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.
Is there anyone left who hasn't read "Wild" yet? Well, after World Book Night next spring, thousands more will get the chance. The best-selling memoir is one of the 35 titles named Wednesday as one to be handed out at random on April 23, 2014, on the third annual World Book Night USA.
Books by two other Minnesota authors--"The Lighthouse Road," by Peter Geye, and "Pontoon" by Garrison Keillor--were also selected, as well as "The Weird Sisters," by Eleanor Brown, a graduate of Macalester College.
Here's the list, with links to Star Tribune reviews when available.
"The Zookeeper's Wife," by Diane Ackerman
"Kitchen Confidential," by Anthony Bourdain
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower," by Stephen Chbosky
"After the Funeral," by Agatha Christie
"Rangers Apprentice: Book One, The Ruins of Gorlan," by John Flanagan
"Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," by Jamie Ford (In both regular print and large-print)
"The Lighthouse Road," by Peter Geye
"The Tipping Point," by Malcolm Gladwell
"Wait Til Next Year," by Doris Kearns Goodwin
"Catch-22," by Joseph Heller
"The Dog Stars," by Peter Heller
"Hoot," by Carl Hiaasen
"Pontoon" by Garrison Keillor
"Same Difference," by Derek Kirk Kim
"Enchanted," by Alethea Kontis
"Miss Darcy Falls in Love," by Sharon Lathan
"Bobcat and Other Stories," by Rebecca Lee
"Young Men and Fire," by Norman Maclean
"Tales of the City," by Armistead Maupin
"Waiting to Exhale," by Terry McMillan
"Sunrise Over Fallujah," by Walter Dean Myers
"Bridge to Terabithia," by Katherine Paterson
"The Botany of Desire," by Michael Pollan
"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," by Ransom Riggs
"When I was Puerto Rican: A Memoir," by Esmerelda Santiago (English, and Spanish editions)
"Where'd You Go, Bernadette," by Maria Semple (also in large print format)
"Wild," by Cheryl Strayed
"Presumed Innocent," by Scott Turow
"Code Name Verity," by Elizabeth Wein
"This Boy's Life," by Tobias Wolff
"100 Best-Loved Poems," edited by Philip Smith.
The books to be given away were chosen by a panel of booksellers and librarians. Two Minnesota authors--Kate DiCamillo and Leif Enger--had books chosen the first year. Last year, Minnesota was passed over, but Wisconsin writer Michael Perry made the list.
World Book Night is a mostly volunteer effort to spread books and reading across the country. Every year, volunteers give away 500,000 books at random. To learn more, go to www.us.worldbooknight.org
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."
A history of the Scientology movement, a biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister, and a poetry collection published by Graywolf Press are among the finalists for the National Book Award, announced this morning on MSNBC's talk show, "Morning Joe."
And Minnesota poet Matt Rasmussen's debut collection, "Black Aperture," is among the finalists for poetry.
Rasmussen, born in International Falls, now lives in Robbinsdale and teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College. His book, "Black Aperture," also won the Walt Whitman Award. It was published by Louisiana State University Press.
Winners will be announced Nov. 20. Here's the whole list of finalists, with links to Star Tribune reviews, when available:
"Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin," by Jill Lepore
"Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields," by Wendy Lower. (Review runs next week.)
"The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," by George Packer
"The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832," by Alan Taylor
"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," by Lawrence Wright.
"The Tenth of December," by George Saunders
"The Lowland," by Jhumpa Lahiri.
"The Bleeding Edge," by Thomas Pynchon. (Review scheduled.)
"The Flamethrowers," by Rachel Kushner
"The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride
Young People's LIterature:
"The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp," by Kathi Appelt
"The Thing About Luck," by Cynthia Kadohata
"Far, Far Away," by Tom McNeal
"Picture Me Gone," by Meg Rosoff
"Boxers and Saints," by Gene Luen Yang. Yang is a faculty member of Hamline University's low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults
"Metaphysical Dog," by Frank Bidart
"Illusion," by Lucie Brock-Broido
"The Big Smoke," by Adrian Matejka
"Incarnadine," by Mary Szybist, published by Minneapolis' Graywolf Press.
The 20 finalists were chosen from a long list, which included Minneapolis young-adult writers Anne Ursu and Kate DiCamillo. The winners will be announced Nov. 20 in New York.
The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul was packed Tuesday evening with moms and little girls (and also some dads and some boys)--out on a school night! But surely this was an occasion their teachers would approve of: the book launch of Newbery Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo's latest YA book, "Flora & Ulysses, the Illuminated Adventures," and the author herself in bright and hilarous conversation with Minnesota Public Radio host Cathy Wurzer.
DiCamillo's book, longlisted for a National Book Award, is the story of a little girl named Flora, a neighbor with a vacuum cleaner, a squirrel that develops superpowers (after being sucked into the machine), and the adventures that ensue. She wrote the book shortly after the death of her mother, and, like all good books--and all DiCamillo books--"Flora & Ulysses" has, Wurzer noted, "themes of loss, abandonment, and death." Is this appropriate for a children's book?, she asked.
"I didn't mention themes. You did," DiCamillo said. "It kind of surprises me that they're in there. But they're in everything that I do. Children are human beings and they're going to experience all of those things, and it's nice to have a book that admits those things are out there."
At this, the little girls--or maybe it was their moms--burst into applause.
The idea for the book came from two things: The vacuum cleaner that DiCamillo inherited from her mother, and a dying squirrel that she noticed on the front steps of her Minneapolis home a few years back. "This is a book a lot about a mother-daughter relationship," she said. "That's because every time I pulled into the garage, I'd see that vacuum cleaner and be reminded of my mom."
Though a friend suggested whacking the dying squirrel with a shovel, DiCamillo left it on the steps and, instead, went into the house and re-read E.B. White's essay, "Death of a Pig."
"And I started to think of ways to save a squirrel's life."
The squirrel on her front steps disappeared--crawled off to die somewhere else, she surmises--and she began work on her new book.
DiCamillo read aloud from the first few chapters of the book, and when she got to the part where Flora performs CPR on the squirrel she barely made it through, she was trying so hard not to laugh. "It tasted funny. Fuzzy, damp, slightly nutty."
Wurzer roared with laughter. And, in unison, they read it again.
"That line kept me going through rewrites," DiCamillo said. "It always made me laugh."
There was more--oh, so much more. Discussion of the writing process, and the importance of editors, and then questions from the young crowd. (One of the last questions was from a serious little girl with dark hair who began by saying, "My name is Flora," and the crowd, and DiCamillo, were delighted.)
The evening was taped for broadcast later on Minnesota Public Radio. Watch for it.
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