Archive for August, 2007

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Selah Saterstrom’s second novel, The Meat and Spirit Plan, will be published next month by one of my favorite independent publishers, Coffee House Press.

I’m running short on adequate description to say how brilliant I think this novel truly is, so here’s what Publisher’s Weekly had to say (deleting what may be too much plot spoiler):

” This dark first-person tale of youthful initiation by Mississippi-born Saterstrom (The Pink Institution) follows a feisty narrator from public housing in a backward Southern town to the sodden grit of university life in Glasgow. The young, unnamed narrator of these detached vignettes falls into bad company as her drug-addict mother largely disappears and her older sister introduces her to sex and booze. … Saterstrom’s coming-of-age narrative is tough and unblinking, and the moments of clarity provide immense satisfaction. (Sept.) ”

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Let me just add to this, the prose is breathtaking, as worthwhile to read for the quality of the writing itself as for the compelling story.

Selah was gracious enough to grant me an interview:

LG: What sort of childhood did you have? Were you the sort of child who lived a lot in your imagination?

SS: Growing up I had a whole slew of cousins and my childhood was filled with adventures and misadventures with them. Between us we had an extraordinary amount of imagination. We would stage plays and other “experimental” productions which could be quite … interesting! We always practiced having a wonderful sens of humor in my family.

There was this way that our collective energy and applied imagination was able to disrupt the landscape into its more surreal versions. Surrealist writers have been important to me and reading them has taught me a great deal about the generative aspects of transgression, and how the dream – as a form of literature – makes it possible to break out of binary ghettos we may have set up for ourselves. When I think of my continued fascination with these things I think my childhood spent with cousins, how we were experimenting with other ways of knowing and engaging through our imaginations. Those times were great fun, never lacking in drama, and taught me a lot about the power of story.

LG: Were you a big reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

SS: Reading was celebrated by the adults in my life when I was a child. Reading was never a stodgy thing to do. For example, it was sneakiness of the highest order for my sister and I to turn on flashlights after the adults went to bed and read Nancy Drew under the covers when we should have been sleeping.

My grandfather had a large library and taught us about the importance of reading and writing. His library was full of history, philosophy, psychology, religion and the classics, and we mainly read from this library, which meant as a child I read a great deal of Plato, Shakespeare and French writers such as Hugo, all of whom were great favorites. I don’t know that I always understood what I was reading then, but it was when I began to love how language could flow and how it felt in the body.

LG: Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did you have a moment of epiphany when you chose that vocation? Or did it choose you?

SS: I had early experiences that I look back on now as having divinatory significance about being a writer. What those experiences had in common is that they involved the act of seeing and the power of story to make available the logic of mystery – of uncertainty – as a way that made things bearable and known to the heart’s experience.

As a child I once saw a relative’s dead body and I remember thinking, “Well, after seeing that I can see anything.” I had this overwhelming sense that this meant something important and that it was a kind of ethical responsibility to be willing to see what was there to be seen. What I did with that seeing was to write. I wrote my first story when I was around seven, and don’t remember a time after when I didn’t want to write (though sometimes I also wanted to be a ball-gown designer in New York City or a nun). I don’t think anyone in my family is surprised that I’m a writer now. Did I choose it? Did it choose me? I have no idea. When I think back to early childhood experiences of writing I only remember that it always felt right, compulsory, very, very close.

LG: The narrator of The Meat and Spirit Plan is a very complex, incredibly intelligent young woman who’s also very mixed up. What inspired you to write about her?

SS: When I was working with “troubled” teenaged girls, I saw the uniqueness of their lives and their fierce intelligence, but I also saw correspondences in their experiences of the body. Futhermore, I saw correspondences between their stories and many of my friends’ stories. I was also affected by other stories, such as the story of the sexual abuse and death of Hunter College student Ramona Moore.

As part of my research for this book I also interviewed women who had been sexually abused, and I realized that sexual abuse – something we tend to think of as the exception to the rule – really isn’t the exception. I also work for SASA, a sexual assault advocacy, support, and response team, and the statistics that state one out of three women will be in some way sexually violated is alarmingly accurate and thriving.

Through this narrator – who has a variety of sexual experiences, some of which are violations and some which are not – I wanted to examine the cultural conditions around young people and the ways they come into their bodies. I was interested in how sometimes the moment of sexual awareness coincides with moments of sexual disempowerment or disembodiment. Of course there are a lot of reasons why this happens, but what interested me was the break-down in communication we have about bodies in our culture and how this plays out among teenagers and what happens when those teenagers grow up – how we all learn to celebrate our bodies, with their history and complexities, as adults.

LG: Mississippi has been the native state of some of the greatest American authors, including William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. What is it about the South, and Mississippi in particular, that makes for such a wealth of literary genius?

SS: If only I could offer some insights to this question! I do believe that each region retains its own magical synergy and that this synergy is created by many details – from the kind of flora that grows in the region, the weather, the history of the region itself – the history that is retold and celebrated as well as the history that is not told, is not celebrated.

The way these details come together in Mississippi creates quite a synergy. One need only listen to the Blues coming out of the North Mississippi Hill country and the Delta to sense this. And I’d add, gospel music (such as The Mississippi Mass Choir).

Mississippi is a place of contradictions that bears them viscerally and with soul. As southern scholar Susan Ketchin has said, the Deep South is a Christ-haunted landscape – faith and doubt sit beside one another and this juxtaposition creates a hybrid energy which infests language with possibility. It is a story driven place, where everything has a story (and has a secret version of its story). Perhaps for obvious reasons I like Faulkner’s idea, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

Mississippi is a place I love very much. It has certainly been a generous landscape in which to ruminate upon the complexities of the human condition as well as the human heart.

Thank you so much to Selah Saterstrom. It was a pleasure.

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Judging a Book by its Cover

Posted: August 24, 2007 in Books & Authors

A recent article in the Guardian discusses the importance of cover art in making book sales.

The publisher Penguin is in the process of reissuing selected classics with blank covers, counting on the fact everyone knows enough about these titles not to need any sort of visual cues as to what’s inside. Well, maybe. Maybe that IS enough, when you’re talking classics. But for other books, cover art can be very important.

I confess I’ve bought books based on the cover art and titles alone. Though I always read the cover blurbs, to get more of an idea what the book’s about, I have picked up books I’ve ultimately bought because the cover art struck me before I knew a thing about the story. Am I sometimes disappointed by the book? Well, sure. But I’m just as often disappointed after I’ve read half a dozen positive reviews of a book, and find it didn’t match my tastes at all. So I’ll go ahead and defend my affection for good cover art. At least it looks pretty on the shelf, even if the book itself does stink.

I collect older editions of Modern Library hardback books based solely on the beauty of the cover art. The dustjackets feature really lovely line drawings that have a retro look to them I really like. A lot of those are classics, too, and many of them I own in other editions. Modern Library editions are really durable. That’s one good thing about them. Not all of them have the cool illustrations, so you really have to look. The illustrated dustjackets are generally more valuable collectors items, unsurprisingly, but you can sometimes luck onto them at book sales.

Another publisher I really love is the now-defunct First Edition Library. They published facsimiles of first editions of major 20th century classics, books like The Grapes of Wrath and The Sound and the Fury. Everything in the book was identical to the original first edition copy, down to every little mistake that got edited out in subsequent editions. Not only do the books have the lovely, pristine facsimile jackets, but they put them in cardboard slipcases, too. I used to belong to this subscription-only club, but gave it up when it started to seem like too expensive an indulgence, so I never did get the full set. But those can probably be found at the used book sites, too, like most everything can these days.

Pulp paperbacks are another group of books collected for their cool covers. Most of those feature art that’s lurid and overly melodramatic, which adds to their enduring appeal. I don’t personally own too many of these, since they can be prohibitively expensive. I’ve procured those only very sparingly. When I learned that a brother of William Faulkner had written a book only available in a pulp edition I had to have that, but paying $ 40ish for a small mass paperback book, no matter how lurid the cover or rare the item, definitely felt like an extravagance. Still, I can’t say I’m sorry to have spent the money, even if it does seem a little nutty. I very much believe in the maxim “It’s only the books you don’t buy that you regret.”

That’s pretty much my philsophy, too.

Let’s just get the bad news out of the way first.

Hey, guess what? No one in America is reading anymore!

Once you’re done hyperventilating (take your time), check this out:

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Here’s the back cover blurb on the proof copy the publisher sent me:

“Not long ago, the public library was a place for the bookish, the eggheaded, and the studious – often seeing refuge from a loud, irrational, crude outside world. Today, libraries have become free-for-all entertainment complexes filled with deviants, drugs, even sex toys.

What happened?

Don Borchert was a short-order cook, door-to-door salesman, telemarketer and Christmas-tree chopper before landing a job at a California library. He never could have predicted his encounters with the colorful kooks, bullies, and tricksters who fill the pages of this hilarious memoir.

In ‘Free for All,’ Borchert offers readers a ringside seat to the unlikely spectacle of mayhem and absurdity that is business as usual at the public library. You’ll see cops bust drug dealers who’ve set up shop in the men’s room; witness a burka-wearing employee suffer a curse-ridden nervous breakdown; and meet a lonely, neglected kid who grew up in the library and still sends postcards to his surrogate parents – the librarians. In fact, from the first page of this comic debut to the last, you’ll learn everything about the world of the modern-day library that you never expected.”

Ooookay. Drug busts at the library. Back in my day, I assumed the biggest worry of the average librarian was either paper cuts, from gluing in those due date slips, or maybe some sort of repetitive motion affliction, from stamping all the dates. I never thought about them coming under the line of fire, as cops surrounded the place.

That’s pretty cool!

And I’m starting library school next month. I wonder if they’ll include courses on drug sniffing dogs and the art of self defense?

I’ll have been here at Algonquin two years come September 12ish, and so far the worst thing I’ve seen came from the patron who decided the large print area was the ideal place to go “big potty.” Now that was pretty foul, but not particularly life-threatening. But then again, I wasn’t the one cleaning it up, either.

The mind boggles. But at least now I know it won’t ever be boring.

Back from Vacation!

Posted: August 21, 2007 in Literary, Off-Beat

I’m back from a glorious two-week excursion to New England, where I ate lobstah and chowdah to my heart’s content. I’m pleased to report that what started as a camping vacation quickly turned into two weeks spent at a cushy hotel, after our camper perished in untimely but spectacular fashion. As serendipity would have it, the camper expired in a particularly “scary Jerry” campground. I could imagine sequels of ‘Halloween’ being filmed there, that’s how bad it was. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after seeing the bathroom, located in a structure that looked like a cross between a bomb shelter and a shanty. I half expected the roof to cave in on us, though I’ll admit the “rocking toilets” were a pretty unique perk. You just don’t see enough rocking toilets these days.

I considered it an act of God when one of the support cables went PING! as my husband was cranking up the pop-up camper. Never have I been so relieved in the face of “disaster.” Of course, when the credit card bill comes I may be singing a different tune, something involving a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. But until then, I figure it’s better to revel in the positives. In this case the positives include two weeks of soft beds, running water, and what’s apparently become the staple “continental breakfast,” fresh Belgian waffles. Just don’t ask me over for waffles anytime soon. I think I’ve had my quota, thanks.

Did I ever make the author home circuit while I was in New England. This was a total “all about me” trip, at least to the extent I could get away with it. I started out with a list of author’s homes to visit, a list that mysteriously got longer as we went. Funny how that works. Here’s the list of the homes I can remember visiting, as of this listing:

Sarah Orne Jewett
Stephen King (who has the distinction of being the only actual living author whose home we visited)
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Louisa May Alcott
Edith Wharton
Mark Twain
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Emily Dickinson
Herman Melville
Robert Frost (grave)

I also made some sidetrips to author gravesites, as well as a sidetrip to Walden pond. I took photos of all of those, too, of course, which is my nature. I’ll post a selection here, but I promise I won’t post all 5,100 total photos I took on the trip.

Yes, FIVE THOUSAND, ONE HUNDRED. PHOTOS. But they’re DIGITAL. That’s how I justify it.

For the record, I didn’t manage to actually tour all of these author’s homes. It depended on what time we arrived at the site, how crunched we were for time, and how patient the kids were feeling that day. I unfortunately had to pick and choose, though if I’d have had my way I’d have spent at least a day in every home. There’s something about being in the same environment an author once shared, especially when that author also had a spectacular garden, as Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton did. I could have spent hours exploring there, but unfortunately the kids didn’t share that same enthusiasm. I was lucky they went at ALL, actually, and they’ll probably remember this as “Mom’s dead writer tour.” We did take them to other stuff, too, lest you think me entirely self-centered. We went to beaches, gift shops, restaurants, gift shops, on a whale watching tour, and to gift shops. I think that’s really pretty balanced, don’t you?

Once I get through my pictures I’ll start posting away on the various highlights of my trip. That should give everyone something to look forward to.

In other news, I’m heading up to Madison next week, for library school orientation. That should be fun. I’m interested to see how this distance learning stuff works. So much high tech, newfangled stuff has come out since I was an undergrad. It’s a whole different world now, and I’m pretty anxious to get started. However, as with the camper, I’m not as anxious to get the bills…

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Butterfly, In the Heart of Downtown Chicago

– Photo by Lisa Guidarini (Canon EOS XTi)

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Charles Simic will be appointed the 15th Poet Laureate of the United States later today. Simic was born in Yugoslavia on May 9, 1938, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1953. He graduated from Oak Park High School.

Formerly a professor of literature and creative writing, he’s now retired from his position at the University of New Hampshire. He is currently a poetry editor for the Paris Review and lives in Strafford, New Hampshire.

His poetry is characterized by its minimalism, terse style and imaginistic qualities. He was influenced by William Blake, the English poet.

“Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat and the poet is only the bemused spectator.”

– Charles Simic