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.) Continue reading

Elliott Holt

“I think more people have read my book in the Twin Cities than everywhere else combined,” Elliott Holt told the audience at her reading last night, June 4, 2013, at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis.  A solid contingent of readers, writers, and publishers turned out for this Tuesday night event, and it did indeed appear that many in attendance had already read the speaker’s debut novel, You Are One of Them. Continue reading

Bill Roorbach

Bill Roorbach is an anomaly.  Not because he genre-hops between fiction and nonfiction, or because he delayed his writing career so he could tour the world as a musician.  Not because his new book, Life Among Giants, is his ninth book and third novel, is already in its third printing and in talks to become a TV series à la Mad Men, but for the art world of the American seventies.  Bill Roorbach is an anomaly because he’s just so nice. Continue reading

Twin Cities Book Festival: The Long Version

The twelfth annual Twin Cities Book Festival took place on Saturday, October 13, 2012, as more than 5,000 Twin Citizens already know. What we might not know is that the festivities actually began a few days before that, on Thursday the 11th, with a little kick-off gathering in the Walker Arts Center‘s 8th floor Garden Terrace room.  This event marked my foray into the world of literary festivals, and oh what a world it is! Continue reading

Heartland Fall Forum

It’s no terrific secret that operating an independent bookstore is a tough gig. Even before e-books and Amazon, there were Barnes & Noble and Borders to contend with.  But recently, with the tablet revolution in full swing, keeping the doors open to a small, curated inventory of new and used books has been particularly difficult.  This might not be evident in the Twin Cities, where stalwarts Magers & Quinn, Birchbark Books, Boneshaker, and Micawber’s seem like standbys, and where new or upgraded shops like Common Good Books, SubText, and the almost-open Moon Palace Books crop up at a regular pace.  The rest of the Midwest should be so lucky: nearly every issue of Publishers Weekly bemoans another fallen ally.

By all accounts, this dwindling has been evident in recent iterations of the Heartland Fall Forum (formerly MBA).  Attended by representatives from independent booksellers across the region, the Forum is a place for publishers and book-related goods manufacturers to showcase their products, hoping to win some interest and distribution. But as fewer and fewer independent booksellers could afford to make the trip, the show seemed to be losing its impact.

So this year, they did something different: last week, the Depot and Renaissance Hotel in Minneapolis was the site of the inaugural Heartland Fall Forum. Rather than having two separate regional trade shows, the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association (MIBA) and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association (GLIBA) combined their events and have agreed on alternating host cities–next year’s will be in Chicago.  The result?  A well-executed, well-attended, and altogether successful event.

The bustle and buzz abounded.

Booksellers from at least twelve states were on hand to peruse upcoming titles, discuss marketing and sales techniques, and get the scoop on which books will be getting the biggest push next spring. Several major publishing houses were in attendance, including Harper, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, and Norton. But the local publishing scene was well-represented as well, with Twin Cities staples Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, and Milkweed Editions showing off their exciting spring catalogs and recent titles.

Caroline Casey of Coffee House Press. Drinking coffee.

I was on hand as a representative of Rain Taxi Review of Books, helping spread the word to publishers and booksellers about the Twin Cities Book Festival next week. The primary difference between the Heartland Fall Forum and the Book Festival, of course, is that the Festival is a public event, while the Heartland Fall Forum is open only to publishers, booksellers, and registered media. (LitSeen.org, I will be clear, was not registered media; I’m pirating this report to you from beneath Rain Taxi‘s cloak.)

The Forum officially began on Wednesday, October 3rd with an opening reception featuring local literary heroes Hans Weyandt (co-owner of Micawber’s books in Saint Paul and editor of Read This!, Coffee House Press’s new anthology of book recommendations from booksellers across the country), Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion, owner of Common Good Books), and Louise Erdrich (author and owner of Birchbark Books). On Thursday, exhibitors and participants were invited to a ticketed breakfast wherein Justin Cronin (The Twelve), Peter Geye (The Lighthouse Road), Christina Schwartz (The Edge of the Earth), and Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures) signed books, nommed with attendees, and likely spoke a bit as well.  Thursday also included the heavy portion of entertainment:  panels on bookselling strategies, trends in the book-buying world, and the “wouldn’t-be-a-book-conference-without-it” discussion on bookselling in the digital age. Thursday evening, keynote author Tom Perry (Visiting Tom) helped celebrate the winners of the Midwest Booksellers Choice Awards (Chad Harbach, Cheryl Strayed, Todd Boss, and Loren Long, in their respective categories).

Leslie Koppenhaver and Michael Taeckens of Graywolf Press

I’m sure the Wednesday and Thursday programming was terrific, but I can’t say because I wasn’t there. The only portion of the Heartland Fall Forum I experienced first hand was the exhibit hall on Friday: an ice-skating rink-sized pavilion filled to the gills with galleys and gizmos, free swag, and handouts galore. I spent the bulk of my shift spreading the word about Rain Taxi and the Book Festival, and became adequately roused about a few books coming up in the next quarter: Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer, for one, and Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely for another.  Also an exciting development: Coffee House Press will be re-releasing Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station with new cover art.

Mostly, it was an excellent chance to hear from people outside of the Twin Cities, but also interested and invested in literature, just how impressive our community is in terms of publishing, bookselling, and all-around lit-love. Across the Midwest and beyond, everyone knows we’ve got something special happening here, and we should feel lucky to be a part of it. I know I do–and if you’re looking for a simliar thrill, come check it out for yourself next weekend (shameless plug) at the Twin Cities Book Festival.


Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the left and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar and be at the next LitSeen attended event. See you around!

Amber Sparks, John Jodzio, & BJ Hollars

Give me one of these and I will burn it.

Around the corner from a place I used to live was a nickel arcade.  When my friends and I couldn’t think of anything better to do, we’d gather up our five-cent pieces and station ourselves at the skee-ball, pouring wooden spheres down the ramp and racking up little tickets we could later trade for cheap, disposable prizes.  Our prize of choice was the small, immobile, green plastic army man. Not so we could model elaborate battle scenes on our kitchen table (we were in our late teens by this point, maybe our early twenties: the patience for such tedious imagination had passed). But because at some point, through traditional teenage means, we discovered that a green army man will burn.  And when he does, tiny globs of flaming plastic will drop to the ground with a preternatural, bubbling “zzzzzzzap!” sound that, even after burning through an hour’s worth of skee-ball tickets, doesn’t cease to fascinate.

This phenomenon came to mind last night at Magers & Quinn Booksellers as a few young, up-and-coming writers read pieces in their genre of choice: flash fiction.  Amber Sparks came home to Minnesota from Washington DC to celebrate the release of her new collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, a beautifully designed paperback from Chicago’s Curbside Splendor.  Local hero John Jodzio read a couple from the Paper Darts-produced Get In if You Want to Live, and opening the evening, BJ Hollars read a brief, new-journalistic essay about his parents’ unhappy parrot.  Each writer displayed extreme wit and a solid handle on narrative craft, replete with sudden and bristling turns of phrase, plot lines popping and fizzing with energy.  If flash fiction makes a sound, I think “zzzzzzzzap!” isn’t far off.

The reading took place on a Tuesday (September 25, 2012, to be exact), in the quiet, tucked-away poetry corner of the book store, and only a handful of people were in attendance (twenty, tops).  I couldn’t help noticing the difference between this evening’s reading, with all its sparkling, short-lived ebullience, and the slow, textured, symphonic compositions that an auditorium-packing Michael Chabon created last friday.  (I’m not saying the sparse crowd was a direct result of the genre–let’s see how things look when John Jodzio wins a Pulitzer.) But I do feel that genre informs the equation: “zzzzzzzap!” is perfect for an otherwise slow Tuesday evening, but as more and more magazines focus on, publish, and proliferate flash fiction, as it becomes more and more writers’ genre-of-choice, I can’t help but feel a little bit like the literary world is filling itself with smoke and melted plastic for the sake of a three-second sound.


Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the left and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar and be at the next LitSeen attended event. See you around!

Ultimate Master of Words

I attended the Loft’s “Ultimate Master of Words” competition with a dual sense of obligation: first of all, how does a person running a site devoted to literary happenings not attend an event so “literary” and so “happening”?  Second, the $10 cost of the ticket to this event doubled as a Loft membership fee–and how does a writer and editor living in the Twin Cities not have a membership to the Loft until now!?!  Of course I value what the Loft brings to the Twin Cities, and of course I benefit from their programming and community-building.  I feel legit shame that it’s taken this long, counterbalanced by the relief/pride that I now, finally, belong. But as for the actual event, The Ultimate Master of Words turned out to be, well, really fun.  I wasn’t blown away, per se, by the literary prowess. I wasn’t inspired to go home and write–I wasn’t inspired to go home and read.  But I smiled a lot, and laughed a lot, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else the entire time.

Much of this had to do with emcee Jeff Kamin (of Books & Bars, and also the emcee of past few Minnesota Book Awards Galas) and his high-octane schtick.  He’s a gifted performer and improvisor, and he was cast perfectly for this event–keeping the momentum moving even when the event itself stuttered (built into the structure of the contest were minutes-long pauses in which the contestants conjured their material…) and suffered a few technical difficulties that might have train-wrecked other events.  These minor obstacles only allowed Kamin to weave his lackadaisical charm more thoroughly into the fabric of the show.

Jeff Kamin and contestants. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Hale’s Facebook Page.

In his introduction, Kamin declared that “no one has ever seen a game like this before. Unless you’ve played Balderdash.”  Not the most original conceit (writers make up fake definitions to real words), the ingenuity of the event came in structuring the competition as a bracket, a-las March Madness.  The first round consisted of four pools of three writers, from each of which one winner was chosen.  Of those four winners, two competed for one spot in the finals, the other two for the other.  Words like “mulligrubs,” “swallet,” “pogonotomy,” and “farctate” were ascribed variously charming, long-winded, or venereal definitions, and the contestants were whittled away until only Sally Franson and Emily Weiss remained.

Weiss earned her spot in the finals by defining a word as, “losing this round to Sarah Stonich because I’m a little more drunk than I was in the last round,” which, ironically, won Weiss a trip to the finals.  But it did note the tangible decline in sobriety as the night wore on… the Loft was courteous in its libations, and most of the audience seemed to have partaken liberally.  This made for a lively, rather raucous atmosphere (for a room full of book nerds), but did also tamper the momentum of the contest just a bit:  wit slipped toward pandering, creativity toward heart-on-sleeve goofiness.  In the final round, the three judges (who were, along with Kamin, largely responsible for the evening’s light-hearted atmosphere: Marianne Combs, Lorna Landvik, and Anatoly Liberman each stole the spotlight at all the right times and in peculiar, eyebrow raising ways…) had to deliberate for quite a while before deeming Emily Weiss the winner–her prize: the title of Ultimate Master of Words and a limited edition print from Hazel and Wren reading “A Smithy of Words Am I.”  Her winning definition: “Lethologica: the brand of shampoo and conditioner that claims it will wash away your white guilt.”

In a charming twist to conclude the evening, anyone who had accurately filled out a bracket printout, which the Loft had circulated at the outset, was eligible to win a gift bag of mystery prizes.  Only one person guessed all of the outcomes correctly, and it turned out to be Emily Weiss’s mother Shelly, who was on hand to support her daughter.  What a haul. (FTR- I had Sierra DeMulder, who was ousted in the first round.)

This peculiar and niche-focused event likely resulted in a lot of new members to the Loft (such as myself, with aforementioned shame), which was certainly one of its aims.  But it also reminded us what a fixture the Loft is in the local literary tableau.  This was not a celebration of literature, nor even a celebration of words.  It was a celebration of that special thing we have here in the Twin Cities, that community we comprise, which I might define as “composed of individuals who love ideas, and who love the ideas of others, and the idea of others who love others’ ideas, and the idea of loving others’ love of ideas. Also, books.”


Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar and be at the next LitSeen attended event. See you around!