found myself crying purely about Keegan’s death rather than anything in her work. She puts so much of herself into her stories and essays that over the course of these 200 pages I started to feel like I knew her and then to feel her loss, both as a writer and a person, more sharply. I’m grateful to everyone who championed Keegan’s work to see this collection through to publication; it was worth every ounce of effort.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Bechdel Test


Gender equality has always been an important issue to me. You see bias (of all types and directions) everywhere, but I feel infuriated when sexism sneaks up on me in what I hoped would be a relaxing read.

The Bechdel test is used for quickly assessing gender bias in a work of fiction, whether a novel, movie, play, television show, etc. It’s named for Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist who had one of her characters in a comic strip first express this idea. The test is very simple. If the story doesn’t meet three criteria, it should take a good look at how it represents women. The criteria are:

1.     There are at least two female characters... (Some interpretations of this test specify that the characters should be prominent enough to at least be named.)
2.     ...who speak to each other at some point during the story...
3.     ...about something other than a man.

My first reaction to this was: That’s all? Yet statistics on how many books, and especially how many movies, fail this test are shocking...which means we’re still reinforcing unvoiced messages that women don’t have or deserve a voice. Any woman, and I should hope most men, know women talk about plenty of other things besides men: non-romantic relationships (friends, family, co-workers), intellectual discussions, aspirations. The list is limitless. So why does the scope of women’s conversation in some stories feel so limited? 

A story can pass the Bechdel test and still contain sexist content or messages, but it's a fast, easy way to take stock of how frequently women are dismissed in fiction. So next time you read a book, see a play, or watch a movie keep in mind the Bechdel test. Even stories I've loved sometimes fail this. I rarely enjoy something without any female characters, but you would be surprised to count up how many feature only one prominent woman among a cast of men.

Friday, December 5, 2014

HAATCHI AND LITTLE B


Review of HAATCHI AND LITTLE B: THE INSPIRING TRUE STORY OF A BOY AND HIS DOG by WENDY HOLDEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

The opening of this story had me nearly in tears as it fills in what this dog went through before finding his boy. Someone abandoned Haatchi, a huge Anatalion Shepherd, on railroad tracks where a train came along and hit him. Despite all odds, Haatchi survived, but he lost one’s of his back legs. After being bounced from temporary homes and different vets, the dog so many didn’t think would survive instead found a wonderful life with Owen. Due to a rare genetic disorder, young Owen hadn’t had an easy life either. He lives in almost constant pain with muscles that permanently tense, and the way people constantly stared and didn’t know what to say caused him to retreat into himself. Neither had a particularly good outlook ahead of them...until they found each other.  

My short review of this book would state that it features an amazing story that isn’t particularly well-written. Both Haatchi and Owen have had some excruciating experiences, but the way they uplift each other, not to mention their family’s unrelenting generosity and support, exemplify the phrase “heart-warming.” Apart from the horrifying incident that begins this story, time and again the people (and animals) featured in this book demonstrate determined optimism and dependable goodwill.

Sometimes with nonfiction, though, authors can be skilled at gathering information but not at conveying that information in an engaging way. The writing belabors points and meanders off on unnecessary tangents. In general, I preferred when the book focuses on Haatchi and Little B, those featured in the title, but there’s a whole chapter going into detail about Owen’s dad and stepmom’s wedding as well as frequent mentions throughout about what they post on social media. The focus swayed between Owen and Haatchi’s relationship specifically and an overall family biography. 

There are a lot of wonderful books out there about dogs changing people’s lives. As much as I indentify as a dog lover, I often avoid these books - since they usually feature either (or both) beginnings where the dog goes through ghastly trauma or endings that, well, remind you people live longer than dogs. HAATCHI AND LITTLE B, though, emphasizes that sad moments don't make a sad life.