Category Archives: Literary seminar

Teaser Tuesdays: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

It’s that time. Time when the approaching Key West Literary Seminar starts to morph from concept to reality. And what a reality this one will be, especially if you are a fan of speculative fiction — or, in some cases, what people call scifi. High-quality scifi to be sure. We’ve got your William Gibson, we’ve got your Douglas Coupland and yeah, we have your Margaret Atwood. Along with a couple other people like Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Gary Shteyngart and … well, just check out the link above.

The bad news, by the way, is that the Seminar is totally, completely, utterly and without hope sold out. There are something like 400 people on the waiting list. So there’s no buying a ticket at this point. But there is the Sunday afternoon session, free and open to the public. I imagine the line for this one might start forming on New Year’s Day.

Margaret Atwood, conveniently, has just written a book that is one of my absolute favorite kind of books — literary criticism, or analysis, or description for the non-academic. Rescuing the examination of literature from the academy! God bless her! So anyway, In Other Worlds is my Tuesday Teaser this week, just under the wire since I started reading it on my lunch hour. The rules, as always, are to take two sentences from anywhere, then post the link in the comments section on the Should Be Reading blog.

“My field of specialization was the nineteenth century, and I was busying myself with Victorian quasi-goddesses; and no one could accuse [Rider] Haggard of not being Victorian. Like his age, which practically invented archaeology, he was an amatuer of vanished civilizations; also like his age, he was fascinated by the exploration of unmapped territories and encourters with ‘undiscovered’ native peoples.” — p. 109


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Change is in the air

If you’re in Key West, you know that we just experienced The Change — that marvelous moment each late October when the humidity suddenly drops considerably and you think, oh yeah — that’s why we live here. To me, this means reading weather — more on the back deck than in summer (which is also reading weather, because it’s too freaking hot to do anything active, only then it’s inside in the air conditioning). Which means, yes, it’s always reading weather.

But the change of seasons and a couple of upcoming literary events have me thinking about changing up my reading list. And there are some good titles on the way if you want to take part:

1) The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss — historical fiction set after the Revolutionary War, as the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians duke it out for the future direction of the young country and regular folks are collateral damage to some of the duking. It’s the title for the November Book Bites Book Club at the Key West Library so we have lots of copies. The group meets Nov. 10 at the Library.

2) Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford — it’s going to be our One Island One Book choice for 2012, timed to the Centennial of the Overseas Railway reaching Key West. Les will be coming to talk about the book and we’ll have other programs around that time — there will be lots more information in the future at our One Island One Book blog. Bookmark it!

3) Any or all of the writers coming to the Key West Literary Seminar in January 2012 – it’s an amazing bunch especially if you’re into the speculative fiction — superstars like Margaret Atwood and William Gibson, Pulitzer Prizewinners like Jennifer Egan and Michael Cunningham, new voices like Dexter Palmer and Charles Yu, guys with hot new zombie titles like Colson Whitehead. It’s going to be extraordinary. It’s sold out, I’m afraid, but there will be free sessions on Sunday afternoon, as always. And the Seminar will post the audio from as many sessions as we can on our ever-expanding archives.

So read, dammit!

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A friend writes …

Full disclosure: Diana Abu-Jaber is a friend. This is both very cool — Diana is a smart, kind, generous person as well as an excellent writer — and kind of fraught. Because when a friend publishes a book and you think, “Gee I should really read that,” there’s always that lurking fear: What if I don’t like it?

I shouldn’t have worried. First of all, like I said, Diana’s an excellent writer. And Birds of Paradise started getting great notices months before it was published, in trades I keep an eye on (Library Journal and Booklist, the ALA’s book review magazine). When it was published, last month, the great reviews hit the streets. So last week, I summoned the courage to read it. And it is great. Really great.

Quick plot synopsis: The Muir family of Coral Gables has fractured. Felice, their younger child, has run away from home at 13 and had only rare, sporadic contact in the five years since. She’s survived on the streets of Miami Beach by modeling and forming bonds with other street kids. Their son, Stanley, is semi-estranged, struggling to make a go of his organic market in Homestead. Dad Brian is corporate counsel to a developer that is a prime player in the mid 2000s building boom. The novel’s main action takes place in August 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina sweeps across South Florida. Avis is a pastry chef who is in an extended state of shock from losing her daughter and somehow unable to connect with her son, despite their shared love for providing food as a vocation.

The book rotates through the points of view of everyone in the family, though Stanley is mostly offstage until the book’s finale. This works very well and somehow everyone is (mostly) sympathetic — I was a bit fed up with Avis, at times, especially in her treatment of Stanley. But I was still caught up, wanting to know what would happen next.

A couple things I particularly appreciated about this book. 1) The characters are real people, not merely metaphors who stand for some national trait or cardboard cutouts illustrating something about society. This, I realized as I was reading the book, is what irritates me in novels that are often held up as Great Literary Works (Don Delillo, anyone?). 2) She gets South Florida right — you’d expect that, since she lives here, but it’s still a pleasure and a relief since this is an area that so many people write about, many of them with only a glancing knowledge of the place. My favorite line from the book: “Increasingly Brian feels that living in Florida is an act of both rebellion and willful perversity — like rebuilding a house on the train tracks.” 3) Characters of varying ethnicities are real people, not merely foils against whom the Anglos to test out their wild and crazy sides. That’s another thing that seems to happen a lot in Great Literary Works, especially by white guys. 4) She uses food in a truly literary way, as an expression of character and individuality, not as some gimmick or plot frame. Diana was a panelist at the first session of the Key West Literary Seminar, way back in January, when our topic was food in literature. She was a hit there — I hope some of the folks who saw her there are reading (and buying!) the book.

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Best of the best of the best lists

Once again, the good librarians at the Williamsburg (Virginia) Regional Library have performed a public service and compiled all the best lists, awards and other honors for books published in 2010 for their annual megalist — available as an Excel spreadsheet.

The fiction winner is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which is kind of interesting since it hasn’t won the Big Name awards (though it still has a shot at the Pulitzer, which is announced this month). And I was delighted to see that three of the eight writers in the Speculative Fiction category (Gary Shteyngart, Charles Yu and William Gibson) will be here for the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar, Yet Another World (check out the rest of the amazing line-up: still room to register!).  So, by the way, will the author of the No. 2 in fiction (and National Book Critics Circle Award Winner), Jennifer Egan. And yes, we have the vast majority of the top books listed here in the library collection.

BTW, for those of you who follow books more than basketball, that other big tournament is getting ready to wrap up — The Tournament of Books — and the championship round features the top two novels on Williamsburg’s list, Freedom versus A Visit From The Goon Squad. The best part of this tournament is you can go back and read all the different rounds in whatever order you like. I suppose some might frown on this sort of competitive literary exercise, but it’s all in good faith and good fun — I’ve never seen cheap shots or nasty takedowns here. And any time I get to read anything by Elif Batuman, I’m happy. I wonder if they’d consider adding a nonfiction category?

Update: And the winner is … A Visit From the Goon Squad! Which I’m delighted to hear, not only because I happen to have a copy of the book in my house (though I’ll admit I haven’t read it yet — or Freedom, either) — and because Egan will be here in Key West, in January, for the Key West Literary Seminar — still time to sign up!).

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The day after

Airstream provided by Josh Rowan. Drinks provided by Jason Rowan. Photo by Ian Rowan. Rosemary gimlets offered after the opening keynote from Adam Gopnik. Need we say more?

For some reason I don’t really want to think about too hard, I am not hung over today but Billy Collins, at some point (I think it was yesterday) read a poem called The Hangover which included the most poetic rendering of the children’s pool game Marco Polo one could imagine. You should look it up, or better, find a recording of Billy reading it. It’s entirely possible you will find such a recording in the near future on Littoral, The Key West Literary Seminar’s entirely excellent blog. At least I hope so.

In the meantime I can now recite from memory the poem Bacon and Eggs by Howard Nemerov, like Billy a two-time Poet Laureate and apparently like Billy a funny guy, too. This is the entire text:

The chicken contributes

But the pig gives its all.

It’s a good poem and it bore repeated recitation, along with Roy Blount, Jr.’s poem Oysters, of which I cannot recite the entire text though I do know the last lines:

I prefer my oysters fried

That way I know the oyster’s died.

A sentiment with which I agree after reading The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky, in which he reports that if you have to shuck an oyster, it’s alive (once it’s dead, it relaxes the ligament holding the two sides of the shell together). I always liked them Florentine anyway, plus that way you don’t have to worry about that pesky liver thing that can kill you.

All of which is to say, I learned a lot over the last 10 days and had a great time, too. It was cool to see New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik in action — if you weren’t at his keynote you’ll just have to wait for the podcast because there’s no way I could possibly describe it except as a cultural history of the concept of taste. My take-home from that talk: E Pluribus Unum, our national motto until 1956 when they replaced it with In God We Trust, came from a recipe. Pretty cool. (June 10 update: It’s here! Download now for your auditory enlightenment!)

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But is it literary?

The Key West Literary Seminar is underway — we just wrapped up the first session; there’s still room in the second session and if you’re a literary foodie at all, this is one of those rare opportunities for your passions to combine. One topic that keeps coming up, as it has since we began discussing food as a theme for the Seminar, is the question of literariness (if that’s a word). One of my fellow board members, whom I respect a lot and like even more, dislikes it when the writers get off the topic of writing and literature and just start talking about food.

I disagree. And here’s why:

First of all, there is plenty of talk about writing itself and to be honest, a diet of just that gets to be too much for me, especially since we’re dealing with a double session here.

Second, we have gathered some of the smartest, most articulate people in the country who know from food. Why on earth would we NOT want them to talk about this subject, about which they are passionate and knowledgable — and often quite funny. Not just the known funny people like Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount and Billy Collins, but Julia Reed was a revelation to many of us — the woman should have her own standup act — and even an eminence such as Madhur Jaffrey had the auditorium laughing out loud many, many times. Isn’t their foodiness the very reason we brought them, along with their proven literary chops? When the subject is “more literary,” say a genre like memoir, we don’t object when the writers discuss some topic that is the focus of their work, do we? The whole point of the Seminar, to me, is to hear directly from the writers telling stories, about themselves, their own work and about other people, stories that are funny or sad or significant in some way. It’s stuff you just wouldn’t hear otherwise and it is very different hearing spoken by the writer herself than it is reading on the page.

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A check-outable feast

There’s just a month to go before the next Key West Literary Seminar and just in time, we at the Key West Library have received a shipment of books by writers appearing at the Seminar. This year’s subject is The Hungry Muse: Food in Literature and the offerings are indeed appetizing. (It’s not, by the way, the much-feared “cookbook seminar” and it’s not just straight-up food writing, either — our panelists will include novelists and poets and historians as well as some of the finest food writers in the nation.)

We already had a bunch of books by these writers in our collection but the new ones are most welcome, including Eating by Jason Epstein, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman and At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey, by the way, will be at both sessions, as will be Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount, Jr., and Billy Collins. If you’re interested in attending, there are still spots left in the second session — and if you’re in Key West, don’t forget the Sunday afternoon panels and readings are always free and open to the public. Bon appetit!

And if you’re wondering what’s up with the slide show below — well, I’m not much of a cook, to be honest. Given a couple free hours I will invariably spend my time reading instead of shopping for and preparing food. But these are some recent culinary creations of mine worth note — the Swedish family recipe cake I made for our Stieg Larsson Book Bites session at the library, two pies I made for Thanksgiving (the inevitable pumpkin and the always popular apple-cranberry-raisin from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook), a batch of liebkuchen from another family recipe (and my favorite Christmas treat of the many, many kinds of cookies my grandmother used to make every year) and a cocktail, a Pisco guava punch prepared at the long-distance direction of Embury Cocktails impresario and New York Times-certified cocktail expert Jason Rowan. And all of them turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. Recipes available on request.

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March madness

No not that kind of March madness. But somehow, during this last month, I managed to read a lot. Not sure if I’ll be able to keep this up but I’ve decided to take a more traditional book blogging approach and start posting reviews/opinions on my reading as I go. I’ll use the grading system of my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, where we did not mess around with plus and minus signs:. So here’s a roundup of my March reading, starting with the most recent (technically finished April 1 but it was 3 a.m. and I read most of it in March so there):

The Ghost by Robert Harris — political thriller, which I checked out from the Key West Library. I started reading this on my lunch hour last Saturday, got half way through very quickly then realized that we planned to see the Roman Polanski movie based on the book, currently playing at The Tropic — and that the point of movies like this is suspense. So I stopped reading and saw the movie, then returned to the book. I thought the movie was good, though not necessarily worth the rave reviews it received — I think people are just thrilled to see a thriller that’s not a shoot ‘em up or that bears some resemblance to reality. In general, I preferred the book — the characters were more nuanced, especially Adam Lang, and the big reveal felt more obvious and silly in the movie. I’ve read Pompeii by Harris and plan to read more of his historical fiction. AB

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins – young adult fantasy/dystopia fiction that I checked out from the library. The second in her Hunger Games series, which I picked up because of a rave review on Citizen Reader and because I’m scouting dystopia lit for a future Literary Seminar — and I think it would be particularly cool to get some YA writers in there, since fantasy including dystopian fantasy seems to be huge in that area now. Maybe it always has been (LeGuin, L’Engle, even Tolkein and Lewis and Pullman if you want to extend the boundaries). Anyway it was GREAT — now I’m lining up with all the others waiting for the third installment in the trilogy, Mockingjay, which is to be published this summer. A Continue reading

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Poetry! We got yer poetry here!

poetryIn Key West, when the weather cools and the wind picks up it’s time to start thinking about the Literary Seminar. The upcoming seminar focuses on poetry, honoring longtime Key West resident and two-time Pulitzer winner Richard Wilbur. Happily, amazingly, the Seminar is a sellout — quite a feat in these uncertain times — if you are planning to attend or just want to read along at home, the Key West Library has books by just about all the panelists and workshop leaders (and it’s an impressive bunch). So stop by, check them out and, you know, check them out. There’s a lot to read! (And it’s never too early to start thinking about 2011 — when the Literary Seminar will be looking at food in literature – yummmmmmmmmmm …. )

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An accounting, and a warning

stack-books1I wish my obsessive-compulsive tendencies were in the housecleaning vein, but unfortunately they are limited to useless tasks like carefully keeping track of what I have read. And why? Am I supposed to be earning gold stars from someone? I don’t know why I do this. But I do — and this year, I kept more careful track than ever, with each book noted by fiction vs. nonfiction, if it came from a library, whether I read it for review, etc. etc. I can only blame this on working in a library, where our job is to keep track of things, and classify them. It turns out I like cataloging.

The good news: I read almost twice as much this year as last. That, too, is probably due to my new job. Not that I read on the job — a common but mistaken belief about working in a library — but being surrounded by books all day and learning about lots of newly published books probably inspired me. Not to mention having a job that truly is limited to 40 hours a week most of the time, unlike any job in journalism. Continue reading


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