CityBeat Blogs - Literary <![CDATA[Nick Spencer: Acclaimed Graphic Novelist]]>

Early last year we wrote about Nick Spencer's successful, somewhat surprising transition into the world of graphic novels. Now Spencer — the former Cincinnati City Council candidate, club operator and music promoter who moved to New York City in 2008 and whose grand ambitions sometimes got him into trouble — is garnering even more attention within the world of his new endeavor, recently nabbing four nominations at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards 2011: Best Short Story, Best Continuing Series, Best New Series and Best Writer. ---

Published by Image Comics, Morning Glories, which Spencer writes and Joe Eisma illustrates, centers on “six brilliant but troubled new recruits at Morning Glory Academy, a prestigious prep school hiding sinister and deadly secrets.” Spencer has described the series, which debuted in August 2010, as Runaways (the comic, not the band) meets Lost.

Winners in each category will be announced during this weekend's San Diego Comic-Con, the annual smorgasbord for comic-book geeks everywhere.

<![CDATA[Donald Ray Pollock: Badass Writer, Nice Guy]]> Donald Ray Pollock's debut short-story collection, 2008's Knockemstiff, was something of an unexpected sensation —unexpected in that Pollock was a first-time author at age 53; a sensation in that the stories were driven by a visceral, sharp-edged prose style and a narrative thrust as sensitive as it was savage.

Knockemstiff was rightly praised by everyone from The New York Times to Chuck Palahniuk (“more engaging than any new fiction in years”) to literary savant Michael Silverblatt, whose incisive KCRW radio show Bookworm featured an interview with the author. ---

Born and raised in the actual Knockemstiff (a small, decaying town about an hour east of Cincinnati), Pollock quit high school his junior year (several decades later he would earn a graduate degree in English at Ohio State) to work in a meatpacking plant. It wasn’t long before he moved on to a paper mill in nearby Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked for nearly 30 years and which was no doubt the inspiration for many of Pollock's dead-end characters and depraved narrative turns — think Harmony Korine's Gummo as described by Raymond Carver.

Now comes Pollock's first full-length novel, the unsurprisingly grim-titled The Devil All the Time, freshly published in hardback this week by Doubleday. I've yet to partake (my copy arrived at the office late last week), but it's already garnering rave reviews, including this blurb from Esquire magazine: “So humid is The Devil All the Time with moral grime that the characters seem always to be gasping for a breath of divine intervention — some through prayer, others through murder and creepy sex.”

(Here's a roundup of reviews: Entertainment Weekly, Columbus Dispatch, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly.

Given the tough, perpetually debauched subject matter of Pollock's stories, it might come as a surprise to know that he's one of the most genial, accommodating author's I've ever encountered. In 2008 I moderated a short-story panel at the Books by the Banks festival called “The Short Story: Dead or Alive (We’d Like to Know)." It featured Pollock, whose Knockemstiff was getting a lot of attention at the time, and Moira Crone, a gifted short-story writer from New Orleans (check out her collection Dream State, among others). (Read my 2008 pre-Books by the Banks feature on Pollock here.)

After the panel — during which we decided that the short story wasn't in fact dead, just under-appreciated — I grabbed lunch with Pollock, who proceeded to tell me about his Ohio roots, his encounter with the slightly eccentric Rosenblatt and more about his unconventional route to published author. I told him about my Ohio roots, my odd fascination with Rosenblatt's Bookworm and my slightly unconventional route to published journalist.

Of course, you don't have to take my positive, reassuring opinion of Pollock seriously — stop by Joseph-Beth Booksellers, where the he'll with be talking about The Devil All the Time, tomorrow night (7 p.m. July 14, to be exact) to find out for yourself.

<![CDATA[Michael Griffith Drops 'Trophy' Tonight]]>

Listen up, fans of crafty, post-modern fiction: Local author/professor/all-around good guy Michael Griffith christens his freshly minted new book, Trophy, 7 p.m. tonight at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. ---

Published by Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, Trophy centers its narrative on a Vada Prickett, a 29-year-old “Hose Associate” at a car wash in South Carolina who finds himself trapped under a gigantic, stuffed grizzly bear —a predicament that leads him to look back on his life via 104 mostly brief chapters.

Here's an interview I did with Griffith a few weeks ago wherein the author discusses his use of stylistic quirks and esoteric pop culture figures, as well as his views on the employment of fractured, non-linear narratives. And, if you can't make it out tonight, or to a bricks-and-mortar book store in the near future, he's a link to the Trophy's Amazon page.

<![CDATA[UC to Hire Novelist Chris Bachelder]]>

The Cincinnati literary scene suffered a loss last summer when Brock Clarke moved to Portland, Maine, to take a job teaching creative writing at Bowdoin College. Through his work as a writer (via two short-story collections and three novels, including 2007's well-received An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England) and educator (he taught creative writing at UC where he brought in such guest speakers/authors as Chris Bachelder, Sam Lipsyte, Heidi Julavits and Jonathan Lethem), Clarke was a one-man literary juggernaut who produced, nurtured and promoted the written word with unwavering commitment, creativity and good taste. ---

Now for the good news: word is that the aforementioned Bachelder will be filling Clarke's vacated spot at UC this fall. Long a favorite writer of Clarke's and fans of crafty post-modern fiction everywhere, Bachelder will no doubt bring a unique perspective to his students — in addition to his three novels, the most recent of which, Abbott Awaits, was published in March, the 40-year-old author has long been affiliated with two of the better literary magazines around (McSweeney's and The Believer), was an early champion of e-books (see 2004's Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography) and has taught at variety of schools (most recently at the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts). He joins an already impressive UC English department that includes Michael Griffith, whose new novel, Trophy, will be published next week. (Click here to read my recent interview with Griffith.)

I interviewed Bachelder in 2007 when Clarke brought him to town to discuss his novel U.S.!, a hilarious political satire that exhumes muckraking depression-era writer Upton Sinclair because, in the words of Bachelder, “I wanted to write a political novel that was also a novel about political novels.”

Besides being funny and smart (especially about the state of contemporary fiction), he was (and presumably still is) uncommonly genial and accommodating.

Sweet hire, UC.

<![CDATA[Nicholson Baker Speaks!]]>

Just a reminder for the discerning literary types out there: Ace wordsmith and impressively bearded Nicholson Baker stops by the Mercantile Library tomorrow (May 3) at 7 p.m. to read from and discuss his work.

The 54-year-old New York City native has tackled a number of topics and genres — from nonfiction to fiction, from books about phone sex and bottle feeding babies to historical investigations about about the insidious nature of war — in a writing career marked by his playful use of language, biting humor and interest in the “moments between the big moments.”---

Since he'll be speaking at a revered library, look for Baker to mention Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, his 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award winner about the American library system. Then there's his most recent book, The Anthologist, a funny, metalicious tale of a poet with writer's block.

CityBeat recently tracked down Nicholson in cyberspace. Here is our brief emailed correspondence. Oh, and for those interested in checking out what he has to say tomorrow night, admission for the event is $5 for Mercantile Library members; $10 for everyone else. To reserve a spot, call the library at 513-621-0717.

CityBeat: What role will libraries — or book stores for that matter — have in a future that is rapidly devaluing physical objects?

Nicholson Baker: I think we'll survive the tumultuous times we're in. Books will be books and they will also be electronic groat-clusters of words. Sometimes we'll read them on silent screens and sometimes on rustling pages.  Libraries and bookstores are nice places to go because each one serves up a piece of the literary universe in its own idiosyncratic way.  It's fun sometimes to read near other readers and crowds of multicolored bookspines.  And big libraries have the important job of holding onto the printed output from previous centuries--that won't change.  Paperback book covers have never looked better--those clean pale colors and the nubby, slightly matte texture of the paper.  I often like book covers better than the books they enclose.

CB: Your work defies easy classification and often discards conventional narrative techniques. Is this an organic turn of events or is it an overt decision on your part?

NB: I don't know what I'm doing — I'm just trying to figure it out as I go. The next book is the book that wants to be finished. Often I get impatient with "big" plots because they're so familiar: murder, end of the world, divorce, a big sack race. How many times have we seen movies about the end of the world? The best and most human moments are usually the moments between big moments.

CB: I often see in your work an acute yearning to change certain things about the world, which admittedly is the goal of most writers. Do you think books and/or writers can still have a profound impact on the way we see the world and/or influence public opinion? Did they ever?

NB: Recently I wrote an article for Harper's called "Why I'm a Pacifist." I'd like to stop the U.S. government from flying drones around in distant countries and killing people but I probably won't be able to. You pick your battles.

CB: You often write about writers and the act of writing or reading. Where does this obsession with writing, reading, language and words come from?

NB: Am I really that bookish? I've got a book about riding an escalator, a book about bottle feeding a baby, a phone sex book, a book about stopping time, a book about World War II. I'm not sure I wholly believe in obsessions. Life has too many interesting things to think about to spend too much time on one patch of turf.  

<![CDATA[David Foster Wallace Takes on IRS]]>

It’s no coincidence that the late David Foster Wallace’s new novel, The Pale King, was published on April 15. Actually, “new novel” might not be the best wording — the 560-page book, which carries the telling subtitle An Unfinished Novel, was crafted from Wallace’s papers after he committed suicide in 2008.

I’ve yet to read The Pale King, but after perusing several reviews in recent days (including Tom McCarthy’s incisive piece in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review), I have a pretty good handle on its setting: the seemingly banal inner workings of the Internal Revenue Service. ---Or as one of Wallace’s characters reportedly says in the book, “a system composed of many systems.”

Wallace’s interest in “systems” is longstanding — see his 1996 breakthrough novel Infinite Jest, a postmodern fascination that is at once intricately crafted, funny and oddly moving. (For more on Jest's complex patterns, listen to Michael Silverblatt's revealing interview with the author here.) But setting a novel within the IRS? It’s no wonder he didn’t let anyone know of its presence before his death. On the other hand, if anyone can enliven the arcane world of the IRS and accounting, it’s Wallace.

Given his difficulties in following up Infinite Jest (Wallace published a number of relatively less ambitious books ranging from nonfiction essays to short stories in the dozen years after it cemented his reputation), one wonders if he ever would have unveiled what is now known as The Pale King to the world had he lived.

No matter, it’s here. I suppose an “unfinished” Wallace novel is better than none at all.

<![CDATA[Cincinnati Library Rules!]]> I like books, magazines and movies. I, as you might have guessed by now, like newspapers, too. It should then come as no surprise that the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is one of my favorite places on planet Earth and that it continues to offer a smorgasbord of information, almost all of it available for the bargain basement price of $0 across its 40 branches.---

The library announced today that a variety of other people like it, too.

Among the impressive facts:

• It ranks as the 10th busiest library in the nation with a circulation of 16.3 million

It offers a sweet, ever-expanding collection of movies

It was called a “Star Library” by Library Journal, a designation I'm assuming is a good thing

It allows those otherwise without computer access a place to log on

It was ranked No. 7 — its highest placement ever — among libraries serving populations of 500,000 or more by Hennen's American Public Library Rankings

It counts 350,000 cardholders

It's among the top 10 libraries — alongside Harvard University, the Library of Congress and New York Public Library — in terms of collection size with 9.2 millions items

It, for the first time ever, surpassed the 5 million mark for number of items borrowed

It jumped on the e-book craze as usage went up 55 percent

It garnered 6.5 million visits, an all-time high

Last year the library also received two of the largest gifts in its history, as well as a sizable grant, all of which will help it continue to thrive in the future and allow it to add more impressive bullet points to the list above. More than that, it means it will continue to impact lives in lasting and meaningful ways. And don't forget its many hardworking volunteers and employees, a group that has been helping me since at least the fourth grade when I did extensive research for a report on Vincent Van Gogh — a report that ended up being so impressive as to compel the girl in the next row to lean over and kiss me when I finished presenting it in class. Sweet! Maybe that's why I still find stacks of books oddly alluring.

For the record, my favorite library memory was waiting more than an hour in a long, snaking line of eager citizens to vote in the 2008 presidential election at the Main Branch downtown. If only every Election Day yielded as much enthusiasm. Then there was the time I read Don DeLillo's hilarious and slightly sinister White Noise in one breathless eight-hour marathon session, altering my then-19-year-old perspective forever.

For more information on its various offerings or to find out how you can help the library remain vital, go to www.cincinnatilibraryorg.

<![CDATA[Cincinnati Native Makes New Yorker List]]>

The New Yorker magazine recently published its Summer Fiction issue. It includes a list of what its editors deem as the 20 novelists under the age of 40 worth watching, an endeavor destined to be as contentious as it no doubt was excruciating to craft. (There's a reason the magazine hasn't published such a list in more than a decade.) ---

Their “20 Under 40” includes 10 women and 10 men from places that range from Chicago to Ethiopia. Several familiar names appear (Nicole Krauss, ZZ Packer, Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart and Wells Tower) alongside a few I'm not familiar with, let alone read (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum).

There was also one slight surprise: C.E. Morgan.

A Cincinnati native who currently calls Berea, Ky., home — she studied English and voice at Berea College and earned a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School — the 33-year-old writer made a splash last year with her first novel, All the Living, about an orphaned woman who moves to rural Kentucky with her lover.

I've yet to read All the Living (it's been sitting in a pile with other intended reads at my house), but The New Yorker previously said of it, “This lyrical tale of grief and grueling love on a tobacco farm takes place in the mid-nineteen-eighties but, if not for glimpses of linoleum and double-wides, might recall an earlier time. … Morgan is an expansive stylist, fond of rare words (“letheless,” “mortise”) and of the circumlocutions that can pass for plain speaking, but her pacing is shrewd. By the time the harvest is done, two lonely people are fused, if not consoled.”

Preceding The New Yorker's list, The National Book Foundation last year named Morgan one of its “5 Under 35.” (The only other writer who appears on both lists is Karen Russell.)

Here's video of Morgan reading at the NBF gathering last year:

Even more intriguing than Morgan's inclusion on The New Yorker list is the setting of her short story the magazine ran in the June 14 issue. Entitled “Twins,” it centers on 5-year-old twin brothers — one white (Mickey), one black (Allmon) — whose mother is black and father is white. Set in Northside and featuring numerous mentions of Cincinnati in general (from Mill Creek and Over-the-Rhine to its seven hills and porkopolis past), Morgan's 11-page story is an evocative, detail-rich look at the young lives of two boys who yearn for the love of their mostly AWOL truck-driver father and who yield fascination from their Northside neighbors, some of whom refer to them as the “Oreo babies."

One can't help but wonder how much of "Twins" comes from the author's own first-person Cincinnati experience.

From the opening sentence: "The boy and his twin brother grew up on the streets of Northside, down in the little choke valley, befouled by industry, between the university hill to the southeast and the neighborhood to the north, College Hill, which had no college, despite its name, only modest white houses hinting at the white suburbs to come."

Here's a short Q&A Morgan did with The New Yorker following the publication of the story. It mentions that she's currently working on a novel about "horse racing and race relations."

<![CDATA[Artists in Parks]]>

Cincinnati Artists are invited by the Cincinnati Park Board to participate in their new Artist Registry by submitting a portfolio or work and a resume. This is the beginning of the process whereby artists will be commissioned to crate public art for the Cincinnati Riverfront Park and other future projects.

The deadline for first application review is April 10.

To learn more visit the Park Board Website.

“All mediums and techniques are eligible as we gather information from visual artists, writers and poets, video and audio artists and Composers,” says a press release from the board. “Our intention is to build multidisciplinary teams able to collaborate on conceptual design work, as well as production teams for final design and fabrication.  We also actively seek great stories to tell about Cincinnati Riverfront history through artworks.”

Have questions? Contact Jan Brown Checco, art administrator via or call the Administration Building at 513-357-2604.

<![CDATA[The Culmination of Corso Fest]]>

The local multimedia festival celebrating of the life and legacy of Beat poet Gregory Corso, dubbed "I Gave Away the Sky," culminates this week with two events.

From 7-9 p.m. Thursday is “The Nightest Night: A Reading Honoring the Poetry and Posey of Gregory Corso” at the Reed Gallery in UC’s DAAP building. Among those taking part is local poet Matt Hart, who was gracious enough to let CityBeat publish his tribute to Corso on our Web site.---

The festival closes with an advanced screening of Corso — The Last Beat, an incisive and surprising personal documentary by Cincinnati native Gustave Reininger. (Read my interview with the director here.) The free screening is 5:30 p.m. Friday in room 4400 at UC’s DAAP building. Reininger will be on hand to introduce the film and for a post-screening Q&A.

<![CDATA[Nikki Giovanni Publishes a New Book of Poems]]>

Earlier this week, Bicycles: Love Poems by Cincinnati-native and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni went on sale. The poems in this collection are meant to serve as a companion to her 1997 work, Love Poems. This is her 27th work. In the book, she addresses, among many things, the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Hear an interview with Giovanni and read an excerpt on NPR here.---

Giovanni taught Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman who killed 32 people before killing himself at Virginia Tech. She stated publicly that she removed him from her poetry course because the content of his work was so trouble two other students dropped the class.

Bicycles: Love Poems is on sale now at most bookstores.

<![CDATA[Mercantile Library Announces 2009 Season]]>

The Mercantile Library announced its 2009 lineup of guest speakers today. It’s an impressive list. ---

British writer A.S. Byatt, who won the Booker Prize in 1990 for her novel Possession, is the featured speaker at 22nd annual Niehoff Lecture — a ritzy, black-tie affair replete with high-priced dinner in the Netherland Plaza’s famed Hall of Mirrors — on Oct. 10. Byatt is the latest in a long line of heavy-hitting Niehoff speakers — past participants include John Updike, Calvin Trillin, Salman Rushdie and William F. Buckley.

Denis Johnson, one of the planet’s best writers of fiction, visits the library April 22. That hyperbole stands despite my not having read his latest, Tree of Smoke, which garnered praise from all kinds of high-minded literary geeks and which won the 2007 National Book Award for fiction. Its imposing, 720-page presence has been mocking me from my nightstand for more than a year — another reminder of just how much my reading time has been compromised in recent years. I suppose I now have no choice but to dive into it.

George Packer, one of the planet’s best writers of non-fiction, presents the library’s sixth annual Harriet Beecher Stow Lecture on June 11. Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of The Assassins' Gate, an incisive, emotionally absorbing book on the Iraq War and its impact on both U.S. policy and everyday Iraqis. (He’s also been talking shit, via his blog, about conservative hack William Kristol — Packer recently urged The New York Times to can Kristol, who writes a column for the Times every Monday, when his contract lapses at the end of the year.)


Other 2009 speakers include novelist Chris Bohjalian (Sept. 17) and food writers David Kamp (who has also written hilarious guides on film and music snobbery) and Mimi Sheraton, both of whom appear as part of the Winter Author Series in March.