When last we blogged, Cambridge, Mass., writer Katherine A. Powers had tried to donate a copy of her new book, "Suitable Accommodations," to her hometown library and had been refused. Why do we care? Because her book is a collection of letters written by her father, Minnesota writer (and National Book Award winner) J.F. Powers.
Powers had noticed that the library system she had patronized for 40 years didn't own a copy--other Massachusetts library systems had the book in their collections, including Boston, but not Cambridge. So she brought a copy down to the library and offered it to them.
And they said no.
The reason, they said, was that they only accept donations of books that are on the New York Times best-seller list, and while the Powers book had been published by FSG and had been widely reviewed, it was not a best-seller.
The library director was out of town when all of this happened, and Monday was a holiday, and it wasn't until yesterday that the whole thing was resolved--more or less.
Powers and the director met, the director said that refusing the book had been a mistake, and that the staff member who had rejected the book had made a mistake. (But the library policy apparently says otherwise.)
In any case, the director agreed to now accept the donation of the book, but it was too late; Powers had already donated the book to a more willing library, the one in nearby Maiden, Mass.
So will the Cambridge library now pay to add a copy to its collection? Stay tuned for a possible Chapter Three...
Because we are Flyover Country, and thus aw-shucks dirt-kicking provincial, we are allowed to claim every author who not only was born here and lived here for a time (or lives here still), but also every author who was educated here, is here on fellowship, or who has summered up the Shore. (This would include Pat Conroy, whose sister lived in Minneapolis for awhile--he'd visit her, and then head up the Shore.)
We draw the line at including writers who have simply spent the night or changed planes at MSP International. We do have some pride.
So in that vein, we should all be bursting with pride at the number of Minnesota authors who have made it to the semi-finals in the annual Goodreads Best Books competition. There are perhaps overly many genres, but we won't argue with that--all the better for highlighting more and more books! (Though the books don't always seem to quite belong with the genre--is Colum McCann's "TransAtlantic" really "historical fiction"? And is Joyce Carol Oates' "The Accursed" really "horror"? Well, maybe.)
It should be no surprise that the busy and prolific Neil Gaiman is a finalist -- in three categories. (Fantasy, middle-grade and picture book.) Fortunately, because he lives in western Wisconsin and flies in and out of the Twin Cities, we get to claim him.
So. To the list. If you are a member of Goodreads (and it's easy to join, though controversial, since they were acquired by Amazon) you can vote. There are 25 semifinalists in each of 20 categories--a lot of books! Though some, such as Helene Wecker's highly praised "The Golem and the Jinni," are in multiple categories. (Fantasy, and Debut Novel.) (Wecker is a Carleton grad, and, thus, one of us.)
I'm not going to give you all the titles. You can find those yourself on Goodreads.com. But here are the Minnesota books (or Minnesota-tinged books). More than a million votes have been cast already, so it's quite impressive to make the seminfinals. Be proud!
Fiction: "The Orphan Train," by Christina Baker Kline. (She summers in Minnesota, and the book is partially set here.)
Mystery and thriller: "Ordinary Grace," by William Kent Kruger. (A resident of St. Paul.)
Fantasy: "The Golem and the Jinni," by Helene Wecker, and "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," by Neil Gaiman.
Nonfiction: "I Wear the Black Hat," by Chuck Klosterman. (Born here!)
Poetry: "Black Aperture," by Matt Rasmussen. "Incarnadine," by Mary Szybist (published by Minnesota's Graywolf Press). (We'll find out next week about the National Book Award -- both are in the running.)
Middle grade: "Fortunately, the Milk," by Neil Gaiman
Picture book: "Chu's Day," by Neil Gaiman.
Now go do your civic duty, and vote! Voting ends Saturday, and you can vote on the finalists beginning Monday. Good luck.
For writer Katherine Powers, getting published might have been the easy part. Then she tried to get her book placed in the public library. Now THAT was hard. And, so far, impossible.
Powers is the oldest daughter of writer J.F. Powers, the first Minnesota writer to win a National Book Award in fiction (in 1963, for "Morte d'Urban"). He and his wife, Betty Wahl, also a writer, raised a big family in Collegeville, Minn., near St. Cloud, where Powers taught at St. John's University. Powers was a prodigious writer of fascinating, troubled letters that revealed his angst and apprehensions about family life. He was troubled by spending so much time making money to support his children when, he felt, he should be writing. ("Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions, or a worm have to fly a kite?" he wondered.)
His daughter collected several hundred of these letters in a new book, "Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963," published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the most prestigious of the big New York Publishers.
It is a book both scholarly and interesting, and it has been widely reviewed (the Strib review is here), in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, and elsewhere.
Recently, Powers noticed that her own library--the one in Cambridge, Mass., where she lives--didn't have a copy. Other libraries in the system had it, and all of them were checked out. So she brought a copy down to the Cambridge library and offered it to them.
No go. She explained the significance of the book. Not interested.
"They asked me if the book is on the NYT best-seller list and when I confessed that it wasn't, they said they didn't want it," Powers wrote on Facebook. "Go away, was the dynamic, community-oriented message."
Library officials declined to comment for this blog. The library director is out until Tuesday, they said, and she is the only person who can speak publicly on the matter. When asked for the policy--is it true that a book must be on the New York Times best-seller list to qualify for donation?--they again declined to comment. We must wait until Tuesday.
Powers, meanwhile, has written a letter to the library trustees and the director, which she also shared on Facebook. it says, in part, "The idea that a local author's book, published by a reputable publisher, which has been widely reviewed, should not be in her local library—and is, in fact, refused a place in it—would be unbelievable except that it is simply another instance of highhanded bureaucratic rationale trumping commonsense and, not to put too fine a point on it, decency."
This whole business, she added, "is, among other things ... a perfect example of 'policy-making' trumping common sense."
Tuesday. Perhaps it will all become clear on Tuesday.
I have to admit, I am wary of all the "best book" lists that start cropping up this time of year. Publishers Weekly has announced its 101 best books of the year; Good Reads is currently seeking votes from you on best books in multiple genres; and book critics (including me, I must admit, a bit shamefacedly) are busily writing their "What to Read" recommendations for Salon's end-of-the-year What to Read Awards. (Here's mine from last year.)
And yet, these lists fill me with angst. I love to read them, but I'm suspicious. Because who has read everything? Who has even seen everything?
Who has read all the new novels, or all the new memoirs? Nobody, that's who. So how can anyone pronounce anything "the best"?
And who can legitimately say what the best book of the year is when there are so many different kinds of books, so many different purposes for books? Even splitting it up by genre doesn't quite do it--how do you compare Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear" (his history/expose of the Church of Scientology) against, say, Jill Lepore's biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister? Or against Howard Norman's beautiful memoir? They are such different books!
So now that I've talked us all out of these lists, I'm asking you to help me come up with one. All I want is for you to write and tell me the best book you read all year.
This will not be a ranked list. There is no voting. Please do not seize the opportunity to flood my e-mail (as some have) with persuasive (though nearly identical) messages in support of one particular locally published mystery. It will not work! I am too smart.
I'm just looking for a brief note from you telling me the best book you read this year--the title, the author, and why it was so good. It does not have to be a book published this year; it can be any book, though of course new books are always of interest when it comes to gift-buying.
Please send your messages to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and please include your name and city of residence.
We'll run your suggestions and praise on Dec. 1, along with our recommendations for fiction, nonfiction, gift books, regional books, memoir, biography and our second annual "Critic's Choice" awards. Yep, Another list of best books....
How does it go when the tables are turned and the interviewer becomes the interviewee? Judging by Wednesday night's conversation at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis, a little shy, a little sweet, and very interesting.
Book critic, editor and author John Freeman was in town promoting his new book, "How to Read a Novelist," a collection of author interviews he conducted for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune, and elsewhere. (In his interview with Erdrich, he calls her "quiet and self-effacing," words that could have been used to describe Freeman himself last night.)
So during his book tour, novelists have been seizing the opportunity to query him ("It's an obscure form of therapy," Freeman joked)--in Seattle, Nicola Griffith; in Brooklyn, Geoff Dyer; and in Minneapolis, Erdrich, who was respectful and admiring. "This book is absolutely wonderful," she said. "I read some of the pieces over and over."
But she had plenty of questions. For instance: Was there any author Freeman interviewed that he didn't like?
He didn't allow that there was ("I like most people, because I'm from California," he said), but then he went on to talk about John Irving's pugnaciousness and ego, the wrestling ring built right into his house, his hallway of books, "and they're all John Irving books, in various languages."
The evening was a festival of names of authors Freeman has reviewed and interviewed--Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Edmund White, Richard Russo: "I never understood the anger in [Russo's] work. When he does it with humor you almost forget you're swallowing a bitter pill."
Throughout the conversation, Freeman almost reflexively tried to turn the questions back on Erdrich, who was having none of it. Each time, she'd smile a serene Mona Lisa smile and remind Freeman that she wasn't the one being interviewed this time.
In interviewing, "There is this performance anxiety," Freeman said. "And you want to be liked. But as an interviewer, you can't do that." He doesn't see the interviewer and subject as having an adversarial relationship. "As an interviewer, your job is not to try to catch someone with food in their teeth. Your job is to catch them as they really are. In the best interviews, you never see the questions, only the answers. Critics and novelists are often put at odds with each other, but we both use the same tools."
Freeman was not a reader as a child. "Some time at 8, or 7 I stopped reading on my own," he said. But later, when he was reintroduced to literature, "It just cracked my head open," he said. After college and after a few failed jobs in finance, he began reviewing books--first for Publishers Weekly, and then for newspapers and magazines around the country.He became American editor of Granta, a British literary magazine, and then editor, dividing his time between London and New York and expanding the journal's presence around the globe, highlighting writers from Spain, South America, Pakistan and elsewhere.
Though his life is now books he must read--keeping up with what's new, reviewing what's about to come out--are there books he re-reads, Erdrich asked. "Mostly poetry," Freeman said. "Because poetry is meant to be read over and over. Adrienne Rich--I just don't know how she makes those shifts in voice. James Wright--there's a bare-knuckled sadness to his poems."
And what about the dedication, Erdrich asked. "For my father, who asked the right questions." What questions did he ask?
"He just kept asking me from a very early age what I wanted to do with myself," Freeman said. "I took from him that life was extremely serious, at a young age."
Freeman's parents were social workers, "and they looked at weakness not as weakness, but as the human condition, and that's the job of a novelist."
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