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When my alarm went off at 9am Sunday, I wasn’t too psyched. I was sleepy after a late night, had a headache, my random foot injury hurt…but it was the BROOKLYN BOOK FESTIVAL so I hauled down to Brooklyn Heights and settled into St. Francis McArdle Hall for the morning.

I had wanted to see Justin Torres and Tayari Jones speaking about writing childhood, but either I read the schedule wrong the other day or some events got changed around because their panel ended up happening at 10am, before I arrived. My back-up choice was not bad, though.

11am: The Good, the Bad, and the Family with Sergio Troncoso, Elizabeth Nunez and Tom Perrotta, moderated by Rob Spillman

These three writers read short selections that pertained to family from their most recent books. Both Troncoso and Nunez’s excerpts struck me as a touch didactic, but their pieces were out of context and they were charming when discussing the way they negotiated their family’s reactions to their work and how they mined their family’s experiences to create stories that, in the end, were fictional, and their own. I really liked Tom Perrotta’s reading. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to his new book because, although I’ve always enjoyed reading him, for some reason I’d gotten it into my head that he was too commercial for me anymore. Hearing him read a passage about a teenage girl in the aftermath of a non-religious rapture in which many people on earth disappeared, I realized that was dumb. The book sounds great. Rob Spillman asked the questions and time ran out before the conversation could be opened up to the audience, which made me very happy because Q&A’s make me cringe! 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!

As I’ve mentioned, there is an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum right now about Jane Austen, and it’s pretty terrific. (http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/exhibitionList.asp?exhibition=Austen.) On view are many of her letters, the first twenty pages of her only surviving manuscript, Lady Susan, and assorted other documents relating to her life and work. Most of the letters are to Austen’s sister, Cassandra, but one particularly charming one is addressed to her young niece and its contents are written entirely backwards to make the correspondence into a game for the eight year old. Shown alongside the documents are the satirical drawings of James Gillray, a contemporary of Austen’s, who skewered many of the same social stereotypes as she did in her work, and as the exhibition shows, in her letters to Cassandra.

Austen made the most of her paper, filling ever bit of usable space and then some with news, gossip and conjectures–she cross-hatched her words across each other, wrote upside down between her lines, and at times was so catty that her words have been erased from posterity–excised by Cassandra. One can only imagine what she must have said in those missing fragments, because some of the gossip preserved by Cassandra is quite fantastically nasty. Austen made fun of people’s husbands’ pink necks, her suitors’ commands of the English language, the current fashion in ludicrous hats–she would probably have been the perfect person to gossip with in the corner of stuffy drawing room.

Because humor and cattiness are a theme in the show, I thought I would pull the same theme from Pride and Prejudice, which I finished this morning. As I said about Sense and Sensibility, I hardly presume to have something new to say about this book. So, I thought I would select a passage from early in the book that really shows how special it is.

From page 94: Mr. Bennet, the exasperated father of five girls, speaking to the second oldest, and his favorite, Elizabeth, about the man her eldest sister, Jane, had hoped to marry having skipped town. And, in case the sarcasm isn’t obvious when the excerpt is taken out of context, this is all sarcastic:

“So, Lizzy,” said he one day, “your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.”

And Lizzy says: “Thank you, Sir, but a less agreeable man would satisfy me. We must not all expect Jane’s good fortune.”

I am rife with anecdotes for this one.

Last week, I was sitting at a bar, drinking a beer and reading the first story in Wells Tower’s short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned while I waited for some writer friends to come join me. When they arrived, they greeted the sight of the book in my hand with a kind of noise somewhere between a groan and a growl.

YES! I said.

YES! we all agreed.

We wanted to hate the book. To a group of people who spend their days eeking out sentences it seems like we can only hope to have each other read, watching the praise, press and rapturous accolades bestowed upon this guy’s debut accumulate over the past few months was pretty intense. Two of us (myself included) admitted to marking one of Mr. Tower’s May readings on our calendars, just so we could check him out, only to ruefully let the day pass by. Most of us thought he made up his name. I requested the book from my library and had to wait two months to finally get my hands on it, leaving me wondering how this guy got so many people in Queens even–of all places!–to line up to read his work. UGH! But then, you know, I got the book, and I started it, and well, it is really that fucking good.

everything

I tried to savor the collection, couldn’t, finished it almost immediately. Then, I went–again with some writer friends–to the Bryant Park Reading Room to see a conversation with Wells Tower and Lydia Peelle, moderated by John Wray (who, you recall, I also wanted to hate–I am a hater, this is becoming clear). And, as would have been a surprise to me before actually reading the book but wasn’t after I read it, Mr. Tower was charming, funny, self-deprecating, literate, thoughtful and really, really likable. After the event, I admitted I’d read a library copy of his book so I had nothing for him to sign, which he actually seemed totally happy about (I guess writers like libraries) and then, like some weird teenage fan, I used the word “awesome” about sixteen times to describe his work. He was very nice, and humble. Sigh. So, from one extreme to the other.

Now, on to the book itself. Read the rest of this entry »

I had the pleasure of attending an event a couple weeks ago in honor of Ben Greenman’s book Please Step Back. A man in a wacky yellow jacket from a website that chronicles world records attempted to have Ben set a record for the longest story written in one minute (he failed). Todd Zuniga from Opium magazine interviewed him and had him complete a  literary Rorschach test. Audience members spoke about their literary projects (including our own Underwater New York–www.underwaternewyork.com). And, Ben read the beginning of his novel, inspiring me to purchase it and read the rest.

plstepback

As I learned at the event, the germ of Please Step Back began as a biography of the musical artist Sly Stone. Then, the same thing happened to Ben as often happens to me when I attempt to write nonfiction–he wanted to make stuff up. So, eventually that project morphed into this one, which, though it contains grains of Sly Stone’s life, is fiction.  Read the rest of this entry »

Last night, some friends and I went to see Jeffrey Eugenides read from The Virgin Suicides and discuss the novel, sixteen years after its publication. The occasion of the renewed attention is a new reprint of the book in paperback.

virgin

I remember when I first read The Virgin Suicides, I had trouble with the narrative distance created by the plural first person narrator, but eventually I came to really appreciate that exact quality. I still have vivid images in my head from the story: the Lisbon girls’ house, the littlest one impaled on the fence, Lux up on the roof. After listening to Mr. Eugenides talk, I am dying to go back and read The Virgin Suicides again (that’s why these events exist, I guess!).

He proved to be warm, self-deprecating, witty and smart–someone I would want equally to be my professor and my drinking buddy. A video of the interview will be up soon on http://www.bn.com/review. If you are a fan of the book, or if you are a writer, you should check it out.

Some highlights included:

When asked how Philip Roth would have treated the story differently (the question made a bit more sense in context), Mr. Eugenides said that he definitely would have gotten into the girls’ house! The interviewer said, “he would have gotten into more than that.” The place went crazy. Ah, literary humor.

Talking about the movie vs. the book, Mr. Eugenides said that because the action couldn’t be filtered through the boys’ speculations as it was in the novel, there was less ambiguity between what was real and what was in their imaginations concerning the Lisbon girls. Because we, the viewers, got to see and judge the girls for ourselves in the film, it had to become more their story than the boys’ story.

Regarding the formation of his idea for Middlesex, he said the easiest answer was that he was drawn to the power of a hermaphroditic narrator, someone imbued with the knowledge of both genders, inspired by the myth of Tiresius settling an argument between Zeus and Hera regarding who has more fun in bed–men or women. Tiresius had been both, so could answer.

In response to a question regarding how the “Pulitzer changed your life,” Mr. Eugenides said he now has a new paperweight, but everything else (confronting the blank screen) is just as hard as it ever was.

Always, that answer–I find it equal parts encouraging and soul-crushing when people like Alice Munro and Jeffrey Eugenides say that their confidence never increases and it never gets easier to fill a page with words.

Of course, nothing makes me more irate than someone intimating that it’s easy!

This spring, I was lucky enough to sit in on a memoir unit taught by Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of it All. It was a ridiculously fun four weeks, filled with unpublished essays by some of our best contemporary writers, hilarious anecdotes and lots of trying to figure out just what makes a memoir a memoir. Luckily, this all landed me a spot on Mr. Wilsey’s email list, so I got a heads-up about some pretty exciting upcoming events in support of his new book, an anthology called State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. It’s a collection of essays by some very stellar writers, writing on the states they’re from, or live in, or were visiting for the first time. Anthony Bourdain did my home state of NJ! (Yes,  I love him, I can’t help it). Joshua Ferris wrote Florida (I love him MORE). Jonathan Franzen wrote New York (I’ll reserve judgment…). Jhumpa Lahiri did Rhode Island, you get the idea. Powell’s, the bookstore in Portland, made a film to go along with the book. It’s being screened (for free) at NYU’s Cantor Film Center at 36 E. 8th St., theater 102, tomorrow night Sept. 18th at 7:00pm. Sean and his co-editor Matt Weiland will be there, as will several of the chapter writers, including Joshua Ferris, Will Blythe, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Rick Moody, Charles Bock, Ellery Washington, and Myla Goldberg.

And me–I’ll be there.

Here’s the website with all the many other events, some of which are also in New York: http://www.statebystate.us

UPDATE: This event was awesome. If you get a chance to see the film, you definitely should–it was wonderful on a lot of levels. You get to see a lot of the writers from the book who undoubtedly won’t all be at the readings, and seeing them interact is really interesting. Dan and I were struck most by moments showing how much writers strive for community and lack in confidence. Some of them fretted that others had been funnier, some of them seemed to thrive being up on stage, some seemed terrified. Truly entertaining. The conversation after was pretty good, too. The assortment of writers was slightly different than the email promised, but it was a great assortment regardless.

Also, I was brave and talked to not only Sean but Matt Weiland, Myla Goldberg, Charles Bock, Rick Moody and Joshua Ferris and got them to sign my book. (AND JOSHUA FERRIS. Did you see that part? JOSHUA FERRIS.)

The Brooklyn Book Festival is taking place this Sunday, the 14th, in Brooklyn Heights. Here’s the website: http://www.brooklynbookfestival.org. There are excellent readings, panel discussions and a maze of vendors from small presses to magazines to literary associations. There are also chances to run into not only Brooklyn’s, but some of the world’s best writers, as well as everyone with whom you’ve ever had an English class or an awkward date.

Unfortunately, I have preexisting brunch plans that I can’t change, so I will be showing up a little late. Hopefully, I will still be able to get tickets (which based on my experience last year, are free, but need to be picked up that day for the bigger events) to this event:

4:00 p.m. Titans Talk. Fiction readings by trailblazers Jonathan Lethem (You Don’t Love Me Yet), George Pelecanos (The Turnaround), and Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina). Followed by Q&A. At St. Francis Auditorium (180 Remsen St.)

Three guesses which one I’m most excited to see!Duh, Dorothy Allison!!!

This very blog is named after a quote of hers. Her novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (photos are of my embroidered version), her short stories and her essays are not only brilliant and engaging on the story and sentence levels, but opened my eyes to a certain “white-trash feminism” that I hadn’t known anything about before. She’s a brave, talented, trail-blazing woman and everyone should go see her speak!

UPDATE:
So I just missed getting tickets to this, which was slightly devastating, but Lindsay and I prevailed and had a nice time anyway. I saw plenty of people I’ve had English classes with, but thankfully no one I went on an awkward date with. I mustered the courage to introduce myself to Hannah Tinti (One Story), whose new novel The Good Thief is on my to-read list (she was super sweet and gracious; we talked about Moby).
The one reading we caught was a trio of first-time novelists: Chuck Klosterman (surprisingly funny), Charles Bock (surprisingly angry at Chuck Klosterman), and Ed Park (lovely! can’t wait to get his book–he was really endearing). It was a strange dynamic–Mr. Bock’s reading was good–I’ve been curious about his novel ever since I studied all the reviews it got for a book review unit in a class, but he was putting strange energy out. At one point, he gave Mr. Klosterman a double-middle finger sort of gesture and then put on dark sunglasses. Weirdly, that only made me want to read his book more.