“You’ve got a problem, Mom. I mean, it’s a good problem, but it’s a problem,” said my daughter when she walked into my office the other day and saw the stacks of books I brought back from the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Seattle.
She’s right. Even I’m daunted by the pile of books in my “to read” pile right now.
As a writer, the annual AWP conference is both overwhelming and exhilarating: over 12,000 fellow scribes swarm a conference center, attend readings by well known authors, and flit in and out of panel discussions about craft. As a reader, it’s downright obscene: over 650 literary journals and presses, both large and small, hold court on the Bookfair floor.
Words come from writers but without editors, without these journals and presses, these words would never see the light of day. And when you gather all of the hard working, passionate people in one place, standing for hours and hours behind tables stacked with the works they have partnered in creating, it’s inspiring.
I could never possibly share ALL the books I bought at the Bookfair so I thought I’d play a version of Russian roulette in which I randomly pull a few books from my pile instead:
The Address Book by Sophie Calle, Siglio Press. This press came to my attention last year after reading Karen Green’s haunting book of poetry, Bough Down. The press’s tagline: “uncommon books at the intersection of art & literature” was reflected in the gorgeous, aesthetically pleasing books on their AWP table. I picked this particular book up because it looks like the bound address book my parents used to keep by our telephone. And that replication is intentional because the artist/author found an address book just like it abandoned on the streets of Paris and proceeded to contact everyone in it to find out who owned it and then wrote this book about those encounters. Much to the chagrin of the original owner.
House of Deer by Sasha Steensen, Fence Books (forthcoming). I picked this poetry book up because of the photograph on the cover. A teenage girl is walking through a field, carrying apples in her hands, her long hair straight-parted in that 1970’s way. The photo captures genuine nostalgia but also an underlying creepiness. The woman at the Fence table told me it was an unusual story about a family who embraced the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970’s. Then I flipped to page 9:
The family bought a rural plot and planted a garden.
The family formed thoughts.
Within these thoughts, eggs hatched, animals were born, little wars formed. Each thought said unspeakable things to the other thoughts.
As you know, unspoken thoughts rot.
And then I bought it. Can’t wait to read it.
Freud Blah Blah Blah by Sarah Bartlett, Rye House Press. I’m obsessed with anything Freud-related so the title of this chapbook caught my eye. I love everything about chapbooks: their brevity, their intention, their limited production. I bought copy #13 out of 100.
My mother dreamt she gave birth to a wolf,
but I came out instead. My family jokes about this
over meals. Somewhere in the mountains a howl
is gathering. Somewhere guts spill across the snow
like hot snakes—I try to explain over and over that
the pattern is remarkable for its beauty but they don’t listen.
Stop signing your name every fucking place, they say,
and really mean it this time.
I had the pleasure of hearing some of my favorite poets read at AWP: Jamaal May, Dorthea Lasky, and Mary Ruefle. Mary Ruefle told us how she seeks out books at Goodwills all across the country. Not to collect the books themselves, but to collect the discarded inscriptions. She read some to us. She is a true poet and a wild genius.
Commercial Fiction by Dave Housley, Outpost 19. With all the dark and depressing literature out there in the world, thankfully there are writers like Dave Housley who are talented, clever and hilarious. I love that this book plays off the ridiculousness of pop culture: “Eighteen brief stories inspired by television commercials produced by America’s favorite brands.”
(in case you a need a reference point for this commercial)
“How did you even get these tubs out here?” I ask.
He squeezes my hand. “It’s a secret,” he says. “Happy Anniversary.”
I reach across the space between our tubs and dip a fingertip into the soapy water, wiggle it toward his nether regions. “Is it working yet?”
He looks down. Can he really not tell without looking down? Getting older is full of surprises, almost none of them welcome. “Not yet,” he says.
Dave is a founding editor of one of my favorite literary magazines Barrelhouse and he’s also the type of editor/writer whose in-person interactions at AWP always surpass my online impressions of him. He’s just a generous, all-around-good dude.
Besides new books, my other positive takeaway from AWP was visiting with old writing friends and making new ones. Writing can be a lonely, desperate venture so it’s always uplifting to find kindred spirits. Ursula Villarreal-Moura and Michael Schmeltzer are two people I had the pleasure of finally meeting in person in Seattle and they both gave me some good book recommendations. Ursula: Every Kiss A War by Leesa Cross-Smith, Cowboys & East Indians by Nina McConigley and Black Moon by Kenneth J. Calhoun. Michael: Churches by Kevin Prufer and Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker.
Two novels I finished reading while at AWP are both about young women struggling with violent acts in Latin America. Cartwheels by Jennifer DuBois takes place in Buenos Aires and draws from the Amanda Knox case for its main thread but takes it to new literary heights with fresh storytelling and a multi-character point of view (which to pull off well is a feat in and of itself). Prayers For the Stolen by Jennifer Clement should be required reading for all of us as far as I’m concerned. We hear about the Mexican drug cartels in the news all the time but this book exposes the toll it takes on its most vulnerable citizens: young girls.
Now we make you ugly, my mother said…In the mirror I watched her move the piece of charcoal across my face. It’s a nasty life, she whispered. It’s my first memory. She held an old cracked mirror to my face. I must have been five years old. The crack made my face look as if it had been broken into two pieces. The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl…All the drug traffickers had to do was hear that there was a pretty girl around and they’d sweep onto our lands in black Escalades and carry the girl off.
I can’t say enough about this novel except read it, read it, read it.
In addition to my AWP bounty, up next on my “to read” list are: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (which I’m looking forward to despite some of its mixed reviews); another book by my friends at Tin House, The Understory by Pamela Erens (I devoured her previous book, The Virgins); and Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing (which I learned about at “The Psychology of Story-Telling with Lindsay Doran” put on by The Black List).
Thank you to a commenter from my previous Book Round-up who pointed out my oversight in not acknowledging the brilliant work of Ann Goldstein for her translation of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment. Here is a great interview with Ms. Goldstein about her translation work.