The PEN awards were announced today, and Graywolf Press finds itself among the many winners. "The Grey Album," by Kevin Young, took one of two $5,000 Open Book Awards, which go to exceptional book-length works of literature by an author of color. (The other award went to Gina Apostol for "Gun Dealer's Daughter.")
You can read the Strib review of "The Grey Album" here.
And Monika Bauerlein, former writer and editor at City Pages in Minneapolis, won the Nora Magid award for excellence along with Clara Jeffery, her co-editor at Mother Jones.
Here's a list of the winners:
PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize ($25,000) to an author whose debut work of fiction suggests distinguished achievement: Sergio De La Pava, for "A Naked Singularity."
PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Awzrd for Nonfiction ($10,000): Katherine Boo, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers."
PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($10,000): Robert Hass, "What Light Can Do."
We're just at the end of the first week of June, so it's probably not too late to jump on the Boneshaker Bandwagon.
Boneshaker Books--that fascinating new bookstore just off of East Franklin Avenue at 23rd Avenue South in Minneapolis (and aren't Minneapolis directions confusing? So says this former Duluthian, who grew up in a town where East was actually North)--has challenged its friends and customers to read something, anything, every single day in June.
So far, nearly 450 people have signed up on their website to say they're up to that challenge. (And given this either too-hot or too-cold weather, why not? I'm not going outside when it's 103 degrees. I'm just saying.) It's great to click over to the site and see what people are reading--"A Thousand Splendid Suns," and "Name of the World" by Denis Johnson, and "Black Like Me," by John Howard Griffin.
Boneshaker, while we have your attention, has lots of other things going on this summer, too--summer reads for kids under five, every Tuesday and Saturday at 10:30 a.m., and a big sale (with cupcakes) from AK Press on Saturday June 18, for all you radicals and anarchists out there, and, get this, they have free delivery, by bicycle, of books you order over the phone or the Web. All year round, throughout the Twin Cities.
[HERTZEL NOTE: This guest blog post is from reporter Kevin Duchschere, who conducted a phone interview with writer David McCullough recently. Because print space is limited--and Web space is not!--we give you some of the interesting stuff that didn't make it into the original story.]
David McCullough was looking forward to starting his 11-city, cross-country book tour when I spoke to him on May 25, only hours before his first stop in Framingham, Mass. He seemed in fine spirits.
“We have a first day of spring finally here in Boston, and it does wonders for one’s outlook on life,” he said.
McCullough, 77, is promoting his ninth book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” about 19th-century Americans seeking personal and professional inspiration in the City of Light. He will speak June 14 at Wayzata Community Church for an event sponsored by the Bookcase bookstore in Wayzata.
McCullough said he’s coming here because of his friendship with Bill Walter of Minneapolis, a businessman and vice chairman for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. It was Walter, he said, who once took him to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see a Parisian painting by John Singer Sargent that dazzled him. There’s another like it in Philadelphia, he said, but the Minneapolis version is better.
“Bill introduced me to that Sargent masterpiece and I’ll never forget it,” said McCullough, who is a painter himself.
I’ve read a number of McCullough’s books — his volumes on Harry Truman and John Adams surely rank among the best American biographies — and I recalled for him one lazy summer when I spent a lot of time on the patio absorbed in his fascinating book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. He said that book and the new one on Paris are closely related on an artistic level.
“I think they’re both about lives of affirmation, and they’re about great creative efforts,” he said. “The bridge is not just a work of engineering, it’s a work of art. And it’s enduring work, as is the work of so many of the people I’ve written about in the new book.”
Here are some excerpts from our talk:
On what he learned from “The Greater Journey”: “I didn’t know anything about George Healy before I started the book. I didn’t know much about [Augustus] Saint-Gaudens. I knew some of his sculpture and I loved what he’d done, but I didn’t know anything about his life much. I knew very little about Charles Sumner, except that he’d been very nearly beaten to death for his famous speech on the Senate floor. And on and on. I’d never heard of Louis Gottschalk, the musician. I knew nothing about Elizabeth Blackwell.”
On the value of writing: “I think what came through so often with this book is how many of these people — who did not think of themselves as writers, who did not think of themselves as characters in history or whose words were going to be showcased by some future historian or biographer — how well they wrote! It’s humbling to find that even such people as George Healy or Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who had virtually no education beyond grade school, how well they wrote, how descriptive their letters were. Of course, it was a time when people were expected to write letters. It was part of life. Unfortunately, we don’t do that anymore.”
On what makes this book unique: “The form of a book is, to me, the biggest first hurdle by far. What’s the form of the book? And once I have that, I’m ready to start in. And the form of this book is different from others. Because when you’re writing conventional history or biography, there’s the obligatory track that the reader, that you the writer, know can’t be ignored. Certain things happen in a certain order and you can’t just skip over and do only those that interest you; you can’t leave out characters. But with this book I could pick and choose my cast, so to speak. And if I included every American who went to Paris over 70 years, it of course wouldn’t be a book, it would be a catalog.”
On how he decided what to include: “I had to choose, who am I going to write about? And the criteria were my own criteria: Is this an interesting story? Is he an important character? What did he bring home, figuratively or literally? Did she or he leave a body of letters and diaries, so that we really know how they felt and what they were learning and what their worries were and the rest? And do enough of them interweave in their experience, so that there’s a pattern — it becomes a weave, it becomes a tapestry, rather than just one story after another that don’t connect.
“The very first character who’s mentioned in the book, for example, described in any detail, is Oliver Wendell Holmes, and he goes all the way through to the end. The same with Sumner, keeps coming back all the time. George Healy, too, goes through the whole book. So that was critical. And how did what they do change their profession or change American interest in art, or change how we view people of African-American descent, and so forth. I think what Sumner brought home, figuratively, was as important as what anyone brought home.
“And virtually all these creations that I’ve described in the book — Sargent’s paintings, the sculpture that Saint-Gaudens did in Paris, the architectural ideas that came back with Richard Morris Hunt or H.H. Richardson — all that came home. All of it’s here. All three of those paintings that are central to the part of Sargent’s life story that I tell — all painted in Paris, all painted when he was still in his 20s — are all in museums in either Boston or New York, and so forth.”
On his favorite characters: “I’m very much drawn to Holmes. I love his sense of humor. I love the fact that he saw no incongruity in devoting his life to medical science, but at the same time writing poetry and essays and starting a magazine called the Atlantic Monthly. I’m very fond of both Healy and Saint-Gaudens because they’re street kids who had no education but who had the gumption and ambition to excel, that made them go off to Paris to transform their lives and be the best they could be, as Healy said.
“I find Elizabeth Blackwell a terribly compelling figure, and Mary Cassatt — I think her backbone, her persistence is admirable in the extreme, quite beyond her obvious immense talent. And I think Sargent’s our greatest painter. As the wonderful critic Robert Hughes wrote not very long ago, it’s all right to like Sargent now.”
On whether his time at the Louvre influenced his painting technique: “Well, I’d say sure it has, but more I’m thinking Musee d’Orsay because so many of the painters that I really love are there.”
It is always charming when a writer's mother sends a polite e-mail, trying not to boast, but wanting to make sure that I had seen something noteworthy that their writing child has done.
And this time, what the writer's mother had to offer was really, really cool. It's just a two-minute book trailer on YouTube, but it's a funny two-minutes. The book is "States of Confusion: My 19,000 Detour to Find Direction," by Minneapolis native Paul Jury (who now lives in L.A.).
In his book, Jury visits each of the 48 contiguous states in just 48 days as a way to figure out where he wanted to go in life. I've not read it yet, but if it's as funny as the trailer, he's got a hit. And actually, the trailer itself is a hit--1.3 million hits so far. In it, he races through each state (including Alaska and Hawaii), stopping to deliver his own slogan. North Dakota? "Somehow even worse than South Dakota." Wisconsin? "It's too cold to be sober." Minnesota? You'll just have to watch and see.
Jury went to Hale, Field, Folwell and South High Schools, and somewhere, his mother tells me, a comment from his kindergarten teacher is buried in the YouTube comments.
By the way, the Dave Schwimmer-like guy in the video is not Paul Jury! Paul's working the camera, and wrote the lines.
OK, it might just be a shameless ploy to get you to friend them on Facebook and follow their blog. But hey, it worked for me. The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis--that gorgeous, fairy castle of a building on Park Avenue--is hosting a "summer in the city" haiku contest.
The rules are simple: Like their page (which is here) and post your haiku on the wall. As many as you want, as often as you want.
The museum folks will then publish your haiku on their blog (which is here) where you can vote for your favorites.
What's in it for you? Besides the opportunity to start thinking poetically and minimally, in elegant lines of five-seven-five syllables? Well, $200 could be in it for you--or, at least, a gift basket of goodies from the museum's gift shop, worth $200. The summery prizes are pictured on the blog: a blanket (for spreading in the grass?), a cutting board (for chopping up limes, no doubt, for those gin and tonics), a carafe, and a book, "The Ice Princess" by Camilla Lackberg.
I've checked the Facebook page and I'd say that the competition is stiff (especially those haiku that are in Swedish!) but not insurmountable. Sharpen your mind, and your pen.
(The institute, it's worth noting, is closed until Nov. 1 for renovations. But clearly, like so many of us, it lives 24/7 online.)
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