Monday, July 16, 2012

Iowa City Literary Festival: Sam Kean and Donald Ray Pollack

On vacation, but always working…I happened to be in Iowa City during the fourth annual literary festival, so I went to a couple of readings that ended up being excellent.

First, Sam Kean,  one of my former students from Johns Hopkins hit it big with his first book, The Disappearing Spoon, about the Periodic Table of the Elements—but the fun stuff, not the dull stuff I remember from high school chemistry!  I predict that his new book, The Violinist’s Thumb will be equally popular: fascinating stories about our genetic code.  Seriously.  The audience was held in thrall for more than an hour with Sam’s stories about King Tut; the sad, horrible life of chimney sweeps in 18th century England; and gory details about Einstein’s brain.  Sam is a great, natural speaker who chooses his power point photos wisely…here’s information about his upcoming tour (in DC on 7/25!), and believe me:  he is worth driving through a snowstorm—or heat wave—to see.  I wish all my science teachers—or any of them!—had been this interesting.

My second event was another winner:  Donald Ray Pollack read from his novel, The Devil All the Time.  A year or so ago, one of my Converse students (hi, Cheryl!) had seen DRP read at a library in Ohio, and she came to the residency RAVING about his book of short stories, Knockemstiff, though she noted his work was very dark.  Indeed, in the Q&A here, not one but TWO men spoke about how they were reading Knockemstiff and almost couldn’t go on because the stories were so depressing.  Naturally, this made me even more eager to read the book.  I also enjoyed hearing DRP talk about his path to writing, as it was a bit untraditional:  he worked in a paper mill for many years before finally entering an MFA program when he was (I believe) 45.

I also went to the publishing fair, and within moments ended up with a handful of books from the University of Iowa Press table—every book for a dollar!  How can anyone go wrong with that, and my diverse handful includes a collection of stories by Lee K. Abbott, a book about a hobo who rode the rails, and a collection of letters from a female homesteader.

Combine all these books with the books I’m swiping from my parents’ house, and I definitely need a new bookshelf and about three weeks of time to spend simply reading.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.