So, Borders is pulling out of its South Anchorage location and shuttering about 200 stores nationwide over the next few weeks. It's not unexpected, and for years, I felt torn between the big-box bookstores and our smaller indies, but not so torn that I failed to spend hundreds of dollars in the conveniently located store, year after year. Our Dimond Blvd. Borders did a particularly good job in its early years serving children, and my do-or-die weekly routine included stopping at the Borders storytime with my toddlers. I could sip coffee and thumb through new books, refreshing my desperate mommy brain while my kids enjoyed the kind attention of several excellent story ladies. Even on the morning of 9/11, when the world had flipped upside down and emotions were running high, the storytime continued, and I remember other parents with glazed, worried expressions, grateful for the continuation of that tranquil, edifying routine in our young children's lives. (Farewell kudos also for the excellent Alaskana collection at Borders and get ready for some great clearance sales.)
So what do you do when bookstores continue closing and the ones still standing don't offer many author events? You get creative and make your own party - as Don Rearden did last night, at Snow Goose Restaurant, celebrating the launch of his debut novel, The Raven's Gift. Forget about a quiet room of somber bookworms: picture instead a Bethel 1993 high school reunion meets hip-lit-night-out meets an Alaska-style night at the Grammies. Tables were decorated with survival-theme centerpieces: Spam, Pilot Bread crackers, and huge cans of fruit. There was free buffet food; there were giveaways; there were Sarah Palin satires and a funny MC named Eskimo Bob. Joan Kane and Jeremy Pataky did wonderful poetry readings. A guitarist-songwriter named Kevin Morgan gave a performance I would have paid to see at any local nightclub, followed by an astounding performance by two of the members of Yup'ik funk-fusion band Pamyua, whose intense harmonies made the floor hum. All of it ran on village time - meaning there was no hurry. And oh yeah, after all those phenomenal acts, sometime after 9 pm, I think, it was Don Rearden's turn to read, something he does with ease. He kept it short, but no problem there - nearly everyone in the audience had already bought their Raven's Gift copies. Good job, Don; you've set the bar high (maybe too high!) for book launches to follow. Those of us not cool enough to have grown up in Bethel aren't quite sure what to do when it's our turn.
Music and humor, food and wine certainly jazz things up. But let me turn now to a very different literary event, if only to reassure the quieter among us that simplicity works, too.
Folks have been asking me how AWP went. Short answer: good trip, lots of chances to learn about and network with writing centers and other organizations. Nonprofit 'business' aside, my greatest pleasure came from one particular panel: "The 1960 National Book Award Revisited: What Makes Fiction Last?" Fifty years after Philip Roth won the NBA for Goodbye Columbus, a self-selected committee of talented and opinionated modern writers and booklovers -- Peter Grimes, Steve Almond, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Brock Clarke, Michael Griffith, Jodee Stanley -- decided to re-read a slew of books from that year and cast their own ballots for the ones they thought should have won. The retroactive new winner: Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell, with a very close runner-up, Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow.
But simply announcing the panel's "winner" doesn't capture what made the panel so great, agreed several of us lucky to be there. (UAA's David Stevenson also attended and had praise for the panelists.)
In fact, the notion of a single winner - of literary competition - was beside the point. Each panelist championed different books, discussed what they saw authors accomplishing or failing to accomplish, and reflected on authorly ambitions and new insights made possible by hindsight. (Would John Updike, who did not win for his quirky first novel, Poorhouse Fair, and who did win later prizes for his Rabbit books, have become a different kind of writer if he had not been so rewarded - or overrewarded - for the latter?) All agreed that we tend to praise or bestow awards upon books in a conservative fashion, favoring certain kinds of tomes that we think are "good" (or "good for us") rather than the books we simply love. The panelists made a plea for idiosyncracy, for passion, for discussing books openly rather than bestowing singular prizes based on secret meetings, given that we learn and benefit from the discussions themselves more than from the prizes. The panelists were so eloquent -- and so generous. They did us all the favor of role-modeling how literature should be discussed. They also said they plan to continue the experiment next year, when they'll rejudge the 1961 NBAs. I hope they keep it going as long as possible.
Anyone know of a link to the essay that was evidently published about this 'Re-judging the NBAs' experiment? Please share if you do.