Sunday, October 3, 2010

Searching for Lowly Worm with Lan Samantha Chang

After my recent post on Emma Donoghue visiting the store before her Next Chapter reading, I thought I’d have nothing more to say about these informal author visits. Wrongo!

Over the weekend, a very nice author came in to book an event (the other reason we informally say hello to authors—this variety tends not to come with an escort) for her book about walking around Lake Michigan. She visited 30 bookstores on her visit. Ours wasn’t one of them, but she thought we should have an event anyway. I haven’t ruled it out, actually, but this does feel like a one-event-in-the-market sort of appearance, so we’ll see which store she goes with. Instead of visiting our store, she went to the closed Schwartz in Bay View. She didn't go inside because it was...closed. I can’t imagine a website that had the Bay View Schwartz and not the Downer Schwartz. But it’s probably best for me to not dwell on this.

Who are we to talk? I have now been told several times that the Downer Avenue Merchants Association website still features the Schwartz Bookshop too, and since I’ve now paid two years of dues, it seems like anything is possible. Let's see if I can get this changed.

So this week goes by, and despite working four offsites (see earlier post), I was actually in the store when Lan Samanthan Chang came in to do a stock signing before an event at Next Chapter. She signed our three books, and then did a little shopping. She was determined to find the Richard Scarry book with Lowly Worm on each page. It turned out to be Busy Busy Town, and lucky everyone, we had a copy in stock. At one time, I remember seeing a plush Lowly Worm, but not lately. We spent several minutes together searching for Worm. A bonding experience.

I probably should have tried to up-sell a copy of Llama Llama Red Pajama or something like that, but instead we talked about her new novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. She’s actually come to Milwaukee for her previous books, Hunger and Inheritance, but I’ve never before interacted with her. Very charming! (That’s two for two on these stock signings.) Also very connected—as director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she knows many of the folks in the various creative writing programs around the country, including Liam Calllanan at UWM and C.J. Hribal at Marquette. Like C.J. she also comes from the Fox Valley (though I often lump Green Bay in that, and it’s possible that this designation only refers to Appleton and points south). Anyhoo—up northeast a ways from Milwaukee.

I apologized for not reading her novel—I can’t even keep up with the event books for Boswell, let alone everyone else’s. But she told me I should read it anyway--it’s short and I’d like it. I guess we easily slipped into professor-student mode and I promised to read it as soon as I finished Wade Rouse’s new collection, It's All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine, which you’ll hear more about later.

Several days later, I did read Chang's new novel. All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost revolves around Roman Morris, a young poetry student at Bonneville, a graduate program in Michigan (reminds me of Coralville outside of University of Iowa). He’s in a seminar with the great Miranda Stugis, an enigmatic poet whose critiques are legendary in their brutality; the students call them bludgeonings. Roman is already on the outs in the class, as he’s had a short-lived affair with Phebe, and it’s self-destruction has left most of the women students hostile towards his plight. Eliminate the non-smoking men as friends to hang out with and you’re left with Bernard, a quiet sort who is working on a book-length historical poem on the exploration of Wisconsin. Then Roman connects with Miranda (married, but like many academics, living mostly apart), the story shifts into gear, with the various connections of the characters playing out over the next thirty years.

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, is a classic "writer’s writer" novel, consumed with the process of creation and shepherding of artistic work, to say nothing of the critical reception and how the artist responds to it. There is more to it than that, as Chang captures how small decisions we make spin out of control to make or break our future, no matter our course in life. It’s the kind of book that gave me a touch of chills as I finished it; such a character-driven story, such a micro-small world, and yet bearing such emotional weight. It's definitely Baxter-y (you know he's coming on Saturday, January 8th, 2011, at 2 PM, for Gryphon, don't you? Mark your calendars now. I don't want to hear that you are out of town.)

It’s the kind of shaking up that is worth chasing, a great reason to read a book. And yes, as Chang said to me, it’s a pretty quick read.

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