When you’re out shopping for books the Saturday after Thanksgiving (as of course you will be), do not be surprised if some of your favorite writers are manning the cash registers or tidying up displays. Walk up to them. Ask for a recommendation. That’s why they’re there.
Saturday, Nov. 30, is not just "Small Business Saturday," but it's also “indies first” day — a day when writers show support for independent bookstores by helping out for a few hours. Writer Sherman Alexie came up with the plan, which has been embraced by hundreds of authors across the country. ("Hello, hello, you gorgeous book nerds," his open letter begins.)
Lists are still being firmed up, but here’s what we know so far (and you can check the map to find out what's going on in your favorite store):
Chapter 2 Books in Hudson, Wis., Michael Norman and Stephanie Bodeen;
Red Balloon, Saint Paul: Debra Frasier, Nancy Carlson, Kurtis Scalleta, David LaRochelle, Brian Farrey, Lauren Stringer, John Coy
Addendum Books, Saint Paul (in a corner of SubText Bookstore): Dawn Klehr, William Alexander, Nancy Carlson, Catherine Clark, John Coy, Brian Farrey, Kevin Kling, Christopher Lincoln ("Billy Bones"), Mary Losure, Carrie Mesrobian, Chris Monroe, Laura Purdie Salas, Kurtis Scaletta, Pat Schmatz, Lauren Stringer, Stephanie Watson, Jacqueline West
Micawber's, Saint Paul: Peter Geye and Nicole Helget
Birchbark Books, Mpls: Heid Erdrich
Common Good Books, Saint Paul: Mary Losure and Sarah Stonich
Magers & Quinn, Mpls: Andy Sturdevant
SubText, Saint Paul: Sarah Stonich.
Valley Booksellers, Stillwater: Julie Kramer, Erin Hart, Colleen Baldrica, Stephanie Landsem, Charlie Quimby
Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield. Benjamin Percy
The Bookstore at Fitger's in Duluth: Erin Soderberg.
When Amy Tan was a girl, her mother warned her to stay away from boys. “She said, Don’t let a boy kiss you because maybe you can’t stop. And then you’re gonna have a baby.” Her mother went on to enumerate all of the terrible things that happen to a girl when she has a baby, ending with, “You want to kiss a boy? You might as well just kill yourself right now!”
“And I thought, What was so good about it that you couldn’t stop?” Tan said.
It was a funny story, but one tinged with darkness, as were so many of the stories that Tan told on Wednesday night at Talk of the Stacks at the Central Library in Minneapolis. “When she told me this, I didn’t know that had had a first husband,” Tan said. “I didn’t know that she had three daughters living in China.”
Self-deprecating, elegant and fascinating, Tan mesmerized the crowd with her stories of family drama. And it was a true crowd, for sure--Pohlad Auditorium was filled, and guests packed into two overflow rooms, where they watched her on movie screens, and a handful more stood out in the atrium, listening to her on the speakers. Nearly 450 people showed up, one of the biggest crowds yet for the library’s popular program.
Tan read only briefly from her new book, “The Valley of Amazement,” and instead told stories about her mother and her grandmother--familiar figures to anyone who has read her novels. Her new book travels from China to the United States, following the lives of a courtesan and her daughter in the first half of the 20th century
While writing “Valley,” Tan kept two photographs on her desk: One of her mother, and one of her grandmother. Her mother left Shanghai in 1942 on a student visa, leaving behind an abusive husband and their three daughters. Tan never knew if her mother meant to abandon her children, but she was not allowed to return to China for 30 years. “My mother was impetuous, and passionate, and suicidal,” Tan said. “She taught me that I must always be independent.”
Tan’s grandmother was, she said, “a tragic figure. Spoiled. She married late, at 24, and her husband died in the 1919 Pandemic.” According to Chinese culture, she was supposed to remain a widow the rest of her life, but one night, when visiting a friend, she awoke to find a man in her bed. “There are two versions to the story,” Tan said. In one version, the man holds a knife to her grandmother’s throat and says, “If you don’t marry me, I will kill you.” In the other version, he holds a knife to his own throat and says, “If you don’t marry me, I will kill myself.”
Tan’s grandmother married him and worked out a deal: If she bore him a son, he would buy her a house in Shanghai. She bore him a son, he reneged on his part of the bargain, and she killed herself, leaving behind Tan’s mother, who was then 9 years old.
When writing “Valley,” Tan said, she entered the world of her grandmother, but the book is not about her grandmother. “It does have a lot to do with the themes in my family--betrayal, abandonment, passionate women, suicidal women, impetuous women, and love, love, love.”
“Valley” is her first novel in eight years, and Tan joked that “the best thing about finishing it is people no longer ask when’s your book going to come out. The worst thing is they ask why it took so long.”
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."
When I travel, I like to scope out the other passengers' reading material. This is getting harder to do. The last time I flew, back in May, not one person in the gate area was carrying a book, at least not a visible book. One guy had a newspaper (God bless him). Everyone else was peering at screens of various sizes--phones and tablets and the occasional e-reader.
They make it so hard to snoop.
It might be that people in transit prefer digital devices because they're lighter weight than books. (Although, of course, no flight attendant will make you put your book away ten minutes before landing.) Or it might be that all of those people I saw read on devices all the time. Who knows?
This whole madness about the changing world of reading--how we read, and where, and on what, and how we think about what we read--will be the topic of discussion Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.
The panel discussion, "How We Read Now," will be moderated by MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs. The panelists will be Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Bookstore; Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Books; Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions; Katie and Guy Eggers, founding editors of Thirty-Two Magazine, and yours truly.
The event is free and begins at 7 p.m. at Micawber's, 2238 Carter Av., St. Paul. Come on by and help us figure out this new complicated world.
He is not angry anymore, no longer a rabble-rouser. There was no sitar accompaniment, no drums, no rubber masks, no embroidered vest. Robert Bly is old now, and a wee bit forgetful, but he still knows how to put on a show, and he still comes deeply alive for poetry. On Wednesday evening, he launched his latest book, "Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," at the University of Minnesota in front of about 250 people.
After a tender and lengthy introduction by writer Michael Dennis Browne (who recalled helping to jumpstart Bly's blue P lymouth after a night of poetry in Minneapolis in 1967, and who also recalled how Bly once damned-with-faint-praise a poem written by one of Browne's students, saying it was as exciting as the phrase "I almost went to Hawaii once"), Bly and his friend and fellow poet Thomas R. Smith took the stage.
With Smith holding the microphone and occasionally offering a gentle prompt, Bly read. Twenty-five poems, some of the lines and stanzas read more than once, in the way that Bly does, for emphasis. He was playful and sly, joking after a couple of poems that he had no idea what they meant. He beat out a rhythm with his hand, he sometimes lapsed into funny voices, taking on characters. ("One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest: / 'How do you sleep? I love curliness,' " and giving the mouse a squeaky voice.)
He turned serious with "When My Dead Father Called," and then deliberately broke the mood afterward by saying, "Did I really write this? My memory's so bad every time I read one of my own poems I think I've never read that before."
But he had of course proved that wrong just a few minutes before, reciting--not reading--"Poem in Three Parts," looking out at the crowd with those blue blue eyes of his, never glancing down at the page.
While it might be early poems such as that one that are imbedded in his brain, his newer poems, dealing poignantly with aging and dying, were deeply affecting. In "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," he says: "It's hard to grasp how much generosity / Is involved in letting us go on breathing, / When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief." And then he stopped, and looked up. "I didn't always believe that," he said; he used to believe we were valued for happiness and fun. And then he read the stanza again.
The poem ends, "Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for / Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat / When so many have gone down in the storm."
"When you get to be my age, you notice that," he said. "How many have gone down in the storm."
Such a poignant evening, watching this 86-year-old white-haired man read from fifty years' of poems, watching him grow animated at the sound of his own remarkable words. In the end, of course, thunderous applause, and an uncharacteristic modesty. "It's good of you to clap," he said. "It makes an old Norwegian happy."
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