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.