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Cocktail Hour

Lundgren’s Lounge: “City on Fire,” by Garth Risk Hallberg

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During the 3 or 4 days that I was immersed in this novel it was like an appendage, a siren that summoned me from the depths of sleep at 3 a.m: ‘Oh, yes, the book.’  And reach over to turn on the reading light, dive back into the tumultuous world of New York City during a few months in 1976-1977.

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Bill and Dave’s Live at Space Gallery in Portland

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We had a great night in Portland featuring Bill, Dave, Bill Lundgren, Kate Miles, Kate Christensen and Dave’s eyebrows.



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Bad Advice Wednesday: Get Thrown Out of Libraries

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By special guest Ginger Strand:


I only cried twice at the Lilly Library while researching my new book The Brothers Vonnegut. Indiana University’s beautiful archive has most of Kurt Vonnegut’s early drafts and letters, and I visited it several times while working on the book. The first time I cried was when I was going through a box of miscellaneous stuff and Kurt Vonnegut’s passport popped out. There he was, smiling up at me with that self-ironic grin. Overwhelmed with a sudden sense of loss, as if I had known him personally, I burst into tears. This never fails to draw furtive glances from fellow readers and concerned stares from reading room staff fearful you might do some harm to the paper.


vonnegutt book

The second time was on another visit, when I was reading letters Kurt wrote to his daughter Nanette during his separation from her mother. The letters were so raw, so real, so filled with the agony of failed marriage and the confounding anxieties of parenthood, that I couldn’t help weeping as I read them. I soldiered on that way for a while, reading and sniffling, but eventually I did step outside to collect myself. I myself feared I might do some harm to the paper.


I always seem to be the only one weeping in the archive. Or doing a happy dance when I discover something great. (I try to disguise it as standing up to stretch.) Or giggling. There was one point when I was researching my first book of nonfiction, Inventing Niagara, when I thought I might be forcibly ejected from the American Antiquarian Society for giggling. I was reading some very early accounts of explorers in the New World, and they were hilarious. Other readers were glancing over. The American Antiquarian Society, a national research library housed in a Colonial revival building in Worcester, Mass., is a rather formal archive, with scads of rare books and periodicals, and scads more rules and regulations about how you may interact with them. You sit in a grand, paneled reading room with portraits—founders presumably—glaring down on you. You wear white gloves if you’re handling anything delicate and you can’t so much as go to the bathroom without getting what amounts to a hallway pass from the reading room staff. Continue reading →

Why Wildness Matters

categories: Cocktail Hour

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satelittesThis past weekend the Wall Street Journal ran this review I wrote of Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.”


Wildness, that important but often vague word, is at the heart of

Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.” As is this question:

Have we been Googled and GPSed, Facebooked and fracked and generally over-computerized into such domesticated creatures—living in a minutely mapped world of diminished species, diminished biodiversity and diminished space—that experiencing wildness is no longer possible?


Good question, Mr. Mark. Ten years ago I followed the osprey migration

from Cape Cod to Cuba and marveled that, since I was carrying a

cellphone for the first time, I could be tracked just like the

radio-tagged birds I was chasing. As everyone knows, the changes in

the decade since have been head-spinning, but what continues to amaze

me, as a professor, is how technology and its uses change from year to

year, as if a whole new species of Homo sapiens were coming back to

school each fall. Continue reading →

“At Sea,” an excerpt from SUPERSTORM, by Kathryn Miles

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, by Kathryn Miles

Superstorm Sandy began its genesis as a typical late season tropical storm. However, as the hurricane marched up the east coast of the United States, it collided with a powerful nor’easter and morphed into a monstrous hybrid. The storm charged across open ocean, picking up strength with every step, baffling meteorologists and scientists, officials and emergency managers, even the traditional maritime wisdom of sailors and seamen: What exactly was this thing? Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: This is Your Life, Harriet Chance, by Jonathan Evison

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Harriet Chance is a true mensch. Mensch as in, “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character.” And though some might question the characterization of Harriet as being worthy of emulation, there can be no dispute that she is of noble character. Continue reading →

The Meal of a Lifetime

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Our Best American Essays

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In August of 2010, Brendan and I lived at a three-week artists’ residency in southern Germany. “You’ll live in a castle,” the organizer who’d invited us had promised. So we arrived at the Schloss School, a former monastery turned castle turned boarding school, with visions of candlelit dinners in a grand medieval hall (at least I did) to find that we were to eat three meals a day in a side room of the school cafeteria, with no wine served, with thirty other artists from various countries. (We also slept in dorm rooms, in kiddie beds.) Continue reading →

Bad Advice Wednesday: Walk a Mile in their Shoes

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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Ooh, those people and groups and activities and works of art and parts of the country and professions and foods and music and movies we hate.  Musicals!  Someone said to me recently, just the one word, meaning how awful.  But I like musicals.  Always have.  And here’s an acquaintance assuming I agree with her–because who in their right mind wouldn’t?  These days I’m always ready to answer with the truth, and did, trying to sound affronted: “I like musicals.”  I like lots of stuff that you don’t like.  That doesn’t make me crazy.  Anyway, bad advice for writers this week is to like something you hate.  Danny Kaye movies?  Sushi?  HipHop?  Camping?  Cats? Continue reading →

What is Perfect? This Short Film by a Couple of Awesome Teens, That’s What!

categories: Cocktail Hour / Movies / Sunday Sermon

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My daughter and her friend Maeve made this short film for their summer English project when they were both fourteen. At last their classes have seen it, they’re fifteen, and I can finally share! Maeve wrote the music and sings it with a little help from Elysia, who choreographed the dance. Together they wrote, directed, edited, and absolutely everything else. Assignment was to address a social problem.  Please feel free to share it around! Continue reading →

Great Minds, Little Minds

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Thorea cellOne of the deepest pleasures of reading literature is being in the presence of great minds.  Please note that I didn’t say socially-responsible minds or consistent minds or minds that are exactly in step with how we are told we should think in the year 2015. I said great.


Conversely, one of the frustrations of the present is what you might call the tyranny of the small and rigid-minded. To be honest I’m not a big reader of magazine articles, though I sometimes write them, and I especially avoid pieces where I know I’ll end up feeling like I’ve been dragged down into the muck. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” said Wallace Stegner. For some people so is smallness.


All this to say that I tried to avoid the recent New Yorker piece  on Henry David Thoreau, despite the fact that more than a few people pushed  it on me.  With a title that seemed more suited for reality TV than a New Yorker piece–“Pond Scum”–you pretty much knew what you were going to get before reading it: a straight take-down piece that was meant to get hits and attention (look–it worked!).


The piece is consistently unpleasant, dragging out the boring old Thoreau laundry crap that we thought Rebecca Solnit had finally swept away years ago, but it is also, in its own strange way, kind of funny. Funny in that its author seems to be completely unaware that she embodies exactly what she criticizes in Thoreau. This is a writer (Schulz not Thoreau) who seems to love broad statements about what humans are and what they should be, who speaks with an apparently never-wavering sense of certainty, and who is always insisting on consistency in the way of the Continue reading →