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Midwest Adventures #4

May 29, 2011 1 comment

Yesterday, I took a trip to Iowa City. It’s about 135 miles southeast of Ames. This is a trip I’ve wanted to make ever since I got this new job and moved to Iowa. Some might ask why visiting this particular city was important. It’s a fair question with a fairly simple answer. Iowa City is a literary mecca. It’s the home of the legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing degree program in the country and still regarded as the most important. Faculty and alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are among the most important writers of the past six or seven decades. Here are just a few:

• Faculty: Nelson Algren, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Robert Penn Warren, T.C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Frank Conroy, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, John Irving, Barry Hannah and Marilynne Robinson.

• Alumni: Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner, Denis Johnson, Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett, ZZ Packer,  Jane Smiley, John Edgar Wideman, Steve Erickson, Andre Dubus, Sandra Cisneros, Tracy Kidder, Kent Haruf, James Hynes and A.M. Homes.

Furthermore, I happen to personally know several graduates of the program: Doug Unger, author and chairman of the English Department at UNLV; Richard Wiley, author and associate director of UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute; Vu Tran, a creative writing professor at the University of Chicago; Josh Kryah, a poet and English professor at UNLV; and Amber Withycombe, outgoing assistant director of the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV who soon will be starting a new job at George Mason University. Another alumnus of interest is Glenn Schaeffer, who did not become a writer but instead got into the casino business, where he did very well and is responsible, among other things, for the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas.

So, Iowa City is a place closely identified with writers and writing. My interest was further fueled last year when I read a great memoir by Tom Grimes called Mentor. Grimes, a Workshop graduate, writes movingly about the late Frank Conroy, who is probably the Workshop’s most famous director.

Naturally, Iowa City has quite a few highly regarded new and used bookstores, so those were my primary destination. I was not disappointed. Here is a rundown on my trip:

Bruegger's Bagels on Lincoln Way in Ames.

1. I started the trip, as I do many endeavors, with a visit to the bagel shop. I don’t like Bruegger’s quite as well as Einstein’s, which dominates Las Vegas, but it’ll do.

Kum & Go store on Dayton Avenue in Ames.

2. Next stop was the convenience store to stock up for the trip. What is noteworthy about Kum & Go (besides the jarring name) is that the soda-dispensing machines offer either cubed or crushed ice. It’s nice to have the option.

3. It rained much of the way down to Iowa City. Not a heavy rain, thankfully. On a recent trip to Des Moines, I ran into a heavy rainstorm that suddenly turned to hail. I, along with most (not all) other drivers stopped on the side of the road because we couldn’t see five feet in front of us. Not fun, but mercifully brief.

Marshalltown courthouse

4. I stopped in Marshalltown, which is about an hour east of Ames. It’s population is about 27,000, but it feels bigger. It has an old downtown that I want to explore further. The county courthouse (1886) is just amazingly interesting. Marshalltown has quite a few other historic buildings to check out down the road.

Indian casino near Toledo, Iowa.

5. I didn’t go in, but I had to take a picture of the Meskwak hotel-casino, east of Marshalltown near Toledo. Iowa actually has quite a few casinos.

Tanger Outlet Center, Williamsburg, Iowa

6.  I had a little business to conduct at the Tanger Outlet Center, which is a big, busy outlet mall on Interstate 80 at Williamsburg, Iowa.

7. I am saving the Amana Colonies for another day. They are arguably one of the most interesting attractions in all of Iowa, worthy of a full day trip.

Each covered picnic table has a quotation from a writer associated with Iowa City.

8. One of the most interesting stops on my trip was a rest stop on the approach to Iowa City. It is completely writing-themed. Here is what the state’s website says about it: “Entitled ‘It Has Iowa Written All Over It,’ this integrated public art installation speaks to the importance of writing in Iowa and its significant contribution to literature throughout the world.”

Public art at the rest stop near Iowa City.

It’s about the coolest thing I can imagine: a rest stop dedicated to writing and writers. Of course, the large majority of visitors to the rest stop just want to stretch their legs and use the restroom, but still.

9. Prairie Lights Bookstore is one of the nation’s great independent new bookstores. Many book tours have Prairie Lights on the schedule, though nobody was signing on Saturday. A fine store.

10. The downtown area of Iowa City is incredibly cool and beautiful. Classic pedestrian-friendly urban environment.

Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City.

11. The Haunted Bookshop is an excellent used bookstore just a couple of blocks from Prairie Lights. It’s a very good used store, with sophisticated and well-organized stock.

The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City.

12. I was even more impressed by Murphy-Brookfield Books, which, again, is just a few blocks from Prairie Lights and Haunted. This converted two-story house has to be a place frequented by writers and faculty of the Workshop, as it has the largest collection of literary criticism I have ever seen in one place.

Downtown Iowa City.

I didn’t stroll around the campus, unfortunately. Seems odd, I know, but by the time I had hit the three bookstores, it was getting late and I knew I wanted to get back before it got too late. Next time.

13. I had a late lunch at Bennigan’s at the Coral Ridge Mall. Decent burger.

Bennigan's bar and grill at Coral Ridge Mall outside Iowa City.

On the way home, I made a pit stop in Newton, which is where they recently held a NASCAR race. I could hear cars racing around the track, which was at least half a mile from the convenience store where I stopped.

Ironically, I don’t have any pictures of the scenery along the way between Ames and Iowa City. That, of course, is because I was driving. But what is so striking to me — someone who has lived in North America’s driest desert for more than 30 years — is how incredibly fertile this place is this time of year. It’s ALL about growing things right now, and it makes for beautiful landscapes. The cornfields are turning green, the trees are leafy green, the rivers are flowing with purpose. The cows and sheep in the fields look like they are enjoying the spring weather. There’s a lot to be said for a fertile land — for plants, animals and writers alike.

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Midwest Adventures #3

AMES, Iowa — I’m still in recovery.

I arrived home around midnight on May 1. I was very tired, worn out from my three-day trip to the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. But when I got into the condo and dropped my things, I decided for some reason that it was time to take out the kitchen trash. I tied up the bag and walked to the dumpster, which is only about 40 feet from my front door. As I reached for the dumpster’s lid, I had a sensation — one of those sensations that novelists always have trouble describing, a feeling that something isn’t quite right, that what I’m doing might not work out exactly the way I expect.

Indeed. As I lifted the lid to throw in the bag, there was a noise, the frantic scrabbling of a beast within. I was startled — okay, I freaked out briefly. I let go of the lid and leaped backward with a shout as what turned out to be a raccoon scooted through the space between the dumpster and the descending lid. All would have been fine except that in my haste to back away from the animal, I tripped and fell awkwardly to the blacktop.

I tore up my left elbow, as well as the palm of my right hand. I also bruised my hip. Nothing serious, but the row of scabs on and around my elbow is a hindrance to getting dressed and such.

My wife thinks this is pretty funny. “Watch out for Ricky Raccoon!” she’s said several times since. My younger daughter thinks I’m a wuss for being afraid of a little raccoon. She’s right and wrong, of course. She’s right that there’s no reason to be afraid of a raccoon. He’s more afraid of me than I of him. But she’s wrong in the sense that I didn’t know what was in that dumpster. Having moved to the Midwest just a couple of weeks before, I wasn’t familiar with the notion of wildlife of this sort rooting around near your house. It’s very unlikely that anything other than a sad human will be found in an apartment dumpster in Las Vegas. Plus, it was past midnight, dark, and cold, and I was tired as hell.

Anyway, I’ve been leery of that dumpster ever since. I’ve opened it trepidatiously probably five times since then, and no raccoon has jumped out. It probably won’t happen again, but that experience will come to mind every time for a while.

Keeping with the animal theme, let’s talk about the armadillo. You read that right. Armadillos are commonplace in the South, but it’s unusual for them to make an appearance this far north. But it happened this week in the small town of Cambridge, about 15 miles south of Ames.

According to a story in today’s Ames Tribune, a man named Wade Kahler noticed some sort of roadkill on the shoulder of his driveway. He called a city maintenance employee, Dale Hennick, who came out and discovered it was a dead armadillo. He tossed it in the back of his pickup.

Apparently, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources receives “a couple of armadillo reports a year . . . but they are always roadkills.” It’s not clear how the armored creatures get to Iowa, but I would speculate that they somehow end up here by catching a ride on some sort of vehicle, kind of like roof rats in Las Vegas. Otherwise, it’s an awfully long walk.

For the record, it’s illegal to transport an armadillo into Iowa. I don’t know why. (I wonder if Nevada has a similar law.)

Here’s the kicker, from the final two sentences of the article:

“Hennick has no idea what he will do with the curious carcass. ‘I guess I’ll just put him in the refrigerator for now,’ he said.”

Wait: Why does Hennick think the thing to do is to put this dead animal in a refrigerator? Why would he do that? When you don’t know what to do with a dead animal, your plan is to put it in a refrigerator? That would only make sense if he . . . he . . . planned to cook the thing and eat it!

Surely that’s not what he intends to do. Surely.

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I wrote a little thing about a writer

Go here for a piece I wrote on the Las Vegas Review of Books website about the British writer Geoff Dyer.

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A report on the 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

The acquisitions.

The annual pilgrimage to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books featured a little twist this year. The usual routine has been for Steve, Scott and I to pile into a car in Las Vegas on Friday morning and drive to L.A., munching snacks and stopping at a Chili’s along the way. This year I was in Ames, Iowa, so I flew to L.A., and Steve and Scott picked me up at the airport.

From there, things got back to normal. We ate, scoured various bookstores and enjoyed the booths and panels at the festival. Another change this year: Instead of being held at UCLA, the festival was on the USC campus. All things considered, UCLA is a better venue for this event, but USC is all right.

I ended up acquiring quite a few books this year. Nothing unusual about that, but I’m particularly pleased with some of them. A few highlights:

The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Nation Books had a cool idea here. It’s amazing that on Dec. 10, 2010, the Vermont senator spoke continuously for eight and a half hours on the Senate floor, criticizing President Obama’s compromise with the Republicans on tax cuts as part of a wide-ranging discussion of how the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.

Engineers of the Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia by Frank Westerman. Scott and I heard Westerman, a Dutchman, talk on a panel, and his thoughtful comments prompted both of us to buy this book. It’s brand new, and when Westerman signed my book, he said it was the first copy of the U.S. edition that he had signed. The book is about how the Soviets hired writers to basically rename everything to conform to the communist version of history and life, and to write eloquently about mundane things such as a dam on a river. It sounds really interesting.

The Professor: A Sentimental Education by Terry Castle. This is an essay collection by a Stanford professor that got rave reviews last year but was impossible to find in the chain bookstores. Didn’t have any problem finding it at Vroman’s in Pasadena, of course.

What?: Are These the 20 Most Important Questions in Human History — or Is This a Game of 20 Questions by Mark Kurlansky. This is a small tome that promises to be a very interesting essay about life’s big questions.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer. Dyer, a Londoner, is one of my new favorite writers, and this is probably his most celebrated book. He set out to write a serious study of the great English writer D.H. Lawrence. But this book isn’t what he originally intended to write. Instead, it’s a memoir of sorts about his inability to write a serious study of Lawrence. Dyer was on the panel with Frank Westerman.

Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir by Marc Cooper. Cooper, a well-known journalist, is a friend, and Scott, Steve and I spent several hours with him at dinner Saturday night. He’s a journalism professor at USC these days, so he gave us a tour of the Annenberg school, and then we hung out in a semi-secret bar and grill on the campus. Anyway, this is Cooper’s memoir of the period in the early ’70s when he worked as a translator for Chilean President Salvador Allende when he was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet.

A Heartbreak and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears by Antonino D’Ambrosio. This is the story behind Cash’s protest album called “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian,” which faced censorship and a backlash from country radio stations. This is an enticing piece of cultural history.

Zeroville by Steve Erickson. I picked this up in a great used bookstore, Book Alley, in Pasadena. Erickson is an interesting writer and this novel promises to be a good entry point to become more acquainted with his work.

Among the panels and talks, the highlight for me was Vincent Bugliosi. He’s a lawyer and best-selling writer whose most famous book is “Helter Skelter” about the Manson family. His new book, which I intend to get but haven’t yet, is called Divinity of Doubt, and it’s an investigative piece attacking both the Christian faith and atheism. Bugliosi is an agnostic, and he explains why in his usual careful, detailed way. He outlines all the inconsistencies in the Bible, and exposes the fact that some common Christian beliefs aren’t even in the good book at all. But Bugliosi is also critical of atheists, who, he says, fail just as badly as believers to make a persuasive case for their cause. “God should only be a question,” he said. Fascinating talk.

I had to leave the book festival a little early on Sunday to fly back to Ames. I caught at taxi about 2 p.m. and soon embarked on the long flight home, my new books in tow. It was late when we landed in Des Moines. As the wheels touched down, I of course turned on my BlackBerry to find out if I had missed anything. It just so happened that I had missed something big: the breaking news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I had at least three e-mail alerts about it, which I shared with a few people sitting around me on the plane.

I wonder if some big news event will break while I’m at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books next year?

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Today’s Ames Tribune cover

I thought the Trib staff did a nice job on this issue.

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