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.