Every year a handful of books seems to outshine the others in terms of the amount of buzz they generate, or which is generated about them. Not talking about the perennial bestsellers–the Stephen Kings or JK Galbraiths or what have you. The out-of-nowhere literary successes. Think Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding from a few years ago, or more recently, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Books that, if you’re a reader, you might not necessarily read but you’re know about them. They catch your eye in the bookstore because they’re displayed prominently. They’re sold everywhere, and reviewed everywhere, and you can’t seem to escape them. And maybe you do read that book, and maybe it’s your favorite book for a while. Or maybe you read it and you can’t figure out what all the hype was about. But sooner or later, you read them. (Caveat: never read either of those books, but I intend to. Except for The Art of Fielding. Sorry Chad Harbach.)
Few books are getting the kind of attention right now that Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, is receiving. It earned a glowing write up in the New York Times Book Review this last weekend, and every. single. person. who’s read it can’t say enough good things about it. After seeing and hearing Mandel read at Magers and Quinn Booksellers last night, September 15 2014, I don’t know whether this will be one of my favorite books or if I’ll merely enjoy it. But I’m going to read it, and probably sooner rather than later.
With that kind of hype machine at her back, the event didn’t really need to be a double bill, but Heather Slomski, who was invited to share the podium with Mandel, didn’t disappoint. Slomski’s new collection of stories The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons (University of Iowa Press) is the latest recipient of the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Previous winners include Don Waters, Kevin Moffett, Thisbe Nissen, and Robert Boswell, to name a few. Slomski read a short, domestic myth of a story that teetered on the magical realist edge, but showed a clear skill with subtle details. She read with a subdued voice and a measured, sturdy pace that belied the fragility of her characters. The story’s double title, “Iris and the Inevitable Sorrow, or The Knock at the Door,” inspired a question from the audience during the Q&A, which she answers below.
The Lovers Set Down their Spoons struck me as a book to linger over, one to pick up every so often and manuever through, rather than devour in a single sitting. Slomski’s reading, then, served as a perfect sampling of things to come.
Emily St. John Mandel read a few excerpts from various places in her book, giving a general sense of the tone of the work more than the thrust of the plot. Intelligent, insightful, tender, broad in its gaze but refined in its perspective. Other blurby hyperbolic fragments. This book’s got it all. The cinematic backdrop of a world gone to ruin, the academic cast of performing wanderers, the epic, narrator-shifting structure. It’s a book to please everyone, released just in time for the long indoor slog of winter. (I know it’s not winter yet, but I’ve got a few books in line before this one.)
Her fourth book but first on a major publisher (the awesome Unbridled Books put out her first three, each of which also elicited quite the stir in the indie channels), Mandel seems poised to ride the gentle undulations of literary stardom without letting it go to her head. Perhaps it’s her training in dance that provides her balance–a background she mentions in response to a question about her choice to write a book about a troupe of itinerant actors: