Category Archives: Literary seminar

Future Perfect Continuous

From left, Jim Gleick, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and China Mieville mix it up in the first panel of Yet Another World. Photo by Nick Doll.

It’s all over but the workshops. Yet Another World materialized in the San Carlos for one night and three exhilarating days, and then it was over. What’s left is the post-Seminar letdown … and a massive new reading list.

I promised further explanation of this year’s theme. Can’t say I can, other than to reiterate that it isn’t really dystopia — though there was a good bit of that — nor scifi, or speculative fiction as high-end scifi is frequently styled these days. The subtitle was “Literature of the Future” and the guiding texts were 1984 and Brave New World, if that helps. In his introduction in the Seminar’s program, Program Chair James Gleick writes this, referring to the writers gathered for the Seminar: “What they do share — what their work reveals — is a deepening awareness of past and future, which also means an awareness that our world is not the only one possible.”

I won’t even try to come up with a coherent report about what the Seminar covered or explicating further on the theme — keep an eye on the Seminar’s always-expanding Audio Archives for recordings of individual sessions. Here, instead, is an episodic report of stuff I heard that I thought was interesting (and short) enough to jot down in my notebook.

Interesting information new to me

In his opening introduction, Gleick told us about a religion newly officially acknowledged as such in Sweden: Kopimism, or copyism, it is a religion dedicated to file sharing. Ctrl-C and Ctlr-V are sacred symbols. “That is not speculative fiction,” Gleick said. “That is Wikipedia. And it wasn’t there yesterday.”

Sharks save swimmers, according to Jonathan Lethem. How? Because after a shark attack, the number of drowning deaths decreases for a few years.

Year of the Flood, according to Margaret Atwood, is not a sequel or prequel to Oryx & Crake but a simultaneal.

Colson Whitehead’s first piece of professional writing, for the Village Voice, was a think piece about the series finales of Who’s The Boss and Growing Pains.

After finishing a novel, Cory Doctorow buys a steampunk bondage mask from some specialty shop in Bulgaria. According to William Gibson.

After Chronic City was published, Wikipedia had to lock down the Marlon Brando page because fans of the book were trying to revive him in keeping with the book’s plot.

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Filed under fiction, Literary seminar, nonfiction, recommended reading

Before the Seminar, After the Apocalypse

The 2012 Key West Literary Seminar starts tonight — it’s been sold out for months, sorry, but there are free sessions on Sunday afternoon.

This year’s theme is Yet Another World, which is kind of dystopia but that’s an oversimplification. What is it really? Watch this space and I’ll report back.

In the meantime, it’s got me thinking dystopically, or post-apocalyptically. Maybe it’s because we live in one of the places most vulnerable to hurricanes in the nation — and watched what happened to New Orleans. Maybe it’s The Walking Dead not to mention The Road and all the books written by the many fine writers who will be joining us this weekend. But I sometimes think about what I would do after the apocalypse. This is, of course, assuming I survive the apocalypse but hey, if I don’t then it’s not really my problem.

I use it as an excuse to hang onto our kayaks and canoe, even though they haven’t been out of the yard in years. It makes me feel a little self-satisfied about my few remaining practical skills, like knitting. I’ve operated a treadle (non-electric) sewing machine, too, though it’s been a couple decades. And I’ve always liked the idea of weaving.

So I decided my skill/niche would be knitting, and possibly making cloth. I have been hoarding yarn for about 15 years but that’s not all I’d knit. After the apocalypse, I would knit whatever I could and that’s the beauty of knitting. You can knit just about any damned thing. My friend Emalyn has a dress her mother knit out of cassette tape.

My husband, who has recently become a rum aficionado since spending time in the Caribbean, plans to distill booze. He thinks this will give him a lot of influence and bargaining power for other commodities. We have discussed the need for weapons (crossbows look good, based on The Walking Dead) to defend the booze and ourselves.

I like the idea of sloughing off all the artificial layers of stuff we accumulate, protect and worry about. I’m not just talking just about belongings — but also about intangibles like your 401(k), your social obligations, your job. After the apocalypse, who cares about your credit rating or what’s going to happen to windstorm insurance rates? And having a little extra meat on your bones could be an advantage. I have a strange attraction to the post-industrial agrarian visions like that at the end of “England, England” by Julian Barnes. This, even though I grew up in a rural area and am well aware that farming (especially without heavy machinery), animal husbandry, toting water and firewood, preserving food, making clothes, etc., is hard work. And how much harder will it be when you can’t run down to the Agway or Jo-Ann’s Fabrics for your supplies? But that’s the thing about the apocalypse. It’s not a voluntary dropping out, joining a commune, going back to the land. It’s a Big Change and if you survive it,  you have to figure out how to cope.

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The future approaches …

Most people are probably feeling the holidays bearing down on them. I’ve got some of that but mostly what I feel bearing down on me is the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar – which will be quite early in the year (starting Jan. 5!) — and which, this year, features an even-more-astounding-than-usual lineup of writers. Atwood. Gibson. Letham. Egan. Shteyngart. Whitehead. Coupland. I could go on. The title is Yet Another World, the subject is dystopia (sort of). Or at least visions of the near future.

Unfortunately for anyone who would like to shell out $600 and attend this year’s Seminar it is beyond sold out. The waiting list has a couple hundred people on it. So if you don’t have a ticket, there’s no hope. Except …

There are multiple ways to participate in the Literary Seminar even if you can’t get a ticket. For example:

* Read the books. This is the most important way to participate — and at the Key West Library we have a helpful display of the books by Seminar authors, right when you walk in the door. Books by Literary Seminar authors, by the way, are the focus of our Book Bites Book Club in January. Meeting is Jan. 12 at 4:30 p.m. So read along, then come and talk about the books!

* Attend the free Sunday session. That’s right — free and open to the public. Every year, the Seminar offers up this opportunity to the community. If you scroll down to the bottom of the Seminar schedule, you’ll see the lineup for that session and it’s impressive: Billy Collins! Margaret Atwood! George Saunders! Gary Shteyngart!

* If you’re of the tweeting persuasion, follow along on Twitter, by following @keywestliterary and their list of Seminar authors who tweet. Once we get closer and into the Seminar, start looking for the hashtag #yetanotherworld. I’ll be using it (I’m @keywestnan) and no doubt others will too, hopefully including super-tweeters William Gibson (@greatdismal) and Margaret Atwood (@margaretatwood). Program chair — and esteemed writer in his own right — James Gleick — is at @jamesgleick.

* Keep an eye on Littoral, the Seminar’s excellent blog, as well as the Audio Archives, where some of the Seminar sessions should eventually make it online and be preserved forever in what William Gibson called cyberspace, back in 1984. That’s right, I’m finally reading Neuromancer. Which is great though I am starting to suspect I am not really smart enough to read William Gibson.

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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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Filed under fiction, Key West Library, Literary seminar, nonfiction, recommended reading