Emily St. John Mandel & Heather Slomski

elevenEvery 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.

spoonsWith 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:

Lit Up Late (1/3)

Something crucial often gets lost at a literary event. There’s a thrill in seeing an author you admire in the flesh, getting your new book signed and personalized, getting to ask a question during a Q&A. There’s revelation in hearing a sentence uttered by its creator, the inflections you wouldn’t have ascribed to a line. There’s the community of the event, being surrounded by fellow readers. There are often snacks, sometimes free booze, sometimes raffles and giveaways. Sometimes literary events have little to do with literature-see Revolver’s amazing boxing party from a couple years ago. Sometimes the whole point of going to a literary event is just to reassure yourself that people who like to read aren’t going extinct. There are many of us, and we’re not going anywhere. So what’s that crucial missing component?

Oh yeah. Books.

murakami mitchell darnielle Continue reading

Nickolas Butler

When you can’t get to a reading, you bring the reading to you.

I’ve hardly been able to get out to Twin Cities events in the last six months, so I clearly wasn’t going to be able to get to Iowa City on Monday, March 24, 2014 to hear Nickolas Butler read from his buzzed-about debut Shotgun Lovesongs. Luckily, the legendary Prairie Lights bookstore streams audio of their lit events. After this brutal winter, I bet there are a lot of people in the Twin Cities who wish more establishments would offer this service (noting, of course, that it’s much more difficult to buy a book when you don’t set foot in the bookstore…).  And while the atmosphere projected by my laptop wasn’t quite as inviting as stacks and spines and a roomful of booklovers, and while the tinny audio through my speakers didn’t do justice to Butler’s disarming and wholesome voice, I do have to say that it felt good to be attending a reading again, even if from afar.

After an introduction from one of his classmates at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (this was a homecoming of sorts for Butler), the author launched into an excerpt, noting that it “isn’t the usual piece I read, and I’ve decided to read this part because it was here in Iowa City that this section made it into the book.  This began as a poem, and I wanted it to work as a poem, but [I didn’t catch the name of the person Butler referenced here] told me that it had to be in my book. And now it is, and I’m glad it is.”

The portion in question detailed a square-dance, in which he lyrically describes the open arms of the community and the jubilance of the music.  A quotation from this section was recently singled out in the New York Times as an example of the tasteful “overwriting” that Butler is smart enough to avoid in abundance.  Hearing that it was originally written as a poem makes perfect sense.

After his reading, the event turned to the typical Q&A.  From the audio, it sounded like a good turnout, and the audience came prepared with questions.  Does he write about Wisconsin and the Midwest intentionally? (“It’s all I know, and I know it well.”)  How did you get in the mindset of a depressed character so convincingly? (“I had to leave my wife and new child over and over to commute to the Workshop, and it was a very sad time.”)  When you were commuting between Minnesota and Iowa, did all of that driving help you with your writing? (“It was a quiet, undisturbed time when I could reflect on something somebody said in class.  I didn’t even have a smartphone, so yes, it was helpful.”)

Butler bristled a bit when a questioner brought up the Justin Vernon/Bon Iver connection.  “I respect Justin and he’s an inspiration to me, but this book isn’t about him,” Butler defended.  “I told my publisher that if they wanted to do some marketing promotion capitalizing on Bon Iver’s success, then the deal was off.  This had to be a standalone book or it wasn’t going to happen.”  Surely Butler has taken this question at every reading he has given, and he must be tired of it already.  At the same time, it’s a question that surely won’t go away, given the similarities between his character and the legend that pesters Bon Iver.

Fortunately, even with his defensive feathers ruffled, Butler is a genuine and disarming speaker who easily conveys that his intentions are not to ride the coattails of his peers to literary stardom, but to understand, as his Justin Vernon-esque character does after the square dance scene, “what America [is], or could be.”

The Second Annual “Cookie” House Press Holiday Party

by guest contributor Samantha Campbell

As you may recall from last winter, for one delicious day a year, local literary publisher, Coffee House Press, transforms its Northeast Minneapolis headquarters into Cookie House Press, an annual cookie potluck and book sale. This year’s event, held last Thursday, December 5th, offered a myriad of cookies that ranged from classic to experimental.   Continue reading

Amy Tan

by guest contributor Stefanie Hollmichel

There was a packed house to see the Hennepin County Library’s Talk of the Stacks event with Amy Tan on Wednesday, November 13 2013 at the Minneapolis Central library. The crowd filled Pohlad Hall and two overflow rooms. After introductions were made, Tan stepped out on stage. She is a petite woman with a big presence. Continue reading

A Simply Glorious and Ultimately Nerdy Reading

This heading is the title given to the group reading at Moon Palace Books on Friday, November 8 2013.  A strange shindig (three vastly different poets and a novelist, taking place at 4pm rather than the typical evening reading time), it did a better job of living up to the first three words of its name than the ending. Continue reading