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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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: