5 Books Keeping Iowans Close to Home This Summer
It’s summertime in Iowa, so don’t forget to pack that paperback before hopping on the bike trails or heading to the lake. Plan some hammock time with these newly released titles that celebrate our Midwestern-ness while we enjoy all its green corn-covered glory.
Author: Brandon Taylor
Release Date: June 22, 2021
"Filthy Animals" is Brandon Taylor’s first collection of short stories and a study of characters so intricately drawn, I hardly took a breath until I reached the end of a story.
Taylor finds meaning in the mundane: a nanny sitting on the edge of a bathtub washing a wild young girl’s hair and thinking of her grandmother; a college student recently back from a stay in the mental health hospital looking on as his peers move through the rituals of a potluck dinner. Each story traces lines of what move us together and apart with Taylor’s finger close on the pulse, especially when it comes to race, sexuality and mental health.
We’re lucky to have Brandon Taylor in Iowa City — a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I highly recommend his debut novel, "Real Life," and cannot wait to see what he does next.
Author: Nickolas Butler
Release Date: June 27, 2021
I never miss a new release from our Wisconsin neighbor, Nickolas Butler. Here, his voice is stalwart as ever, turning toward the natural world and working class people with perceptive and unsentimental regard.
Even as this story marks a divergence from his beloved Wisconsin landscape for the tourist destination near Jackson Hole, he does not diverge from what he does best: capturing the halting dynamics of masculinity in friendships and fractured emotions. The simple plot — a fledgling construction company is hired to build an elaborate house in the middle of nowhere for an eccentric millionaire — turns into an eerie page-turner as the amateur builders race against time, brutal elements and their own demons to complete the project.
"Godspeed" will leave you thinking about our country's widening wealth gap and obsession with capitalism and how work invites both meaning and menace into our lives. I am still grappling with the outcomes Butler gives his characters, but highly recommend reading Godspeed to decide for yourself — you'll fly through it.
The Gilead Quartet
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Release Dates: September 29, 2020 (Jack)
Marilynne Robinson, esteemed Iowan novelist, essayist and theologian, added to her Gilead series — "Gilead," "Home," and "Lila" — with "Jack" this year. There is no better time to jump into what will become canon in Iowan fiction (if it isn’t already) since Oprah’s Book Club recently highlighted the quartet as her most recent pick.
The four novels take place in the fictional rural town of Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s, each highlighting characters from two families who have lived next to each other for decades. The fathers in both families have both spent their lives as small-town ministers.
If this doesn’t sound like a gripping backdrop for a series, Robinson will surprise you with how she connects pastoral family life with not only existential questions of faith and transcendence, but with the gritty human realities of justice, addiction, essential loneliness and hope.
These are some of the few novels I turn to as a devotional experience. I come back to certain pages of these books, not for answers, but for the way Robinson can so achingly draw out some of my own deeply felt questions.
The Grief We’re Given
Author: William Bortz
Release Date: February 2, 2021
William Bortz’s first collection of poetry showcases poetic skill in free-verse ranging from dense breathless paragraphs to airy startling lines. Contrast “It is Late January and We are Driving South” for a deep dive into the passage of time as the Midwestern landscape passes by and Bruce Springsteen plays on the radio against the book’s interludes of one-line world-bending definitions — you’ll see what I mean.
Bortz ruminates on the quality of grief, yes, but his poems won’t weigh you down. The arc of this collection moves toward lightness, arrival and laughter.
Will lives here in Des Moines and signed copies of "The Grief We’re Given" can be found at DreiBerge Coffee through Storyhouse where you might just bump into him sometime. Follow his excellent Instagram account for more poetry.
Author: Anna Meister
Release Date: January 31, 2021
Des Moines poet Anna Meister’s collection, "What Nothing," performs that magic trick of poetry I never understand: wishing to stay inside the poem you just finished while hungrily consuming the next simultaneously.
Inside each poem, Meister somehow builds standalone worlds, entire stories replete with the familiarity of everyday objects [“six dollar deli hydrangeas”] against dark bruises of the past and joys of the present [“So often I’m more bridge than bride.”] that tell you just enough to want to camp in their wilderness awhile and let her words work on your imagination.
There are lines here you won’t soon forget: “passing/ happiness back & forth like a small dog/ or cigarette?” or “I can do nothing but rate the moment what it’s owed.” Keep an eye out for Anna around town — signed copies available through Storyhouse.
This post in in conjunction with the 2021 DSM Book Festival, which runs through Saturday, April 17.
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