Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fall Road Trip: Book Festival

All the film noir criminals know their stuff. When the situation gets hairy, you leave town. So when I was up to my armpits in dry-rotted siding and paint cans and totally behind schedule in everything, I decided the solution was a road trip. Actually, two.

The first one was to reward myself for a long-standing romance I'd been working on mending this year. I'd fallen out of love-- with books.

That situation hardly seemed probable. I was the child who fell out of trees (fortunately not far, though this may explain a few things), because she was too distracted with the ratty paperback in her hand to keep her feet braced on the right branch. It was how I passed long hot summers and snowy winters and awkward adolescence (thankfully only one of those) and ungainly pregnancies.

But I used to work as a newspaper writer, and I'll just say it plain: journalism makes you stupid. It can be an honorable profession at its best. But at its worst, it strips away everything but the now and the next deadline, the context, the background, the poetry of words, and eventually, your attention span. By the time I left the job two and a half years ago, I had the concentration of a fruit fly. I had trouble making it through a magazine article, let alone an entire book. Always having child-rearing and home improvement responsibilities piled up around me made it even worse.

This year I decided to work on that, with the idea I'd reward myself somehow if I got through more than one book. It wasn't easy at first. I felt like my brain was broken. Which turned out to be true in a way-- the internet has rewired our minds, studies say. I got through five, plus a book of poetry. It felt gooooood. Like getting reacquainted with an old lover--slowly, over many glasses of wine, and with flushes of fresh pleasure over old stories.

I rewarded myself with a weekend overnight in early October at the Iowa Book Festival, in Iowa City (which is a UNESCO City of Literature). It's not that far from me, but I decided to get a hotel room and just throw myself headlong into author readings, literary panel discussions, coffee shops, and bookstore browsing. Even the nearby interstate rest stop celebrates the city and state's literary heritage:

It was marvelous. And because I hadn't done so in a really, really, really long time, I allowed myself to spend money on books. A drug habit may have been cheaper, but I'm not sorry. I went to Prairie Lights, a bookstore that should be on every book lover's pilgrimage list. It's small, but densely packed. And who can't love a bookstore with categories like this?

It was a quick weekend, but memorable for all its fine moments. I got to listen to one of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, discuss her new novel "Lila." I revisited my college love of literature class in a panel discussion about Irish American writers. I ran into an author in the elevator of my hotel. It felt like meeting a rock star, and I was about as awkward and tongue-tied. I even had enough time to connect with an old friend and meet his family.

My purchases were typical of my usual stack-of-book binges: backwards and forwards in time, always one large, wonky history book with lots of footnotes, a classic I haven't read yet, something new I picked up on a whim, gift books for my dad and sister.

It was a too-short, coffee-fueled, splurgy weekend that I spent mostly inside of my head, pushing my glasses up my nose while I listened, read, and scribbled notes. It was just what I needed after a summer of the messily physical. And the old romance and I are doing just fine, too. 


The Book List That Got Me Back on the Road
1. Looking After Minidoka; An American Memoir, by Neil Nakadate
2. The Prince of Frogtown, by Rick Bragg
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
4. The Ascent of George Washington, by John Ferling
5. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
6. The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats

The Book Festival List (Those with an asterisk were featured authors at the festival. The rest were random purchases from browsing the bookstores.)
1. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson *
2. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis *
3. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James *
4. Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich
5. Bearwallow, by Jeremy B. Jones
6. The Plantagenets, by Dan Jones


  1. Good for you! I remember loving Erdrich in the late 80s. I'd like to try some of hers again and see how they read to me today. I tried Tartt this summer and couldn't stay with her. There's a cynicism or coldness there I wasn't in the right place for. My daughter is reading Hurston for her lit class, and I'd like to re-read that one, too. Again, it would have been nearly 30 years since I loved that one, too. When you come to visit Portland, I will take you to Powell's. It is book-lover nirvana. And there's a small bookstore for writers in Pt. Townsend (up in Washington) that I hope you can get to some day for their categories. I can't remember all of them now, but one was "Books with settings that are like characters." I just recently re-organized a collection at our high school into "genres" and had great fun thinking about how to group them in ways that would appeal to reluctant readers and how to name them. "Love & Sex" covers romance, abusive romantic relationships, teen pregnance, and teen parenthood! Way more interesting than shelving alphabetically by author. ;-)

    1. We must be cut from the same cloth. I disliked The Goldfinch a lot. I found all the characters distasteful, and couldn't get over that enough to enjoy the narrative. Hurston is lovely. And I was at Powell's! Once. When I was pregnant with my now 19-year-old. I remember getting lost and unable to find the door, and not even caring! I notice you say "when" I come to Portland rather than "if." That's a good thing. :)