The annual AWP conference, held this year April 8–11 in Minneapolis, featured more than 700 exhibitors, making it the nation’s largest pop-up bookstore for independent literary presses and magazines. In this edition of What We’re Reading, four savvy Lookout staffers pick the books that caught their attention this year. (Read on, and you just might detect a pattern: compelling cover + dynamic author reading + good story behind the book = sale.)
I was first intrigued by Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing because of the title. Then I saw the cover, and my curiosity increased. Then I heard the story behind the story: McBride, at twenty-seven, had written this daring, difficult, Joycean novel in just six months, and spent the next nine years searching for a publisher. Then I passed the Coffee House Press table and saw it again—the wonderful title and alluring cover now representing a glowing success of art over industry—and opened to the first sentence, which is, of course: “For you.”
Hum by Jamaal May
Friends had suggested Hum to me, but like with most books, I’d not gotten around to reading it. Then, I attended a panel on poetic extremes and emotion—love and ecstasy, violence and agony, a poet’s favorite things—because Nick Flynn and Tarfia Faizullah were on it, and I’d waited a long time to hear them read. Though I didn’t know when I arrived that Jamaal May was also on this panel, two lines into his first poem, I was hooked. He was such a dynamic reader and compelling speaker that, after the panel, I immediately headed to the Alice James Books booth to buy Hum. (I was not the only person who did this.) I started reading it on the plane home, and I’ve been thinking about it all week.
The lovely Kate McMullen models our AWP bounty.
I made a point of checking out the Hub City Writers Project table, since the organization is cool and innovative—with a bookshop and press attached. I’d read some of the early reviews for Minnow, including Ben Fountain’s blurb, in which he called it “a gorgeous fever dream of a novel.” That description, plus the stunning cover design, were enough to convince me buy it just in time for summer.
My first event of AWP featured David James Poissant, Claire Vaye Watkins, Diane Cook, Ethan Rutherford, and Ben Stroud (many of whom are also Ecotone contributors), reading from their debut story collections. Each excerpt was wonderful—often both comical and poignant. Diane Cook‘s story “It’s Coming,” from which she read, is not only funny, but also dark and strange. Her deadpan delivery of it and her advice to “follow the weird” when writing sent me directly to the Harper Perennial booth to pick up a copy. The stories in Man V. Nature are full of subtle turns and masterful craft. I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the collection.