This weekend I went to the annual Omaha (Downtown) Lifest with the theme Nervosa: Science, Psych & Story featuring a number of local, regional and national authors. I really enjoyed last year's Litfest, but this year had to stick to my budget, which meant just listening in, writing down titles and choosing only one book to take away with me. (That's what wishlists are for, right? And libraries?). You'll have to forgive the very brief overview of the panel discussions as I didn't pull out a notebook for note taking until the very last one--it was too absorbing just listening.
Unfortunately I missed most of the first panel discussion on "Diagnosis", so I caught only the tail end of the question and answer session. It featured authors Bud Shaw and Lydia Kang. Shaw is a doctor who wrote Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon's Odyssey, and Kang recently released a YA novel, Catalyst.
I found the discussion about the third panel, "Empathy", most interesting since the topic of women's writing and how their books are marketed came up during the Q&A. Each author in this session also read from her book--Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge, How Winter Began: Stories by Joy Castro and Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya.
The last panel was a Q&A/conversation with Emily St. John Mandel about her novel Station Eleven (which I was very impressed by when I read it earlier this year--and alas the only book I had read before hand). The theme was "Health, Illness, and the End of the World". Halfway through the session I did jot a few notes down. Emily St. John Mandel is a very articulate, soft spoken speaker. She seems very modest about her success and the awards she has won.
She read the first page or so of chapter 11 of her book, which I was also quite struck by when I read it.
I thought it interesting that one of her favorite books is Donna Tartt's The Secret History. I got the sense it is the sort of novel she would like to write--one with a literary sensibility yet a good story. And someday I am going to read the Tartt book! I'd say St. John Mandel did a most excellent job of combining good writing with excellent plotting and well developed characterization.
A few bits and pieces that came out during the Q&A: she wrote the book in scenes rather than as a linear, straightforward narrative (that's one way of never feeling bored by whatever part of the story you are telling), the novel began as a story of a traveling Shakespeare troupe and the end-of-the-world twist came later to the story, she was more interested in telling a story about 'what came after' the collapse rather than the actual epidemic. She didn't want to focus on the horror of the sickness and so didn't dwell as much on that as what life was like once 90% of the population was knocked out. She was interested in writing about technology, but wanted to do it from the perspective of life without it rather than with it, which I thought very clever.
She doesn't like being pigeon-holed into one category (and doesn't like that compartmentalization of literature generally), and now that she has written in a variety of styles and genres (now I must read some of her other work!) she feels fairly liberated to write as she likes in her next book.
At the moment she is working on the 'script' (not sure what the proper term is) for a possible graphic novel--the story of Station Eleven that was a comic book within the book. She said it is like writing a movie script--describing the panels and writing the text. The illustration would come later. I hope that this is a project that see fruition--how cool would it be to read those comics from the novel?
And how cool is this wire art? The sculptures were made by local artist Jay N. Cochrane, and these are a few of my favorites. They were made for the Litfest "using hundreds of yards of metal wire and a crochet-like looping technique". And you will be happy to know that no book was harmed in this process. Each can still be read and enjoyed!
My daily walk to and from the bus stop became more interesting in the last week or so. An old building that I pass every day has been in the process of being renovated for some time now. While the upper stories are going to become condominiums and are still in the process of being refurbished, look what has opened in one of the bays below . . . I knew the intention was to rent them out as commercial space but I had no idea that one had actually been filled.
Well Grounded Coffee opened a week ago and I think I have found a new favorite place to have a coffee and find a little peace and quiet to read and relax.
The coffee flavor of the week is Persephone Blend and it's yummy. I can actually taste the floral tones (I've always thought my taste buds just weren't refined enough to pick up these things, but I think it is less me than the coffee I've been drinking or the way that it's brewed). I just needed a few gingersnaps to bring out the taste. How fitting that I am reading a book while drinking a coffee inspired by the myth of Persephone! Even had it not sounded tempting I might have had to try it for the name alone. A literary Sunday afternoon all the way round.
Book flavor of the week? I shouldn't, but I did. I picked up the first Kathy and Brock Mystery by Barry Maitland called The Marx Sisters. I have one class left to go and I feel a massive mystery/crime binge coming on when I am done. Although if my side bar is anything to go by I have already started binging and can just come out into the open now. More about the other books tomorrow.
Aside from the fact that I have had the book on my shelves for years and years, the setting is a "quaint section of London inhabited by Eastern European immigrants" called Jerusalem Lane. The book, the setting, the story has all sorts of appeal for me. Doesn't this sound interesting?
"The area which we know as Jerusalem Lane is really the whole of this city block, which is divided into two irregular halves by the line of the Lane itself, apparently all that remains of the rural track which once ran from somewhere around what is now King's Cross down to Holborn. Do you know that the peculiar kink in the middle of the lane is probably a corner where four fields met and the track had to change direction round them? I think that's rather wonderful, isn't it, that we still have to walk along the boundaries of odd-shaped fields that disappeared hundreds of years ago."
Actually I think that's really pretty cool myself.
Well Grounded brews Intelligentsia Coffee, which is located in Chicago and is a direct trade coffee company. And part of Well Grounded profits go to building wells around the world so people have access to clean drinking water. So it's not only delicious (I've sampled a few things so far . . .), but I feel good supporting not only a neighborhood business, but one that is trying to make the world a better place. How can I resist?
Look--a sunny space. Doesn't it look really inviting? I live in one of the older sections of Omaha and there are still lots of "quaint" old buildings (okay, so nothing like London, but) with lots of personality. Finally a place I can enjoy just a few minutes walk from my house. If you're ever in Omaha, let me know and I'll buy you a cup of coffee (or a cup of tea) and we'll chat about books.
Happy Holidays everyone! I took this photo at the local botanical gardens last month, which I like to visit around the holidays. I hope everyone has an equally festive next few days filled with warmth and happiness however you might be celebrating. I'll be back on Friday with more bookishness in the hopes of catching up a bit and getting ready for a new reading year. Until then, happy reading and I hope you find a book-shaped present in your stocking or under the tree!
Does it count that I read the November installment of Anna Pavord's The Curious Gardener in November, but I ran out of steam over the weekend so am just now sharing what I read. It's only the first day of December, so not too terribly late. It seemed fitting that I also share a very few of the photos I took of the new conservatory at the Lauritzen Gardens. I visited the day before Thanksgiving. It was a suitably cold and dreary day, which made being in a warm and colorful environment all the more pleasing.
The conservatory is huge. It consists of several glass partitions that gently slope upwards. The first section is the coolest but as you slowly walk up the incline you can feel the humidity get thicker. You won't hear me say this in the summer, but boy how nice it feels on a cold wintry day.
Isn't this gorgeous? I wasn't able to stop and really soak it all in and read names of plants and flowers as the place was packed (despite how 'empty' of people my photos appear). There are loads of exotic flowers, ferns, trees and even cacti. I love the lily pond and the bamboo trees.
At the very top there is a small area with cushioned seats and I can picture myself sitting there with a book on the coldest, snowiest day of the year sitting in blissful warmth while it is nasty outside. And I love these Tiki guys. Sadly my photos of this area didn't turn out well, so the fiercest of the group is hidden. I like the holiday hats, however. How festive of them! You can't be too scared of a fierce-looking Tiki guy wearing a Santa hat!
Alas no Tikis in my Curious Gardener reading. Pavord opens the chapter on the changing temperatures that the UK has shown, though she doesn't go on so much about climate change. It is a matter of showing rather than telling in this case. What I like very much about this book, while she does write in a way that assumes the reader is fairly garden-savvy, she never lectures or talks down to her reader. Something I appreciate. Climate change obviously does affect and changes growing habits and patterns, but when all is said and down, the natural world knows how to take care of itself.
"Self-preservation, not altruism, is at the centre of our concern with global warming. Plants are exquisitely adaptive creatures, and will survive things that we cannot. Largely, they are destroyed not by climate change but by human greed. When we have gone they can once again get on with what they were doing for a hundred million years before we ever arrived on scene."
I fear there is far more to the story, but I think she is right that nature does know how to adapt, even if it means things will be lost or altered.
She's very good at segueing into peripheral topics that are a way to explore some other topic entirely. She writes about "shedding"--about getting rid of all the clutter. Somehow she gets onto the topic of Christmas cakes, and reading this only made my stomach grumble with hunger for something sweet.
"For years, season after season, I made vast Christmas cakes with tooth-rotting amounts of crystallized fruit soaked in brandy. I made my own marzipan, whipped up royal icing with egg whites, traced spidery patterns and a drunken Merry Christmas on the top with my icing set (it was those icing nozzles that she was getting ready to "shed"). The cake was part of the ritual of preparing for a family Christmas, but nobody ever wanted to eat it. First, they were too full after lunch. Then, when the children got older and we switched to an evening feast, they said they were saving themselves for the turkey. Finally, I got the message. The cake was redundant."
Cake is pretty good, but it was this reference that I could mentally nod in agreement to.
"There's just a point sometimes when clutter, instead of being a comfort, becomes a burden. Your dream centres on a space, free of jumble, with a log fire and walls of books."
Yes, now that I can understand completely.
She talks about minimalism in the garden, about Lotusland in California (she visits the most amazing gardens and every months shares something of her travels), about garden designers (she prefers her own ordering and creating in her garden space as it is a reflection of her own tastes). But it's pears that I enjoyed reading about most this month. She is a pear connoisseur, and I can appreciate that. I appreciate a tasty pear, too.
"I planted a pear tree as soon as we moved into our house. You can keep your apples: cold-fleshed, self-satisfied fruit. I'm for pears, melting pears, with skins speckled and freckled with russet spots and flesh that dissolves like butter in your mouth. Already I'm prowling up and down pear trees--there are fourteen of them now in the garden--counting the crop, imagining the day, probably in October, when I can sink my teeth into the first 'Beurre Hardy' of the season."
Okay, so I will say that I am an equal-opportunity fruit lover. Or maybe it's just plain greed. I like just about every fruit--fresh or dried (with the exception of papayas--which I want to love, but just can't). Apples are a daily staple with me, as are pears (most of the time).
"A pear comes to its climax very slowly, but, once there, collapses swiftly. If you are a pear fancier, there is no greater disappointment than to sink your teeth into what looks like a perfect fruit only to find a grey, runny, slightly alcoholic mess just underneath the skin. Pears are like Russian statesmen. The outward appearance gives little indication of what is going on inside."
Yes, once they go, that's it. A mushy mess. But 'tis the season and I enjoy one after dinner nearly every night. Only I get the common varieties and like so much else that I have encountered in this book--she writes about all the varieties of fruits and veggies that I will not find in my local supermarket. More's the pity. But it is always fun to read about them.
Only twenty or so pages stand between me and the end of this book. I have enjoyed it enormously even if some of it has been a little over my head. I am on the lookout now for my next serial read. But there is still December to read about and write about. Can you believe that there are just over four weeks left in the year?
Omaha is a bit off the beaten track for big name author events, but the past year or so has been an especially rich one in terms of really good literary events (or perhaps I have only belatedly started paying closer attention to what's on offer!). Most recently Margaret Atwood came to speak, Andrea Wulf was a really engaging speaker to listen to (and her book an excellent read by the way), and both Francesca Segal and Jennie Fields were fascinating to hear (must check if the latter two have new books forthcoming). This past week I had not one but two opportunities to hear authors read from their works, answer questions and sign books.
Last week Karen Shoemaker, whose book The Meaning of Names is this year's Omaha Reads selection, spoke at the university where I work as part of their Writer's Workshop Reading Series. It was held in the campus art gallery, a really attractive space, and was well attended. There were quite a lot of students who came ready with questions which I enjoyed hearing, though unfortunately I had to bow out early.
I had another opportunity to hear Karen speak at the Downtown Omaha Litfest, which has been going on since 2005. It is an annual event held every fall which I have somehow managed to miss until this year. Along with Karen there were seven other writers in attendance as well as a number of poets. I was only able to go to the Saturday afternoon panel discussions, so I missed the previous night's opening events as well as the Saturday night poetry reading.
Authors (L-R): Karen Shoemaker, Pamela Carter Joern, and Margaret Lukas. (Top photo shows past posters from previous LitFests).
Authors: (standing in front of table) Tomothy Schaffert (LitFest Director and he led the panel discussions), Rainbow Rowell, Pamela Carter Joern and Karen Shoemaker.
Authors: Timothy Schaffert and Melanie Benjamin.
This year's theme was "Warped: Historical In/Accuracy: Navigating Fact in Fiction Past and Present" and there were four panel discussions: "Midwestern Mythmaking: Nebraska in fiction", "Mixtapes and Jazz Standards: Exploring the past through music", "Past Tense, Future Perfect: Research, history and writing for readers in the present" and "The Aviator's Wife: fiction and biography".
I didn't get a chance to really look around at the space design (that's what happens when you come in late!) but to go with the theme there was a curated exhibit "Museum of Alternative History" which you can see in some of the photos. The Exhibit brings together "a curio cabinet of artists to create and display their own distorted commentaries on the historical aspect of person, place or thing." The displays looked really cool.
It was fascinating to hear the authors speak about their work, the difficulties and challenges they come across in their craft, their inspiration for writing and their experiences in writing and getting published and in some cases helping with the promotion of their books. I found it interesting that one author noted it was harder to stay published than get published in the first place. Melanie Benjamin's first two books "tanked" and she found it much harder to get her next book published and essentially had to reinvent herself. It's worked as her last three books have done well, with her third and most recent giving her the most notoriety.
Omaha author Rainbow Rowell was one of the big draws for the event as her book Eleanor & Park, a YA novel, has done really well and it's obvious from the the full house during her panel discussion that she has quite an impressive fan base. She was paired with another Omaha author, Rebecca Rotert (I had hoped to get photos of all the authors but some of the pictures I took are too out of focus to share) whose book Last Night at the Blue Angel is about Chicago's 1960s Jazz scene. There was an interesting discussion about copyright and using songs/lyrics in novels as well as music in audio books (words from songs are fine but if they are actually sung it is too costly for publishers since they have to pay to use them).
As historical fiction was the overarching theme for this year's LitFest (a type of book I love reading) there was a lot of discussion about period setting and how it might date a book (Rainbow Rowell found that publishers were concerned with pop culture references dating her book--she's quite bold, however, and is willing to take risks with her work so dismissed concerns--and luckily has a supportive editor).
The authors spoke fairly extensively about how they go about writing and the sort of research that goes into their books and how it can be a fine line they walk between using research to support their characters and allowing a story to hang off too much research (a criticism I hear often from readers who are not especially fans of the genre). They face the question of how much research to use and how much to leave out and it is an issue they grapple with. It's an obvious concern for them and I often find myself (at least inwardly) getting impatient with reader's criticisms at times--though I know some authors manage it much better than others.
It was intriguing to hear the authors speak as each had many things in common but each was also entirely unique in terms of how they want to tell a story. In some cases writing about what you know and what you love is their motivation, but others mentioned they write about what haunts them, or they tell stories they would like to read themselves or write purely for their own pleasure getting totally caught up inside themselves when writing a story.
I've barely touched on all the topics discussed but only took very brief notes, so am pulling impressions from memory. This was such a great and interesting conversation with lots of really good questions. It was a really impressive show of talent. Although not all the authors are Nebraska-natives, I was impressed by how many talented local authors Nebraska can boast having.
And, oh yes, the books. It really was my only intention to just go and soak up the atmosphere and listen to the authors (not acquire more books), but when I began hearing about their books I really couldn't resist buying them (I already had Karen Shoemaker's which I am reading now). Here's what I brought home (all the authors who were guest speakers):
The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker -- set in WWI Nebraska about a German-American family and the prejudice they experience.
Farthest House by Margaret Lukas -- a family tale of love, suspense and secrets narrated by a ghost!
In Reach by Pamela Carter Joern -- a collection of interlinked stories set in the fictional Nebraska town of Reach -- I've started reading the first and they look to be very well done, if all the stories are as impressive as the bit I read of the first I am going to be in for a real treat.
The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey -- story set in 1880s Europe based loosely on the real-life case history of Albert Dadas who suffered from an uncontrollable urge to wander (and literally set off on foot from Bordeaux to as far as Russia)--this sounds really fascinating as it takes place just at the birth of modern psychiatry.
The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin -- a fictionalized biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She was such an interesting woman I am looking forward to this one--especially after hearing about Melanie Benjamin's experiences writing it--a challenging work since AML's family is still around so Melanie had to be particularly senstive to that.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell -- a book I've been meaning to read (not least as I grew up in the 80s and look forward to a story set in that period--a happy time in my life and I expect to recognize a lot of the story). Had not the lines for copies of this book been so long at the library I would have likely gotten to it much sooner.
Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert --set against the Chicago Jazz scene of the 60s but also a story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship. One of the authors mentioned this was a favorite read of theirs this year so I'm really looking forward to starting it soon.
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert -- already on my wishlist of books to read this year, it is set during the 1898 Omaha World's Fair.
I managed to get all but one of my books signed by the authors. I especially love the bottom one--isn't that drawing great?
This was such a wonderful event--now I have to wait a whole year for the next one (though it may take me that long to read through this pile of books!). Needless to say I will keep an eye out for more literary events, though it might be hard to top this one. Next year I think I'll do a little planning and preparation in anticipation, however, as I went into this one without knowing much about some of the authors. As you can see I made some wonderful new discoveries. I'm already reading Karen Shoemaker's book, but I have itchy fingers to begin one of the others, but where to begin?
I had a day in the garden--not my garden, however, the local botanical garden--on the Fourth of July. It was the perfect way to spend the holiday. I went early before it was too hot and before too many people were about. I was even able to sit and relax and read. The bench you see here is actually a swing. It was a peaceful place to sit in the shade and listen to the birds singing (or chirping, or whatever it is that birds do) and make a little progress in my books.
About half of the gardens had been blocked off due to a sewer reconstruction project that has been underway in my part of the city for a few years now. I was pleased to see that these areas were finally open again. I had never seen this part of the garden before. This is the Japanese Garden, and it is a lovely tranquil place. Here's the walk through.
I think it is still a work in progress and construction still continues, but isn't it pretty amazing? This last photo is from the top looking down over the gardens where we just walked.
And I finally got to see the Herb Garden. As you might imagine--it smelled lovely there. I especially like this knot plot--very Medieval-looking, don't you think?
There is an exhibit called Patriotic Perches going on now in their visitor's center, which is quite creative. All fifty states are displayed using license plates.
And here is Nebraska. Union Pacific has its headquarters here, hence the train.
I thought these maps were pretty cool, too. The gardens invite visitors to add a pin to the boards showing where they are from. Lots of people from the Midwest of course, but I was surprised to see so many international guests, too.
I decided to buy a membership so now I can go as often as I like. Although not very far from where I live, it is still a bit out of the way for me as no bus goes there directly. I like to walk, but it is a bit of a hike. It will always take a little planning, but I am sure I'll be dropping by at least once a month to see what's new--and there is always something new in a garden, isn't there? Next time I think I need to explore the herb garden more. And I think studying up on Japanese gardens will be in order as well.
This past weekend I had the chance to hear Margaret Atwood speak not just once but twice. Omaha Public Library arranged her visit to coincide with National Library Week (yay and thank you to whoever managed to swing such a notable and famous author as Margaret Atwood!). I knew I would be attending her public appearance on Sunday afternoon, but when a friend asked if I would like to be her guest at a fundraising event on Saturday evening featuring Margaret Atwood I cheerfully accepted (wary as I am of being such an introvert dropped into a roomful of people I don't know). If there is anyone I would set aside shyness for, it's Margaret Atwood.
You probably already know this, but she's really amazing. She's got such a quiet yet powerful presence. I know how talented she is as a writer, but she's extremely articulate and funny, too. She's almost a little deadpan in her presentation and then she'll drop in a comment or facial expression that set off the entire audience in fits of laughter. I wish I had a video to share with you. But I did take a few photos.
The event was held at one of the branch libraries (my first time visiting this one by the way) and was beautifully decorated. As tickets sold out quickly I was really fortunate to have been able to go and hear Margaret speak. And she gave quite a long talk--about her love of libraries, referring to the budget cuts (and debacle that ensued) in her own city of Toronto a few years back, as well as a bit about her own experience with libraries and even a little advice to burgeoning writers. She's a great advocate for the necessity of libraries. How fitting her speech, too, in light of the books she's written and how close to reality some of them come (and the direction so many cities faced with budget cuts seem to be headed).
She was gracious enough to sign not just one but two books for me.
On Sunday there was a free reading and book signing that was open to the public.
She read a few excerpts from the MaddAddam books and did a very brief Q&A and then signed books. It was all a little whirlwind as she was on a tight schedule, which made me especially thankful I was able to spend more time hearing her speak the night before.
I've not yet read the MaddAddam trilogy (will be rectifying that of course), though I have read quite a few of her earlier books (I had a Margaret Atwood binge in the late 80s and early 90s). I'm only peripherally familiar with the plots of the novels, but apparently the story has been staged before and there must have been something going on this past weekend elsewhere, so in honor of that the audience was treated to Margaret Atwood performing three of the hymns from the books accompanied by the composer himself, Orville Stoeber. How many people can brag about seeing seeing Margaret Atwood on stage and bringing the music to life?
Needless to say it was an exciting and very bookish weekend for me.
Are you curious which books I had signed? I chose the first book I ever read by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (which I have read at least three times) and my favorite novel by her, The Blind Assassin, which I think is due for a reread now!
The event was organized by Omaha's Lauritzen Gardens, which I have mentioned before on a few occasions. The space inside and gardens out are really beautiful. It's a place that is calming and peaceful, and when I discovered that there was an upcoming lecture by an author who was already on my radar I was thrilled to be able to attend.
Here's a peek into the lecture hall before Andrea's talk. The room is actually larger than it looks and it was filled to capacity. Apparently it was the best attended event of all their past lectures. Andrea provided visuals along with her talk, which was thoroughly fascinating. Founding fathers? Gardening? Colonial America? Eighteenth Century? Sometimes history can be a little dry depending on how it's presented, but Andrea is a talented speaker and she brought it all alive and with a dash of humor that had us all laughing and imagining Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison in their element--their gardens--all while shaping the burgeoning country of America.
She's obviously well acquainted and familiar with her material and it sounds like she has spent quite a lot of time researching the period. She had lots of interesting anecdotes. It was interesting to hear her impetus for writing the book, which grew out of her research for an earlier book on British gardens, The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentleman Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession. Did you know many British gardens were created with American seeds? (You're welcome!). It was all the rage for British gardeners to buy plants from the New World, and John Bartram who was a farmer from Philadelphia had quite a business selling his plants abroad.
Andrea is a design historian and studied at the Royal College of Art in London but now writes full time. She was born in India and grew up in Germany but now lives in London, so it was interesting to hear about American history from a very different 'foreign' perspective. She obviously has a great affection for what she writes about and will be curious to see if it comes through in her writing, too. Her most recent book (which I also had to have) is Chasing Venus:The Race to Measure the Heavens and is currently writing a book about Alexander von Humboldt who had ties to the New World as well.
I have to share a couple of photos, too, from the Lauritzen's current exhibit, Polynesian Paradise. Isn't this an inviting scene? I could happily relax on that hammock with a book in hand and a cool glass of lemonade close by. Just the right kind of respite from the neverending winter we can't seem to shake off here.
Hah. Isn't this guy great? I didn't have enough time before the lecture to read the placards, so I am not sure what the sculpture/totem signifies (must do a little after the fact research), but the sentiment is wonderful. He looks rather fierce--just how I feel sometimes.
I love attending these sorts of events and learning something new and interesting. I will be watching for more that Lauritzen has to offer and look forward to when the gardens are finally in bloom. For now, though, I can't wait to start reading my new books.