Category Archives: Literary seminar

Time to get reading some Writers on Writers

I love this time of year for a few reasons. Holiday decorations in Key West are fun and appear to be getting more fun every year. I love the best of the year book lists that come out around now, to compare my own reading and to get ideas for books I might have missed. And I love the annual library display of books by writers appearing at the upcoming Key West Literary Seminar.  The theme this time is Writers on Writers and the works encompass straight-up biography, meditative memoir and novels with real writers as fictional characters. Lots more detail, including the writers appearing and the schedules for both sessions, is available on the Seminar website. You can still register!

The books by this year’s authors include some serious — as in long and demanding attention — books. But don’t let that discourage you. While you may not be up for wading through a magisterial Literary Biography, especially during the distractions of the holiday season, there are plenty of other books that you may find surprisingly entertaining, as well as edifying.

We’ve just put up a display of books by Seminar writers at the Key West Library so if you’re in town stop by and check it out (the display is in the Reference Department, turned over the summer into a more open reading room if you haven’t been in recently).

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Finally finishing a book about not really writing a book about D.H. Lawrence

Last night I finished reading Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. According to my record on LibraryThing, where I obsessive-compulsively record such things, I started reading it on March 6. So it took me more than four months to read a 256-page book.

First up: It was great. More on that later.

I have good excuses. I had a couple other things going on. Moving, mainly, which involved organizing, and packing, and holding a yard sale and unpacking. Most of our books remain in boxes since we still haven’t built the Wall of Bookshelves. All that chaos meant I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate Dyer’s dry, funny, smart observations on literature and himself. It was easier to dive in to various kinds of genre novels and a true crime book. And I went out of town for a week and that meant I had to read a Patrick O’Brian book because I only read those when I travel and I rarely travel these days. Besides, procrastinating on reading a book that is, in large part, about why and how we avoid doing the things we supposedly want to do, seemed appropriate.

But I kept the book near the surface level of the moving chaos and eventually finished it and am extremely glad I did. Dyer is hysterically funny, writing about his journey to write (or not write) a critical study of D.H. Lawrence, which winds up being this book instead, a memoir of sorts and meditation on the creative process and, not least, on Lawrence and his choices in life.

I especially loved Dyer’s rant about academic literary criticism, which is over the top but perfectly expresses the fury many of us feel toward the current “official” approach to literature by its self-appointed judges who appear to be interested only in finding reasons to tear it apart and blame it for humanity’s evil excesses, and then express their findings in repellent prose. Who needs it? Dyer speaks for those of us who love reading, and wind up majoring in English or studying literature in some fashion but are horrified by the way academia handles the field.

There’s one other good reason to read this book if you’re in Key West or interested in coming to Key West this January: Dyer will be here for the Key West Literary Seminar’s upcoming session, Writers on Writers. We’re holding two sessions — the first is sold out but there’s still room in the second, Jan. 17-20. And Dyer will be here for both, along with an impressive roster of fellow writers. Can’t wait to find out if he’s as funny and interesting in person as he is on the page (though after reading his comments on Rome, Santa Fe and Taos, I fear a little for Key West in future essays).

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Filed under biography, Literary seminar, nonfiction, recommended reading

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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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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