Nicole Krauss Builds a "Great House"– Her Thoughts on Writing and Reading

    I went to St. Paul last night to listen to Nicole Krauss at a session of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Talking Volumes” series.  Krauss has been nominated for the National Book Award for her third novel, Great House. (Read The New York Times review of the book. ) 

    At events such as these, someone invariably asks about the author’s creative process, how he or she writes.  Authors often have a very hard time coming up with an answer.  That, or they’re sick of the question. And since, it’s a very abstract process, the answer is usually not very satisfying.  I’d rather hear more generally about the ideas the author wants to convey than about her methods. However, Krauss speaks about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard on the subject of the writing process.  She’s as articulate in a conversation as she is on the pages of her books. Krauss says writes as she goes, without a lot of outlining.  She seems to go where the writing takes her.  She revises as she writes so at the end of the process, she has mostly a finished product. “I make the doorknob first, then the door, and the room,” she said in describing her writing process. “Only much later do you step back and see the whole house.”

    She spoke about how, perhaps because she’s a writer, it’s sometimes difficult to find books that totally carry her away, the way books affected her as a child.  However, she raves about Israeli writer David Grossman and his book To the End of the Land. “It blew my mind,” she said. I’m eager to pick that one up and suggest it to my book club. (See the New Yorker article about Grossman.)

    I also enjoyed a PBS Newshour interview with Krauss last week.  Interviewer Jeffrey Brown ended the interview with, “Finally, sort of on that subject, I can’t help but notice the centrality of books and literature to many of the characters in this novel. A couple of them are writers, others are really great readers. We don’t seem to live in a time where that’s true for most people anymore.”

    Krauss responded, “It’s certainly true in my life. I think I am who I am because of the books that I read, and I think of myself still as first and foremost a reader and then following that a writer. But I’m aware that both in my last novel The History of Love, where there was a book that was a center that connected all the characters, and now here is this desk, which is at least one of the components that connects, that these are objects that are saturated with the possibilities of literature. I do feel like I’ve staked my life on this, which is this idea that literature affords us this absolutely unique possibility in no other moment in life. Really, I think again in no other art form can you step so directly, so vividly without any mediation into another’s inner life. You are stepping fully into this stream of what it is to be another person. And I think when you do that, you inevitably form a kind of compassion. It teaches a kind of empathy. So for me this is like a great value of literature. It’s also again for me, somebody who’s obviously — all my characters are often solitary, they’re struggling with that solitude, but they are not content with it. They would like to move beyond it, to transcend it to express themselves to others in a way that I think they all feel is possible. And it’s no accident that literature becomes a kind of singular way for many of them to do that.”

    Empathy, compassion, what it’s like to be another person… Makes you wish more people would pick up a book.

    See her conversation with Brown at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/10/conversation-nicole-krauss-great-house.html And look for a video and transcript of Krauss’s “Talking Volumes” interview to appear soon the MPR Web site.http://find.publicradio.org/search?site=mpr&proxystylesheet=mpr&client=mpr&output=xml_no_dtd&filter=p&numgm=5&q=talking+volumes&x=14&y=14

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A Soothing Visit to Birchbark Books: Louise Erdrich Shared Her Book Suggestions–and I Took Them

Yesterday was a blustery day in Minnesota that would surprise even Winnie the Pooh.  I blew into the one of the best places in Minneapolis to be on a stormy day, Birchbark Books .  It’s a cozy independent shop with warm wood, a dog to greet you, and an unusual array of books that might not come to your attention in a big chain bookstore. The shop reflects the literary, environmental and Native American cultural interests of its owner, National Book Award-finalist, Louise Erdrich.

In contrast to the agitating wind outside, soothing Native American music played inside as I strolled through the books, Native American quillwork, basketry and jewelry.  Louise attaches hand-written notes to books she suggests which feels like she has left personal notes just for you. That sales technique certainly worked on me; I picked up a signed copy of Louise’s book The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, along with two books I would never have chosen, Risking Everything-110 Poems of Love and Revelation edited by Roger Housden, and just in time for Halloween, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, about a vampire and a journey through the capitals of Eastern Europe.

The store creates an atmosphere that I would have loved as a child, with a tiny loft and a “hobbit hole” to play in, the kind of place that might stir up a child’s imagination and make even a reluctant reader want to big up a book or have a story read to him. Another of my favorite features of the store:  a confessional that was formerly a sound booth in a bar as well as a confessional. As the shop’s Web site says, “One side is dedicated to Cleanliness, the other to Godliness. Louise is currently collaging the interior with images of her sins.  The confessional is now a forgiveness booth, there for the dispensation of random absolution.”

This would be an excellent spot for a book club outing, perhaps with lunch or dinner at the Kenwood Café next door and a chance to hang out and chat with the store’s booksellers. They also organize a BYOB Book and Dinner Club.

Those who can’t make it to Minneapolis should take a bit of inspiration—okay, steal the idea—and organize your own Book and Dinner event.  What a great way to share meaningful conversation and meet new friends.

Beach Reading in Florida

I just spent a few days in the charming St. Augustine, Florida, area.  Packed with history, fun restaurants, and beautiful beaches—St. Augustine Beach and Crescent Beach—the area offers fun for just about everyone.  I sipped a beer and  my 80-plus-year-old mother downed a pina colada on the porch of a bar called Scarlett O’Hara’s where we ran into a fun group of women visiting St. Augustine from St. Louis.  They recommend the city for a great girls’ weekend, though it looked like their trip was shaping up to be a bit rowdier than our mother-daughter jaunt. Stayed at the Hampton Inn–right on the beach. Very nice staff.

But, since my view is always through a literary lens, I have to offer a few thoughts for Florida-related beach reading and maybe some heavier reading when you’re not on the beach.  Here’s a screamingly mixed bag of  Florida writing that provides an interesting cultural perspective, especially for Yankees like me….

For some St. Augustine-related fiction, try Eugenia Price’s “Florida Trilogy” of  Maria, Don Juan McQueen, and Margaret’s Story.  Good old fashioned romance.  Zora Neale Hurston, was born in Florida. Check out her biography: Dust Tracks on a Road and the classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Then there’s the always entertaining satirical writer, Carl Hiassen, the “blazing conscience of the Sunshine State.”  According to his Web site, “Tourist Season, published in 1986, was Hiaasen’s first solo novel. GQ magazine called it ‘one of the 10 best destination reads of all time,’ although it failed to frighten a single tourist away from Florida, as Hiaasen had hoped it might.” He’s written many books since and has continued to attract a loyal following of readers though he’s apparently still trying to keep the tourists away, as in Team Rodent, a rant a against the Disney empire.

Finally, I highly recommend Diane Roberts who is a professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee and one of my favorite essayists on National Public Radio.  To hear one of her recent commentaries go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130302999

I picked up a copy of  Roberts’ book Dream State in which she writes about Florida, “the land of orange groves, theme parks and mobile homes with a torrential outpouring of love and hate, affection and disgust. Weaving her own family history into that of the state—she’s related somehow or other to many of Florida’s pioneering families—she chronicles the greed, political corruption and deceit that turned the swamps of the Sunshine State into a haven for retirees, wealthy or otherwise.”  She has also written, The Myth of Aunt Jemima, and Faulkner and Southern Womanhood.

Beverly Hills Literary Escape

I’ve been reading with great jealousy about the first annual “Beverly Hills Literary Escape” which takes place October 22-24.  Since I’m just returning from a trip then, I can’t make it to Beverly Hills, but the lineup sounds fantastic and hopefully there will be a second annual event. Their web site has already inspired me to place an order for David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Are Important in a Distracted Time.

Organizers bill the event as “an exciting weekend of unique events designed for the discerning reader. An intersection of literary culture and entertainment, BHLE brings together food, wine and books. Offering insider access to the country’s most sought after authors through novel experiences set amidst the luxury of Beverly Hills.”  Check out the activities and the list of authors who will be on tap.

http://bhliteraryescape.com

My book club has read several books by authors who will be at this event.  Some favorites include Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us and Gail Tsukiyama’s novels Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden.

I chuckled when I read that a portion of proceeds from event tickets and book sales will benefit the Beverly Hills Public Library.  I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but from what I’ve seen of Beverly Hills, their library is probably in pretty good shape already. Nonetheless, the event’s organizers, Julie Robinson and Tyson Cornell, are hitting what is for me the sweet spot where literature connects with community—when readers go “beyond the book” so share ideas and meaningful conversation with authors and fellow readers, face to face.

For those of us who won’t be mingling in the luxury of Beverly Hills, the event is a good one to inspire our own local literary “salons” on a smaller scale.

Breathless in Boulder, Colorado

Boulder rocks, as they say, especially if you’re outdoorsy, a foodie, or a ghost aficionado. Within easy reach of downtown Boulder there’s a great variety of outdoor activity, though at 5430 feet, a brisk walk taxes the lungs of flatlanders like me. Slow and steady, plus a lot of water, does the trick. You also have to pace yourself with eating to stretch out the enjoyment.

Hit the Trail
Try the hikes that start at Chautauqua Park, at the base of the Flatirons, the symbol of Boulder. This is also rock climbers’ heaven.

While you’re there, visit the Colorado Chautauqua House, a historic landmark that began with the turn-of-the-century movement educate and enlighten working-class citizens by creating gathering places dedicated to learning. Known as Chautauquas, the public spaces offered a place for traveling lecturers, politicians, writers and entertainers to deliver their message to large crowds. In continuous operation since July 4, 1898, the Colorado Chautauqua is one of only three remaining Chautauquas in the country. Today, it is home to concerts, cultural events, educational programs, recreation and historic preservation. The cabins here look like a cozy place to stay and the dining hall comes highly recommended.

You can hit the trail on wheels, too. Rent bikes and hit the Boulder Creek Trail, which for me was slow ride up and a very fast ride down. It’s also fun to cruise the beautiful campus of University of Colorado, and then stop for a beer outside at a huge array of downtown bars and eateries. For further relief from all this exertion—and to sooth knotty muscles–an afternoon at the spa at the luxurious St. Julien Hotel is just the tonic. The hotel offers Sunday morning yoga, too.

Foodie Fare
Bon Appetit named Boulder the “foodiest town in American” in its October, 2010 issue.
To sample some of the reasons why Boulder topped the list, stroll the Farmers Market then grab coffee, tea, breakfast or lunch at the fabulously detailed Boulder Dushanbe Tea House, a gift of Boulder’s sister city Dushanbe in the Republic of Tajikistan.
From 1987 -1990, more than 40 artisans created the decorative elements of the Teahouse, including its hand-carved and hand-painted ceiling, tables, stools, columns, and exterior ceramic panels. My other favorite dining experiences: Salt and The Kitchen, both located on Pearl Street.

Bookish in Boulder
Pearl Street is also home to a number of independent bookstores, with both new and used books. I like the Boulder Book Store with its café next door. While you’re there, check out Boulder: A Sense of Time & Place Revisited by Silvia Pettem.

Finally, if all this doesn’t make you breathless, perhaps a good fright will to the trick. Fans of Stephen King’s book, The Shining, will want to make a trip to Estes Park (a drive of about 45 minutes) for a look at the Stanley Hotel, King’s inspiration for the book. They offer The Stanley Hotel Historic Ghost Tour. For anyone planning to stay in this lovely hotel, they assure visitors that the spirits there aren’t as malevolent as those in the novel.

"Little Bee" and the National Reading Group Month Book List

October is National Reading Group Month, which in my opinion should really be a year-round celebration. The National Women’s Book Association sponsors events and activities during the month. Part of the mission for NRGM is to increase public awareness of the joy and value of shared reading. Each year they prepare a list of featured books that are excellent suggestions for book groups. See
http://www.nationalreadinggroupmonth.org/ggr_selections.html

One of my book clubs is currently reading a book from that list, “Little Bee,” by Chris Cleve. Thinking in terms of relationship between literature and travel, this book inspires the armchair variety of travel.   The story revolves around a British couple and a Nigerian girl and their brutal experience on a lonely beach in Nigeria.  Not to give too much away but the novel was published in Britain with the title “The Other Hand.” While I love adventure travel, some destinations are best visited through the pages of a book.

Franzen and Fitzgerald in St. Paul

I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s book, “Freedom,” much of which is based in Minnesota, particularly, St. Paul. Anyone visiting St. Paul can walk through many of the areas that set the stage for the opening chapters of the book. That includes the restaurant W.A. Frost, which offers world-class outdoor dining, and it’s a place where my book club meets annually for dinner, conversation, and to soak up the ambiance in a neighborhood rich in literary tradition.

This is the neighborhood where Franzen’s characters, Walter and Patty, get their start, renovating a house on the fictional Barrier Street which is, in reality, St.Paul’s Ramsey Hill neighborhood. It’s also the place where F.Scott Fitzgerald grew up (Frost’s was a drug store then) and where he worked on his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” along with classic short stories. Check out the St. Paul Public Library’s Fitzgerald “Homes and Haunts” itinerary http://www.stpaul..ib.mn.us/pdf/fitzgeraldbrochure.pdf

Fitzgerald is known as the chronicler of the Jazz Age. One wonders if Franzen, who, in “Freedom” chronicles the cultural flashpoints of the last three decades, will have the staying power of Fitzgerald.

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Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.

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