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Franzen in February 2017

It’s that time of year when Reading in Bed pauses and takes a moment to alternately love, hate, and love-to-hate that great American novelist (it’s okay when it’s not capitalized) Jonathan Franzen.

Last year I debuted this feature and it was so much fun. I was drawing on a couple years’ worth of ideas, though, and at the beginning of 2017, I considered leaving it at that: a one-time thing. Do I have that much more to say? Two years out from his last book, the Fran Man is not in the news much lately, and reacting to his media presence is half the fun. Nor do I have any new conspiracy theories, unfortunately.

But then I kind of forced my hand by writing him a letter and letting him know about the whole Franzen in February thing:

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D’ya think he reads his fan mail?

So! Here we are. I have a couple ideas up my sleeve, and I hope a couple of you contribute a guest post or two. If you would like to review one of his books, or write anything at all, loving or not, get in touch in the comments. No sign ups or prizes, just good, clean Franzen fun. Here’s what I’m working on:

  • The start of a”Complete Works” project with a review of Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City
  • A review of Nell Zink’s Nicotine, which pairs nicely with Purity
  • Chip Lambert and Charlie Brown: The Influence of Charles Schultz on the works of Jonathan Franzen (sounds academic, right? It’s just going to be Peanuts comic strips and quotes from The Corrections, don’t worry)
  • Show and tell: my Franzen collection, from ARCs to signed first editions

In the meantime, check out this wonderful Author Spotlight at new-to-me book blog bibliotaphs, or check out the Franzen in February archives.

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On my shelf

 

Franzen in February

Welcome to Franzen in February. That’s right, in the off chance that I didn’t alienate my entire readership when I reviewed Purity thrice last year, I’ve decided to devote the whole month of February to the fabulous Mr. F. Here are just some of the goodies I have in store:

  • My conspiracy theory regarding the Franzen/Weiner feud (I just watched episode #1 of the X-files reboot, so I am ready to go in on this. THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.)
  • Q&A with Franzen Fan Club President and author of The Wallcreeper and Mislaid Nell Zink (!!!!)
  • Q&A with CanLit darling and Franzen fan Sigal Samuel, author of The Mystics of Mile End
  • Q&A with the fanatic behind Franzenfreude
  • Guests posts from a couple of Franzen newbies (your first Franzen is a very special experience)

Oh, yeah, I’m going to read stuff too. Maybe even review. Here’s the thing, though: I read three of Franzen’s books last year, and I’m not really in the mood to read another one right now. Write about them, yes. Read more of them…no. That could put a damper on the whole event.

I figured it out a way around it. Part of Franzen’s mystique is how everyone seems to have an opinion about him, and many authors have come out in support or on the attack. I’m going to read books by authors who love him, who hate him, who’ve been blurbed by him, and so on. FranzenFriends and FranzenFoes, if you will. Here’s my stack:

From top: Hates him, blurbed by him, blurbed by him, #1 fan?

From top: Hates him, blurbed by him, blurbed by him, #1 fan

A couple friend & foe ideas for you:

  • FranzenFriends: Nell Zink, Sigal Samuel, David Foster Wallace, Emily Gould, Jami Attenberg, Chico Buarque, Laura Miller
  • FranzenFoes: Jennifer Weiner, Roxane Gay, Curtis Sittenfield, Jodi Picoult

Get involved: read a book by Franzen, or a friend/foe; pitch me a guest post; or just follow along and comment. I’m not messing around with sign-ups, prizes, or read-alongs. I want to spend my time writing up all these fun posts.

I don’t really have an agenda. I’ve read his three “big” novels plus his memoir, and rated them three or four stars. I don’t even count him in my top ten authors. And I don’t give a shit if you refuse to read him for whatever (probably misinformed) reason. He’s just so fun to talk about. He’s a force in modern literature, but he can be, to quote a heroine of classic lit, so adorably clueless.

Whether you’re a FranzenFriend or FranzenFoe, stay tuned, this’ll be fun.

Franzen blaming

Sometime during the Purity publicity blitz of 2015, I added “Franzen apologist” to my Twitter bio. I was tired of defending every out-of-context interview quote and excerpt individually. The only truly snark-worthy event was the “adopting an Iraqi war orphan” thing, which I maintain was just a joke (right?).

So it’s rare for me to directly address Franzen haters, but, it is Franzen in February, and I’ve just come across an instance that’s too good to pass up. It’s not the usual “uh, I’ve never read him but he’s like, gross” hating, either. It’s a clear cut case of Franzen blaming.

Earlier this year, someone took it upon themselves to purchase the URL ciswhitemale.com and redirect it to Franzen’s Facebook page (try it, it still works as of this writing!) which is not the instance I’m here to write about today, but illustrates the phenomenon of Franzen blaming. Think about it, what’s the point of this stunt?

  • That Franzen *is* a cis white male (duh)?
  • That he only writes *about* cis white males (not true)?
  • That he only writes *for* cis white males (…nope)?
  • Or, that he is the poster boy and scapegoat for cis white male bias in the publishing industry (ah ha!)

Today, I direct your attention to “The Unsung Letter”, published by writer Helen McClory, “featuring one new(ish) under-hyped book, sung to the rafters by a different writer/poet/critic/book-pusher every time.” In its second issue, the writer is A.N. Devers and the unsung book is Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut The Last Samurai – already on my radar as an overlooked classic, and it’s recently back in print. So far, so good.

Then this:

Why read The Last Samurai? For one, it is far superior to Franzen’s The Corrections, arguably as intellectually demanding as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and yet, DeWitt was never put on the cover of a magazine for The Last Samurai. She was never offered Oprah’s Book Club, and she never entered into the media’s great push to proclaim the new great American writers, Franzen and Wallace, who notably published their big books around the same time. There wasn’t room on the stage for DeWitt, somehow. She didn’t even enter get a piece of the conversation. I heard later it many times that it was partly her fault that she was difficult. Well.

Typos aside, we’ve got a classic case of Franzen blaming on our hands, with some DFW blaming for good measure! I double checked my dates when I read “notably published their big books around the same time” because… no they didn’t. The Last Samurai came out in September of 2000. Infinite Jest was published in February of 1996, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say DFW specifically was taking up all the room nearly five years later. DFW didn’t publish any books in the year 2000, and his next novel didn’t come out until after his death, in 2011. But sure, he was a well-known writer at the time, and a poster boy for a certain kind of bro-literature.

But Franzen? In September of 2000, he was the author of two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novels: The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He didn’t start taking up cultural space until The Corrections came out in 2001, and the only thing “notable” about its publication date is that 9/11 happened nine days later. A full year after The Last Samurai.

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Franzen reacts.

I dug a bit deeper to see who was taking up literary cultural space in the year 2000 (I was 19 and the main cultural space I inhabited was Rum Jungle at West Edmonton Mall):

  • Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin
  • Michael Ondaatje won the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for Anil’s Ghost
  • Susan Sontag won the National Book Award
  • Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer
  • JK Rowling dominated the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list.

Not a cis white male* among them.

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Jonathan Who-zen?

Bias towards cis white male authors in literary culture is real. They are reviewed more; they are more likely to be the reviewers. They are longlisted and shortlisted for, and winners of, literary prizes in numbers that far exceed their natural incidence in the population. Did DFW and Franzen benefit from this bias? Surely. Are they specifically to blame for one novel by a cis white woman failing to find an audience, in a year in which neither of them published a book, and in which several women and people of colour enjoyed mainstream and critical literary success? Well.

*I’m not 100% sure about Michael Ondaatje’s ethnicity, and in light of recent events I hate to speculate, but his Wikipedia page says his ancestry is Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil so I’m running with that.

 

My first Franzen: Motion sickness (Strong Motion, 1992)

As part of Franzen in February, I asked some of my favourite readers to pick up their very first Franzen novel, and a few of them actually did. I guess I’m what you’d call an online influencer (come at me, brands.) Today, #CanLit poster boy Jason Purcell reviews Strong Motion. For more of Jason’s brilliance, check out his YouTube channel, his Instagram, his blog, or just stalk him on Twitter.

I wonder now if I went into Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) planning to dislike it, perhaps as a way of proving my politics, whatever those may be, however they may speak to Franzen’s. I admit that I approached this, my first Franzen, with suspicion, with my eye already mid-eye roll, pencil poised to write some critique in the margin. I certainly did do these things. But then I stopped altogether. As of this moment, I’ve only made it 116 pages in, and so I don’t have a lot to report. The protagonist is a white male who is a social outcast of one kind or another. There are a number of damaged women who surround him who exist to be critiqued by our protagonist. There are earthquakes. There are several earthquakes.

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I may never know why there are so many earthquakes, because as I’ve said already, I’ve given it up. This brings to mind a 2010 piece by Julia Keller called “When to give up on a book” which reads: “Like a spouse who has already made a secret appointment with a divorce attorney, … I found myself smitten with guilt. ‘It’s not you,’ I murmured to the novel. ‘It’s me. Really.’” But in this case, is it me? It appears that this novel received mostly praise, and the criticism is largely concerned with Franzen’s ambition, that he has written too much here. And, when I think of this novel, and of abandoning it, I don’t feel “smitten with guilt,” though I do feel each individually—glad not to be reading it and guilty for not having finished.

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But there were too many moments in this novel that caused visceral discomfort that I feel I can’t even fight through it. Selecting the most revolting is a real Sophie’s Choice.

“You’re fucked up,” he said without looking at her. “You’re really fucked up. And you’ve got the wrong idea about me.”

“But you like me, right?” she asked him from the doorway.

“Yeah, sure. I like you. I like you.” (75)

I was warned that this novel is not Franzen’s most mature, and I’m willing to believe that his later work really does deserve the praise they have received, and I’m even willing to believe that Franzen might be worthy of his title as one of the greatest living American novelists. But the first hundred pages of Strong Motion are littered with clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl moments rendered in lackluster prose that I don’t feel willing to sacrifice my time trying to understand. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it. As Keller notes at the end of her piece, “I did finally finish Wolf Hall. Part of that was a sense of professional responsibility; the novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is simply too highly regarded by too many smart people to be ignored.” Franzen, too, is highly regarded by many smart people, someone whose work I’d love to read and understand. But Strong Motion is to be shelved until someone is able to convince me it is worth the struggle, that it is a great novel that deserves my attention. There is so much to read. So much so that to spend time reading something as uninteresting as this seems the saddest thing to do.

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Okay, so this didn’t work out so well. I’ve advised Jason to give himself time to recover, perhaps indulge in some self-care, and then try again with The Corrections. Stay tuned for another edition of My First Franzen in the next couple of days.

On not reading The Corrections

And now, the first guest post of Franzen in February 2017! The lovely Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses valiantly took on The Corrections, after promising to do so last year. Read on to see how she fared – though the title probably gives you an idea – and do check out her blog. Her Last Week’s Reading series is particularly good, if dangerous for the TBR; she is also a certified poetry concierge!

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I’ve read a few of Jonathan Franzen’s essays (hated the one on Edith Wharton, in which he repeatedly comments on her looks; thought better of the one on Antarctica) and I’ve caught the general flavor of his views on technology and the reading public. I’ve also been delighted to read Laura’s spirited posts about the novelist over the last few years.  All of this to say I came to Franzen in February wary of Franzen, but willing to be pulled in by his writing. Continue reading

2017 Reading Plans: Hello, boys

After numerous self-imposed reading restrictions in 2016, I’m leaving 2017 wide open in terms of what and how many books I read. I plan to reintroduce men into my reading life, after a 2016 of #readwomen. I toyed with the idea of reading only men this year, but would rather have some freedom.

I have some projects in mind, of course. This wouldn’t be a book blog without needless complication of the simple act of reading!

  1. Author of the Year – or, The Complete Works of…: Adam at Memento Mori read all of Cormac McCarthy’s books, in order of publication, in 2016 and he’s doing it again this year with Faulkner. Some other Booktube types are taking the challenge with other authors, like Steinbeck. I don’t want to settle on an author just yet; rather, I’m going to read debut novels and embark on the project when the mood strikes. My shortlist includes:
    • Gabriel Garcia Marquez (debut novella The Leaf Storm)
    • David Adams Richards (debut novel The Coming of Winter)
    • Charles Dickens (The Pickwick Papers)
    • Haruki Murkami (Hear the Wind Sing, #1 in the Trilogy of the Rat)
    • Jean Rhys (The Left Bank)
    • Dostoyevski (Poor Folk)
    • Zadie Smith (White Teeth)
    • Jonathan Franzen (The Twenty-Seventh City).
  2. Franzen in February: Speaking of the Fran Man, I do plan to reprise Franzen in February in some manner, and you can help! Get in touch if you want to write a guest post, particularly if you’ve never read Franzen and want to review one of his books. I would love someone to do The Corrections! Last year my Franzen first-timers were not impressed by either Strong Motion or Freedom.
  3. Canada Reads: The longlist is out, the “theme” is announced. Though I’m not sure “the book Canada needs now” is a theme. At the very least, I will watch, and possibly, do a shadow or parallel Canada Reads with WriteReads – check out their latest podcast for details.
  4. Authors in Edmonton: Emily St. John Mandel and Heather O’Neill: Yep, I’m finally going to read Station Eleven, as it’s the 2017 Macewan Book of the Year. Hype be damned. And O’Neill is giving the 2017 Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta, which will force me to read more of her work – I’ve been afraid that nothing can surpass Lullabies for Little Criminals.
  5. War and Peace Summer Readalong: No details just yet, but after completing a thousand page readalong last year, naturally I’m going to go for a twelve hundred pager this year. Watch this space.

One thing I didn’t realize til I wrote this all out is that by reading men again, and focusing on debuts, I’ll end up reading a lot of novels by men in their early-to-mid twenties.

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Ew! The semi-autobiographical musings of a 23 year old!

Wish me luck!

(If this is tl;dr you can check me out on Booktube talking about my reading goals here.)

 

 

Book to Movie Challenge 2016: Emma (1996), Anna Karenina (2012), and In Her Shoes

movie challenge
I haven’t watched this many movies since before I had kids, when Netflix & Chill was still Blockbuster & Chill* and it’s all thanks to ebookclassics’ Book to Movie Challenge 2016. It’s comforting and nostalgic to go shopping at HMV, to buy movie snacks, to wait till everyone’s gone to bed and curl up with blankets on the couch by myself and watch a movie. Here are my first three adaptations of the year. I also saw The Revenant in theater, but I haven’t read the book, so I’ll spare you the Leo gifs.

Emma (1996)

  • The book: I read Emma for the 200th anniversary in late 2015, and for the second time that year, I started a “reread” to find I’d never read the original at all. It was a delightful, cozy read, though nowhere near my favourite Austen; the stakes are simply too low. Emma doesn’t care about getting married until the very end (uh, spoiler) so her marriage plot is kind of boring. I would love to revisit Emma and Knightly a few years into their marriage and co-habitation with finicky Mr. Woodhouse. I got the feeling Knightly didn’t think about what he was agreeing to. My reading experience was heightened by two blog events: Dolce Bellezza’s Read Along and Sarah Emsley’s Emma in the Snow, which is still going strong, and features guest posts by experts about food, urban planning, and why Mr. Knightley is not a super creep, to name just a few.
  • The movie: It’s a very literal interpretation of the book. It was boring, but pleasantly so, just like the book. I’m pretty sure they added the archery scene with Emma and Mr. Knightly just to get the shot of Emma aiming her bow and arrow for the poster. Apart from that, there are no real surprises or innovations.emmaarrow
  • The casting: I don’t mind when an actor doesn’t look the way I imagined, but I am a stickler for ages. Emma is twenty years old, and Gwyneth Paltrow (who I love, but can only think of as Goopy Paltrow thanks to dlisted) was 24 when the movie came out. Harriet is seventeen and Toni Collette was 24 as well. I don’t know if we are told Frank Churchill’s age, but certainly he should be older than Emma. Ewan McGregor is older than Goopy, but just barely. Everyone looked too old to my eyes. I read Emma as a teenage story, though that might just be me comparing the text to Clueless.

Anna Karenina (2012)

  • The book: I read AK many years ago. I have an Oprah’s Book Club edition, because before blogging, I didn’t know that was gross. I don’t remember a lot about it, so it didn’t make a huge impression.
  • The movie: I loved it. The costumes, the music, the stage/backstage framing, Keira, and Matthew Mcfayden especially. It didn’t matter how faithful it was to the book (not that I’d remember) because it clearly wasn’t meant to be. My only gripe is that they didn’t make this movie years ago, when Jude Law could’ve played hot Vronksy instead of the crotchety husband. I mean:
  • The casting: see gripe above re. Vronsky casting. As for Anna, she is 28 in the book, and Keira was 27 when it came out. Vronsky’s age felt right; Aaron Taylor-Johnson is five years younger than Keira. Mr. Karenin is supposed to be about twenty years older than Anna, and Jude Law is only about thirteen years older than Keira, but their age difference felt okay. My favourite actor was Matthew Mcfayden as the patriarch of the first unhappy family we meet. I liked him here just as much as in P&P.

In Her Shoes (2005)

  • The book: Read last month for Franzen in FebruaryIn Her Shoes is my third Weiner novel and middling among books that are themselves pretty middling. It wasn’t as good as Good in Bed, but it was better than super-boring Fly Away Home (though FAH will always have a place in my heart for allowing me to write this.) IHS starts with a tired premise (one sister is a frumpy harpy, the other is a good-time girl, will they ever learn to accept one another) but Weiner takes a few risks and explores some interesting territory with respect to class and consent in the beginning. It never really goes anywhere though. After a bizarre middle section in which the messed-up sister grifts her way through a Princeton dorm, and the serious sister quits practicing law in favour of dog walking, which has no impact on her yuppie lifestyle, everyone ends up exactly where you knew they would.
  • The movie:  Apart from some questionable casting (see below), the movie is much tighter than the book, doing away with the middle section, but still giving us Maggie’s redemption through literature. I don’t know what it says about me that I preferred Maggie to learn to love literature from an old man than to learn it herself. Apparently Weiner was inspired by Push by Sapphire (also a movie, Precious) which is just… look, that’s going to be a WHOLE other blog post. Let’s just say that I will never forget reading Push and I have already forgotten a lot of In Her Shoes.
  • The casting: Age is not an issue this time, but Rose (Toni Collette) is supposed to be overweight, and this is played up in a couple of important scenes. In one of these, Maggie (Cameron Diaz) calls Rose a “fat pig” to which Rose scoffs “that’s the best you can do? You’re my sister,” just before their estrangement. In the movie, it’s a bizarre moment, because Rose is not fat. Both actresses still manage to rock this scene. The male leads were quite a bit more attractive then they seemed to be in the book, and, strangely, the sassy black friend becomes a cynical white friend.

    inhershoes

    Spot the “fat sister”

 

*My most memorable Blockbuster & Chill was Reservoir Dogs, on my second date with a guy I met online. Reader, I married him.

Sigal Samuel reads sexist books so you don’t have to (but you should anyway)

Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mystics of Mile End, a novel about Montreal, Kabbalah, and family secrets. She is working on a middle grade novel about a boy named Zeno who goes to a hotel and discovers that it has an infinite number of rooms – it’s based on a real paradox in math called Hilbert’s Paradox of the Grand Hotel. Are my kids middle grade yet? Visit her at sigalsamuel.com and follow her on Twitter.

sigalSigal Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, has so much going on that I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering who might have influenced it. In hindsight, the multiple narrators, the prominence of place, the middle-class neighbourhood, the failing patriarch, the young man coming of age, and yeah, even the queer female protagonist, should have tipped me off. This novel has Franzen written all over it.

It was Samuel’s essay, “What Women Can Learn From Reading Sexist Male Authors“, that alerted me to her FranzenFriend status. She questions the mass writing-off of Franzen’s work, particularly by those objecting to his supposed sexism:

Franzen, whose character Denise’s storyline in The Corrections is among the best depictions I’ve encountered of queer female desire? Whose first 50 pages in Freedom form one of the strongest indictments of rape culture I’ve ever read?

(Note to self: reread the first 50 pages of Freedom.)

The essay is a response to Rebecca Solnit’s essay “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” itself a response to an asinine list of “80 books all men should read” that appeared in Esquire a few years ago. (Esquire has since responded with an all-female list of 80 books all people should read, and honestly, the most offensive thing about both lists is that they are slide shows.)

Rather than presuming to prescribe specific books, à la Esquire, or satirizing those lists, à la Solnit,  Samuel examines what readers gain when they read outside their ideology. She also argues that to imply women shouldn’t read certain books is actually pretty darn sexist:

It’s pretty insulting to women’s intelligence to imply that we’re incapable of separating out the good from the bad in these works.

Sigal Samuel kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Franzen, sexists, and The Mystics of Mile End. Check out this review by Buried in Print for more about Mystics; it’s a great read.

Reading in Bed: You’ve admitted to liking Franzen’s work (shock! horror!) Do you count him as an influence? In what way has his work influenced yours?

Sigal Samuel: I absolutely count Franzen as an influence. I think I’ve learned a lot from him, both on the sentence level (remember that “crepuscular”sentence near the beginning of “The Corrections”?) and on the structural level. The opening section of “Freedom” — the way it starts with a bird’s eye view of a neighborhood, then zooms into one person’s perspective, then swivels horizontally into a neighbor’s perspective — directly inspired the structure of the closing section of my novel, “The Mystics of Mile End.”

RIB: Franzen is know for alternating perspectives between multiple narrators. How important was it to tell The Mystics of Mile End from multiple perspectives? Did you ever think about telling it from a single point of view, and if so, whose?

SS: So, yes, following from the last question, multiple perspectives are very important to me! I did actually start by writing “Mystics” entirely from one perspective — that of Samara, a twentysomething university student who’s climbing the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. But it began to feel pretty claustrophobic to spend 300 pages inside the head of one increasingly insane narrator. Plus, it seemed more interesting to be able to show how other people in Samara’s life were perceiving her obsession, and noticing clues that she was missing, and vice versa. I’m always most interested in drawing connections between people, and across time and space and ideas, and alternating perspectives allows you to do that.

RIB:  You wrote about how reading sexist literature can be instructive. Have you ever read a book where the sexism was just too much? How does a book (or author) cross that line?

SS: You know, a friend of mine asked me this question recently and was surprised when I answered that, no, I’ve never encountered a book where the sexism was just too much. That might be because I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish world. If I can get through the Bible and the Talmud, with all their deep-seated sexism, and still manage to appreciate them as great works of literature — well, I can probably get through anything!

And then, in a moment of Franzen in February zen, she had a run-in with the man himself earlier this month:

Freedom IRL

When I recommended Freedom to my sister a couple years ago, in a post that proved to have a broader appeal than I thought it would, I only did so because it was about marriage. Caitlin was about to get married to her American boyfriend, and due to immigration law, would likely be a housewife for at least the first few months of her marriage. “American housewife” immediately brought Freedom‘s Patty Berglund to mind.

I’d completely forgotten that Freedom takes place in St. Paul, Minnesota, the very city Caitlin was moving too. She got around to reading it recently, and her contribution to Franzen in February is a Freedom-centric tour of St. Paul.

Ramsey Hill

 

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier.

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If you’re one of those people who like to describe settings as being like a character, Ramsey Hill would be the main character here.

 

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Ramsey-Hill-Nice

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A bit more gentrified over here

Summit-Lexington Intersection

 

According to Blake, the morning’s KSTP weather forecast had been stupid, the Paulsens had put their recycling barrel in a stupid place, the seat-belt beeper in his truck was stupid not to shut off after sixty seconds, the commuters driving the speed limit on Summit Avenue were stupid, the stoplight at Summit and Lexington was stupidly timed…

Summit-Lexington

What is going on with these signs? I don’t like it. Also, the Cathedral of St. Paul.

 

Macalester College

He got an Ivy League scholarship offer but instead went to Macalester, close enough to Hibbing to take a bus up on weekends and help his mom combat the motel’s encroaching decay (the dad apparently now had emphysema and was useless).

Fun fact: Marlon James teaches here

Fun fact: Marlon James teaches here

Central High School

It happened that one of the popular ninth-grade girls at Joey’s own school, Central High, had come home from a family trip to New York City with a cheap watch, widely admired at lunch hour.

Looks like a cheery place

Looks like a cheery place

 

Caitlin and I are indebted to this article, which appeared in a local paper just as Freedom was published. The author’s excitement at his hometown’s prominence in a novel is embarrassingly Canadian. There are a couple gems in the comments, too: “too much sex geez the guy needs an editor.” Yeah, yeah, we know.

That time Nell Zink slid into my DMs

Since I began drafting this post, @NellZink on Twitter is no more. These DMs, screen-shots taken just before they went poof, are even more precious now. For those not in the know, Nell Zink wrote breakout novel The Wallcreeper (2014), National Book Award longlisted Mislaid (2015), and has a new novel, Nicotine, due out this fall. 

I’ve had a couple of exciting Twitter moments. The first was figuring out how Twitter actually works in 2010. In 2011, I coined a hashtag that’s still in use. In 2012, a celebrity replied to me for the first time (J to the Roc). Since then, I’ve chatted with many authors, of course. But none of these moments compare to receiving an unexpected DM from Nell Zink.

Nell Zink Twitter

@NellZink’s profile pic. Who needs a blue check mark when you’ve got a blue bird on your head?

@NellZink doesn’t have the blue check mark, but her profile is pretty on-brand: Goethe quoted in her bio, sparkly-blue-bird-fascinator in her profile pic, and the best part, her background pic, in which she gazes adoringly at a statue of Charles Dickens, side by side with Little Nell.

I don’t have a handle on her Twitter M.O. She deletes many of her tweets and pretty much all of her @ replies, only follows a handful of German accounts, and she likes, but never retweets, praise for her novels. But she’s out there, searching. If you tweet about her or Jonathan Franzen, as I am wont to do, you might just hear from her. I caught her eye with a silly tweet about JFranz sex scenes.

I won’t reveal the content of the DMs we exchanged, not because there was anything racy or controversial, but because that would be rude. I will reveal that it was I who stopped replying, and I feel awful about it, but the pressure was getting to me. Each morning of that magical week in August, I had to think of something intelligent to say to Nell Zink. I couldn’t hack it. Forgive me.

Okay, one thing: she taught me the phrase “O tempora, o mores!” which is a fancy way to say “kids these days.” This was in reference to Fifty Shades of Grey. Also, she read my review of The Wallcreeper and said it was “cute.”

When I worked up the nerve to get back in touch, Nell was kind enough to answer a few questions in honour of Franzen in February. She asked me to stress that this interview was conducted in Twitter DMs, as she is known for disliking email interviews and would like to keep it that way.

@LauraTFrey: You and Mr. Franzen are champions of each other’s work, but do you influence each other? Do you think you influenced Purity, and did he influence Nicotine?

@NellZink: He’s the hero of NICOTINE (in code), but I don’t think I influenced PURITY because he doesn’t pay that much attention.

@LauraTFrey: Will he blurb Nicotine? I’d love to see your blurb on one of his books…

@NellZink: He didn’t blurb any of my books; he blurbed me as a writer (as a way of getting around his refusal to write blurbs). MISLAID didn’t have blurbs – it had quotes from rave reviews of THE WALLCREEPER. Which is different and better.

@LauraTFrey: You said in your n+1 review of Purity that you hate most novels. Do you mean modern novels? Do you keep trying/reading or have you given up?

@NellZink: I’m picky, but I find good things to read fairly often. The odds that any given galley will float my boat are apparently so poor that I’ve started telling editors not to bother. Either that or people have a strange idea of what I might like.

Nell Zink DMs

Farewell, @NellZink, and thanks for sliding into my DMs