January 31, 2011

Charles Baxter: What There Is To Love

A man after my own heart, this Charlie Baxter.

The Minnesota native was only twenty seconds into his Friday night reading at Micawbers Bookstore when he addressed his Midwesternness, a label that is regularly affixed to his award-winning work.

"Just the other day I received an email from a reader in Los Angeles," Baxter said, "and the man's main question was--if you've published nine books, why are you still living in Minnesota?"

Why, indeed? What is there possibly to love or find interesting or important or certainly literary in our flyover state? And yet there we were, sixty or so Minneapolis-St. Paul people, shoulder-to-shoulder in a small colorful bookstore, colorful hats and scarves thrown over the backs of chairs, snow melting on our boots, gathered together to hear a writer read. It felt about as important as anything else could be.

Baxter's newest book is Gryphon, a highly praised collection of published, anthologized, and new stories that is now on my nightstand. The book of his that I've just finished, though, is The Feast of Love. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000, and it's easy to see why. A unique structure. A fresh, realized chorus of characters. Hintings toward A Midsummer Night's Dream. Some sentences that run you flat over. And of course it's about love. It takes place in Ann Arbor, the main character works at a coffee shop, and there is much that is ordinary, quotidian, and eventual in its pages. Yet it's about love, Everyman's love, something that all of us--coffee maker to lawyer to book critic--crave.

That feels about as important as anything else could be, too.

Before he read from three stories in GryphonBaxter did address his frustration with his writing being "pigeon-holed" as Midwestern. He said he has the distinct feeling that if his stories took place in Connecticut, their ideas and themes would be considered universal. It was an interesting claim, one that I believed. But--Midwestern to the end, perhaps--he peppered the evening with no more complaints. Instead he gave us glimpses into the worlds he's created, worlds that embrace the landscapes and people and situations he has known. 

There are a lot of us here in the Midwest. I, for one, appreciate a writer who remarks on our lives from a place of understanding, with both humor and intelligence. And I, for one, am thankful Baxter isn't moving himself or his characters out to SoCal anytime soon.

* This review--or whatever it is--can also be found at Minnpost.com, a great source for Minnesota news.

January 28, 2011

it is so good to see the sun

that I look into it directly
even though I should not
have been told that doing so 
will leave me bleary-eyed
and blind
but it is so good to see the sun
and I look into it directly

January 19, 2011


This is when they scoff at us, when the mercury doesn't just dip, but catapults off its temperate bridge fist first into cold that is COLD that is FRIGID that collapses lungs and cleaves breath. Can I blame them? No. I have only thought left. But these winds, these snows, these afternoons laced quickly by black--their furies are full of double-dog-dares and long, weighty stares, and I will I will I must keep glaring back.

January 17, 2011

The Latehomecomer

Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer is the author's account of her Hmong family leaving the hardships of Laos, a country that did not want them, and immigrating to Minnesota in search of a home. It's a transition story. And in that way, it's a story intimately connected to place--a perfect choice for my next "Thirty Before Thirty" read. 

I could go on about so many things in the book: the descriptions of the Laotian jungle, the facts of The Secret War, the centrality of family in Yang's life and how natural this seems to me. But I'll leave those details to your discovery. (The memoir won the 2009 Minnesota Book Award in both the Memoir/Creative Nonfiction and Reader's Choice categories, so it's worth your time.) 

What I will address is the author's depiction of her grandmother, specifically her death. This woman--this matriarch with the strong, straight hands and broad face and deep dimples--is so lovingly depicted by the author that I couldn't help but love her too, honor her too, feel the weight of this woman's journey. Yang gives a detailed account of the traditions that are a part of Hmong deaths, and what I appreciated most was the custom of one man--a guide--who's role in the funeral was to "teach Grandma's soul the way back to the place where she was born" (252). 

The next several pages are a movement backward through Grandma Youa Lee's life. First Minnesota, then California--specifically Fresno, specifically a few small houses that she was to enter, walls she was to touch. Then the San Francisco International Airport, and then Thailand. From Bangkok her spirit would walk to Phanat Nikhom Transition Camp, and from there back to the dusty, fence-lined Ban Vinai Refugee Camp where her granddaughter Kalia was born. Then the MeKong River. Laos. Large jungles and small villages. The guide directed her to "the last village she called home...and there he told her to rest awhile if she liked, as she still had far to go" (255-256).
"He led her across rivers and mountain streams, over hills and down valleys, to the home of her uncle who had sold her to my grandfather, and then to the house where her sister died, where her father moved them after her mother died, and near the end, he placed her on the edge of the bamboo platform where she had been born. He told her that her placenta, the shirt she had traveled to this world in, was buried underneath the platform in accordance with tradition. She would not have to travel without armor, he said, and I was glad." (256)
It's estimated that Minnesota is now home to 60,000-70,000 Hmong, and that St. Paul has one of the largest urban Hmong populations in the world. I knew a few Hmong classmates in college, and had one student--Pang--who made an impression on me my first year of teaching. We were reading House on Mango Street, and it seemed that out of everyone in the class, the idea of home--the depth of metaphor that exists in this image--was understood the most deeply by her. 

I didn't really understand why then. It would be ridiculous of me to say I understand completely now. But Yang's book. This one patiently expressed story. We all yearn eventually for a patch of earth to send down roots, don't we? Even the word home is warm and nourishing, like bread. What we will do to hold it on our tongues is a testament to our humanity, our similar selves.

January 14, 2011


Midwinter in Sweden from Henning Sandström on Vimeo.

This is why all the Scandinavians settled in Minnesota, friends. Familiarity. Thanks to Henning Sandstrom for this eerily beautiful vid.

January 4, 2011


If you haven't already discovered the magazine Orion, check out their website here or find one of their beautiful publications in your nearest book store. Their material focuses on nature, culture, and place, and every issue is a feast for the eyes and mind. There is also an inspiring section called "The Place Where You Live." For those of you who find particular meaning in your homeplaces--and I know so many of you do--why not draft something up and contribute? This is what I did with an essay I crafted for this blog back in August, and happily, editor Kristen Hewitt saw fit to include it in the print version of Orion's January/February issue. If I do say so myself, it looks pretty good there.

Happy writing, all! What place has a hold on you?