MSP Reading Time: Rain Taxi and George Saunders

[Cross post with my Reading Rainstorm blog segment, Land of 10,000 Pages]

On Monday, I was excited to head out to Macalester College see a writer 25893679who has been described as “the best on the planet,” George Saunders, presenting in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the awesome local literary publication, the Rain Taxi Review of Books. Publishing four times a year and offering reviews of independent and obscure works of literature in diverse genres, from poetry to graphic novels, memoir to science fiction, if you see it in the racks at local coffee shops or bookstores, don’t forget to grab a copy. They’re free! Like the City Pages, and the late lamented Vita.mn and Onion papers, they have a tendency to pile up on my couches and in the backs of my friends and family’s cars. Of course, for the low price of $12 a year, you could subscribe and make sure you get all four copies. Always plenty of fodder to pile up on that ever growing reading list!

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Crowd queuing to listen to George Suanders, Kagan Commons, Macalester College

When Rain Taxi began back in 1995, one of their first issues reviewed a book of short stories by a new writer, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. To help celebrate this, and the new edition of Saunders’ charming and eccentric children’s/adult’s picture book, the Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Saunders visited the Twin Cities to read a few of his works and talk about his writing style. I don’t think you could choose a better introduction to the wit and style of George Saunders than the Gappers of Frip.  Read to a rapt audience by George Saunders himself, it was great way discover Saunders’ humorous and surreal, yet true to life writing. I can thank my English major sister for introducing me to his work, though I am still trying to complete my reading of his opus. I would also recommend listening to Saunder’s audiobooks, as he has a great, expressive reading voice, which made his live reading even better! Saunders was even kind enough to mention that the Twin Cities is a great place to do readings!

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George Saunders discussing Gappers to rapt attention

There is nothing cynical in Saunders’ work, but it also does not shy away from depicting the dark injustices faced by every citizen in our imperfect world, poverty, prejudice, greed, apathy, fear. Yet these elements are accompanied by a gentle, bright humanism that really shines through as well, making it a great exploration of the world as it is.

I’ve read that one, along with his latest collection Tenth of December and have always been in absolute awe at his writing prowess. More than any other author, I feel, he is able to capture the idiosyncrasies and feelings of everyday life infused with a total oddness that is itself true to life. In both Tenth of December and CivilWarLand, normal, flawed humans deal with absurd and bizarre situations they way we do with all of those inconvenient but normal problems of everyday life. Each story, also, takes a totally different and unique situation and takes it totally unexpected directions. In his discussion of his writing, Saunders mentioned a really interesting thought, that the writer’s job is really to bring their subconscious to the table, to make the richest and most resonant writing.

This is the stuff that draws me into Saunder’s stories, and into the deep, obsessing world of books in general. As Eric Lorberer, editor at Rain Taxi said in the video celebrating the magazine’s 20 years, books, “as the vital transporters of ideas, and of culture, and of values,” writing as a work of art and books will never leave humanity. Nothing exemplifies this better than the work of George Saunders. 

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Writing Your City: The Loft Literary Center

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Loft Literary Center, interior space

 

When the idea came to me to start up MSP-Adventure time back in late December of 2013, I was pondering ways to brush up my writing skills and give myself some sort of concrete project to latch onto. Like many who come to fancy themselves “writers” without anything much tangible to show for it, I searched for some way to kick start my writing process and quite giving into procrastination all the time.

In the course my academic career, I’ve gotten plenty of writing done; generally in a frantic state, without much proofreading or editing in the last five or six hours before the course paper was due. And I actually liked this! I enjoyed the research, the panic fueled episodes late in the semester of hammering on a keyboard for a few hours until a tangible, physical product was created, printed out and presented to class. I actually prided myself on my ability to pound one out on short notice, one that would be pretty good. Not too bad, anyway. Nothing like a good, stark deadline to force you into panic mode.

There is so intriguing stuff out there in this region alone to focus on, to explore and learn more about, I felt that another collection of online essays (er, blog) detailing the secrets, wonders, and intricacies of Minnesota’s metropolitan outpost, this little outpost of civilization in the middle top of the United States, would be interesting.

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Open Books building, back in February

Of course, my historical background geared me to think of my writing in terms of non-fiction, and my own self-absorption geared me into writing memoir and travel writing, but I didn’t encounter the term “creative non-fiction” until taking a class at the Loft. Now, that’s the first genre I always name drop when people ask me what I write. I would like to dabble in more fiction, or even (god forbid) poetry, too, but, as with this blog, my focus remains in nonfiction.

Because of this, one of my all time favorite places in the entire Twin Cities is the Loft Literary Center. My sister, the Creative Writing major, introduced me to this fine institution about ten years ago after she volunteered there. Tucked away on the upper floors of an atmospheric old warehouse in the Mill District, the Open Book building, the Loft was one of the first institutions to breath life into this long neglected area of industrial ruins. In a city known for its literacy and love of writing, the Loft is the premier place for writers to hang out, learn from each other and practice their craft. It’s great to have this leading literary art center right here!  

I’ve taken numerous classes, workshops and seminars there, attended awesome readings and literary events, and other activities. While living outside of town, I took the Loft’s online classes, which were great, too, but the atmospheric location and camaraderie of actually heading into the writing classroom is my favorite. There is always something interesting coming up, for any writing interest or level. Non-fiction and fiction, poetry and prose, children’s and adult, science fiction or memoir, there are teachers from every background excited to share their knowledge and expertise. For me, I’ve found it very helpful, if only to have a period of continued writing pressure. Of course, the practice and experience writing in different styles and disciplines than I’m used to is nice too. Most recently, I took a fascinating and thought provoking class on Writing the Midwestern Character (I will be writing more on this in a later entry)!

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The Loft’s first location in Dinkytown, circa 1974

I have seen prominent authors discuss their writing practices and share some of their work, including Louise Erdrich, Pete Hautman, and Kelly Barnhill. Last fall, for instance, I listened to author Steve Almond discuss his latest book, Against Football, which was particularly interesting as the monstrous shell of the new stadium which has slowly grown like some sort of monolith towering over this part of town.

In addition, Open Book is home to a host of other artistic and literary organizations, including the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, another favorite, which houses exhibitions focusing on making books themselves into works of art. You can take classes on bookbinding, paper making, screen printing and lots of other cool stuff here, too! With both of these institutions together, it makes for some great projects; write some essays, then learn to bind them yourself in thematic paper style! The MCBA store is always fun to check out too, especially the large collection of zines from local artists available.

On a recent weekend, the Loft celebrated its fortieth anniversary and offered 40 different events to take advantage of all of
IMG_1658 the fun things the Loft and its members do. I was able to attend a few of them myself, my favorite being the first, a bike ride around Minneapolis to tour the previous homes of the Loft Literary Center. Founded in 1974 in Dinkytown, the Loft moved to its current location in 2000, but in between those, it settled in a variety of places. I had not been aware of this history, so it was fun and informative morning bike ride from the Mill District across the river to Dinkytown and Prospect Park, then back over the Mississippi to Franklin Avenue and the Powderhorn neighborhood. It was fun learning more about the Loft’s past and biking with a group of writers!

Among other events, my favorite event ended up really geared to my style and my blog; Inspired by Minneapolis, in which we strolled across the Stone Arch Bridge, writing on writing prompts, watching the city go by, and focusing on certain scenes and details of the urban landscape with little frames. This is a lot of what I am trying to capture in my writing, so it was a valuable and relaxing way to celebrate the Loft.

The Loft is currently offering its slate of autumn classes, so you should check them out and maybe sign up for a few. For those of us who are still paying off student loans as well, the discounted low income rates are very welcome as well. Also, a lot of the events hosted by the Loft are free of charge as well, so keep an eye out!

Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Avenue South, at Open Book

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A good, if windy, day for writing on the Stone Arch Bridge.

Participate in an Archaeological Excavation in St. Paul!

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Welcome to Swede Hollow Park

It is not too often you find such an actual, real-life adventure to experience, but on Saturday morning I went over to St. Paul to participate in an actual, working archaeological excavation in Swede Hollow Park! When else could you have such a chance?

After hearing of the dig on MPR, I knew I would have to check it out, and it was really cool! I almost majored in archaeology in college, though I ended up pretty close in history, so I of course have always been fascinated by the archaeological process. This was the first time I witnessed an excavation first hand, let alone participated, so it was a great learning experience. I cannot think of a better way to learn more about the history, both uplifting and tragic, of immigration in the Twin Cities.

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Swede Hollow Park archaeological dig, August 1, 2015

Chatting with the University of Minnesota graduate students in charge of the dig, we were given a short history of Swede Hollow, a wooded area tucked away just outside of downtown St. Paul, nestled into a ravine. The hollow had a long history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as being the first home to many immigrant groups, who started as squatters on the unused land. Originally a home to Swedish immigrants, later Italian immigrants replaced them and then Mexican immigrants by the 1940s. Throughout all this time, the unofficial neighborhood lacked all infrastructure, whether plumbing, transportation, or electricity. In fact, conditions in the hollow remained a century behind well into the 20th century, its population neglected by the city and left to their own devices.  In 1956, though, the neighborhood was condemned by the city of St. Paul and declared a public health hazard. The remaining families living in the hollow were forced out and the homes burned by the Fire Department.

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Digging!

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Some of the artifacts discovered at Swede Hollow Park; pieces of pottery, old bottles, pre-1940s brickwork.

It is these marginalized populations that the archaeological explorations of Swede Hollow hope to shine light upon.  We helped to dig exploratory surveys, probing what artifacts could be found in certain areas after GPR scanning indicated objects buried in the ground of the park, or old surveys revealed where buildings once stood. Signs of the burn line had yet to be breached, but much evidence of Swede Hollow’s history as a dumping ground for the rest of the city’s waste, public and private, were discovered. It was such a great experience to help turn up so much information about the neglected groups who lived in the past, without much documentation or attention.

Filling buckets of soil from the excavations, we helped to pick out artifacts from the rest of the fill; tiny pieces of glass, marble, clinkers from old coal fuel, pieces of pre-1940 brick, ceramic, and much more. It was fascinating to see so many relics of the past century turn up, after which they were packed away in numbered baggies for laboratory analysis. Kneeling on the ground of the park, digging at the soil with a trowel, enjoying the nice weather, this was one of the most unique things I’ve done this summer.

They are still inviting the public to participate this weekend as well, and I’d really recommend checking it out if you can; here is their list of things you need.  It can be a bit difficult to find your way to Swede Hollow Park, but there is parking in the neighborhoods around it, so just head down the stairs and follow the chalk outlines leading to the excavations!

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Another excavation.

University of Minnesota Farmers Market

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McNamara Alumni Center, Gateway Plaza hosting University of Minnesota Farmer’s Market, July 8th, 2015

Yesterday was a beautiful day, so with an empty refrigerator and some hours of free time, I knew I’d need to head out for supplies. What great serendipity when, while browsing Twitter, I read, courtesy of the U of M’s Library, about a new farmer’s market in town starting that very morning at my old alma mater, the University of Minnesota. I made up an ingredient list and wasted no time in biking over.

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Summer vegetables at U of M Farmer’s Market

After all, I need little reason to hang out around the U of M and feel nostalgic. The market was held at the Gateway Plaza, under the shadow of the McNamara Alumni Center (you know, that strange, geometric building near Stadium Village- always thought it looked kind of like a giant twenty sider). Some seven or eight local farmers set up tables on the plaza, selling their produce, including the U’s own organic Cornercopia student-managed farm. There was quite a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables to choose from; I picked up some blueberries, rhubarb, beets, potatoes, green onions, garlic, zucchini, peppers, basil, cilantro and kohlrabi (needed to try out something new). I also saw turnips, lots of greens, strawberries and raspberries, ands sweet onions for sale. Along with the produce, there were also food trucks and food offered by the University Dining Services; that does not sound that promising, but my lunch was actually quite delicious- a roasted vegetable skewer lavash along with a cup of basil ginger lemonade.

As students, faculty, and just community members filled up their canvas bags with vegetables, had lunch, or spoke to one of the University and regional institutions set up, we were treated to live music by local Minneapolis band Sister Species. I’ve always enjoyed bands made up of siblings that have accordions, so they added a lot of cool ambiance to the market and I’m definitely checking out their music.

Upon arriving home, I threw together the zucchini, green onions, basil, and cilantro into a delicious cheesy rice hotdish from the MHS cookbook, Hot Dish Heaven. One of my favorite summer comfort food recipes. I’ll have enough to try out a few more recipes as well this week.

Looks like the market will be held every Wednesday for the rest of the summer, from 11 to 2. Another great place to buy some local wares in a metro full of farmer’s markets. I biked over, used the plentiful bike racks in the area, but there is plenty of car parking at the nearby ramp for a cost of three bucks. It’s a short walk over from the nearby Green Line East Bank Station, so that’d be a good choice, too.

McNamara Alumni Center, 200 SE Oak St, MPLS

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Sister Species performs at U of M Farmer’s Market

Events at the Library!

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It may be a bit of busman’s holiday, but I often find myself going to the various branches of the Hennepin County Library system and other local systems, even when I’m not actually scheduled to work there. What can I do when the library offers so many different programs and events throughout the year, all for free! Often cooperating with groups and businesses in the metro, its a great way to learn some new things for a very low prices.

While I’ve mentioned my love of the library book sales, of course, and there are always book clubs, writing groups, author talks, and other bookish activities, there is also a surprising variety of interesting community programs. I took an awesome zine crafting session a few years ago at the Nokomis branch, for instance. Learned some innovative, simple, and cheap techniques. A couple of months ago, the Eden Prairie branch presented a very interesting seminar on tea, in conjunction with the Tea Source. A great introduction to what has been called the world’s most affordable luxury! And what goes better with tea than books?

It is still surprising to me how much tea culture has started to take off in the US. I recall being introduced to tea drinking by my sister, back when I was rebelling against our coffee drinking parents. The loose leaf teas we discovered introduced us to a whole new world of flavors, and the information provided by the Tea Source to library patrons was invaluable, and also fun. It was a great way to introduce friends and family less well versed in the tea techniques; my parents, for instance.

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Tea blending ingredients are set out.

Divided into groups, we were each given a job at our tables to begin to learn the ways of the tea, including a person to measure the loose leaf tea choices, prepare the water, and set up the timer. We sampled three different types of basic black teas, Assam, Grand Keemun, and Ceylon, learned about the origins and the biology of the camellia sinensis plant, the only plant from which real “tea” is derived, the production of tea. There are six main varieties of tea, white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and puerh or “dark” tea. We were given pointers on the proper temperatures and steeping times, and other essential pointers on making a proper cup of tea.

We then were given the opportunity to experiment with our own blend of tea, mixing the base black tea varieties other teas or herbs like lapsang souchong (the smoked tea that tastes like a campfire, an acquired taste I quite enjoy), dried mint, ginger, among others. I mixed my Keemun with a little dried ginger and some lapsang souchong.

It seems that there is always something happening. The next week, I happened to be working up at the Northeast branch, for an energetic and exciting family orientated Asian New Year event, featuring interactive drumming, dancing, and arts, and it proved popular with the local families. Today, working at the East Lake branch, I was lucky enough to see a local group teach Aztec dancing for the branch’s Dia de los Niños event, a vibrant and exciting program. I really like that our libraries are such great venues for such community learning opportunities and entertainment, and it always amusing to see passersby find themselves listening to musical performances in the library. So unexpectedly cool! Coming up are some interesting looking bike maintenance workshops and even some 3D printing classes that look interesting; check out the current schedule here!