“The Way Language Can Become a Living Thing”: Tracy K. Smith’s Extraordinary Light

March 11, 2016, by

RM3_2899I walked all over Rice University before heading to Tracy K. Smith’s reading for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series last Monday. I was excited:  it was perfect weather—clouds but not raining, warm but not hot, cool but not cold.  The light was starting to dim.  So what do you do about this—inner or outer weather?  Prose or poetry?  Luckily, Smith does both.

Rice University President David Leebron did some introductions, reminding those of us sitting in the audience that it was the last day of Black History Month, and the ninetieth anniversary of that tradition.  It was also the fiftieth anniversary of the first African-American undergraduates attending Rice.  Smith herself is interested in the intersections between the undergraduate experience and race, and read from her lyric and moving memoir, Ordinary Light, in which part of her narrative concentrates on how she felt as an undergraduate while taking courses that made her profoundly consider what “African-American Studies” meant not just in a course catalogue, but in her negotiations with others (including a white boyfriend who rejected her and broke her heart),and, most importantly, with herself.  Her memoir was a National Book Award finalist—and one can see why:  she explores in her juxtapositions of memory, epiphany, and speculation what her parents (particularly her mother) might have felt and experienced.  Much of this is connected to her mother’s struggles with cancer while Smith was in her twenties—in which she was both “changed and consoled.”  This was one of the challenges that allows Smith to intersect thoughts regarding race, family relationships, education, faith, and religion all in the context of a coming of age narrative that makes the reader feel like they are completely in the author’s head, with very little authorial distance employed—a technique that makes the reader trust Smith from sentence to shining sentence, although the light hardly seems “ordinary,” but clear and illuminating in a memorable and engaging way. Continue reading

Saying ‘yes” to the world: Anthony Doerr reads for H-town

January 29, 2016, by

RM3_8019It felt electric when I walked down to my seat on Monday night for the highly anticipated, sold-out Inprint reading by Anthony Doerr.  Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s novel about war-ravaged France has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the better part of two years.

There was so much interest in his visit to H-town that, for the first time, Inprint, in collaboration with Houston Public Media, live-streamed the reading.  In fact, tickets for Doerr’s event, part of the 2015-2016 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, sold out in 90 minutes. According to St. John Flynn, Arts and Culture Director at Houston Public Media, more than a thousand people saw the reading online, and that number will rise, as it will soon be available on the Inprint website for those who still wish to partake.

Impressive.

As Rich Levy introduced Doerr, he surprised me by saying Doerr would be reading from a short story—his 2011 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award Winner.  Doerr, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, has described himself as coming from a place where if you described yourself as a “writer,” you would be called “precocious or pretentious.”  Doerr, who is likeable and easy-going, certainly is not pretentious.  But he sure can write.  Continue reading

Salman Rushdie and the Art of Allusion

November 23, 2015, by

Rushdie at the podium - Inprint 11.9.15Best known for The Satanic Verses and the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie charmed the audience at his sold-out Inprint reading on November 9th as he read from his new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

It was a full house in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center, a night that was not exactly cold, but not so hot and humid.  You could walk through the city all night if you wanted, but once the lights dimmed, you were happy to be waiting for Rushdie to come out, and he disarmed everyone immediately by waving at the audience.  It made you feel like he was happy to be in Houston, a place he has been before, including the day before 9-11.

Rich Levy, executive director of Inprint reminded us of how many awards Rushdie has won—and the list is long.  It is his third appearance with Inprint, and Levy explained that he was born in Mumbai before the partition of India, but when he speaks, Rushdie seems like a Londoner to me, more like Cambridge than anywhere else.  Now, he lives in New York.  It is amusing and inspiring when Levy reports that Rushdie started out as a copy writer for the famous advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather.

Ibn Rushd, the hero of his new novel, is a scholar committed to recovering the legacy of Aristotle, so right away the fusion of the east and the west is established in a way that winds itself through the entire novel. The allusion hovering over the narrative is to A Thousand and One Nights, a work Levy tells us prompted this response from Rushdie in a 2006 interview: Continue reading

Jockeying the Book-Signing Line

November 9, 2015, by

11.. Line for book signing at Danticat & Woodrell reading RM2_2877
As the 2015/2016 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series continues tonight with a sold out reading by Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie and a long book signing line expected to follow, Houston writer Sam Dinger gives us his take on how he prepares for the magical moment when he gets to meet one of his favorite authors.

I just rushed out the back of the room to get a good spot in the book signing line. I’m holding a clean, new copy of the new book. There is paperdust on the edges of the pages. There are something like a million of us in this line and it’s looking like I won’t have the chance I hoped  to have a meaningful interaction with this writer I love, or want to love, or, let’s face it, whom I want to love me. But all hope isn’t lost. I remember that there are things I can do. I have a plan.

In the many book signing lines that I’ve stood in, I’ve developed a list of things that I do to up my chances for any of the above hopes–that is, for the chance of a meaningful interaction. Some of them are simple and small, others require a little something more. Continue reading

Jonathan Franzen and The Great American Novel

October 5, 2015, by

Purity with borderOn Monday, September 21st, I went to the Wortham Center in Houston for Jonathan Franzen’s sold-out Inprint Margarett Root Brown reading.  I couldn’t wait to hear something from his new novel, Purity, for reasons that are a little impure. For better or worse, I had that same feeling that I have when I go to rock concerts, as in, maybe there will be high drama or difficulties and I am going to be there.  Yay me.

No wonder it feels a little hysterical in the room when I get my seat.  It is completely bustling, packed. He has won a slew of awards, sold millions of copies.  It’s nice to anticipate, a feeling that you think might be becoming extinct as we are previewed to death about so many things now.  Even if you have read the book, you don’t know what he will choose to read and how he might sound.

Franzen looks exactly like you expect from photographs:  glasses, jeans, casual without trying. Levy tells us that “Charlie Brown” is Franzen’s favorite comic strip, and I think of how so many times it is Lucy cruelly taking away the football before Charlie Brown comes in for the kick that parallels Franzen’s dramatizations of American desires and subsequent disappointments.  He is good at reminding us how it feels when we hit the ground, duped, yet weirdly, up for it again when Lucy lies to us, asks us to kick it.  Franzen has not written books called The Discomfort Zone for nothing.

Franzen is funny right off the bat.  I already like him since one of his favorite things is Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor’s struggles being grotesque yet hilarious.  Franzen has learned much from him.  Franzen looks at the audience and confesses: “It is always weird reading from one side of the stage.  I feel like I should be showing you slides.”  In a way, he sort of does, showing us glimpses of the main characters through a series of short readings on (or from) each.  Continue reading

If you want to read the latest Atwood, can you wait a while? Say, 100 years?

September 20, 2015, by

As we launch the 35th season of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series tomorrow with National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen, reading from his latest novel Purity, this story reminds us how fortunate Houston is to have the world’s great literary figures make a stop in our city. Both Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell have appeared in front of sell out audiences as part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Lucky for us, some of their work won’t be read for a 100 years!

Future Library, Katie Paterson  Photo (c) Kristin Von Hirsch 2016

Future Library, Katie Paterson
Photo (c) Kristin Von Hirsch 2016

If you want to read Margaret Atwood’s latest piece of writing, Scribbler Moon, you will have to wait a while, say, for another century.

Atwood is the first contributing author to the Future Library project, an artwork created by Scottish artist Katie Paterson for The City of Oslo. Paterson has planted a thousand trees in a forest just outside the city where they will be looked after for one hundred years, until 2114.  In each of those hundred years, one author will be commissioned to write a manuscript of some sort and that piece of writing will be placed, unpublished, in a secure and specially designed room in the new public library being built in Oslo. They will all remain unread until the collection of one hundred manuscripts is complete. Then in 2114, the trees will be cut down and the wood will be used to supply paper for a special anthology of books in which one hundred years of writing will be published. Continue reading

On the road with Inprint

June 19, 2015, by

BEA logoLike physicians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and fans of anime, those in the literary world have their own conventions—that is, annual conference where those in the field share new ideas. (Here, I do not mean “convention” as in a distinct protocol of behavior, although that argument can, of course, be made….).

AWP is the bad boy of literary conventions, where thousands upon thousands of creative writers descend upon a hip city, ostensibly to attend professional development panels and hawk their books. In reality, carousing, quaffing, cavorting, capering, and kvelling are top priorities on the itinerary.

BEA (BookExpo America) is AWP’s sophisticated, practical cousin. From a creative writer’s perspective, this conference has a 401K and knowledge about fine wines. It’s less about hysterical events in a writer’s life that result in a book, and more about packaging and marketing that book once it’s written—the business and politics of publishing.

As a creative writer entrenched in the former convention, I spoke with Rich Levy, Inprint’s Executive Director, about his recent travels to BEA in New York, to see how the other half (of the book world) lives.

Erika: Why does Inprint visit BEA?

BEA gives us the opportunity to connect personally with publicists at major publishing houses.

Rich: BookExpo America is the publishing industry’s national trade show, which primarily serves independent book sellers, always held in May. Although we are somewhat fish out of water there, BEA gives us the opportunity to connect personally with publicists at major publishing houses. We meet with them (1) to tell them about the Inprint Margarett Root Continue reading

Geoff Dyer and the Art of the Great Day

May 20, 2015, by

RM4_5819May 12th was balmy—not as hot as usual in Texas in May.  You could sit outside and feel the day slipping away. That is always a good feeling if you have done something interesting.

I mostly graded papers.  Some of it was interesting.  This is how it goes.  Still, I wanted a little more from my daylight buck.  I sat outside at Bayou Place looking straight at the Wortham Center waiting for seven o’clock to roll around.  It would be the final reading for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.  I was excited:  nonfiction by the English writer Geoff Dyer.  I felt like I had read a lot of fiction during the day: “Gatsby enjoys socializing with the Buchanans and finds them so interesting!”

And, some of the English: well, dicey.

I thought: how do you grade writing anymore anyway?  I thought: how do you know if you have had a great day?  I thought: how do you know if you know what you are doing?  How do you know if you don’t?

It’s more about how you feel at that moment, right?  Well if you want to learn how to whip that up, and get it down, there are worse places to go than the writing of Geoff Dyer, and lucky for me, that is exactly where I went.  He read from his newish book Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush.  Continue reading

Ogres, Pixies, and Giants: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Improvisations

March 31, 2015, by

RM4_7707There was a lot of anticipation for Monday night’s Kazuo Ishiguro Inprint Margarett Root Brown reading from, The Buried Giant, his first new novel in ten years.  I knew it was sold out—left early, warmed up by listening to his interview with St. John Flynn of Houston Public Media, which you can hear here:

Just like everyone else streaming into the beautiful Wortham Center, I was excited.  He was on a “limited” U.S. book tour and Houston had made the cut.

RM4_7669Multiple nominee for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Ishiguro won in 1989 for his best known work, The Remains of the Day, which was also made into an excellent film starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.  Never Let Me Go had also been made into a film, and Ishiguro has been listed as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1948 by The Times.  Recipient of the OBE award from the British Crown, he is a palpable force in English letters, tending to experiment stylistically while hovering on similar themes:  self-denial, acceptance of fate, the dance of time with potential and real regrets.

Although born in Japan, and influenced by the culture of the Samurai in interesting ways, Ishiguro comes across as thoroughly English, having lived there since he was five in 1960.  He did not speak English, but enjoyed American Westerns on television, and later, became hugely influenced by the novels of Charlotte Bronte, particularly Jane Eyre and Villette.  Ishiguro began as a singer-songwriter, interested in jazz and its improvisational modes—an influence that has carried over to his writing. Continue reading

“People Have to Breathe Where They Live”: Mary Szybist and Kevin Young Inprint Reading

February 25, 2015, by

RM4_4264Monday night is rainy, cold—a good night for poems.

The weather keeps some people away, but not everyone.  Inprint executive director Rich Levy introduces Mary Szybist and Kevin Young as the readers for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series in Cullen Theater at Wortham Center.  Szybist has won a National Book Award, Young an American Book Award.  I see some of my current students in the audience: I am happy they have come.  You don’t get a double billing like this every day.  Each poet has a theme it seems:  Mary, ascension, Kevin, grief.  There are difficulties with both, yet also acceptances.  You don’t have to resolve everything in order to understand it better.  Sometimes understanding it better is as good as it gets.

Szybist reads from Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award.  Before you even open the door to her poetry, you think of crimson, the red that is more luminous than cherry red, the red of Botticelli’s angels, the red of the Virgin Mary.  Szybist is preparing you for what is her obsession:  the strangeness of the annunciation, the anticipatory moments not only of the biblical Mary, but of our own every day lives, in which “dutiful” acquiescence has profound consequences.  Her poems circle around the scene of the Annunciation—but do not linger there, taking the notion of expectancy to every realm, both immediate and imaginative.

Before you even open the door to her poetry, you think of crimson, the red that is more luminous than cherry red, the red of Botticelli’s angels, the red of the Virgin Mary.

Continue reading