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.
Bly won the National Book Award in 1968 for his second collection, "The Light Around the Body." His latest book contains new and selected poems spanning 50 years and includes selections from his 2011 collection, "Talking into the Ear of a Donkey."
Earlier this year, Bly received the Poetry Society of America's highest honor, the Frost Medal.
The Oct. 16 event begins at 7 p.m. at Willey Hall and is sponsored by the Upper Midwest Literary Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, which holds Bly's papers. The event is free but reservations are requested. (Follow this link.)
A reception will follow the reading, and books will be available for sale.
Wednesday (Sept. 18) is the first day of nearly a month of readings, at coffee shops, bookstores and cafes across St. Paul. If you can't make one, surely you can make another.
It's the St. Paul Almanac Literary Festival, a joint venture of the smart folks at the St. Paul Almanac, and the equally smart folks at Cracked Walnut. Cracked Walnut did something similar in the spring, hosting a reading a day for 21 days. Now, with the help of the Almanac, they're going themselves four days better.
Writers who contributed to the 2014 Almanac (on sale now, because, of course, it's almost 2014) include Joyce Sutphen, Carol Connolly, Ethna McKiernan, John Jodzio, Margot Fortunato Galt, and Jim Moore (though there are many, many others).
You can catch them at readings at J&S Bean Factory (6:30 p.m. Wednesday), Subtext: A Bookstore (7 p.m. Sept. 21), Khyber Pass Cafe (7:30 p.m. Sept. 26), and places in between. Check out the full schedule at the Cracked Walnut page.
It can get raucous, what with the book-throwing and all. But if you keep to your time limit, you should come out unscathed, and maybe with a bunch of new fans.
"Words at WAM," the literary open mic program hosted by Hazel & Wren and WAM Collective, will be back at the Weisman Art Museum on Sept. 18. Sign-up starts at 6 p.m., with readings beginning at 7 p.m. It's first come, first reads, and the whole thing ends at 8:30, so getting there early is probably a good idea.
You can read whatever you like -- your latest love poem, your diary entries, a short story, a few pages of that biography of Ayn Rand you've been working on for the last 15 years -- but you only get four minutes. Four minutes and 30 seconds, with the grace period. After that, prepare to get pelted off the stage by a sea of hurled paperbacks.
Featured readers for the night will be Katie Sisneros and poet Dobby Gibson. And, if you're lucky, you.
Seriously. I am telling you. Do not go shaking any sticks around in these parts, because you're sure to hit a writer, and we do not want to hit any writers.
But here comes another list, another writers' series, this time the English@Minnesota series at the University of Minnesota, which runs in October and November:
First up, the tall and fascinating Bonnie Jo Campbell, who will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at the University Bookstore in Coffman Union. Campbell, who lives in Michigan, is the author of "American Salvage," a finalist for a National Book Award, and "Once Upon a River." (She was here a couple of years ago, reading at the Loft, and here's how it went.)
Poet David Wojahn will read at the Rain Taxi Review Twin Cities Book Festival on Oct. 12, held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Wojahn grew up in St. Paul and won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize last year from the Academy of American Poets.
On Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m., Katherine Boo will discuss her highly acclaimed book of narrative journalism, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," winner of a National Book Award. This event will be in the Coffman Union Theater.
Oct. 29 will be the sixth annual Hunger Relief Benefit, hosted by Charles Baxter. This year, novelist Robert Boswell (whose latest book, "Tumbledown," was just published by Graywolf Press) will join poet Peter Campion to read and raise money for Second Harvest Heartland. This will be at 7 p.m. University Hall in McNamara Alumni Center. Bring a monetary donation for the food shelf.
Daisy Fried and Josh Weiner will read at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Weisman Art Museum on campus. Fried is a poet and critic, and Weiner is a poet and the editor of "At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn."
Thomas Mallon will round out the season with a reading at 7 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Weisman. Mallon is a novelist, essayist and critic and the author of "Henry and Clara," and "Watergate," among other books.
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