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1. Stories I love, in the mail to you quarterly

Putting together my first package for Quarterly Co. feels a lot like assembling the cards and songs and books and other objects I used to send friends and boys in college, except with 100% fewer stickers: Here’s this thing I’ve been reading! Here’s this other, related thing! Here’s a long, gushy letter telling you all the reasons I am sending them to you — and oh, yeah, here’s this other thing that suddenly seemed so important and connected, I had to unseal the package and shove it in there, too. There are even post-it notes.

Jason Kottke described Quarterly — “a subscription service for wonderful things” — as a cross between a store and a magazine. Sasha Frere-Jones called it the future, but with a post office. The Wall Street Journal journal explains how it works, and makes me wish I had a 3D skull of my own design to include.

My shipments, which Quarterly sends out at $25 each, will be all about storytelling. Here’s how I described my focus for the site.

As a child I lived in novels as much as I did in the world, stumbling around hunched and dreamy, tearing through my alloted seven library books and then begging my mother to take me to check out more. Nowadays the challenge isn’t getting my hands on books, it’s finding stories that excite me, as a reader, writer, and critic.

My passion for unusual, well-told stories sends me foraging not just through bookstores — though I do spend a ridiculous amount of time circling the staff recommendations tables at McNally Jackson — but all kinds of media: TV, movies, magazines, blogs, apps, whatever. I still love books best of all, but it took me a while to know that for sure after devouring The Wire.

My Quarterly objects will be books and other great stories that I hope will make you cancel plans or miss your stop or ignore the doorbell. Sometimes they’ll be juicy and suspenseful; other times they’ll be weirder, less about sinking into a story than thinking about the way we tell them. Occasionally they’ll be both, so you can experience them, and ponder them, and then experience them again.

If you’re interested in signing up, I’m told the window for the first shipment closes this Thursday, the 16th.

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2. Talking with Kate Christensen at McNally, June 12

astralTomorrow night at McNally Jackson, I’ll have the great pleasure of interviewing Kate Christensen, a friend whose writing I loved even before I came to love her, about her latest novel, The Astral. We spoke about the book (and male muses and inner dicks) last year at The Awl. This will be a continuation of that conversation.

“It’s been two years since I finished The Astral,” Kate says. “The things that strike me as relevant and interesting about the book now are the paramount importance of place to a novel, the creepy, borderline-incestuous relationship between characters and novelist, and the intensity of writing about a disintegrating marriage while in the midst of a disintegrating and totally different marriage.”

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3. Reading at The Second Pass party Wednesday, Nov. 10

The Second Pass is throwing a party at Melville House Bookstore this Wednesday night, and I’ll be reading a very brief excerpt from the novel I’m finishing up.

The other readers are Carlene Bauer (Not That Kind of Girl), Will Blythe (To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever), and Jason Zinoman, theater critic for the New York Times, who’s working on a book about ’70s horror films. After the readings “conclude with an entertaining excerpt from a largely forgotten work, in keeping with the site’s preoccupations,” we drink and toast to Second Pass mastermind John Williams. All this begins at 7:30 p.m.

I’m going to bring a pile of these booklets (above) to give away. I made them last year, to send to people who seemed disappointed that they didn’t win my novel excerpt giveaway, but for some reason I decided to print extra ones that have now been sitting around so long, I just need them out of my life. You should know that I’m nobody’s idea of a book designer; I completely mangled Bill Ectric’s Photoshop handiwork on the cover. Inside are my doubt reading list for Bookforum and a little bit of “When the Flock Changed.”

If you make it out to celebrate with us, you’re welcome to one. And I’ll eventually give away any leftovers here.

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4. A talk with Misha Angrist, whose genome is online


My friend Misha Angrist, a former geneticist and the author of Here is a Human Being At the Dawn of Personal Genomics, answers some of my questions about DNA research at The Awl.

Holy crap, Misha, you’re making your entire genome public! Are you nervous?

It’s already done. All of my data are here. Frankly I don’t think anything in my DNA could be as embarrassing as this kelly green shirt that continues to taunt me from the interwebs.

I spend a lot of time worrying about the long-term consequences of opening the Pandora’s box just by joining 23andMe.

Hmmm. What is it you’re worried about exactly?

Well, in addition to being an enthusiastic neurotic, I’m a hypochondriac with health problems, and I guess I’m anxious that I won’t be able to get insurance coverage in my old age, and I’ll end up being yelled at and bossed around in some grannies’ ward with rows and rows of beds, like in Memento Mori

. Here Is a Human Being includes some pretty sobering stories of insurance companies — and even the military — booting people because they’re at high risk for certain genetic conditions.

True, although I suspect that those types of stories are rare. But even if they’re not, I believe that one way of combating/preempting that sort of behavior is by having a cohort of people putting it all out there and seeing what happens. I am fairly well convinced that if an insurer or employer used a Personal Genome Project participant’s data to discriminate against him/her, the personal genomics hive would raise holy hell and quickly create a PR nightmare for the perpetrator.

Ah, so participation is actually a kind of insurance of its own! Where do I sign up?

Yeah, if you fuck with me, then you fuck with all of the public genomes and arguably the entire biomedical research enterprise.

More here, and we continue the conversation at McNally Jackson tonight, at 7 p.m. Join us if you’re free.

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5. Girls Write Now’s 2011 Chapters lineup

The second season of Chapters, the reading series I curate for Girls Write Now, begins this Friday, March 25, when our delightful first guest, writer and mentor Emma Straub, reads from her new story collection, Other People We Married. Join us at 7 p.m. at the historic John Street Church (no affiliation).

Coming up: Anna North, America Pacifica, on April 29; Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow, on May 20; and Kate Christensen, The Astral, on June 17.

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6. Headed back to Faulkner country

The last time I visited Oxford, Mississippi, at the end of a trip through ancestral haunts in the Delta, I stopped by Faulkner’s grave, Rowan Oak, and Square Books, and consumed my weight in sweet tea and fried catfish with my favorite aunt. I’m sure I’ll do some of the same things this weekend, when I’m in town for the Oxford Conference for the Book to talk online publishing with Jack Pendarvis, Anya Groner, and Michael Bible. Other speakers include Barbara Epler, Josh Weil, Steve Yarbrough, and Ken Auletta, to name just a few.

I found a new polka dotted dress for the occasion, and managed to rope one Carrie Frye into meeting me there. I wish I had an extra day or two to get over to Eudora Welty’s house and my Great Aunt Maude’s official state archives in Jackson, but I fly back Sunday for a couple days before heading to speak at Butler University next week. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to Gulf Coast oysters, mint juleps in their native habitat, and good company.

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7. My final Four-Letter Word reading

I’m reading one last time from Conversations You Have at Twenty, my Love is a Four-Letter Word contribution, at Cornelia Street Cafe tonight with D.E. Rasso, Emily Flake, and Michelle Green. Russ Marshalek hosts, and we get started at 6 p.m.

(In remembrance of the last time D.E. and I were on Cornelia Street together, three years ago: On being a weirdness magnet and sick hypochondriac, and trying to avoid a literary figure in the emergency room.)

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8. Brooklyn Book Fest: Literature in a digital age

A friend who heard my soundbite on WNYC earlier wanted details on the Literature in a Digital Age panel I’m moderating tomorrow at the Brooklyn Book Festival, so I thought I’d post them here, too.

The panelists are John Freeman, Dwight Garner, and Sarah Schmelling. Given the topic, it should be a fun, wide-ranging discussion in which no one agrees with anyone else. (My own thoughts won’t be at the forefront; if you’re curious, read When is a book not a book?)

Our panel gets started at 1, but the festival runs all day. Tons of great writers, some of whom are friends of mine, appear at times that conflict, so I’ll just point you to the schedule, and you can take your pick.

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9. LaValle, Mun, Birkerts: My next two weeks

I can’t wait till next Monday, March 22, when I’ll talk with my friend Victor LaValle at Greenlight Books about his latest novel (Big Machine), his previous work, and race, madness, religion, and more. It’ll be kind of like getting some pints together, except without the slurring or frequent use of “fucking” as a modifier. We get started at 7:30 p.m.

On Friday, March 26, Girls Write Now’s new Chapters series presents Nami Mun reading from her excellent Whiting Award-winning novel, Miles from Nowhere, which I wish I’d read when it first came out. She’ll be followed by some of the girls and their mentors. If you’re thinking of getting involved with Girls Write Now, these events are the best way to get a sense of what we’re about.

On Thursday, April 1, I meet with Sven Birkerts at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss the future of books, in a conversation moderated by Cathy Day. While I respect Birkerts — who’s the editor of Agni — I reckon he and I will disagree on a few things. The Graduate Writing Program has asked Cynthia Closkey to cover the event at her blog, so you can follow along there, if you’re curious. I’ll also be reading at 2:30 that afternoon. Both events take place in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning.

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10. Coming up: Future of criticism, and Chapters

This Saturday, April 17, I’ll be discussing the future of criticism as part of the Center for Fiction’s Conference in Honor of Roger Shattuck. The panel discussion will also include Granta editor John Freeman and New Republic critic Jed Perl, and will be moderated by National Book Critics Circle President Jane Ciabattari. I’m excited to attend Lorin Stein’s conversation with Michel Braudeau, editor of Nouvelle Revue Française, on Shattuck, Proust, and The Future, and I hope to hear Daniel Mendelsohn’s thoughts on the state of criticism now. All the events are free, but (due to limited space) reservations are required.

Friday, April 23, also at the Center for Fiction, I’ll be introducing Lizzie Skurnick to read along with the talented young writers of Girls Write Now, as part of the new Chapters series I’m curating. (For the uninitiated, Girls Write Now pairs professional writer mentors with at-risk teen girls. We received the Coming Up Taller Award from Michelle Obama earlier this year.)

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11. Marie Mockett reads at Chapters


I’ll be introducing Marie Mockett when she reads this Friday, May 21, along with the young writers of Girls Write Now, as part of our Chapters series at the Center for Fiction. Her novel, Picking Bones From Ash, was recently shortlisted for the Saroyan International Prize and is concerned with the unique power and difficulties of talented girls.

“There must be something deeply unsettling to us about [them],” she wrote, in a guest essay for this site. “They often don’t fare well in fiction.”

Girls Write Now’s mission is to bolster talented — and underserved or at-risk — high school girls, by pairing them with professional writer mentors who encourage them to express themselves. We received the Coming Up Taller Award from Michelle Obama earlier this year and recently celebrated our 10th anniversary.

The young artist Olivia Morgan (7), an audience member, captured the spirit of our last reading in the drawing above. If you’re free this Friday, please join us. There’ll be plenty of time to swing by the One Story Ball afterward.

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12. Rare Sarah Waters appearance in NYC

I’m excited to interview Sarah Waters this Thursday night about her creepy haunted house novel, The Little Stranger. We’ll be at B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 p.m.

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13. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads for Girls Write Now

On Friday night I’ll be introducing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as she opens the last event of Girls Write Now’s Chapters series with a reading from her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. I’ve written about my admiration for her work many times; since then, she’s won a MacArthur Fellowship and earned a place on The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list.

Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which I once stayed up until 5 a.m. on a work night to finish, centers on a girl about the age of those Girls Write Now serves. The outstanding story “Cell One” appears in the new collection.

At the event we’ll also debut our 2010 anthology, which features an introduction by Nami Mun, whose Chapters reading from Miles from Nowhere earlier this year was astonishingly moving. The event will be held at the Center for Fiction, starting at 6 p.m.

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14. Agenda: more of the same, with Baldwin interlude

Apart from the occasional Twitter flurry, I’m really only doing one thing in my free time these days (getting closer, thanks for asking). With a few exceptions.

Next Wednesday, September 15, I’ll ask Rosecrans Baldwin a few questions following a reading from his smart, taut, very accomplished first novel, You Lost Me There, about a scientist whose memories of his screenwriter wife are upended by some angry notes he finds in her office long after her funeral.

Baldwin and I share an admiration for Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene, and I’m interested in the way You Lost Me There, like The End of the Affair, turns on the discovery of a woman’s diary. We’ll be at McNally Jackson at 7 p.m.

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15. Field-Tested Books reading, tonight at The Delancey

I’m excited to meet my fellow contributors at Coudal’s Field-Tested Books rooftop reading tonight. Things get underway at 7, at The Delancey.

Last I heard, this was the tentative schedule (below), so if you’re only coming out for Ben Greenman or Michael Bierut, or to see a friend, you’ll want to plan accordingly.

(Don’t let the longish roster put you off, though. The field tests are engaging — and blessedly succinct.)

PART 1   PART 2  
Ben Greenman   Jon Parker  
Liz Danzico   Andy Ross  
Steven Heller   Jason Santa Maria  
Ron Hogan   Maud Newton  
Matt Linderman   Michael Surtees  
Randy Cohen   Michael Bierut  
Randy J. Hunt   Scott Korb
Debbie Millman   Mike Sacks  
John Gruber   Pitchaya Sudbanthad  
Jeffrey Zeldman  

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16. Katrina benefit / New Stories from the South party recap & southern culture trivia quiz

Many thanks to all who made it out to the Katrina benefit/New Stories from the South party last night. It was a good crowd, and we raised $420 for KARES.

(Today, by the way, marks the 3rd anniversary of the storm. As Gustav bears down on the region, IFC is showing the new Katrina documentary, Trouble the Water, which includes harrowing footage shot by one of the city’s residents while floodwaters swept down her street, rose up her porch and filled her house, driving her and her husband up to the attic and finally out into the streets.)

For those who couldn’t make it, a recap: We filled up on bread pudding and crawfish cheesecake from Mara’s Homemade, heard great readings from ZZ Packer, Brett Anthony Johnston, and Stephanie Dickinson, and took a southern culture trivia quiz that everybody said was too hard. (Totally my fault.)

Fellow blogger Ron Hogan won first prize — a bottle of JD, an Avett Brothers cd, and a pile of books — with 19/25, but I swear I didn’t pass him the answer key beforehand. I won’t identify the second and third prize winners, since I met them for the first time last night, and they might not want to be Googleable here forever.

An extended version of the quiz appears after the jump. (We cut it so everyone could be out in time to get home before Obama’s speech.)

1. Which author, who met and mentored William Faulkner in New Orleans, agreed to recommend Faulkner’s first novel, Soldier’s Pay, to his publisher, provided he didn’t have to read it first?

a. Tennessee Williams
b. Sherwood Anderson
c. Scott Fitzgerald
d. Ernest Hemingway

2. Which soul singer, born in Arkansas, suffered 2nd degree burns when his girlfriend dumped a pot of boiling grits on him?

a. Al Green
b. Sam Cooke
c. Wilson Pickett
d. James Brown

3. Which southern writer flung herself so relentlessly at Katherine Anne Porter while both were at Yaddo, following her around while dressed in dungarees and a man’s white shirt, that Porter, a lesbian-phobe, clung to Eudora Welty, whom she deemed “150 percent female.”

a. Carson McCullers
b. Djuna Barnes
c. Harper Lee
d. Shirley Ann Grau

4. Which novelist and short-story writer of Peruvian extraction is best known for fiction set in his birth country but grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and argues against a literary culture that views only poor Latinos as “authentic.” (”That last name,” one woman told him at a literary dinner, “it reminds me of a bug that bit me when I was living in Mexico!”)

a. Oscar Hijuelos
b. Richard Rodriguez
c. Daniel Alarcón
d. Junot Díaz

5. What Kentucky band records its music in a silo?

a. My Morning Jacket
b. Uncle Tupelo
c. Iron & Wine
d. The Shins

6. Which Texan writer referred to Proust and Gide as “two preposterously afflicted self-adoring, frankly career-geniuses” who “got in Colette’s light”?

a. Patricia Highsmith
b. Larry McMurtry
c. Katherine Anne Porter
d. Molly Ivins

7. Who wrote the article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which was published in Ms. in 1975, and is largely credited with reviving interest in Hurston’s work?

a. Toni Morrison
b. Jamaica Kincaid
c. Dorothy Parker
d. Alice Walker

8. Contributed by Jack Pendarvis, author most recently of a novel called Awesome: “Which Alabama Gulf Coast writer placed a story in the first issue of The Paris Review, played an American journalist in Fellini’s 8 1/2, was presented three of her pubic hairs by Tallulah Bankhead, wrote the lyrics for Nino Rota’s theme to Romeo and Juliet (”What Is a Youth?”) sung at the Capulets’ party in Zefferelli’s film, and compiled the 1968 Time-Life Book of Southern Cooking?

a. Truman Capote
b. Eugene Walter
c. Pat Conroy
d. Daniel Wallace

9. Which southern writer so believed in the significance of bourbon that he wrote a whole essay about the aesthetics of drinking it and its superiority to scotch?

a. Larry Brown
b. Harry Crews
c. Walker Percy
d. Barry Hannah

10. Which New Orleans writers whose names include the initials “P” and “Z” fled the city before the storm and blogged afterward about their displacement?

a. Paul Zindel and Poppy Z. Brite
b. Paul Zindel and Pia Z. Ehrhardt
c. Poppy Z. Brite and Pia Z. Ehrhardt
d. Paul Zindel, Poppy Z. Brite, and Pia Z. Ehrhardt

11. Which southern writer made her one and only TV appearance on The Merv Griffin Show?

a. Flannery O’Connor
b. Harper Lee
c. Alice Walker
d. Eudora Welty

12. Which Katrina documentarian, who was in Venice after the storm, said European journalists told him that the images they kept seeing of New Orleans “looked like they were from a third world country, not the almighty United States of America.”

a. Carl Deal
b. Mario Van Peebles
c. Michael Moore
d. Spike Lee

13. Atlanta-born novelist Tayari Jones (The Untelling) contributes the following question: When Koolaid is frozen in styrofoam cups and sold to children for a dime, this product is called?

a. red heaven
b. a frozen cup
c. a snowball
d. southern tomato juice

14. Which Southern writer, who legend has it “once showed up at a writers’ conference in Vermont ’smelling like a bear’ after walking there from Georgia,” was denied entrance to the creative writing program that later hired him to teach, and described his teaching experiences this way in an interview with the New York Times: “scared little people come and sit in a scared little class and tremble. I didn’t want to do that. Let’s do something memorable, and if we can’t do something memorable, then let’s go home. Or we’ll go across the street and get a drink.”

a. Barry Hannah
b. Harry Crews
c. Charles Portis
d. Larry Brown

15. Which of the following authors lived in Florida, overlapped at the University of Iowa, have published in The New Yorker, and are best known for fiction that’s at least partly inspired by jobs they’ve held other than writing?

a. Yiyun Li and Joshua Ferris
b. Yiyun Li and Chris Adrian
c. Joshua Ferris and Chris Adrian
d. Yiyun Li, Joshua Ferris, and Chris Adrian

16. Anecdote contributed by biographer Joan Schenkar: Which Southern writer once horrified Patricia Highsmith “by finding the radiant face of Jesus in the floor-boards of her dormitory porch?”

a. Flannery O’Connor
b. Eudora Welty
c. Alice Walker
d. Maya Angelou

17. What was the first play written by Tennessee Williams to be performed on Broadway?

a. A Streetcar Named Desire
b. You Touched Me (co-written with Donald Windham)
c. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
d. The Night of the Iguana

18. Which vocalist and friend of James Baldwin was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina to a Methodist minister mother and handyman father, and sold the rights to her first album for $3000, ultimately missing out on at least $1 million in royalties?

a. Billie Holliday
b. Ella Fitzgerald
c. Aretha Franklin
d. Nina Simone

19. Who wrote the following to Bruce Springsteen? “It would appear the two of us are rarities in our professions: you as a post-modern musician, I a writer, a novelist and a philosopher. That and your admiration of Flannery O’Connor. She was a dear friend of mine….”

a. Betty Hester
b. William Sessions
c. Walker Percy
d. Iris Murdoch

20. Which Memphis-born musician, honored in a 1987 Replacements song, had to be evacuated from his New Orleans home after Katrina?

a. Alex Chilton
b. Aaron Neville
c. Vasti Jackson
d. Allen Toussaint

21. “I read Richard Wright and Truman Capote and Wendell Berry and Erskine Caldwell and a whole mess of other writers and came upon white people who, in their way, were also just trying to make it to the next day,” Edward P. Jones wrote in the introduction to last year’s New Stories from the South. Which novel by one of these authors had he earlier identified, in another introduction, as “only the fourth book I ever read in my life”?

a. God’s Little Acre
b. The Long Dream
c. Black Boy
d. A Place on Earth

22. What was the name of the place where Alabama writer Carson McCullers lived in Brooklyn with W.H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee?

a. The Astral
b. Inspiration Hall
c. February House
d. The Chelsea Hotel

23. How can you tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile?

a. shape of the snout
b. visibility of teeth
c. neither a nor b
d. both a and b

24. Which actress did Larry Brown say he could see playing Fay (of his novel of the same name)?

a. Angelina Jolie
b. Natalie Portman
c. Parker Posey
d. Christina Ricci

25. Which grandson of a Florida citrus magnate is considered the father of alt-country and recorded his most elaborate harmonies with Emmylou Harris?

a. Steve Earle
b. Townes Van Zandt
c. Gram Parsons
d. Jason Ringenberg

26. Which southern writer’s first work of nonfiction was an account of an American opera company’s visit to Leningrad to perform Porgy and Bess?

a. Truman Capote
b. Mark Twain
c. Walker Percy
d. H.L. Mencken

27. Which of the following singers recorded a famous version of Merle Haggard’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” about the drudgery and paradoxical lure of laboring in an Appalachian shaft mine?

a. Tammy Wynette
b. Dolly Parton
c. Loretta Lynn
d. Wanda Jackson

28. Anecdote contributed by writer/blogger Carrie Frye: Which North Carolina writer, when drunk, used to bite off pieces of his or her glass and chew on them?

a. Thomas Wolfe
b. Jill McCorkle
c. David Sedaris
d. Allan Gurganus

29. Which southern writer wrote the line, “You have might purty lips.”

a. Barry Hannah
b. James Dickey
c. Padgett Powell
d. Larry Brown

30. What kind of bread do you need for a proper po’boy, whether dressed or undressed?

a. a hoagie roll
b. focaccia
c. a baguette
d. a hamburger bun

31. Which novelist won the Million Writers Award in 2005 for her short story “You Are A 14-Year-Old Arab Chick Who Just Moved to Texas”?

a. Laila Lalami
b. Randa Jarrar
c. Diana Abu-Jaber
d. Alicia Erian

32. Which Mississippi writer attended Ole Miss for one year, but was encouraged by editor Willie Morris to transfer to Bennington? (The same writer, in high school, listed Hunter S. Thompson as beneficiary of his or her life insurance policy.)

a. Rick Bass
b. Eudora Welty
c. Larry Brown
d. Donna Tartt

33. Which author, who turned his back on the southern Presbyterianism of his youth, wrote the following: “In time, the Deity perceived that death was a mistake; a mistake, in that it was insufficient; insufficient, for the reason that while it was an admirable agent for the inflicting of misery upon the survivor, it allowed the dead person himself to escape from all further persecution in the blessed refuge of the grave. This was not satisfactory. A way must be conceived to pursue the dead beyond the tomb”?

a. Charles Portis
b. H.L. Mencken
c. Mark Twain
d. Edgar Allan Poe

34. Which Louisiana city has long been known known as the “Crawfish Capital of the World”?

a. Mobile
b. Breaux Bridge
c. Lafayette
d. New Orleans

Answer Key: 1. b, 2. a, 3. a, 4. c, 5. a, 6. c, 7. d, 8. b, 9. c, 10. c, 11. b, 12. d, 13. b, 14. b, 15. c, 16. a, 17. b, 18. d, 19. c, 20. a, 21. c, 22. c, 23. d, 24. a, 25. c, 26. a, 27. b, 28. a, 29. b, 30. c, 31. b, 32. d, 33. c, 34. b

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17. Stories of my worst holidays — and yours

I’d hoped to write about my worst Christmas Eve* ever, but the Great Big Lump of Coal reading I’m doing at the Good Words at Good World series this Sunday is coming up so soon, I won’t have time to do that. Fortunately, there are plenty of other bad holiday stories to choose from. Maybe I’ll read about the Christmas Day prior, or the New Year’s Eve that I got a bead stuck in my nose.

If you’re free this Sunday, the 14th, at 5 p.m., come out to Chinatown and raise some pints with us.

And whether or not you can make it out, if you have your own terrible holiday story, write it up in 500 words or fewer and email to me at maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com by noon EST on Saturday, the 13th.

I’ll choose my favorite, post it here, and send the winner three things worth having: a copy of Alan Bennett’s marvelous The Uncommon Reader, the Oxford American’s Tenth Anniversary Southern Music issue (for the uninitiated, Dwight Garner calls the CDs “so smart and eclectic they probably belong in the Smithsonian”), and the latest issue of Wholphin.

* Short version: It was 2000. My dad was juggling several girlfriends then, and for years my primary role on visiting — from his point of view, at least — had been to keep his dating merry-go-round awhirl by lying to the women about how often he and I talked on the phone, how close he and my sister were, and how often he visited. (In fact, he never visited.) He liked to tell them that my sister (who never talked to him, and had been in Gainesville and then Northampton for six years) still lived in South Florida and was studying accounting at FIU and hanging out with dear old Dad every few days.

Conveniently, Father had one girlfriend who shared my sister’s name, and one girlfriend who shared mine (he’s since married the latter); this made lying about seeing “us” pretty easy.

That year it dawned on me that I was no longer 12 years old and didn’t have to help him string the women along anymore. I warned him ahead of time that he was on his own. “Anyway,” I said, twirling the phone cord, “don’t you think it’s a little screwed-up to enlist your daughter to facilitate your womanizing?”

“I take umbrage at your use of the term ‘womanizer,’” he said.

After several hang-ups, some shouting, and a lot of flabbergasted and hostile back and forth, he told me not to worry. “It won’t even come up,” he assured me.

Which is how Max and I ended up riding in a car with Father and his oldest (known) girlfriend, from Miami to West Palm and back again, as she wept over his failure to marry her, and he shouted at her to “shut the hell up unless you want me to turn this car around.”


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18. Talking blogging & the arts with Bérubé at Penn State

I’ll be at Penn State next Monday to discuss blogging and the arts with American literature and cultural studies professor Michael Bérubé as part of the university’s Arts in Public Life series. If you’re in town, it’d be great to see you.

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19. Where I’ll be tonight

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20. Marie Mockett on the fears of talented girls

Marie Mockett’s first novel, Picking Bones from Ash, appears later this year (excerpt here). I’ve started talking about it so far in advance not so much because she’s my friend, although she is, but because I’m passionate about the book and want to do everything I can to spread the word.

Below she discusses some of the themes I’ll emphasize at tonight’s Powerful Women event, which will feature Mockett alongside novelist Marlon James (whose The Book of Night Women I can’t recommend highly enough) and photographer Stephanie Keith.


It’s May in Japan and the girls are swaddled in layers of silk and have painted their lips bright red. Everyone is heading for the Hollyhock Festival, but there’s a problem; Lady Rokujo’s carriage is blocking the path of her frenemy, Lady Aoi. At this point, it might be good for Lady Aoi to consider that a few years ago Lady Rokujo killed off another rival via a little spirit possession trick. But competitive girls don’t always think about these things in the heat of the moment. Aoi orders her men to dismantle Rokujo’s carriage; Rokujo deploys her enraged spirit a few days later to tackle Aoi’s body and literally frighten her to death. While all this is deeply upsetting to the men and women in her circle, Lady Rokujo is neither arrested nor punished. It is simply understood that sometimes a girl can’t help but be overwhelmed by frustration, and woe betide the person who provokes her to extreme rage.

This famous incident takes place in The Tale of Genji, written circa 1000 AD and often considered the world’s first psychological novel. For the next one thousand years, a great many classical and popular Japanese plays, texts and films have depicted exorcism and the quieting of hurt and angry female spirits struggling to express themselves in a society where men have most of the power. This is not to say that Japanese women are powerless. Genji, for example, was written by Murasaki Shikibu — a Japanese woman — a fact that startles some westerners accustomed to thinking of the Japanese as being so repressed as to be unexpressive.

Shikibu, however, was not the only female writer of her period; she had an ongoing literary feud with Sei Shonagon, author of the pithy and witty Pillow Book, which chronicled, among other things, “Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters” (something with which a certain generation of tattoo enthusiasts might identify). Shonagon thought that Shikibu took herself too seriously and Shikibu thought that Shonagon was a ditz. Whichever side they have taken in this rivalry, female writers in Japan have had Shonagon and Shikibu as a source of inspiration for over a thousand years. Not many cultures — even western ones — can match that.

My first novel, Picking Bones from Ash, comes out in September, and is about three generations of women in Japan and America struggling with what it means to be talented. One of my characters, Akiko, takes a page from Shikibu’s book and believes that the most important thing a woman can do is to develop her gifts. But Akiko is in Japan, and it’s no coincidence that, as the women in her life struggle to accept the abilities they have been given, they run up against an actual ghost among the family demons.

Along the way to publication, a few editors felt that the ghost in my novel was not “literary.” But anything that scares us — whether it’s a discomfiting nightmare, an enemy’s threat, a future unknown — has the ability to change our behavior, and this is the stuff of the best novels. There must be something deeply unsettling to us about talented girls; they often don’t fare well in fiction. In AS Byatt’s Possession, the poet Cristobel Lamott suffers obscurity and a broken heart after her initially inspiring affair with fellow poet Roland Ash; he goes on to enjoy great fame and a stable marriage. Ditto for Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring; she helps to birth Vermeer’s masterpiece due to her sensitive eye for color and lighting, but doesn’t manage to make much else of her own, except for a nice marriage with the butcher’s son. And who can forget how Briony, the plawright protagonist of McEwan’s Atonement, disastrously meddles with her sister’s love life? I’ve tried, among other things, to examine the thorny questions surrounding talented girls and the things they fear and the reasons why.

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21. Trouble in Greenpoint on Thursday, the 18th

Next Thursday night I’ll be drinking sangria, eating sorbet, and interviewing Kate Christensen — first idol, now friend — about Trouble, at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, at 7:30 p.m. She calls this novel, her fifth, her beach book.

That’s not her photo on the cover, by the way, although if you’ve met Kate you can see why even her mother was confused.

In other Christensen news: last night she appeared on All Things Considered to discuss her guilty reading pleasures.

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22. Talking with Kate Christensen about Trouble tonight

It’ll be raining for the next week anyway, so why not brave the G train and the weather tonight, and come out to celebrate the publication of the amazing Kate Christensen’s Trouble, with some sangria and salsa at WORD?

She’ll read, and I’ll interview her briefly, and it might even be more fun than our last night out — barbecue followed by rock & twang (live-band) karaoke, all in the company of one D.E. Rasso. If so, you don’t want to miss it. (You can read our prior conversation, about her last novel, The Great Man, here.)

Meanwhile, Amy Benfer has a Christensen Q&A at Salon today. “No one ever uses the term ‘limited first-person,’” Kate says. “But that’s the voice I’m most comfortable in.” More:

In your first novel, “In the Drink,” the protagonist, Claudia, was a young New York woman around the same age you were when you wrote it. Whereas the characters in your last three novels were very obviously different from you: The title character in “Jeremy Thrane” was a gay man, Hugo in “The Epicure’s Lament” was a middle-aged misanthrope, and Teddy was in her 70s. Josie, once again, is your current age, 46. She is a therapist on the Upper West Side, and you are a writer in Brooklyn, but it seems the two of you could easily run in similar circles. Was it scary to have a character whom readers might mistake for you?

It was totally scary. She’s so not me. Because we’re the same age, and because people confuse fact and fiction, inevitably they will think it must be autobiographical, and that Josie must be some version of me. I felt about Josie much the same way I felt about Hugo and Jeremy and Claudia, who also is and is not me: a feeling of identification with them but also a sense of detachment. Jeremy Thrane is the most like me and that is the most autobiographical of all my novels.

And he’s the one least likely to ever be confused with you.

Exactly. Because he’s a gay man. I find Josie to be kind of annoying sometimes — annoyingly opaque and clueless and kind of self-involved. I wanted to make her flawed and not heroic. Those are the kind of people I find most interesting. If she’s a part of me, it’s not my best self. Often I choose characters who express not my best self, but the sides of me I haven’t developed or haven’t expressed.

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23. Love is a Four Letter Word events

Later this month and a couple times in the weeks following I’ll be reading from “Conversations You Have at Twenty,” my contribution to Love is a Four-Letter Word.

Today at Paper Cuts, Gregory Cowles calls the anthology “pretty irresistible.” A “lot of it has to do with the tone,” he says. “[T]he usual regret, shame and pain are leavened here with a generous tablespoon of wry humor.”

The launch party is July 29 at Housing Works, and I’m appearing alongside Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Amanda Stern, and Wendy McClure. The very funny Dan Kennedy hosts.

Anthology editor and contributor Michael Taeckens has staggered more events through the end of the summer. Writers reading at those include my pal D.E. Rasso (see Susan Toepfer’s praise) and Michelle Greene, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Jami Attenberg, Taeckens himself, and more.

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24. Love is a Four Letter Word party

I’m reading tonight (7/29) at Housing Works with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Amanda Stern, and Wendy McClure at the book party for Michael Taeckens’ Love is a Four-Letter Word. Dan Kennedy will emcee.

I’m told some of the other contributors, including my pal D.E. Rasso, are attending.

If you feel like braving the weather, drinking a beer, and hearing some break-up stories, we’d love to see you.

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