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Reading on the steps of the castle during Solitude Night. (Photo by Kai Linke.)

A few highlights from the past couple weeks:

-A big one being that I read as part of Solitude Night here at the Akademie on July 5. The experience was a pretty cool one, not the least because my literature compatriots–Irish poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin and German playwright Anne Habermehl–shared their outstanding work. Also, the stage was built on the steps of die Schloss, with the reader facing the castle and the audience seated on the steps, facing the valley. I read from two pieces, some of “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown” and the opening of the new novel I’ve been working on here. It was kind of nerve-wracking to present work that was written only a few weeks ago, but I feel like it went over okay. A number of people have told me they enjoyed the reading–and since they’re passing on good news, I have no reason to doubt them.

Thanks so much to Claudia Gehre for setting up the reading so beautifully and introducing us readers. And thanks to Akademie Director Jean-Baptiste Joly for selecting me to read on the big night.

-Also, if you haven’t seen, Akademie Schloss Solitude is now accepting applications for its next cycle of fellows, with residencies from 2015 to 2017. Residencies are typically pretty long, 6-8 months or so, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. Stipends, lodging, and studio space are provided, along with some travel and project expenses. Writers, artists, dancers, musicians, mathematicians, chess players, art administrators, philosophers–it’s a pretty big tent out here. I’ll vouch that Akademie Schloss Solitude is certainly an amazing place to write and create, and hike, and is pretty centrally located if you’d want to do some sideline travel while in Europe. The deadline is Oct 31, 2014. Here’s a list of conditions and benefits for the fellowship. Check it out.

-After Jordan I didn’t do much traveling the past two weeks. Explored more of Stuttgart on foot, found new areas of the forest to hike, managed to turn a two hour leisurely walk to the bank into a five hour power-hike after I took a wrong turn in Wildpark. Oops.

-Today I did venture out of Stuttgart again with a trip up to Landstuhl. There really isn’t too much there, except the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, with Ramstein Air Base also in the area, so it has certain significance to recent US military history–and more to the point, a character in my new novel (Jim Allen from my story “Welcome Home” is a big character in the book) is sent to the medical center for a brief time. So it was kind of research for the novel, kind of just being curious to see what a US military town in Germany is like. I wasn’t sure if I should still go up there. There are a million other places to visit here that offer more in the way of culture and sights. The trip itself was longish, about three hours each way by train, although a lot of that was through the scenic Rhineland area, so not much to complain about there. So I went.

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Landstuhl, stadtmitte.

This morning I was surprisingly emotional about going to Landstuhl. The medical center served as the primary hospital to treat injuries suffered in both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it’s seen a lot of traffic in the last decade. I read last night that the hospital was for several years among the world’s most active hubs for organ donations. A sort of benign fact on its face, but devastating in its implication. This really stuck with me this morning.

I didn’t do much while there. Walked up to the medical center and around its gates. Everything is secured so there really wasn’t much to see besides dozens of signs promising that bad things will happen if you take any pictures of the facility. (Note: I really admire those who live by the edict that when someone tells you to stop filming, that’s the most important time to be filming. Further note: I’m not one of those people.) So nothing profound, but I’m glad I went. Like a lot of things, the process of getting somewhere is most of the trip. And I did get a few details that will make it into the first draft of the novel.

-Arriving back into Stuttgart was pretty interesting this evening. There was a big Palestinian demonstration going on all along Königstraße, a pedestrian drag through the main tourist and cultural part of the city. A little different from what I expected walking out of Hauptbahnhof train station. Lots of flag waving, some chanting, many head scarfs, a few burqas. Polizei in full-on paramilitary gear, berets, rifles, some with riot gear handy, just in case. (I’m assuming a lot of the police presence was just in case a group of fascist, anti-immigrant thugs showed up for a confrontation–something becoming more common in some places–but I’m not really sure.) Meanwhile, the Schlossplatz (castle square) is hosting its annual week of free jazz performances. So, while the the protest wraps up, there’s a jazz quintet on a bandstand playing “Everybody wants to be a Cat” from Disney’s The Aristocats (you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried) with a bunch of hipster swing kids strutting their stuff. Kind of a strange dynamic. And a nice little microcosm for how this whole trip has gone.

 

 

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Sunset at the Dead Sea.

I met up with friend-of-the-blog Country Club Bill this weekend in Jordan, where he’s been the past couple weeks. While not on the itinerary going into this summer, the opportunity to check out Jordan during the first days of Ramadan was too good to pass up. Also, with my first month at Akademie Solitude coming to a close, it was nice to reconnect with a familiar face and take a second short-notice trip to the Middle East this half decade. (See: Tel Aviv, in 2011, for the other.)

-Started off with a couple days at a Dead Sea resort. Was unable to sink myself in the salty waters, which was pretty cool. Coated up with healing mud, so I now look much younger and vitalized. Probably the coolest part about the Dead Sea was how much little kids screamed after their parents forced them into the water. If you have any cuts or scrapes, the water really burns. My nipples were so chafed after twenty minutes or so. Plus, with the high saline factor in the water, it evaporates extremely slowly–so the kids couldn’t get the burning off. Really cool though. The sea itself is pretty narrow, and shrinking rapidly, since its feeder (the River Jordan) is all sucked up by local agriculture. A guy could probably float across over to the Israel side in an afternoon if he was so inclined. In lieu of that, the lights of Jerusalem were easily seen at night beyond a ridge on the other side.

View of Amman from Wild Jordan cafe, with the Citadel in the distance.

View of Amman from Wild Jordan cafe, with the Citadel in the distance.

-After dominating CCB at foosball, I felt pretty good about myself and considered trying to hustle some of the German guys who were at the health spa part of the resort. It’s a good thing I didn’t. (In full disclosure, CCB did win the billiards portion of our bar sports competition with a nice comeback effort in an epic 35-minute game of eight-ball. That’s one game, 35 minutes. It was not pretty.)

-Walking around Amman was great. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, this being my first time in the Muslim world, but everyone was really cool. Sure, walking around the Old City at midnight on the first night of Ramadan carries with it a fair amount of anxiety at first. (Is it okay to walk by the Mosque? Yes. Is it okay to take pictures? Apparently. Is the secular cafe we went to that serves food during fasting times and alcohol at night going to get shot up? No.) All of this amplified by the fact that there were a couple pro-ISIS rallies in Amman [CORRECTION: the rallies were in Ma'an, a city in a southern province that is known to be less stable than Amman.] the days before I arrived; with the ISIS advance on Baghdad being the very reason CCB was relocated to Jordan in the first place. So some vigilance was in order, sure. I feel like we stuck out quite a bit, although it wasn’t really a big deal in the end. We were respectful of them and they respected us. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is known as an exception in a region of great upheaval.

Food in the Old City of Amman is so good that it apparently made my right eye go lazy. It returned to its normal state after digestion.

Hummus at Hashem in the Old City of Amman is so good that it apparently made my right eye go lazy. It returned to its normal state after digestion.

-Hearing the muezzin’s first call to prayer from a minaret during Ramadan was amazing. We were out on the patio at Wild Jordan cafe, which has some of the best views of the city. Unforgettable.

-On my last night we returned to the Old City for some hummus and pickled veggies in an alleyway restaurant. I guess the big feasts don’t start until later in the month, but even the “snack” version was too much for us to finish. Jordanians sure can eat! We also stopped in at a speakeasy to watch some World Cup before I headed to the airport for my 330am flight back to Germany.

-Back to the grind here in Stuttgart now. My family is coming soon and they’re expecting a book when they get here. I’m on it!

 

 

 

I’ve been keeping pretty busy and working hard on a new novel–stories of love abandoned and disrupted in the context of domestic spying. It’s been an interesting project (finding the voice for this has been a lot of fun) and has taken up most of my time here, along with my two daily hikes and all the presentations and performances of the other fellows. Lots of interesting stuff going on. (Check out the Akademie Solitude blog for a taste of life at die Schloss.)

I did sneak in a couple trips the last couple weeks, however. A day trip to Mannheim and Heidelberg (cities near Stuttgart) and then a few days last weekend in Munich and just across the border in Salzburg, Austria.

More to come later, but here are some photos for now:

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Congrats to FiveChapters Books and editor David Daley on their recent great news. Just in case you haven’t heard, the small house released two debut fiction collections last fall–and last week both were short-listed for highly coveted PEN Literary Awards! Two for two. Very impressive.

Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians is a finalist for the PEN/Open Book Award for the best 2013 book by a writer of color.

Ian Stansel’s Everybody’s Irish is a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize for the best 2013 debut collection of short fiction or novel.

The winners of all PEN awards will be announced on July 30.

 

No worries. It's all uphill from here.

It’s all uphill from here.

I’ve been settling in after arriving for my fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart.

Some things from the first week:

-First and foremost, they take their foosball very seriously here. If you’re going to step up to the futbol table, you better bring it.

-Lots of weddings at the castle. This is my sixth day here and I’ve spotted four brides so far–including two this morning. Besides all the art and music and interesting collaboration going on, this place would be a wedding crasher’s dream. Free champagne four times weekly! On the other hand, it seems like a lot of the wedding parties merely come here for pictures and have the reception elsewhere. So far, four brides, but only one beer delivery truck. Caveat emptor, wedding crashers.

-TSA took my toothpaste, so one of my first tasks in Germany was picking out a new tube of toothpaste. I probably should have made more of an effort to learn functional German. Seems to have worked out okay, on the toothpaste score at least. My teeth are intact, and only a little gritty.

-Really enjoying all the courtyard cafes. I’ve noticed a few biergarten, but haven’t stopped in yet. Mostly I’ve been getting by on bread rolls, salami, and granola bars. There’s lunch here for fellows during the week, which is something to take advantage of whenever possible. A bus runs right by the Akademie, but it’s kind of expensive to make a bunch of casual trips. Otherwise it’s at least a thirty minute hike down to the village supermarket. Maybe double that coming back, as Solitude sits at the top of a pretty heady incline. I get the feeling that not many of the other fellows are hiking as much as I’ve been, as I haven’t seen anyone else drenched in sweat all the time, huddled over with shin splints. Oh, well. With my spartan diet and all that hiking, hopefully I won’t be so doughy by the end of summer. Or I could act like a normal person and just take the bus.

-I haven’t done a ton of writing so far. One short story is drafted, a story I’ve been trying to write in some form or another for nearly a decade–I think I found the right form and voice this time around. That seems like good production for what’s been a pretty fraught week. Been doing a lot of thinking about the new novel I’m starting, while hiking, before and after napping. I’ve been reading a lot too, which usually precedes writing output. Anyway, nothing comes easy when mostly I’ve been moping around feeling bad about what an asshole I am for being here in the first place. It was very hard to leave home.

-I’m thinking of doing a little side trip, maybe next week. Friedrichshafen sounds nice. It’s the home of Zeppelin University, which I will repeatedly mispronounce as Led Zeppelin University. Imagine how different my life could have been if, when deciding on colleges while in high school, I’d known (mistakenly) there was a Led Zeppelin University. Anyway. Lake Constance is there. There’s a company that does Zeppelin elevations and rides. It’s pretty close and would be an easy way to test myself on the regional trains. I should do it, right?

-Enjoy these photos.

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With the centenary of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo coming up this June 28, one would think World War I will be much more in the news soon–at least in the US and Britain. (Here’s how Washington DC plans to celebrate, if you’re interested.)

I’ve been keeping an eye out for possible commemoration events to maybe attend while in Europe this summer, but have mostly come across apathy and an urge to forget among Germans. Something that’s perfectly understandable when I think about it. (Here’s a dispatch from Berlin about why Germans no longer celebrate the history of belligerence the way other countries do; and an article on tensions between Britain and Germany over centenary celebrations. Lots of good reading out there now.) That being said, it looks like there will be a fair amount of events in Europe, particularly in Bosnia, Belgium, and France. Centenary News has the lowdown and is keeping a running itinerary.

Of course, while in-person events and the unveiling of monuments is interesting, what’s coming out on the web now is more compelling, at least to a more historical, less political perspective.

The Atlantic has launched a ten-part photo archive from Alan Taylor called World War I in Photos. It’s awesome. Definitely recommended. The depth of the selections is striking. I particularly like how the images are pulled from the different sides. It seems like most of the stuff I’ve seen before has been very American-centric and jingoistic, although this isn’t always the case, the History Channel aside.

Interesting stuff.

Photo by Kent Sievers.

The Omaha World-Herald ran an interesting piece this week with Erin Golden’s “Life beneath the street: Downtown sidewalks conceal a hidden world underground.” The article details the condition and current use (or non-use) of several giant vaults that remain under the streets and sidewalks of downtown Omaha.

Per the article:

Some of the below-ground history is clear. The vaults were used for storing coal and merchandise, which could be dropped in through chutes or lowered through metal trap doors built into the sidewalks.

But there are other possibilities, too. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, spaces like Hawkins’ were directly below the heart of an area known as the Sporting District, where a crime boss ran bootlegging and prostitution operations.

My novel contains several pivotal scenes in tunnels under the city–the crime boss ones–so this is pretty interesting to me. From what I’ve read, I don’t think vaults like the one pictured had much to do with criminal operations. Pimps and bootleggers were more concerned with secrecy and transportation, less so with storage, so narrow tunnels were favorable. As is fictionalized in my book, tunnels were used to connect hotels with brothels, so patrons could move discretely without being scene walking in the front door of the house where they took their pleasure. Several of Tom Dennison’s offices and saloons he ran were rumored to feature tunnels as well, to facilitate a quick get-away if necessary.

Society as a whole seemed to be obsessed with tunnels and secret underground vaults those days. Many people had them dug under their yards, to their garages, elsewhere. Big retail stores like the Brandeis had tunnels that connected from the bargain basement level to nearby banks–so customers didn’t have to go out into the weather should they need to make a withdrawal. “Tunneler” was a pretty common professional during these times too. As a dangerous job that demanded skill, I’m sure it paid well.

Thinking of this reminds me of the scenes in The Jungle when Jurgis Rudkus joins the project to dig the Chicago subway. Or, more recently, Colum McCann’s captivating portrayal of the sandhogs who tunneled under the East River to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn by rail in This Side of Brightness, my favorite McCann novel.

At any rate, I’m pretty jealous of Phil Hawkins, the artist whose kept a studio in one of these vaults the past few years. Not that I’d want to give up my cozy home office or anything, but that’s awesome.

My short review of Richard Burgin’s recent short fiction collection, Hide Island, is up on Prairie Schooner‘s website, in their Briefly Noted feature. Hide Island offers “an unsettling and honest appraisal of the contemporary American neurotic” and is yet another quality book from Burgin.

Check out the review here. Get the book here.

Stay strong, PSBN.

 

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Photo by Nick Doll.

I had a jacket on and everything! And only look a little puffy and haggard. Not bad for Day 12 at the KWLS. This was taken during the award-winners reading on the final Sunday of festivities at the San Carlos Institute. I presented part of my piece that won the Marianne Russo Award, “On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown,” which is excerpted from the novel I’m working on.

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