Wednesday, December 31, 2008

You Will Enjoy Great Book.

Not sure how I missed the publicity blitz surrounding the publication of one of my favorite New York Times' reporter's first book. As my features writing students will remember, Jennifer 8. Lee is also author of my favorite example of a trend piece, "The Man Date."

Her new-ish book is The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, and it begins, fittingly?, in Iowa, home of the Powerball, with an anecdote about an unprecentedly high number of winners for an interstate lottery a few years back. The mathematically improbable number of winners perplexed many -- until those winners cited a fortune cookie as their key to windfall.

Gotta take some umbrage at Lee's clever but false turn of phrase. "No one cares if [Powerball] is located in Iowa. No one's feelings are hurt," she quotes a lottery official as saying. Then adds: "Iowa is as inoffensive as it is flat."

Inaccurate Iowa stereotypes aside... this book is a rollicking journey through the world of Chinese food and culture in America. While Lee is clearly not a food writer, she's a whiz at explaining cultural phenomena. I'm finally getting a clear picture of why my hometown of Lancaster, PA, with its sitdown Tiki Tavern and Peking Palaces, was overrun with takeout China Kings in the late 1980s.

One question for the book's designers... How can you name a book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and have a packet of soy sauce on the front? I get it graphically, I really do -- the fortune cookie is just the lynch pin among many American-Chinese hybrids, but why not put it on the cover?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hallo Mutter, hallo Vater

My husband and I met as camp counselors at the German language immersion camp Waldsee in the summer of 2001. Since then, he's been back five times (and has the plaque to show it) and I've been back three times, most recently as writer-in-residence last summer.

The fruits of all that fun are finally beginning to show in the form of some clips about the camp and summer camp experience. My piece for the Des Moines Register's Midwest Traveler column just ran in the Iowa Life section -- you can check it out here.

I've come to think there is no better place to meet a life partner than summer camp -- no better setting to see what a person is truly capable of. In Adam's case, that meant that I got to see him making pottery, working with kids, singing, speaking German, testing himself, working and playing harder than he ever had before, and all the while dressed like a bum, no pretenses there. You get paid very little to do a lot of what you love. Want some wine with that cheese? We got a summer fling that lasts forever.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I've had a copy of Kurt Friese's book Slow Food in the Heartland for about four months and just got around to writing about it. Friese's restaurant Devotay isn't my favorite local food haunt in Iowa City -- that honor goes to the Motley Cow. But no one has been a greater local foods booster in this area than Friese. His book features mini-profiles of farmers and food artisans in the Midwest who follow sustainable practices, and it's the first book to make any assessment of the Slow Food movement in the Midwest. Despite its unfortunate cover, which printed a little dark and could have used some better fonts, Slow Food in the Heartland is worth checking out, if only to familiarize yourself with the Midwestern products you should be incorporating into your diet.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

UPDATE: Obama trading at 91.6 cents on IEM

Barack Obama is trading at 91.6 cents to John McCain's 8.6 cents on the Iowa Electronic Markets. To understand how they work -- and why you should care -- check out my story here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fantastic Filigree

I haven't read the reviews of Marilynne Robinson's new novel Home yet since I've been writing one myself for, a new(ish) arts and culture website run by Iowa City publisher Loren Keller. Loren has been so kind to let me write about books for the site, and has started me off with Iowa City's grand dame of fiction, who has written a follow-up to her Pulitzer prize-winning epistolary novel Gilead.

Robinson's books are small on plot, large on revelatory detail, which makes reading them a slog if you're not into that kind of thing. What I responded to most in the book were the scenes in which the family suffers through dinners as polite strangers tainted by familial closeness. Here's an excerpt from the review:

"She deftly strings up scenes of familial tension, as if they were pants on a clothesline, playfully stringing more dirty laundry up in one scene while letting the line wave free and lax in the next."

My new Robinson rankings are 1).Housekeeping 2). Home 3). Gilead.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Burrito Westerns

I came across a few truly outstanding student ideas while I was teaching features writing in the journalism department of the University of Iowa last summer. One of those stories just got published this month -- Mike Brownlee's "Burrito Wars," a no-holds-barred, double-pistoled lowdown on the brand wars between hometown chain Panchero's and national burrito behemoth Chipotle.

Who doesn't love a good brand war? Cue the Ennio Morricone score, this one has it all: local vs. national, dated Mexican imagery vs. industrial chic, homemade vs. outsourced tortillas, the little guy vs. the Man...

I wish all the best to both of the contenders, but everyone who knows me knows who packs my burrito.


I base that decision entirely on their irreverant marketing and guacamole.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Gospel According to Paul

I've said it once before but it bears repeating: Paul Ingram is the world's best bookseller. If you don't believe me, check out what he's been doing in and around eastern Iowa to introduce lesser-known titles -- Paul's Picks -- to communities without access to independent bookstores. He calls it his "Ministry of Books."

As my parting gift to him I have written a bookbuyer's lament for the back-page of Publishers Weekly about his Ministry of Books and his uncanny ability to judge a reader by her cover. It's a little over-the-top, but hey, that's how much his spirit moves me.

Here's another place where Paul announces his current picks. He recently started writing a column for the local rag the Little Village as well, but the writing there doesn't really capture who Paul is. For that, check out the videos he has started putting on YouTube.

Imagine what would happen if one bookseller from every independent bookstore did even half of what Paul is doing.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Spotlight on Oxford, IA

My man Hank Stuever of the Washington Post -- by far the best visiting professional to visit the University of Iowa J-school during my time there -- did a great write-up of the Oxford Project traveling exhibition in this week's Sunday paper. My mentor Stephen Bloom once said that newspapers from the coasts want two things from their stories about Iowa. 1. A story that turns the reader's view of Iowa on its head and 2. A story that completely reaffirms the reader's understanding of Iowa. And they need to do both at the same time.
I think Stuever's piece does even more -- it imagines a new way for people from the coasts to understand who Iowans really are, outside of the cornfields and caucuses. In other words, it is one of the first pieces of journalism that actually GETS the Oxford Project.
Here is some of Stuever on the OP:
"But this project is not precious. It is stark, almost to a point of severity. It is the Iowa that certain reporters try to bring to life every primary season in an election year, and of course fail to exactly portray while writing on the fly."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Let me gaze into my crystal ball: The Iowa Electronic Markets

Last summer I spent some time interviewing day traders on the Iowa Electronic Markets, a political prediction market run by the University of Iowa whose track record in predicting presidential winners easily out-trumps traditional polls (sorry Gallup...). The story just appeared in the October issue of the Iowa Alumni Magazine.

In other words, if you want to check the real pulse of the election, check out the current IEM market standings here. It is a winner-takes all market, with each share measuring a fraction of a dollar. When I wrote the story Barack Obama was trading at 57 cents a share to McCain's 43 cents. Obama is now (today, October 3) at 74 cents to McCain's 26, meaning traders think he has a 74% chance of winning the election.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tiny House, Big Message

I've written about Iowa City message man Gregory Paul Johnson and his Small House Society before. Now it seems he is taking his show on the road with his tiny-house bromantic partner Jay Shafer, who's been on Oprah talking mini-mansions. The New York Times just did a write-up of their road trip. Author Steven Kurutz says they look like tiny birdhouses. I said they resemble a child's playhouse. I think that means that Steven Kurutz is probably 80 at heart and I'm 4.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Everyone Loves Magical Sarah

My story on Sarah Prineas got reprinted with some updates on the cover of the latest issue of ArtScene Iowa. By the time I caught up with Sarah again, she was just delivering the manuscript for the second novel in her children's fantasy series, The Magic Thief. She had lost her editor and had gained a new, illustrious one at HarperCollins. I wonder if her kids know how cool their mom is. It's been my experience that they won't figure it out until they're about 26.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Notes on Camp

Bad Blogger. Bad, bad blogger.

I do have a good excuse for being so lazy. I have spent the last three weeks working on assignment at a German summer camp in Bemidji, MN where I had little access to the outside world. I'm working on a major piece of reporting about the camp, where kids ages 8-18 learn German in an immersion setting that is one part Germany, one part Minnesota's North Woods, and one part fantasy world.

The above images shows a Des Moines, Iowa family choosing their German names from a name line spanned between two trees in front of the camp's "Bahnhof" or train station. (There's no actual train, but it is the equivalent of the camp's border crossing, and the place where "villagers" (no campers here) shrug off their American identities and take on a German one).

I'll post links to the stories I wrote there once they appear, but in the meantime, here's a link to the flickr site with images from the camp.

Here's the other news. We're homeless.

Husband Adam and I both graduated last spring, he in dentistry and I in journalism. I took a job as adjunct faculty in the journalism department teaching features writing for the summer. I've spent the last two years working during holiday breaks and freelancing part-time, teaching half-time and going to school while he plugged away at dental school, a place which by all accounts is the eighth circle of Hell. So we are taking a few months to travel. I know what you're going to say: in this economy? Well, we are still working out the appropriate narrative to explain to people that we want to see a little bit of the world before we tie ourselves down geographically.

So we have moved our stuff to storage, the two cats are getting shuttled to my mother's home in Lancaster, PA in a few days, and then we're off. First stop is Panama, where Adam's twin brother Jeff and his wife Foy are in their second year as Peace Corps volunteers. Their village, set in a jungle a few hours east of Panama City, is about as remote as they come.

As of yesterday, we are innoculated against typhoid, yellow fever, Hep A, and malaria. Unfortunately, there is no antidote to the scorpions as big as a fist that hide in the bedsheets there.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Update: smalltown hero Jim Hoyt

Got an email from Peter Feldstein, the photographer and artist who conceived the Oxford Project and whose idea it was to photograph all the residents in his tiny town. One of the subjects, Jim Hoyt, was the last living of the four soldiers who liberated Buchenwald. The story got a lot of play on The above photo shows a monument in Germany honoring Hoyt.

Peter Feldstein writes:

"You'll be interested to know that I received an email from a fellow in Germany who is a member of a group that researches the history of World War II. They contact veterans, meet them, and honor them. They had been looking for Jim for many years. It turns out that his records were destroyed years ago in a fire. Unfortunately they found him through his obituary on They sent me a picture of the monument with the names of the four men, including Jim, who were the first Americans in Buchenwald."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oxford Project

Sad day. Just learned that the last living of the four American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald died this week at the age of 83. James Hoyt, of Oxford Iowa, a tiny town about 16 miles west of Iowa City, never talked about the experience until my journalism professor/mentor Stephen Bloom interviewed him as part of the Oxford Project.

You can read about the project in the latest edition of ArtScene Iowa. A book on the project is coming out in September from Welcome Books.

A big piece of history died with him.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Paring down -- starting with the Pollock

It's that time again -- time to throw around the idea of selling the single most expensive item in the state of Iowa: Jackson Pollock's "Mural."

Former UI Museum of Art director Howard Collinson floated the idea last fall, drawing the ire and finger wags of many people around town. Now the idea is on the table again -- this time to pay for the millions of dollars needed to restore the UI Arts Campus, which was all but destroyed in the flood last June.

Only one thing owned by the state of Iowa -- the road system -- costs more than this Pollock, which languished in the museum's basement until the late 1960s, when some enterprising curators rolled it out of storage. Over a decade before, Peggy Guggenheim, who had it hanging in her New York apartment, packed up her things and her poodles and moved to Venice, at which point she gifted it to the then president of the university.

See that painting off to the right of the Pollock with the big red dot? That's Adolph Gottlieb's Edge, my favorite work in the museum.

But let's be real. People come from around the world to Iowa to see the Pollock. It sounds a little melodramatic to say so, but to lose it would mean dooming most of the rest of the collection to obscurity.

Friday, August 1, 2008

It takes a city -- Iowa City

I don't generally take on feel-good stories. As an arts and culture reporter, I like places where people collide, art that makes something happen, books that transform -- and not in the way an Oprah's book pic transforms. I like discovering who people are and why do they do what they do. I favor obsessives. I'll take funny and sad over uplifting any day of the week.

Well, have I got a feel-good story for you. For this month's Iowa Source I wrote a piece about the new documentary on Bill Sackter, the real-life character whom Mickey Rooney played in the 1982 made-for-TV movie Bill (he won a Golden Globe for the performance).

A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter story could easily be written off as a advocacy piece for the mentally disabled. It tells the story of a man who spent over four decades in a Minnesota mental institution before a young couple decided to adopt him and integrate him into a college town -- Iowa City, IA. This young husband was Barry Morrow, a young sociology student who eventually went on to win an Academy Award for the screenplay for Rain Man (1988).

But the film is very much a portrait of Iowa City, a place I have found to be uncommonly accepting of fuzzy-bearded, frazzled-looking homeless men who sit on the Pedestrian Mall and talk to students all day long. I don't think I've ever before felt the pride of place I had after watching this film's premiere.

I hope the film finds national distribution. It's playing at the Tipton Hardacre Film Festival this weekend, where it just took the prize for best documentary.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Mamma(s) Mia!

While everyone else in the world was watching The Dark Knight, I went with my mom to see Mamma Mia. Well, sort of. See, my mom's never been to the movies by herself in her life, and I go all the time, so I suggested a date to ease our Midwest/East Coast divide. I went to Iowa City's Sycamore Mall at 1:30 Sunday afternoon, and she attended a showing a 2:30 at Penn Cinema in Lancaster, PA. So, we were watching the movie together. Kind of.

I was envisioning her sitting next to me until a cancer patient came and took her seat -- even in Iowa Mamma Mia! drew a strange crowd of young women, older couples, older women, and gay men.

Which leads me to a major problem I have with films like this. Why do they get reviewed so badly? Judging by the Tomato-meter at, all the middle-aged white men hated the film. Well, it turns out most of the major reviewers in this country are middle-aged white men who hate fun. Don't be hatin' on fun, A.O. Scott!

I think the last time I saw a film that was so gloriously fluffy I was in High School and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion was in the theaters. Great art? Perhaps not. But we need films we can drag our best friends too.

Here's my mom's take.

Me: Man, Pierce Brosnan can't really sing.

Mom: Well, I don't care, he can sing at me!

UPDATE: Turns out my mother-in-law was seeing Mamma Mia! at a theater in Ames at the same time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Magic with words

Sarah Prineas gave a reading to a packed room at the Iowa City Public Library today. She was a complete doll -- really connected with the audience and kept them on their toes while reading parts out of two chapters, the beginning of her book The Magic Thief and the chapter where he main character, Connwaer, turns himself into a cat. She served biscuits, which play a prominent role in the book. I spoke to some adults on my way out who seemed rather taken with her and the book. One man spoke of being particularly fascinated with the way she explains how magic works. This pic shows her writing secret messages in a Rune alphabet she created with her daughter, Maude, in some of her fans' books.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The New Yorker Writes

Got this email from the New Yorker today after sending a comment about their current issue's cover (Barack and Michelle Obama as a Muslim and a Black Panther). It really lifts my spirits to see intelligent people reasoning their way out of running images that are flagrantly distasteful. Satire of satire, it seems, does not good satire make.

Writes The New Yorker:

Thank you for writing. We appreciate your comments and, if you have a question, we’ll do our best to respond. However, owing to the volume of correspondence, we cannot reply to every e-mail individually.

About this week’s issue: Our cover, “The Politics of Fear,” combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are. The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall — all of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that's the spirit of this cover. In this same issue you will also see that there are two very serious articles on Barack Obama inside — Hendrik Hertzberg's Comment (, and Ryan Lizza's 15,000-word reporting piece on the candidate's political education and rise in Chicago (

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Salad fit for a queen

The season of eight weddings has begun. And while we still have no Internet at our place, we do have a stove, and stock and stomachs. We have spent the past two weeks starting a new job (I am teaching features writing as an adjunct at the UI), packing up our stuff for our big move (into our friends' basement until we decide where we're going -- hurrah!) and finishing off all of the old canned and frozen food we've been hoarding for two years.

As with all archaeological digs, this process has yielded some discoveries: an old scrapbook I created for my husband in which I mythologize the story of our meeting and long-distance relationship and... ta da! A recipe that approximates the Red Avocado's Queen's Salad dressing, which I created through alchemy and trial and error:

Queen's Salad dressing (for two)

Juice from one lime
1T walnut oil
1 T soy sauce

Toss with quinoa, lettuce and raw veggies. So amazing, you'll never have to spend $12 bucks on salad at Red Avocado again. Instead, you can get the sweet potato gnocchi!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Every Day a Sunday

Things are looking up. The downtown of Iowa City is bustling today, as if the floods had never come. Riverside opened sometime this morning -- it runs past my favorite Dairy Queen in the world, a little 50's era drive-up that was all but smushed in the tornado of 2006 (they can't seem to get any luck).

Still, all is not well.

At home, we still have no Internet, which is driving us crazy. My husband has barely been getting dressed and we have both finished yet another set of 400+ page books yesterday. We've made it through yet another season of Meerkat Manor but are missing our Netflix Watch Instantly on the net. We make long, leisurely breakfasts that stretch on through the afternoon. Our naps are too long to be refreshing anymore. Basically, we're ready for the world to start up again.

Oh, and my favorite baby blogger gave birth while we were without Internet, live-blogging all the way, and I missed all the action.

Let's face it. We're lucky not to have lost anything but time in this mess.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Iowa River bathtub

Here's Coralville, just a five minute walk from us. This tree-lined boulevard runs right past my house.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Move over J.K. Rowling

Let the race to fill J.K. Rowling's shoes begin!

The University of Iowa Alumni magazine just ran my profile of debut novelist Sarah Prineas, author of the just-published young adult fantasy novel The Magic Thief.

The Magic Thief tells the story of Connwaer (Conn for short), an orphaned street thief with a fierce independent streak who picks the wrong pocket in the novel's first pages. He apprentices himself to a curmudgeonly wizard named Nevery, a brilliant fellow who returns from exile to study the depletion of magic in the city of Wellmet. Much of the book hinges on Conn's harrowing search for his locus magicalicus, a special stone all wizards need to focus magic and create spells. Conn's sense of magic is exceptionally strong, but so are the evil characters—among them the thief lord Crowe—who thwart him at every turn.

Among all of the authors I've interviewed, Sarah Prineas has to be the most forthcoming and spunky. She keeps a spirited blog on LiveJournal where she writes about being a young adult fantasy author and a working mom (in addition to writing, she also works part-time as an honors adviser at the UI).

When I began this profile, I was more interested in Sarah's story -- the behind-the-book narrative -- than in the book itself. Sarah told me a lot of stories about what it is like to be a children's author in a town where children aren't valued as readers.

But then I read the thing. Let's just say, eat it HP!

(The pic above is of Sarah in her dining room looking at the long scroll she used to outline the book after it was written).

Friday, June 13, 2008

High and Dry

When we first moved to Iowa City I chided my husband for choosing a home that resembled a communist housing block. Well... let me eat my words. Let's just say I am happy to be living on stilts. We returned yesterday after a vacation to Galena, IL, to find our beloved Iowa City all but disappeared into the Iowa River and many of its inhabitants furiously filling sandbags to save buildings and homes. This image shows Arts Building West, the most beautiful building on campus located right across the street from the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Let's hope they rolled up the Pollock!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Labyrinths in Iowa -- creepy faun sold separately

Last fall I spent a couple of weeks driving around eastern Iowa to visit half a dozen labyrinths that have cropped up in the past decade or so. The one pictured above is located at Prairie Woods, a Franciscan spiritual retreat just outside Cedar Rapids.

In Iowa, labyrinths are just about at the point of cultural crossover from mythical New Age practice to standard fare for the conscious-minded. I've met quite a few writers who walk the labyrinth to work through writer's block, and have encountered a handful of Iowans who regularly go on labyrinth travel to places throughout the Midwest.

Happening on a labyrinth is a little like walking into a crop circle. Someone put it there for sure, but without any signposts or enlightened farmers to explain their existence, most people just marvel at their bizarre beauty and step in. That seems to be the lingering mystery about them -- how they just invite you to walk into them.

Read more about them in my cover story in this month's Iowa Source here.

I took following shots at various labyrinths throughout eastern Iowa including at the Cedar Valley Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and in Davenport at the Quad City Labyrinth Project. I can assure you, these labyrinths are no place to hide from your menacing Franco-supported fascist stepfathers.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Shear Joy (sorry, I couldn't help myself)

Here in Iowa we read books no one else reads. Our amazing local independent bookstore Prairie Lights and its even more amazing bookseller Paul Ingram ensure that we have a lot of quiet little books that end up having legs -- or in this case, many, many legs.

I finally picked up Leonie Swann's sheep murder mystery (baaa!) Three Bags Full last weekend and grazed through it over the past few days while accomplishing a lot of nothing in my first post-graduate school week. This is one of two under-the-radar books that have sold a couple hundred copies locally just by word-of-mouth.

Only one thing speaks against this book finding success in the marketplace. It is a translation from the German. Normally that would be enough to damn it to obscurity, but this one has a lot more going for it, namely:

Who: A flock of sheep, each with its own carefully drawn personality.

Where: A Irish rural town named Glennkill (also the name of the original German novel).

What: A murdered shepherd, his sheep set on solving the mystery. And lots of wooly puns.

How: The shepherd used to read some novels about a women named Pamela to the sheep. Not only do they understand English, they have a bizarre conception of how humans work based on Pamela's melodramatic exploits. Their detective work involves standing around, chewing the cud, and listening to people in the town talking.

Why: This book probably should have had a subtitle that read Three Bags Full: An Existential Comedy, for sheep who dabble in matters of life and death, however stupid they may seem, confront the same existential questions we all face when circumstances lead us astray.

I'll give Ms. Swann some bonus points for capitalizing on the vastly underutilized sense of smell throughout the book. Not since Patrick Sueskind's Das Parfum have so many players in one book been characterized by their scent. Also, I don't know who designed this book at Random House, but there's a flip book in the corner of each page of a sheep running through a pasture. Brilliant.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Next... in TIME magazine...

My husband Adam and I have been crazy about This American Life for about 7 years now. When we were living in Germany, we often curled up and snuggled to hours of the show. How crazy are we? Sometimes, a moment occurs in our day that is so odd, so wonderful, so embarrassing, so worthy of a story, that one of us will chime in as Ira Glass, the host, and say:

"Next, on This American Life... "

Well, TIME magazine recently decided to run a Q & A with Ira Glass and I posted one of the hundreds of questions that got asked by fans. They picked mine!

Here's my question and Ira's answer, which has obviously been edited for space:

Me: What's so American about This American Life?

Ira: There's a story that shows up a lot--of people who have some scheme or some way to invent a new life for themselves. Those stories seem to me to be very American. I say that not knowing much about people in other countries.

UPDATE: It turns out the questions have been posted in their entirety in a podcast on the site.

Brian Andreas and the Story People, cont'd

There's only one Story People video up on YouTube, but here it is. The video shows what you might see if you visited the Story People studios in Decorah, Iowa. The voice track consists of studio artist reading Brian Andreas's stories.

Friday, May 16, 2008

All the World a Story

My story on Brian Andreas and The Story People ran today in THE RAKE, the Minneapolis alternative weekly. The above image is from the Decorah sculpture studio where Andreas's team makes the company's line of furniture and sculpture products.

Here's an image of Brian Andreas in the loft above the print studio in Decorah, Iowa.

And here is an image I shot of the Story People graphics studio on Water Street in Decorah last winter.

And here is an image of an artisan in the Story People woodshop finishing one of the company's most popular designs, made of wood salvaged from barns in Minnesota.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Gospel According to Paul

I've been accompanying Prairie Lights bookseller Paul Ingram on trips to Legacy Pointe Retirement home and other venues where he has been reading to audiences and practicing the fine art of the hand-sell in towns that have no independent bookstores. It's amazing to see him in action. Here he is catching a resident up on the latest pioneer drama in Willa Cather's My Antonia. I thought about posting a list of his favorite recent publications, but then I thought... hey! I'd become part of the problem! So... take a trip to Prairie Lights in Iowa City and find Paul. He will take one look at you and tell you what book you absolutely have to read.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Things You Might Ask David Lynch

My friend Insa and I once concocted an elaborate plan for a performance piece in which we would attend lectures and readings by famous writers and intellectuals and would stand in line at a mic for the Q&A portion of the event. When we got to the mike, we would ask three possible types of questions:

1. A Question that Isn't A Question, but A Long Story about ourselves

2. A Question that Isn't a Question but a Fawning Praise of the Speaker (wrapped in a long story about ourselves)

3. A Question that IS A Question, but is So Obscure and Meaningless that it Causes the Audience to Contemplate their Own Morality as They Sit Waiting, Desperately, for a New Question

Needless to say, we never performed the piece. Why not, you may ask? Because every Q&A I've been to already has these three characters. I guess we could have exaggerated it a bit for affect, but I'm no performer. I prefer to be present in my words.

So here are some of the questions that DID get asked in Fairfield at the David Lynch weekend, where the venerable filmmaker spoke at TM, or Transcendental Meditation:

Q: (Incomprehensible question about TM and filmmaking), I would like to make a film about TM. Do you have any suggestions for people who want to make the transition to film.

David Lynch: (Long rambling answer with no suggestions)

Q: I've been trying to think about something that is closer to my own understanding that could have a similar effect to the type of meditating you're talking about. And I thought, well, what about napping? I do it for 15-20 minutes, and I wake up really refreshed and ready to take on the world.

David Lynch: Meditation is lively, it's not like sleep. Napping doesn't engage your whole brain the way meditation does. Napping won't make you reach a state of infinite bliss. If a nap could unfold your entire human potential, it would be the same thing.

Real Important Question: Mr. Lynch, with all of the problems in the world, political unrest, genocide, people starving, how can one person meditating in Iowa help foster world peace?

David Lynch: You have to envision the world as a tree. Our world has drooping branches and lots and lots of dying leaves. Right now, we are going leaf by leaf by leaf. You get a green leaf and 30 other leaves are brown behind you. The experienced gardener doesn't worry about the leaves. He waters the root. We always say water the root and enjoy the fruit. In the root being watered, the root is transcending.

Q: I'm a theater student at the University of Iowa. (Long story about his experiences as a theater student at Iowa). Could you give me some limitations that I could use as a writing prompt for my next play? I know I'm putting you on the spot here.

David Lynch: Huh?

Q: Limitations, like things that have to appear in a scene.

David Lynch:

Blue Electric Clouds
Bowling Ball in Space Filled with Red Ants
Opossum with a Clown Nose
Buick with 15 16-year-olds
Roy Orbison on the stage with Moby, Donovan, and Christobel

Q: (Incompressible story about how the practitioner came to TM) Mr. Lynch, I want to make a film about TM.

David Lynch: That's just beautiful.

Special thanks to Dave Henderson, who contributed this TMZ-worthy photo of David Lynch passing in front of his own event sign.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Coming to the Rescue: David Lynch

And now, coming to save education in America, the only man who can make television scary -- but in a good way -- a man whose reputation is preceded only by his hair: The brilliant DAVID LYNCH!

I finally made it to DAVID LYNCH WEEKEND at the Maharishi University of Management (MUM), in Fairfield, Iowa last weekend. I had been to Fairfield several times before, to swing dance with Frankie Manning, as a stopover on the way to the Grant Wood American Gothic House, and to drink warm green goo at MUM (as I see it, one tiny step on the way to enlightenment, and a step I am willing to try).

This year, the weekend attracted the general mix of budding filmmakers, transcendental meditators, some that fell into both groups, and me and my friend Dave Henderson, the awkward third party of befuddled watchers. Most people there were students and practitioners of TM (Transcendental Meditation), not just a holdout from your parents' hippie days but a thriving movement in itself. Ostensibly, the weekend event is designed to introduce prospective students to the benefits of TM in the education setting, but it is quickly becoming a Midwest cultural event: MTV and Rolling Stone showed up this year, and if that's not legitimization from the coasts...

We couldn't afford the entire weekend package but slipped in with the $10 Saturday ticket, which got us into the event where Lynch answered questions about filmmaking and TM for an hour and a half and for the hour-long presentation by quantum physicist John Hagelin -- whom you might know from everyone's favorite stoner comedy What the Bleep Do We Know.

I've had my doubts about TM. I don't think that a single writer who has attempted to jump down the rabbit hole that is Fairfield has come close to explaining the place for what it is (although Gary Lee in the WP came close). For what is essentially a peace movement, TM is closely linked to entrepreneurial spirit. They'll teach you how to engage your whole mind, reach infinite bliss, and foster creativity in the farthest realms of your being -- for thousands of dollars!


I have to admit, that while listening to Dr. Haglin, I was moved to contemplate a laundry list of old projects that I just haven't gotten to yet. I might not have reached the universal field at which an individual can tap into a creative bursts of energy, but I was, in an instant, suddenly inspired to do some things I have put off for a long time. I'd even pay $12 for that.

We lunched at Revelations, almost hit Donovan while driving through town, and barely made it to the showing of The Straight Story at MUM. Now that I've been living in Iowa for two years, I understand that film so much better than the first time I saw it, in German, in a Munich theater, in 1999. Ironically, I hit a deer while driving the exact same highway (Rt. 18 West towards Fredericksburg) as the woman in the film.

And although it wasn't required for admission, here is David's new haircut, a la Lynch:

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Tastemakers

I've got a short piece on page 9 of this month's ArtScene Iowa (pdf) about AKAR, an architecture and design studio here in Iowa City that holds regular ceramics shows. Every time I go to this place I end up spending 50 bucks or more. The Jani's really do have one of the coolest gigs around -- bringing tasteful modern design to the Midwest and selling some of the most useful toys I've played with. Our kitchen is currently home to two ridiculous and wonderful things bought at AKAR -- an artfully designed pie server and the squid masquerading as wire whisk. For Christmas, we bought five German-designed notebook satchels that fold out into green-friendly grogery bags on wheels. I can almost forgive one of their staff for talking to me like I was an idiot the first time I visited the store two years ago. Sanjay Jani, above, is one of the best talkers I've ever encountered.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Red Letter Day

Yesterday I defended my master's project AND got to attend the reading by Ann Patchett here in Iowa City. Elizabeth McCracken, a friend of the author and one of the workshop instructors here at Iowa introduced her -- by far the nicest, funniest, and most glowing introduction I've experienced at one of these events. McCracken is Patchett's first reader, meaning she gets to read what the author is writing as she is writing it. McCracken said: "If you come across an Ann Patchett at your time here at Iowa, hold tight to her."

Patchett read for about half an hour from her new novel Run, with a voice so clear, crisp and evocative that I wasn't surprised to learn that she was a state debate champion as a young woman.

Later I went up to have my copy of Truth & Beauty signed and outed myself as the writer of the column in PW that complained about how she wasn't coming to Iowa. Apparently, the last time she was scheduled to read at Prairie Lights, she threw up before the event and vowed never to set foot back on Iowa soil.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Coming Soon?: Literature-themed amusement park

One more reason to love Iowa City! A group of developers is working on a project to bring an amusement park-like "attractor" to Eastern Iowa. Tentatively called "Stories," the project is an adventure land for book lovers with a book museum, a book-on-demand machine, a book shop, and a 120-seat theater to screen videos on the power of story. Local writers have already started chiming in on the subject, making even better suggestions than the planning committee, including young adult writer Sarah Prineas, who suggested a cafe where they serve foods from favorite children's books. I'd take a dumpling from The Funny Little Woman by Arlene Mosel. No word on whether they can actually get those book lovers to leave their reading chairs to come to Iowa.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I've affected change!

Perhaps I am giving myself too much credit... but a month and a half ago I published a column in Publisher's Weekly that reflected on my obsession with book signings. My jumping off point was a conversation I had with Prairie Lights bookseller Paul Ingram that Ann Patchett wasn't coming to read there, but had sent a stack of signed copies of her new book Run. As of today, she's coming! But to the Pappajohn building. More space I guess. Also, they're still kind of mad at her at PL since she mentioned stealing books from them in her memoir Truth & Beauty. I have class that night, but I am so there. Doesn't Ms. Patchett look both beautiful and smug in this picture?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Writing Lives

So I've been finishing up my master's journalism project this week. It's a collection of four profiles -- of writers Robin Hemley, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, Brian Andreas, and Sarah Prineas -- set against an overarching trend piece about the state of books coverage in U.S. newspapers (it's abysmal, if you haven't guessed that already). I printed out some proofs today and am doing final editing. I got a little weepy today when I wrote the acknowledgments. So many people to thank! Most people thought I was crazy for going back to school in a field that is dying. Well, maybe not dying. Journalism is alive and kicking, it's just not paying very well. But I like to think that an enterprising spirit can lead you to water wherever you may land. I sold every single profile in my project--naysayers be damned!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Yep. Crazy-eyed middle-aged redhaid

This is how the illustrators at Publishers Weekly envisioned me in the illustration that accompanied my column. I can't fault them for getting me totally wrong, but Jonathan Safran Foer? He looks like he's been Rick-rolled! Awesome.

Monday, February 25, 2008

It's confirmed: Book Signing Junkie

Crazy book nut! Last fall I wrote a little first-person piece on my obsession with book signings. It ran today on the back page of Publishers Weekly in the magazine's Soapbox Column. I've been waiting all my life for a soapbox to stand on!

I hope Paul Ingram over at Prairie Lights doesn't mind the shout out. I really do love that guy. The editor at PW cut a lot of good stuff for space, including the part where I wrote of Paul as being like a Mexican jumping bean.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Putting the CIALIS back in SoCIALISm

I don't normally read Fort Dodge Today -- it's just not a site on my regular troll through the interweb. So you'll have to thank my friend Eric for alerting me to this hilarious comments page connected to an otherwise sad economic blurb on the layoffs of 78 production workers at Electrolux. The jobs are going to Mexico.

A commenter calling himself "booknerd" mentioned Sweden's social market economy and the word "socialism" got starred out. Nazism, fascism, and marxism all got through.

We blame the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis for keeping socialism out of public discourse. SoCIALISm.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

But how cold is it?

It is so cold in Iowa that you can leave a few pieces of La Quercia's green label artisan-cured prosciutto americano in your car by accident for a week and it is still good!

It is snowing again: giant flocks that are falling almost sideways. I am just emerging from about 13 days of some kind of super rhino flu that's been going around the UI campus. So I am relishing in the pleasures of hearth and home, which has included finally tasting La Querica's prosciutto, which is made on a farm south of Des Moines. My friend Nick visited the owners Herb and Kathy Eckhouse a while back for a story he wrote as part of his master's project. He has been raising a pig on a farm near Iowa City since last summer and will finally slaughter her on February 28th. I want everyone to know that date because if everyone knows, then he actually has to do it.

If you haven't checked out his blog Death of a Pig, in which he talks about his project, blogs on food, and waxes poetic about the long and venerable tradition of literary pigs, you should. Good luck Nick!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Rural Incident

Last summer, Sarah Clunis, former curator of African Art at the University of Iowa Museum of Art and Katie Roche, cultural animator extraordinaire and all-around culture vulture started a series of art events in Oxford, Iowa called "The Rural Incident." In her academic work, Clunis studies rituals and their portrayal in art. She decided to host her own art salon in her town of 800 as a way to celebrate local art and also display the works of artists who might not otherwise see their works exhibited in eastern Iowa. Let's face it. There's a lot of people making art out here and what actually gets shown is generally pretty crappy. My profile of Clunis just ran in ArtScene Iowa. Beware -- it's a pdf and you have to scroll through the mag to find it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Robert Wilson is not an actual human being

Robert Wilson's VOOM: Portraits just opened at the UI Museum of Art. The museum paid an estimated $150,000 to bring the exhibition here, about three times what it normally pays for its big shows. And is this show big. To mount it, they had to take the museum's whole permanent collection out and put it in storage. I'd had to be the person traveling to Iowa City from Chicago to see the museum's Pollock only to find out that there is a video portrait of Robert Downey Jr. on a cadaver table in its place. It would be really easy to take a cynical view of this show, after all, it was commissioned by a HDTV company. The whole thing could function as the sexiest tv commercial you've ever seen. But it's probably one of the most exciting things to happen in Iowa since I've been here. Nothing really goes on in the portraits, but there is something happening that compels you to stand and watch.

Oh, and now heard Robert Wilson tell the same three stories about four times -- the one about being in the Berlin zoo and listening to the wolves with his body, the one about his deaf son Raymond, the one about filming the panther that appears in the show. He used the same exact words every time. I'm pretty sure every human interaction is a performance for him.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Oxford Rising

Two couples who got pushed out of New Orleans by Katrina just opened a restaurant in the tiny town of Oxford (800 people), about 15 miles east of Iowa City. They're serving Cajun/Creole and American fusion at lunch prices. I've been twice and had the grits and grillades as well as the shrimp po'boy, which was so good it made me close my eyes. Last summer, one of the couples also started a series of art salons in their home. I don't know how the locals are embracing all this strange action, but for me, all I can say is that I've got a lot of new reasons to leave town.