Monday, May 4, 2009

Emily has moved to Oregon

I no longer live in Iowa City, therefore, this blog has lost most of its purpose. If you're still interested in following my work, you can read about my new adventures in Salem, OR on my new blog, Desperately Seeking Salem.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Heavenly Lit

Absolutely LOVED the latest novel by Keith Donohue, which is being published this month.

I had picked up his first book, The Stolen Child, about three years ago at Prairie Lights and read about three-fourths of it before passing it along to my husband (who devoured it). Not sure what made me lose the thread in that first book, though I imagine it has something to do with it being primarily about boy's/men and men's lives. One little lost reader couldn't have hurt Donohue much, since he sold a lot of books, got a lot of attention, and quickly churned out this new one, Angels of Destruction.

And what a one it is.

The book opens with the arrival of a young girl named Norah on the doorstep of Margaret Quinn, a lonely widow whose husband has long died and whose only daughter ran away with a 1970s era radical ten years before. Materializing, it would seem, out of thin air, Norah presents herself as the antidote to Margaret’s unabiding sadness. Together, they concoct a story that Norah is her granddaughter, the daughter of Margaret’s long lost daughter Erica.

Very quickly, Norah establishes that she is no ordinary little girl. She speaks in beautifully crafted sentences, has a vocabulary to rival those of most college professors and drops prophetic bombs every time she is drawn into a meaningful conversation. She tracks animals with ease. She creates miracles that astound her classmates and anger their parents.

Is she an angel? Is she a Stepford child? Is she a demon? Angels of Destruction is a thriller wrapped in a ghost story, wrapped in a contemporary fable, wrapped in a fairy tale. One delicious Turducken.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lovely Bones author coming to Iowa City

I first read The Lovely Bones in the fall of 2002, at a time when I was living in Germany and didn't want to be. I had just fallen in love, I had just moved half a world away from my future husband, and I was really bummed out from having just read The Corrections (seriously, every time I picked it up I spiraled further into despair. So I wasn't prepared to like it. And I didn't. I hated how ubiquitous her novel was -- every store, every shelf, even in Germany. I hated the set-up: dead girl telling her story from heaven. I hated that a little girl had to get raped and die for people to buy a book.

Time has clearly weathered my feelings towards The Lovely Bones. I picked it up again, as well as some of her other books, to prepare a mini-assessment of her for and found myself enrapt with Sebold's storytelling abilities and the power of her characters' voices.

Well, Alice Sebold is coming to Iowa City, and she's not even being brought here by the workshop. If I were anywhere near Iowa City next week I would go and see this brave woman.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Let's all read about Japanese internment

Getting through Sandra Dallas's Tallgrass for my review for was a bit of a slog. I kept waiting for this book to take off, but it instead got boggled down in little, smalltown dramas that detracted from the main event: there are Japanese prisoners in a camp located right next to your farm!

I admire Dallas for not sensationalizing this story, though. As a journalist, I can't imagine having such weighty material at hand -- the internment of Japanese-Americans on our own soil after the bombing of Pearl Harbor -- and not delving into those gritty details. Instead, she has created a family portrait that explores how fear and intolerance of the prisoners spreads like a virus through a rural community. That's an angle that makes this a good choice for the Linn County Reads program.

I think I've waited long enough to learn about what really happened in this dark chapter. You're reading it here: I vow to read Lauren Kessler's Stubborn Twig.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More bad news for art in Iowa City

Looks like the University of Iowa Museum of Art can't seem to get a break. The Chicago Tribune has just reported that about 2,400 books from the arts collection that had been in storage after last summer's devastating floods were soaked last night when a sprinkler head froze.

I'm no stranger to pipes freezing in Iowa. When I was living in the communist housing block off Lincoln Ave on the Health campus, the pipes in our first floor apartment froze for a few weeks every winter. Every February I would invite the maintenance people to come fix our drain, and one would arrive to try to unfreeze the pipe leading from our tub.

It can't be easy to take care of all that art when it's scattered in locations throughout the state and beyond. My heart clenches every time the elements destroys old books. Works on paper, even in bound form, are exceptionally fragile.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The next big thing in bookselling: Me

I was hanging out at Cannon Beach Book Company on the Oregon Coast this weekend when a couple walked up to the cashier to ask about the new Widow Clicquot bio.

"Is this good?" They asked? No one had read it.

Well let me tell you about the Veuve, as we like to call her in my family. My sister Ashley is one mean champagne drinker. She's recently attached herself to a sparkling Chinese man who boasts the same. So yes, I've read The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled it.

Here's what I told them:

"If you like champagne, it's required reading. There isn't a lot of source material out there on the widow, so some of what the author writes is speculation and oral tradition, but the stories in the book are the stuff of entrepreneurial myth. It's got fantastic information about the innovations within and rise of the champagne industry." Yadda yadda yadda.

I also warned them that the book is 2/3 text, 1/3 research references. I felt kind of cheated when I got to page 198 of 300 and realized I was done.

Anyway, I sold my first hardback nonfiction at an independent bookstore. Paul Ingram would be so proud!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Clocking in near perfection

As a book reviewer, I find writing raves and rants is far easier than writing middling pieces about so-so books. Call this the book-reviewer's lament: our lives would be much more fun if all books were either rock-your-face-off good or slit-your-wrists bad.

I didn't realize until I read my review of Paul Harding's Tinkers about two weeks after I had written it what a complete and utter rave it was.

Tinkers is about a man dying -- his last moments and days spent drifting in and out of delirium as he tries to piece together and make sense of his life. He revisits moments, mostly small ones, and in doing so, finds a way to reconnect with his estranged father.

I don't remember particularly enjoying the story of this book -- it's a man's book about manly things -- but the craftsmanship just blew me away. It's prose that leaves you breathless, and faceless.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Olive you.

In my household, we scour consignment shops for old furniture to love and fill with junk -- and the first thing I always look for is dovetailing. Maybe it's the industrial arts student in me -- I never did get over learning how to use a miter saw -- but when I see dovetailing, my heart leaps.

I don't generally expect the same feats of construction from my literature, but I have found it in Elizabeth Strout's much-hailed new book Olive Kitteredge, a collection of thirteen interwoven stories about a small town in New England. The stories plumb the quiet dramas of several families in the town, but all have the same red thread weaving through them -- the character Olive Kitteredge.

Now, we see Olive at various points in her life, and she isn't always pretty, in deed or in character. Most of the time, she is just plain mean: a curmudgeonly, judgmental, bitter woman who engages with her neighbors and family members, it sometimes seems, just to have more to be angry about. She nags her only son to the point of exasperation, she visits a neighbor who has weathered hardship just to get a taste of some good ole schadenfreude. Anytime something happens to a character in this book, Olive acts like it's just the universe conspiring to confirm that she already knows everything.

And yet, Olive Kitteredge is almost entirely lovable. She may not have a lot of nice things to say, but what she says is generally profound and hilarious. Or as one of the minor characters in the book puts it, "she says weird things that have a lot of meaning."

My only complaint with Olive Kitteredge would be that I actually wanted more Olive.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Lovely new book set in Iowa City

Just finished local author Stephen Lovely's debut novel Irreplaceable, an exploration of life and grief in the aftermath of tragedy. If you are an Iowa Cityan, you might know the lovely author from his work with the Iowa Young Writer's Studio (the book has some really hilarious jabs at the occupation of student essay grader -- anyone who's been a writer in Iowa City knows someone, or is the someone who has graded those dreaded essay portions at the ACT offices in town.

I responded most to the author's empathy for his characters -- all people left behind and forced to go on after a young woman dies in a biking accident and her heart gets donated to a stranger in Chicago. Lovely even had me feeling bad -- if only kind of -- for the pretty unlikable guy who hit her with his truck. Also, kudos to me for avoiding any puns about this book being all heart in the review I wrote for

Friday, February 6, 2009

Once Upon a Tile

The tiles created by Iranian-American artist Jafar Mogadam are exploding fractals of color, gigantic puzzles of competing symbols and forms drawing on artistic traditions from around the globe.

But compared to their creator, his works border on the staid.

Mogadam is a hybrid of Iowa and Iran. He wears a trucker’s cap. He listens to mystical Sufi music. Together with his wife Lynne, he restores prairie on their Riverside, Iowa farm. But he spends most of his time painting tiny worlds of geometric shapes and lines, meticulous Persian and Islamic designs on tiles, sometimes taking half a year to complete one work.

Mogadam will be speaking about his work at a free event at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art on February 28.

There are few artists working in Iowa that would compel me to drive an hour to see them in person, but Mogadam is one of them. Don't miss seeing this little firecracker of a man. You can see a slideshow I created a few years ago of him and his art here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Have you heard the joke about the Pollock?

Word at CityView is that Iowa legislators are once again throwing around the idea of selling Jackson Pollock's seminal work "Mural," in the permanent collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

Let's hope that quiet muttering becomes open discussion involving everyone in Iowa who cares about art.

Or may I suggest having fans of "Mural" stage an art-in at the museum? Oh wait, it was flooded out last summer. So selling the mural would be akin to throwing out a flood refugee in addition to plundering your state heritage. "Mural" is the only piece of art in Iowa that draws visitors from around the world.

Sorry, that wasn't actually a joke. These are serious times when university art museums are closing to bolster dwindling endowments.

Paul on Last Night at the Lobster

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Worst. Week. Ever.

As if news about the economy weren't bad enough. As if the stories of the paradigm shifts in book publishing weren't bad enough. As if the possible demise of my favorite books publication weren't bad enough, John Updike died yesterday.

Let me tell you a little of what John Updike means to me. My mother took me to my first-ever author reading at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA in -- I think -- 1995. Updike was soft-spoken, strangely charming, and had obvious skin problems (he suffered from psoriasis his whole life). That night, he read a short story about a swimming pool that filled with dead dragonflies with neglect. But it was actually a story about a waning marriage, the metaphor being apt but not obvious.

My mother had been taking me to lectures for years -- including an infamous attendance at a talk on France's Chartres cathedral in which the lecturer illuminated EVERY SINGLE STAINED GLASS window while I fell asleep on my mother's lap (I was 12). I'd been to some real winners since then -- shark lady Eugenie Clark, paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey -- but Updike, man, he had me at "The Orphaned Swimming Pool." I sat in the audience enrapt. As I looked out over the crowd, I saw my 11th grade English teacher Mr. Sclichter, one of the most miserable men I have ever known, a man so lazy as to use the same lesson plans from 1978, a man so contemptable that he believes no good literature was written after Bech is Back, a man who came this close (fingers pinched) to turning me off books, an impossible curmudgeon who was convinced that no interpretation of Winesberg, Ohio was acceptable but his own. Our eyes met. In class later that week he looked at me, smiled, and said: "wasn't Updike GREAT."

Yeah. He was.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Story in the Iowan

Here's an image of the print layout of the labyrinth story that was just published in the Iowan. I'm loving the pic of Stan and Man, my retirees who built the labyrinth in Waterloo:

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Picking a quote with mentor Robin Hemley

Last spring I worked with writer and Nonfiction Writing Program Director Robin Hemley of the University of Iowa. I had interviewed Robin in the spring of 2007 for a forthcoming profile in Poets & Writers magazine and was impressed with the way he talked about his life and his writing projects. So I took nonfiction writing with him.

Before the semester ended, our class met at the UI Center for the Book and learned how to use one of the center's printing presses. We each chose a quote to typeset. I chose the above quote from a Mitch Hedberg comedy routine about koala bears.

"My apartment is infested with koala bears. Its the cutest infestation ever. Much better than cockroaches. I turn the lights on and the koalas scatter. I'm like, come back! I want to hold one of you, feed you a leaf." (My quote is a paraphrase).

For my birthday this year my husband decided to illustrate all of the quotes.

Here's another one that turned out great, from my fellow writer David Peters:

Monday, January 5, 2009

Labyrinth photos up

Some of the images that accompanied my article on labyrinths in Iowa are up on the site. All of them are copyright Davenport photographer Shuva Rakim.

Friday, January 2, 2009

#1 Thing I Like Best: Older Iowans

I like a man who can look at a patch of dirt and see the potential for something great. I like a man who can joke about death and manure. Mostly, I like retired Iowans and the crazy, inspired ways they spend their time.

I've written about labyrinths in Iowa before, but you can consider this my magnum opus on the subject, a six-page glossy spread in the January issue of The Iowan, framed around two retired Iowans, Manley Orum and Stanley McCadam. If you can't pick up a copy, you can read the online version of "Contemplating the Landscape," with pics forthcoming.

All you need is love... to create great stories

Siberia is nobody's idea of a destination — not now, and certainly not in the 1920s, though that's where Amy Bloom's main character is trying to get to in her latest novel "Away." Bloom loosely based the character of Lilian on a historical record of a mute immigrant woman who walked through Alaska's wilderness determined to get home to Russia.

You can read my full review of "Away" at

Away makes a literary leap uncommon to most novels about the American experience: that there is no greater reason than love to give all that other stuff up.