Readers and fans of writer Louise Erdrich have a rare opportunity to hear the prize-winning author read from one of her works-in-progress this weekend during her bookstore's midwinter celebration.
Birchbark Books in Minneapolis will be open extended hours (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) on Sunday (Feb. 22), with Erdrich making several appearances between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to autograph books (purchased on site, please) and read from her current work in progress.
The store will also have hot cider and cookies and will raffle off a number of gift items, including a handmade star quilt, a hand-crafted birdhouse, and first editions and broadsides, autographed by Erdrich.
Erdrich, who won the National Book Award in 2012 for "The Round House," owns the independent bookstore at 2115 W. 21st St., which also sells Native American crafts, jewelry and medicines.
Raffle tickets are available for $5 each in advance, either at the bookstore or by phone. Call the store at 612-374-4023. You do not have to be present to win. But wouldn't it be fun to be there?
Charles Baxter looked around at the crush of people inside Micawber’s Bookstore, a standing-room-only crowd, and he suggested that maybe he should cut his talk a little short. All those people standing, in winter coats and boots, it can’t be comfortable.
Nobody seemed to think that cutting things short would be a good idea.
Baxter, winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story and a finalist for the National Book Award for his novel “The Feast of Love,” was at Micawber’s to launch his new book, “There’s Something I Want You to Do.”
Baxter wrote the book—a collection of ten stories, five about virtues, five about vices—after going through what he called a “dry patch” when he wasn’t writing much of anything. “I started going through some old notebooks,” he said, “and I came across some old pages from 30 years ago. This is how old they were—they were typed.”
The pages were from a story he had started and discarded, and as he read it he thought it was one he could finish now. He changed the locale from Michigan (where he had lived) to Minnesota (where he now lives). One of the characters used the word “loyalty” to talk about his father, and that became the name of the story.
The next story ended up being called “Bravery,” and, “I thought that was very odd,” he said. “I seemed to be writing stories about virtues.” He talked to his editor about writing a collection of stories called “Virtues,” and his editor said, "I think that’s a very bad idea."
In the end, Baxter put together a collection of stories about both vices and virtues. Not all vices and virtues, and not necessarily the most common ones. “Just the ones I’m interested in,” he said.
The title had a different genesis. In “Hamlet,” “the whole play essentially starts because the ghost of Hamlet’s father says, ‘There’s something I want you to do.’" Baxter said. "The same is true for ‘King Lear.’” That request sets things in motion—and the higher the stakes of the request, the more dramatic the story.
Baxter looked out at the crowd and met the eyes of his brother, who was in the audience. “Since my brother is here, I can tell you that that phrase is also one that my mother used, over and over and over again.” And everybody laughed.
When he read, Baxter didn’t first read from the book but from an excised scene from one of the stories, “the equivalent of the DVD deleted scenes,” he said, or the director’s cut of a movie. The scene, originally in the story, “Chastity,” was both funny and poignant, an encounter between the main character of Benny and Benny’s mother, a cigarette-smoking-yoga-practicing woman whose divorce either “liberated or destabilized her, Benny wasn’t sure which.”
It was the following scene—a scene that takes place on the Washington Avenue Bridge, a scene that remained in the story—that was pivotal to Baxter. He read aloud the key sentence: “Irony was the new form of chastity and was everywhere these days. You never knew whether people meant what they said or whether it was all a goof.”
“And that’s the sentence that made me know I had a book,” he said.
And then questions, answers: He discussed that “dry patch” (“I like to think every writer experiences this. It feels a little like depression," he said, when no topic or subject seems appealing to write about. "It just feels like luck when a subject arrives and you think, ‘That’s something I can do. That’s something I want to do.’”) and themed collections (“You write these stories and you find out sort of belatedly what you’re writing about. My second collection, ‘Through the Safety Net,’ was about people who have had the rug sort of pulled out from under them. Though I didn’t realize until I was about three-quarters through it that that’s what it was about”) and about which is easier to write about, vices or virtues (“Oh, vices. Vices are much more interesting. Misdeeds—they interest us”).
The bookstore grew warm, those standing shifted from foot to foot, but nobody wanted to leave. Baxter wrapped things up. He looked out at the crowd, at his brother, his daughter-in-law, his students, his colleagues, his fellow writers, and his friends.
“I’m going to be on this book tour for some time,” he said, “and I just have to say I don’t expect ever to be in a room with so many people I care about. So, thank you. Thank you.”
"Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota," the new anthology edited by Alexs Pate along with co-editors Pamela R. Fletcher and J. Otis Powell!, will be launched into the world Thursday evening at the Minnesota History Center.
This collection of writing by 43 black writers was, Pate says in his introduction, "the culmination of a dream."
"What would a collection of works by African American writers who've lived in Minnesota for significant portions of their lives look like?" he writes. "How much would we talk about the weather? About isolation?"
And so he gathered together poems, essays, stories and recollections from Gordon Parks, and Nellie Stone Johnson, and Kim Hines, and Carolyn Holbrook.David Haynes is here, too, and Tish Jones. Anthony Peyton Porter writes about delivering the Star Tribune back in the day ("As far as I know, I'm the only person to have subscribed to, written for, and delivered the Star Triubne. I once delivered an edition with one of my book reviews, quite a sensation, as I recall.")
And Clarence White writes about applying for a job at the Ford plant, an activity that sends his memory back to growing up in St. Cloud. ("The teachers expected little of me. They also expected little of my siblings, yet we now have four master's degrees among us.")
The book launch will run from 6 to 8 p,m, on Thursday, Feb. 5, at the history center, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W.
Alexs Pate, Tish Jones, Philip Bryant, E.G. Bailey, Taiyon Coleman, Shá Cage, and J. Otis Powell‽ will all be there.
There will be refreshments, a cash bar, a reading, and a book signing. It is free and open to the public.
The crush of people started early: in the foyer of Open Book, through the lobby, up the famous winding staircase to the second floor. Graywolf Press folks hustled past the line, privileged, no need to wait--they were the publishers, after all, of the evening's poet, and they had a lot to do.
"I feel like I'm at a rock concert," one young woman said as the crowd inched up the stairs.
And she wasn't far wrong; poet Claudia Rankine is a literary rock star. Her newest collection, "Citizen: An American Lyric," was a finalist for a National Book Award and is a finalist in two categories (poetry, and criticism) for a National Book Critics Circle award.
Rankine, who teaches at Pomona College, was in Minneapolis on Friday night after spending most of the week at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, doing readings and talking to students.
The performance hall at the Loft was at capacity (about 200 people); three overflow rooms held a couple hundred more, hooked up by video and not always reliable audio. Macalester College professor Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings," introduced Rankine.
"I can't tell you how quickly I responded to that e-mail that said did I want to introduce Claudia Rankine," James said, chuckling, calling himself one of her biggest fanboys. "Even at its most boldly confrontational, 'Citizen' grabs us with its big heart. It's the pre-Ferguson book that feels post."
Rankine, quiet, thoughtful, measured, talked about the beginnings of her book. "I went to friends and asked them, 'Will you tell me a story where race entered the room?'" she said. They did, and she listened. These stories found their way into the first section of "Citizen," story after story, written in the second person the more to involve the reader, written plainly and nearly without emotion, but story after story, one building on another to devastating effect.
A friend ("you" in the piece) went to her first therapy appointment at the therapist's house, and the therapist screamed at her to get out of her yard.
Rankine ("you" in the piece) asked a friend to babysit while she went to the movies. On her way home she got a call from a neighbor, warning her about a "menacing black guy" in front of her house, casing the joint. Don't worry, the neighbor says; he's already called the police.
And when the menacing black guy turned out to be Rankine's friend who had stepped outside to make a phone call while babysitting her children, she suggests to the man that in future, he stay in the back yard. "He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."
The crowd at the Loft was perfectly silent as she read this piece, and then Rankine looked up and said, "That's the tortuorous and complicated and sick thing about racism. I want to protect you from my neighbor, and my way of protecting you is to curtail your rights. It's insidious."
For another part of "Citizen," Rankine asked her friend Rupert, an attorney in Los Angeles, to tell her about the times he had been pulled over by the cops. Rupert and his wife came over to Rankine's house, and "one of the things that surprised me was that she had never heard any of his stories," she said. "And as he told them I could see him getting angrier and angrier."
She read some of Rupert's stories in her quiet, strong voice: "Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren't speeding. I wasn't speeding? You didn't do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up."
After the reading, the audience questions came slowly at first, as though everyone needed some time to absorb the words they had just heard. One man had no question but merely wanted to thank her for reminding him that he is not alone.
A woman asked about Rankine's emotions as she was writing the book. "There were things that distressed me," Rankine said. "The piece about the therapist really shocked me." But when she was writing, she was concentrating more on the language than the feelings behind them. "Sometimes it takes weeks to figure out the right order of the words, or the words themselves," she said.
A teacher asked how to respond to white students who read "Citizen" and feel defensive. Rankine suggested that defensiveness is only one way a person can respond, and that the teacher might consider asking her students to look for other ways, too.
"We are all struggling around this," she said. "The only chance we have is engagement."
You don’t have to spend National Readathon Day reading “Beowulf,” one of the oldest texts in the English language, but you could. And if you did, you would have a lot of company.
This Saturday (Jan. 24) has been designated National Readathon Day by the good bookish folks at the National Book Foundation, and people across the country are being challenged to read for four hours straight, from noon to 4 p.m. (Snack breaks acceptable.)
The good bookish folks at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis’ Uptown are taking this one step further: They challenge people to read in Old English for four hours. They are hosting a marathon session of “Beowulf,” the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language. The event will begin precisely at noon with these immortal words:
“Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon· hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.”
(Although chances are they will be translated into standard English, which would sound more like this: "So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness." )(Seamus Heaney translation.)
And on it will go until the poem ends right around 5 p.m.
The bookstore has lined up a host of willing readers, including novelist Peter Geye and National Book Award-winning writer Will Alexander, but a few five-minute slots remain open. Sign up at http://tinyurl.com/lbq2pb6.
Donations and pledges raised during the Readathon will go to the National Book Foundation, which supports reading, writers, and the National Book Awards.
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