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A couple of years ago, I read an anthology called This is Not Chick Lit. One of the wonderful stories it featured was entitled “Selling the General” by Jennifer Egan. The story was about Dolly, a fallen PR powerhouse, trying to humanize a general who is widely hated for his role in a host of war crimes and mass murders. One of her tricks? Throw a fuzzy blue hat on his head.

A couple of months ago, I read in the New Yorker a short story entitled “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, about two young teenagers, their music executive father and his young PhD candidate girlfriend, among others, on a safari. Ms. Egan’s heart-wrenching use of forward-jumps in time throughout the story prompted several excited email exchanges with friends, as well as an extensive conversation in my writing group about whether I could pull off such a technique in one of my stories. (The verdict was no.)

About ten days ago, I read Ms. Egan’s newest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad and discovered that both of these stories are actually part of the novel. I was so surprised! Read the rest of this entry »

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Dan refers to the Brooklyn Book Festival as my “high holy days.” He’s right, of course–I look forward to the Brooklyn Book Festival all year. Attending it feels like such a luxury to me–I get to gain so much knowledge, experience, exposure to new writers, to words, all in one day, all without having to walk more than a few blocks at a time. Generally it’s a bit of a social event too, but this year I actually spent the whole day without once, ONCE, speaking to anyone. A lot of my writer friends didn’t make it to the festival this year, but I think it was the rain that really did it–I didn’t check out any of the booths where lit magazines and publishing houses set up, and I stuck to readings mostly in one building, so there wasn’t much opportunity to run into people. I didn’t mind being solo for the day, but now, since I didn’t get to chat about any of the readings and panels in real time, I have to do it in blog form. I’ve got a lot to say–I made it to six readings in six hours! Here is goes:

10am: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)

This panel was moderated by the droll Rob Spillman of Tin House, and featured Steve Almond (Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life), Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) and Colson Whitehead (Sag Harbor). It was fantastic. Steve Almond read a touching essay about Metallica’s Fade to Black and how it saved his wife back when she was a troubled teenager and then segued into an essay about wanting to sleep with a woman, only to discover that she likes the band Air Supply. I was thrilled when he hit “play,” filling the auditorium with soft rock, and read over it. It reminded me, of course, of his fabulous dissection of Toto’s masterwork, Africa.  Jennifer Egan read next. I had just finished her newest novel the day before the reading and was crushed when it was over (blog post forthcoming…), so it was a treat to hear her read from it and get to be in that world again. Last came Colson Whitehead, reading from Sag Harbor (you all know how I feel about that book). This particular passage was about the much-disputed term “sackadilliac” (does it, or doesn’t it, mean “nut sack”?) which was brave given that his little daughter was there. The other readers were a bit flustered by her presence in light of their adult content, but he seemed cool with it. A Q&A followed in which everyone was charming and insightful. A highlight!

11am: Food, Metaphor and Memory

I agonized over what to do at 11am, because I wanted to see this panel but Lauren Grodstein was reading on another one and, again, you all know how I feel about her. But I went to this one and am so glad I did. It was moderated by Jessica Hagedorn (Dream Jungle), whom I’d never heard of, but was impressed by. She was the best moderator I saw all day–comfortable in front of a crowd, well-versed in the panelists’ work and truly engaged in the subject. On the panel were Amy Besa (Memories of Phillipine Kitchens), Lara Vapnyar (Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, one of the first books I wrote about on this blog) and Monique Truong (Bitter in the Mouth). Amy Besa is the chef/owner of Purple Yam in Ditmas Park (formerly of Cendrillon in Manhattan) and she was unexpectedly wonderful. Bubbly, insightful, hilarious and it seems, a great writer. She teared up at the end of her reading and so did everyone else. Lara Vapnyar was beautiful and had a super sweet voice–heavy accent, lisp–she read from my favorite of her stories, in which two old immigrant women try to woo a man in their English language class with increasingly elaborate offerings of food. Monique Truong read last–she was really nervous, I think, which made the predicament of her character–a young girl afflicted with synesthesia–she can taste words–even more poignant. During the Q&A, a woman in the audience asked Monique Truong about Aimee Bender’s novel, which has been on my mind, too–none of the reviews I’ve read yet of Bitter in the Mouth have mentioned the weird synchronicity of the two books coming out around the same time. Monique Truong said that she hadn’t read Aimee’s book yet, but thought that the condition little Rose is afflicted with–being able to taste the cook’s emotions in the food he/she prepares–isn’t fictional, but a matter of course. Lara Vapnyar said writing about food was like writing about sex, but no one thinks that you’re a pervert. Amy Besa owned the Q&A though. She talked about the importance of “sour” in Phillipine cooking and how she feels like it’s her time to bring that to American palettes. She nearly teared up again when she talked about how Frank Bruni got her cooking–he “got” sour. Lovely!

12pm: Me…in the World

The space in which this reading was held was huge and awkward, so I had a hard time hearing or seeing what was going on. It featured Kate Christensen (Trouble), Sam Lipsyte (The Ask) and Rakesh Satyal (The Blue Boy), moderated by Greg Cowles of the NYTimes. I unfairly confuse Kate Christensen with Kate Atkinson, whose book, Case Histories, I hated, so it took me a minute to realize why I actually liked her and her reading. Sam Lipsyte’s reading was hilarious and although I could barely hear Rakesh Satyal’s reading, I could hear him best during the Q&A and he was smart and funny on the subject of growing up Indian and gay in suburban Ohio. I thought he had the best line of the day when he said that a writer’s job was to “curate eccentricities.”

1pm: Hallucinations of your Neighbors

This panel, moderated by Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Review, featured Cristina Garcia (The Lady Matador’s Hotel), Steven Millhauser (Dangerous Laughter) and Peter Straub (A Dark Matter) discussing the use of the irreal in their work. I can barely remember anything else that happened besides what Steven Millhauser read–he was OUT OF CONTROL. First, he read a piece from a story called “Paradise Park” about a fictional underground section of Coney Island where horror reigns, then he burst into this “thingamabob” called “He Takes, She Takes” about a couple dividing up their possessions in the wake of a divorce–part poem, part rap, complete genius. He came out of nowhere with it, spitting it out in staccato rhythm (he is a very skinny older man, balding, with white hair and glasses, by the way) and everyone was completely floored. I searched the internet, hoping he’d done it somewhere else and someone got it on tape, but I didn’t find it. Holy shit. I really can’t describe what it was like–it was too singular an experience.

2pm: You’ve Come a Long Way Baby…or Have You?

This panel was about how the 2008 election stirred up issues of sexism. The panelists, moderator Jennifer Baumgardner (Abortion and Life), Leora Tannenbaum (Slut), Rebecca Traister (Big Girls Don’t Cry) and Farai Chideya (Kiss the Sky) talked about feminism and Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin and Barrack Obama. Sometimes I felt like I was getting smarter sitting there, but mostly I felt like people were stating the obvious. They discussed intersectionality, siting Prof. Kim Crenshaw, which we were all doing freshman year in college. Not that it’s not still a problem that black women, for example, have to deal with every day, but it seems pretty elementary to point out, especially to a Brooklyn literary crowd, that there is that problem. If it had gone deeper, I would have been a lot more interested.

3pm: Plot Aside

I trekked a couple blocks in the rain to get to the Brooklyn Historical Society (which, I am so embarrassed to admit, I’d never been to before) for this panel which was about everything BUT plot in the panelists’ books. If that sounds like an awkward idea to prompt discussion, it was, and it wasn’t helped by the moderator, Jonathan Segura of Publishers Weekly, who seemed to me to be compensating for the awkwardness by being a bit brash and condescending. The panelists were cool, though–Adam Haslett (Union Atlantic), Siddhartha Deb (An Outline of the Republic), Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets) and Katherine Weber (True Confections). What I liked best is that none of them worked in the same way or had the same points of view about process. Encouraging.

I bowed out after that–all I had to eat through all of this was a bag of peach slices and a hazelnuts, and there is only so much literature one can take. But I really enjoyed my day and hope you can all make it next year!

Although I applied (twice) to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I never really wanted to go there. It just seemed to be what one did when applying to MFA writing programs. Living in Iowa didn’t appeal to me, and as much as I love Marilynne Robinson, she didn’t seem enough of a draw. Knowing about all of the remarkable writers who come out of that program didn’t even entice me. Of course, I was rejected from the program (twice) so my ambivalence was basically irrelevant.

Now, if I had been given the choice to have been born and reared in Iowa, that may have been another story. I think there’s something about the state that causes spare, haunting writers to grow there. What am I basing this on? Well, not a lot, but I am convinced by my theory. One of the women I met at the MFA program that did end up taking me hails from Iowa and writes some of the darkest, most particular and haunting fiction I’ve ever read. And then there’s Michelle Hoover, who recently published her first novel, The Quickening.

I was barely halfway through the book when I texted my Iowan writer friend to tell her to read it. It reminded me of her writing before I even flipped to the author’s bio and realized she, too, grew up in the state. The Quickening is slow, spare and wrenching in all the right ways. I was personally shocked by the NYTimes review that criticized it for being less compelling than the diary that inspired it; I found the book to be absorbing, vivid and lyrical.

The novel alternates chapters between the points of view of two Depression era Midwestern farm wives, Enidina Current and Mary Morrow. I don’t know about other readers, but my heart was with Enidina from the start. Read the rest of this entry »

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood is a novel in the same world as her 2003 book, Oryx and Crake. Their two narratives are concurrent, so this newer book is not a sequel, but something of a retelling from another angle. I knew this going into reading The Year of the Flood so I didn’t mind not having yet read Oryx and Crake, although I would probably advise reading them in the order in which they were written. I can’t say for sure yet, but I would imagine it would add to the experience.

Ms. Atwood refers the genre of The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake and the Handmaid’s Tale as “speculative fiction.” I feel like this is an apt label. She takes aspects of our current society and spins them out, amplifying them and following them to their extremes. Reading the book in the Pacific Northwest this past week, where everyone composts and nary a pesticide has touched a fruit or vegetable in years, it wasn’t hard to imagine a future that contained a cult like The Year of the Flood‘s God’s Gardeners. Read the rest of this entry »