Extracts from My Social Calendar

Last week, on assignment for Shelf Awareness, I met up with Christopher Boucher, the author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, a wonderfully surreal debut novel that’s been one of the pleasures of my holiday weekend. We got together to discuss his book tour—he had wanted to drive a VW Beetle from Los Angeles to Boston, stopping at bookstores along the way, but the care he picked out for the journey just wasn’t up for the task. (But he and his wife had a great time on the road, all the same.)

I’m lucky enough to be able to attend a number of literary events each month, so many that there isn’t always space in Shelf for every dispatch I send them. I thought I’d take a moment to share with you some moments from the last few weeks I haven’t told readers about yet…

Staking a claim to “the first fall reading” at Manhattan’s McNally Jackson bookstore last night, Rob Spillman introduced the short story collection Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, which expands upon a 2007i issue of the literary magazine dedicated to women writing fiction that breaks away from realism and incorporates fantastic elements, including some from mythology and folklore, in the tradition of pioneers like Angela Carter and Ursula K. LeGuin. (And, at least in some critical readers’ eyes, these contemporary writers are doing an excellent job of it; the anthology came about when Spillman discovered that the magazine was being bulk ordered for use in college classes.)

Spillman’s wife, short story writer Elissa Schappell, pinch-hit for Karen Russell, who was stuck in Philadelphia after a train fell across the railroad tracks. They were joined by two contributors to the collection, Gina Zucker and Samantha Hunt.

Susan Howe, Richard Sieburth, Nathaniel Mackey, Eliot Weinberger, and Mónica de la Torre were among the poets and translators who came to Poets House in Battery Park City on a Thursday night in late July to pay tribute to the independent publishing house New Directions on its 75 anniversary. The first floor reading room was packed well before the evening’s program began, and dozens of audience members were directed to a closed circuit video feed upstairs, passing through an impressive collection of papers and other literary ephemera from the New Direction archives. The readers drew upon a rich backlist: Susan Bernofsky (not pictured) read from her translations of Robert Walser, while Weinberger chose “I Am Waiting,” a poem from one of ND’s greatest successes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. Both Mackey and Howe mentioned that their selections—Djuana Barnes’ Nightwood and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, respectively—were books that they themselves had owned for decades and drawn inspiration from. “I can’t bring my own copy, though,” Howe confessed. “I’ve read it to bits.”

It’s not every author who gets to bring a backup band to her book party—although, technically, the musicians who came to the reception celebrating the publication of Katharine Weber’s memoir The Memory of All That weren’t there to accompany Weber. Instead, they accompanied singers who performed a selection of tunes from Fine and Dandy, the musical that Weber’s maternal grandparents, Kay Swift and Paul James, wrote in the 1930s. Swift’s song writing began at the prompting of her lover, George Gershwin (Weber’s memoir deals extensively with the affair), while James’ lyrics were straightforwardly simple but dotted with clever flourishes: The opening number contains couplets like “I can soon be taught to say / what you think I ought to say” while a later song rhymes “plaything of passion” with “after a fashion.” The audience gathered in a fifth-floor rehearsal space at Playwright Horizons (on Manhattan’s 42nd Street) was highly appreciative of the ensemble’s performance, especially little touches like substituting a tap dancer for the missing drum kit. In addition to her memoir, Weber is also overseeing the publication of The Kay Swift Songbook—“overdue by about fifty years,” Weber quipped, “but better late than never.”

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5 September 2011 | events |