Student Picks: The Book of Strange New Things

Arun Chittur - Despite the several weeks it took for me to finish Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, I recommend it strongly as an example of fiction that explores tough philosophical questions using a plausible, speculative approach. It’s science fiction without being over-the-top, a world easy to imagine as a successor to our present.

An Earthbound multi-national leads an effort to colonize an alien world to support mining of a valuable mineral. Unlike James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, the indigenous population capitulates and learns to live as humans overtake them. At some point in an undefined past, a visitor from Earth introduces the Christian Bible to the planet—this leads to hundreds of converts looking for someone to lead them in their question to understand the story of Christ as told in the “Book of Strange New Things.”

Faber crafts a deeply flawed character in Peter, the pastor enlisted by the corporation to minister to the new converts. He leaves behind a family and war-torn world for a new dawn in his own journey as a man and a Christian. We are left to wrestle alongside him with questions of love, loss, and our responsibility to this world and the next.

What Ambition Gets You

By Arun Chittur

I was in Pennsylvania this past weekend for my mother-in-law’s surprise retirement party. She spent thirty years working for the school district, accruing a lifetime of stories from successive generations of parents and their children. The party was a clash of worlds, with friends from her high school graduating class meeting old co-workers and extended family who had traveled from across the Northeast. It was the first time I’d ever been to a party where everyone invited RSVP’d “yes.” Thirty-seven invitations sent; thirty-seven confirmed attending. Not even all-day rains dampened the afternoon as we congregated beneath two vinyl canopies and a detached garage. My in-laws’ backyard was crowded with cousins and siblings, toddlers and teenagers, family members by blood and marriage. One of my wife’s cousins and my brother-in-law dominated the ad hoc cornhole tournament. We enjoyed good beer, great barbecue, and an unspoken guarantee that no external force could ruin the experience.

           Last month I hit ten years with my company. I celebrated the expected but modest pay raise with a decision to leave in the next year and move on to pursue other life goals. Making it twenty years entitles you to a stable, if small, pension. As I’ve shared this with friends, they’ve split in their opinion.

           Some argued, “You’re halfway! What’s ten more?”

           Yet others said, “Ten more years? That’s a long time.”

           I’ve been leaning toward the latter for a while, especially with a company that focuses on pre-ordained patterns of progression after that all-important 10-year mark. And so this transition has me thinking about ambition … the kind we feel internally, and the kind foisted upon us by an organization grooming its next generation of managers for its own sake—at the expense of those closest to us who might wish for something else. A life where they see their husband or wife or father or mother more often. Many wish for something better.

"I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion?"

My parents’ generation, wrapped snuggly in a blanket of stability, valued ambition. A desire to rise. Happiness meant a good education and the same job for decades. Predictable income and minimal risk. As a reluctant millennial, I’ve wavered between the safety of a stable, if flat, trajectory, and something more like a sine wave, with ups and down defined by risk and decisions made without a clear vision of the future. Many of our best memories have been born from the peaks and valleys, where we’ve lived and learned the most. None of these moments would’ve happened had I chosen ‘guaranteed’ success and opted for the stable route. The route with all of the questions answered and little left to guess. I don’t regret my last 10 years. But as I look across the backyard, I know that should I choose the stable path, I will accept the promise of a job at the expense of our best memories yet to be made.

           Under the canopy, no one talked about the latest project at work, or what it would take for the next promotion. Whatever ambition was fueling my current state of work, none of it had resulted in this moment. This moment owed no one else, it came to be because of family and friends who outlasted all of our careers and all of our moves. It came to be because it was based on what lasts. Ambition can get you a lot in a short period of time, but it will never provide for you what you need most to be fulfilled.

           I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion? Otherwise what’s left after the experience of life ends? What will there be but the possessions of a life purchased and not lived?

           Ambition gets you money and notoriety: a nice car, a nice house, even a few acquaintances that will pass as friends in suitable moments. But it doesn’t get you the friends you’ve had since college, or cousins willing to drive hours to help you load and unload a moving truck, and certainly not a family that loves you. In the final calculation, ambition can only get you what’s temporary, what’s fleeting in reward.

Arun Chittur is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches organizational leadership and pedagogy in Nevada.

Student Picks: Burg, Mann, and Robbins


Arun Chittur-- I train technical instructors and study teams large and small, so lately I’ve strayed from my regular selections of fiction and narrative nonfiction in favor of books that illuminate some part of the puzzle that is humanity. My wife recommended The Go-Giver; we were waiting to board a plane from the East to West Coast when I started reading the Foreword. I finished the powerful, yet concise story before we landed four hours later.

The Go-Giver is advertised as a parable, 150 pages written by two businessmen-turned-writers inspired to craft a story from decades spent observing the world. They rely on a diverse cast of characters but focus on two: Joe, a salesman struggling to meet his upcoming quarterly quota, and Pindar, an otherwise hard-to-describe “Old Man” who acts as mentor and coach to many in town. Desperate for counsel on how to meet his numbers, Joe meets with Pindar and is soon absorbed in a week-long lesson on the “Five Laws of Stratospheric Success.” And so ensues an adventure of sorts, a story that follows Joe’s rapid evolution from stereotypical salesman to someone who adds value to others’ lives.

It’s easy to get lost in the narrative, and to forget that it’s mainly fiction designed to make accessible one of life’s simplest but often overlooked principles. I’d recommend this book to anyone, not just for its ability to help provide focus and direction, but for the example it provides in the instructive power of story.


Phil Lemos-- Good Friday is known for its executions. But Gwendolyn Mati, squeaky-voiced stockbroker and protagonist of the Tom Robbins novel Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas, wishes she had already been sentenced to death when the stock market crashes the day before.

It’s bad enough Gwen is sweating out whether she’ll have any clients left when the market re-opens the following Monday. But she also has to spend the weekend searching the streets of Seattle for her missing 300-pound psychic and her slacker boyfriend’s missing pet monkey, while also avoiding a creepy stranger with mind-altering substances who wants to rock her world and take her to Africa with him.

Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas is notable not only for Robbins’ signature irreverent humor and bold use of metaphor, but also for being written in second-person. The use of second-person in fiction is always a gamble, as it can backfire spectacularly. It works here, though, as we’re dropped into an immediate crisis - the stock market crash - and the subversion lends itself well to taking chances with characterization and style. Robbins is known more for other novels, but Half-Asleep is a hidden jewel any fan of comedy in fiction would enjoy.


Beside Each Other

by Arun Chittur


Three months ago, our office manager mounted a 60-inch television on the back wall of our small cubicle farm. It received a lackluster reception and inconsistent use in its first couple weeks. Then the Olympics started.

“What country is he from?” Jeremy shouted, half-hidden behind his cubicle wall. The office was glued to a broadcast of men’s biathlon, the fifteen-kilometer “pursuit” event.

“I don’t think it matters!” Mike shouted back, his eyes locked on the screen.

Fifteen men on skis and clad in a rainbow’s worth of skin-tight suits fought through a series of snowy embankments and shooting stops. If an athlete missed one of the five targets at a stop, they detoured onto a penalty track, extending their race distance. The grueling event no doubt required years of dedicated training. The presumptive frontrunner and next four competitors all hailed from Northern Europe. In fact there wasn’t an American in the field. And yet my office of red-blooded, American men were rapt with attention.

The Olympics, both summer and winter, symbolize the world’s potential to wrap itself in a common experience at the expense of political conflict and protracted spats that otherwise define us. The Pyeongchang games served to test the world’s resolve to support the athletes despite tension that had developed between the United States and North Korea, not to mention between the United States and several other nations, on a host of issues. Anticipation intensified when South Korea announced a joint women’s hockey team with the North and its intent to march under a single, unified Korean flag. Though some denounced South Korean officials for weakness in the face of Kim Jong-un’s “charm offensive” and incurring risk to the South’s medal chances, South Korean President Moon Jae-in defended the decision as a significant step toward improved inter-Korean relations. It is hopeful that such steps can be taken despite a traumatic history.

I’ve been watching the Olympics for a long time. In 2008, I watched Michael Phelps dominate swimmers in Beijing’s luminescent Water Cube. As a high school track runner in 2000, I followed the Olympic marathon more closely than the Super Bowl. When the 1996 games brought Olympians to the Deep South, where I grew up, my parents took me to the soccer opening qualifier between the U.S. and Argentina in Birmingham. The U.S. lost, but most of the fun came from seeing hundreds of national flags crammed together in the same stadium famous for hosting sacred Alabama-Auburn football games. I love these experiences, seeing the potential we have to care for others who share neither a language nor a national origin. So how do the Olympics seem to sew together, albeit temporarily, fissures that are intractable before and after? What is it that makes us forget our distrust of others to focus instead on  sports we’d never hear of except during those magical three weeks?

I don’t know, but I have a guess. It’s the same reason President George W. Bush received applause in a Democrat-dominated New York shortly after 9/11, standing in Yankee Stadium. It’s why NFL fans are divided over the display of political expression before and during games. And it’s the same reason my hometown of Columbus, Ohio is suing to keep Major League Soccer’s inaugural team from moving to Texas. It’s the power of sport. Not one, but all of them. Competition predicated on a skill honed through deliberate action.

Professional athletes may attribute their success to talent, but even the talented supplement their luck with practice to reinforce skills necessary for long-term success. Men and women of all colors and dimensions practice and compete alongside each other in a variety of sports. College football, a religion around the country, includes players from Hawaii and Africa. It’s normal in Major League Baseball for fans to cheer a Domincan Spanish-speaker as much as a native English-speaker from Indiana who’s never owned a passport. Sports brings out the best in our competitive nature, something that leads many of us to negate personal biases and fears that rule our lives. The effect is magnified when the Olympics come back around, uniting fans not around a city or region but worldwide. Each country roots for its own but you’ll just as easily find spectators rooting for another country’s athlete because of their story, how many Olympics they’ve attended, or simply because they’re fun to watch. Which leads to another question: what prevents us from harnessing this magic—that is so easily attainable, even predictable—the rest of the time? Why is it normal that we’ll return to our corners and raise our defenses as soon as the torch is extinguished or the clock reaches zero?

Therein lies the problem.  The community we are able to create around the Olympics is always within our potential irrespective of the divisions that came before.  Yet we seem to choose not to allow such a community to exist at other times.  It must then be a choice.  We root for our favorite professional athletes on one night then demonize their entire race the next morning.  I believe we can control these impulses.  We can change them.

The ‘stress’ we feel watching our team on the cusp of a championship or playing its arch rival isn’t like other stress, and doesn’t compare with outright fear.  Win or lose, everyone walks away having represented their communities well.  We love watching sports, communing over food and games and making plans to do it again.  When we fall victim to old biases—racial biases—we allow ourselves to be afraid.  We allow fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, to get the better of a rational mind and override impulses that guide us through sporting events.  We allow a news story or political speech to affect how we see one another, to overtake the power of our shared humanity.  Life must be about the lives we all hope to live together, not the lives we hope to live in spite of each other.  Life must be about what we can do beside each other.

Arun Chittur is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches organizational leadership and pedagogy in Nevada.

Hidden Voices

by Arun Chittur


“Your story matters … because everyone’s story matters,” challenged my instructor as I struggled through my last MFA workshop.  I’d heard that before, and always agreed.  Yet I denied the idea for myself, convinced instead that one must have “expertise” before sharing any part of themselves.  I wonder now if such an argument is meant to reinforce the need for more heady discourse, or to discourage those voices deemed unnecessary to a larger, more dominant narrative.

In my last days as a student, two sentences into this post, a notification appeared on my screen.  It was a news headline I would have ignored, except for two words: “shithole countries”.  The President of the United States had asked a meeting of legislators, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  As a critical reader in the post-2016 media era, I assumed (hoped?) that the headline was overblown.  Fabricated.  Extrapolated obnoxiously out of context.  Something had to be missing.  Then I watched Rupert Colville’s response as spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Then several members of Congress.  Several citizens of Johannesburg and Nairobi.  The President singled out Haiti, El Salvador, and “African nations,” apparently expressing preference for immigrants from Norway.  As one cable news anchor put it, “… people from Norway, with Nordic descent.  White people, in other words.”  I fought through a series of emotional responses, most of which have become second nature in the previous 12 months.  Of those, a standard passivity was replaced by a rush of anger.  I expect comments like this now, comments dividing the worlds of white and otherwise, European and otherwise, “Normal” and otherwise.  I could have dropped back into acceptance and moved.  That would have been easy.             

What comes to mind when you think of a “shithole”?  Large urban areas stricken with poverty?  Whole families living in one-room dwellings without access to clean water or reliable food sources?  Or perhaps rural areas so cut off from the world that the newest car you can buy was made when Eisenhower was president?  Where every scene in the big city looks not like New York in 2018 but 1968?

There are pockets of Mumbai, India—a sprawling metropolis home to millions—where the dream isn’t for the perfect job, the perfect mate, or even a shot at college.  It’s to eat one meal a day, and for the hope that your own waste will not return in the form a mortal disease.  This same country, currently the world’s largest democracy, is also famous for its network of post-secondary engineering schools.  My father emigrated from India to the United States in 1979 to complete work toward a PhD in chemical engineering.  He was funded through a government loan that forced a choice upon graduation: (a) return to India and your loan debt would be forgiven, or (b) you could repay the loan and remain in the U.S.  My father chose the latter, winning naturalization as an American citizen and placing his life in the hands of the American Dream and the trust it invoked so confidently back then.

Cuba is famous for its scenery and artistic culture, a popular vacation spot for many Canadian and European tourists.  It’s also famous as the capital of a country long lost in the 1950s following the demise of one dictatorship in favor of another and a subsequent American embargo.  Despite tourism revenue, Cubans have struggled to keep up with the rest of the world—especially since the fall of Cuba’s primary benefactor, the Soviet Union.  Most of the island’s people struggled to access the kind of medical care, education, and commoditized technology that swept much of the world in the twentieth century.  My mother’s parents brought her to the U.S. from Havana as they fled paradise for the unknowns of a foreign land.  Determined to make her own life as an American, she grew up to follow my grandfather into medicine—into helping people.  As a naturalized citizen, she graduated as a chemist and became a hospital laboratory analyst, testing patient samples hoping to find what ailed you quickly enough to save you from it.

My parents both came from oft referred-to “Third World” countries.  When our President takes offense at the immigration of citizens from “shithole” countries, he takes offense at the journey my parents made just for a taste of the American Dream.  He takes offense at the circumstances that drove them here, into the arms of a country that once sought to embody the call on Lady Liberty’s tablet.  For millions worldwide this country has been the last, best hope.  In my life, it has proven itself the only place a Cuban woman and Indian man could rise to the heights of their own potential and make a life next door to any other American family; and could give birth to a son with relatives tens of thousands of miles apart and raise him as an ‘American’.

What makes us “exceptional”?  What qualities underwrite a state endowed with a responsibility to lead the world?  Watching our evolution in the past two years, I’ve come to believe that our self-perceived political and moral supremacy isn’t drawn from a superior political system, nor a respected level of experience acting on the international stage.  It’s drawn from the diversity of our people.  As Americans, we live with a turbulent past, a history rife with suffering and exploitation.  Yet we have transcended before, moving through history still attracting the young and old from all corners.  The world could follow us because others could see themselves in us.  And now?  Promises of shelter and opportunity made in the past are becoming promises broken, dreams cast away to be cared for anywhere but here.

It is easy, I think, to dismiss the President’s words as racist.  It is easy to dismiss them with a passivity designed to enable life to go on.  But that passivity incurs the risk of losing sight of what was most important all along: America as a ‘beacon’ of hope and freedom.  As I reconcile the latest headline with the end of my academic journey, my most important lesson crystallizes into view.  As writers, we appreciate the chance to engage in our art without fear of political reprisal.  Even without publication, we have our words.  When I started my MFA, I debated whether the ambition to publish was the right one, whether my voice had enough authority to earn its place.  But to follow that logic, to favor academic discourse over all others, silences those voices deemed unnecessary by the dominant narrative.

Beginning anew two years later, I am convinced that such an ambition is right.  Not for fortune or fame.  Not for an ephemeral notoriety some know and fewer understand.  But because a democracy—any participative government—is based on voices.  My instructor was right.  Every story matters.  Every voice.  Every vote.  The urge to express in writing is an urge to articulate a story that is already part of our fabric, no matter its origin or what the owner looks like.  Writers of all stripes stand ready, willing, and able to articulate on behalf of not only themselves but those who cannot speak for themselves.  We provide words for the countless made silent by the will of the few.  It is our prime responsibility to ensure all sides discourse freely and responsibly, above the noise of those who would prefer a single storyline. 

Arun Chittur is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches organizational leadership and pedagogy in Nevada.

Student Picks: Doerr and Mitchell


Arun Chittur-- I’m a longtime skeptic of historical fiction because of its reputation for overworked description, academic focus on timeline, and characters concerned more with events than their own lives. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See corrected my long-time drought. 

Doerr introduces readers to Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl, stranded after her father falls into Nazi captivity, and Werner, a German orphan who finds friendship and structure in Hitler’s army; the book relies on the unlikely thread between these two ostensible enemies.

Doerr’s structure invests readers in each character just long enough, making use of short, single scene-based chapters to bring us in personally. The book is then broken into multiple parts, each a different time period around or during World War II. The timeline slides backward and forward, leading one to believe the plot too difficult to follow and to assume the book will return to the shelf half-read. Alas, you’re left with more questions and no choice but to press on, hoping for answers.

The chapters show one moment, one place, one emotion. Then as soon as your heart subsumes the character’s, perspective changes, and you begin again, always longing to understand the world around you still cannot see.


K. A. Hamilton-- "This book does not contain a misprint on page 39," Amazon warns, a foreshadowing of the form-bending journey to come. On its surface, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a collection of found documents, torn apart at their middles and nestled within one another. Going deeper into the journals, films, and manuscripts, it’s a story of karma that follows a chorus of souls over six different lifetimes.

Belief in reincarnation is not a prerequisite for the audience, as the cyclical themes of subjugation and justice are universally human. In fact, the premise is never explicitly stated; it only exists as a mounting sense of connectedness between the people of each era. In this novel that spans period and genre, Mitchell demonstrates the subtle power of what’s left unsaid. There is an electric urgency to the message, and a call to action that is impossible to set aside when the book is done.