Tuesday, March 31, 2009

CO-BLOGGER ALERT!: M writes NYC, part 1

We stayed, for the first portion of our time in New York, with Edmundo Desnoes and Felicia Rosshandler, good friends of Achy's, each very accomplished in their own right (and whom Achy will talk more about in NYC: Deux). They greeted us in their amazingly gorgeous Upper West Side apartment with a most indulgent after-travel snack: champagne, cheese, ladyfingers, and chocolate truffles. As if that weren't enough to make me insanely envious of their lives, when asked what they were up to these days, Felicia said, rather dreamily: "Oh, we're both writing, we read, we eat, we drink...occasionally we have house guests...". I nearly died. What must we do to be them when we grow up? To have exquisite taste, lovely things, a content sense of routine, a gorgeous view?? Whatever it is, I hope a little bit rubbed off in the three nights we were with them.

I'd never been to Bluestockings before, but as soon as we walked into the tiny New York bookstore, I was sorry I hadn't made it in sooner. The store is small-ish, and the walls are stocked with more or less my ideal home library. It identifies itself as a radical activist space, though it used to be a women's bookstore, and thus has a similar groove to Women & Children First (Achy's Chicago bookstore homebase and my beloved former employer) -- I felt pretty at home. We didn't get there in time to grill the staff about whether or not it's another flourishing indie, but they seemed to be doing pretty alright -- well stocked, a thriving 'zine rack, lots of the kinds of neat sidelines you expect from a funky little shop, etc. There was a sizable crowd of listeners there for the reading, including beloved friends of both Achy and I, Bobby's friends and family, as well as the good folks from Akashic Books. The crowd - including the staff - was super engaged, and asked a lot of interesting questions during the Q&A period.

After the reading, we hung out with Johnny and Ibrahim from Akashic, as well as Achy's cousin Maggie, at a pretty little French restaurant near the bookstore. We had an awfully good time eating, drinking, and telling absurd stories. This restaurant had a cocktail called the "Old Cubano," which, after Bobby & Achy's readings, seemed obvious and appropriate, and so I ordered it (twice). It's made from rum, mint, lime, and champagne (like a mojito, I suppose, with champagne instead of sugar and soda), served muddled and strained into a champagne flute instead of over ice. And thus we ended our first day in NYC as indulgently as it had begun.

Monday, March 30, 2009


After a day hanging out in DC with Teresa and Rollie in their home, M and I packed the rental (it’s a Ford Focus with Wisconsin plates – M thinks it’s red, I think it’s kinda mauve) and headed to Baltimore for the second reading with Robert Arellano and the first on this leg of the tour not at a bookstore.


Bobby – a classic barbudo whose kind eyes undercut the severity of his guerilla look -- is an Akashic stablemate but also an Akashic stalwart. Havana Lunar, from which he’s been reading on this tour, is his third outing with them. The first two, Don Dimaio of La Plata and Fast Eddie, King of the Bees, were masterfully crazy political satires about corruption in New Jersey – so Havana Lunar, a crime novel set during the same period and, in some cases, even the same places as Ruins, is a new direction for him.


Bobby, who was conceived in Cuba but born in the U.S., says he started working on this novel more than 10 years ago, when he first went to the island, but it took this long to pull all the pieces together. He went back every year for ten years (we heard stories on the road that led us to believe Bobby’s had a very interesting life: three months in a cabin in Baja California, touring as a guitarist with radically avant garde bands … ), each time adding more and more to the collection of anecdotes and observations.


During our travels I was most amazed by the fact that Bobby reads something different from the novel every single night. Considering that it was in Baltimore when I felt my selection was finally right, I found this akin to reading on a highwire. Seriously, my tour copy of Ruins is so severely marked up -- whole stretches are scratched out, others crowded w/ notes – no one else could possibly read from it at this point, or even understand what I’m doing.


We were also flabbergasted to hear that Bobby’s wife is nine months pregnant and taking care of their 3 year old boy back in New Mexico, with a C section scheduled for Monday immediately after our journeys. I mean, talk about living dangerously!


At the Enoch Pratt Free Library, we were set up in the Poe Room at a long formal table. We each read and took questions until the library closed down around us. Then we tried desperately to take our picture next to the giant windows with the banners with our names but the high intensity lights kept washing Bobby and me out. Damn!


In Baltimore, we also hung out with M’s friend Aaron, a city native who kept bemoaning the fact that we weren’t staying so he could show us around.


“What would you show us?” I asked.


“Let me think … “ he pondered. But he never did he get back to us on this. (Baltimorians, please let us know what we should see next time we’re in your city!)

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Photos by Rollie Hudson.

Traffic approaching D.C. from the south is HORRIFIC. We left Durham with plenty of time to spare, hoping to have a leisurely dinner with Achy’s good friends (and our D.C. hosts) Teresa and Rollie before the reading at Busboys and Poets. 80 miles outside of the metro area, we were at a dead stop. We figured it was an accident, but when we were still inching 40 minutes later, we called Teresa, told her we’d meet them at the reading, and went renegade on the GPS. It took the lady in the GPS machine a good 15 miles to come to terms with the fact of our rerouting, and we made it to Busboys and Poets a good 15 minutes into Robert Arellano’s reading. (Oops...) Bobby was joining our rental car extravaganza tour beginning with D.C., and he was as gracious and kind right through Providence as he was that first tardy night in D.C.

Busboys and Poets is a cool venue. The area where Achy + Bobby read is partitioned off from the rest of the place -- which is a cross between a cafe, a restaurant, and a bar. The food and cocktails were both pretty delicious. I got to meet LOTS of Achy’s people at this reading -- all very sweet and welcoming -- but spent precious little time with them. Next time we go to D.C., we need much more time for hanging out, visiting, and, you know, tourist-y stuff. Next time we go to D.C., we’re flying in.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Durham: TIA OLGA!!!!

One of the really great things about this tour has been seeing folks I hardly ever get to visit. And with M along, it’s also been a great sharing experience … I’ve been meeting her friends along the way, and she’s been meeting mine.


Durham turned out to be a real milestone in that department.


The reading was in the afternoon, at a Barnes & Noble at a spacious mall. In spite of the warm, sunny weather and the ridiculous 3 p.m. start time (honest, on a Saturday?), there were a good 15 people who came for the reading then hung out for a really long and invigorating Q&A.


Among them was our host, Rosa Perlemuter, a fine Sor Juana scholar and writer herself, who had us stay in her beautiful and cozy home for the night then treated us to an exquisite breakfast the next morning.


But first – oh yes – M and I travelled to Rockingham, North Carolina, immediately after the reading to visit my 94 year-old Tía Olga.


Growing up, Tía Olga was the saucy, liberal aunt – and the one relative you appealed to if you were in deep, deep trouble. (Of course, if you were in trouble with her, you were beyond screwed.)


When we arrived at her sweet little bungalow, she welcomed us with open arms. Showing M pix of her late husband, the urbane Alberto, she said, “Dated him for three years, and no cuchi cuchi.” M’s eyes almost popped out of her head. Except that my aunt was now pointing to her wedding pix. “See? No bra.”


Oh, it went on. We had dinner at the Peking Wok, where apparently the whole world knows her, and she explained to M how homosexuals are still people to her.


The best part? At evening’s end, after she’d asked us to stay longer cuz she was having such a good time, she tried to pay for her copy of Ruins, which we refused, then tried to give us gas money. M finally took it, then left it in the bathroom.


“I’m glad to have met you,” she said, gazing up at a much, much taller M. “You’re someone I would like to have as a friend.”


Growing up, all of cousins were always grateful to have Tía Olga as our friend.



Monday, March 23, 2009

CO-BLOGGER ALERT!: M writes Asheville

On the road to Asheville.
At Malaprop's.
M, Achy, Stella Jo, Seth, Lauren

North Carolina is one of the pleasantest places to road trip.  My plan was to arrive and taskmaster this tour -- no more car troubles, no more running late, no more greasy burgers.  So far, there have been no more car troubles.  

If we had three days to spend, there are about a thousand places along the highways of North Carolina that I’d stop: thrift stores galore, the “As Seen on TV!” outlet, scenic outlooks, etc. As it was, our bodies rejected the alarm clock and got a late-ish start to Asheville.  We also got sidetracked en route by my need for Dairy Queen soft serve.  

We stayed in Asheville with Lauren and Seth, friends from Minneapolis who I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.  Since we last saw one another, they’d moved south, gotten hitched, and procreated.  Stella Jo is about the cutest, serious-est, most expressive 3-month-old I’ve ever seen (eyebrows to die for!).  She sleeps 10-12 hours a night, meaning that her parents had to rouse her so we could go to breakfast on Saturday (imagine! Lauren is sure they’ll be punished later).  Lauren also, coincidentally, works part-time at Malaprops, yet another THRIVING independent bookstore, where Achy read Friday evening.  They were lovely hosts, and we had a great time with them.  

Malaprops is really cozy, with a tiny cafe corner for coffee and nice warm colors and lights.  It’s a surprisingly large store, and they’re apparently also doing just fine, in spite of all the rumors about this “recession” I heard about.  There was a really nice turnout for the reading -- over two dozen literary fans on a Friday night as spring is breaking!  We were much impressed.  Achy read a few poems, cracked a couple of jokes about phallus-related microphone anxiety, and a selection from Ruins.  People had a surprising number of political questions about Cuba (or, I guess, surprising to me), and were really pumped on the book.

I have long-standing fantasies about moving to Asheville (a fantasy, it turns out, shared by a lot of people like me who have spent little to no time there but hear it is the stuff of legends).  We had a sweet, but too brief visit.  Lauren and Seth strongly encouraged us to move to Asheville, and we left feeling pretty receptive to the possibility.

Tiffany-Like Lamps in Cincy

I’m obviously living in a parallel universe, where independent bookstores are doing gangbuster business. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Joseph-Beth Booksellers was busy and bustling on a bright sunny warm spring day. Inside, the warehouse like store was a wonderland of books. And I was flabbergasted: The Ruins display also included Tiffany-like lamps! I was greeted by a small but enthusiastic audience, including two young women who’d driven up from Lexington and had brought their worn and much annotated copies of Days of Awe to be signed. Afterwards, Michael, my host, and I hung out and talked about Obama and the economy – and the fact that, yeah, in spite of everything, Joseph-Beth is doing amazingly well.


Kinda gives you hope, you know?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

ST LOUIS!!!!!!

The last time I read at Left Bank Books in St. Louis – for Days of Awe or Memory Mambo, I don’t remember, but certainly years ago – the bookstore’s future seemed precarious and I actually had an escort back to my car. This time – wow! – the neighborhood surrounding Left Bank has been transformed into the hip part of town: restaurants, antique shops, boutiques. And Left Bank itself is renewed: flushed with light, expanded, its shelves full and colorful, the staff young and professional. I could hardly believe it was the same store – and I couldn’t keep from grinning.


“We’re actually expanding,” said Kate, one of the booksellers. “We’re working with a developer and opening a store downtown.”


Was Left Bank Books the only indie store in the world to be doing so well? Just a few days before, I’d heard the news about the closing of Stacey’s in San Francisco, which had been widely recognized as the country’s largest independent. And every indie I know has had trouble in the last few years, whether it’s because of competition from the internet, chains or just feeling the ripples of the economic downturn.


A cheerful room of folks came to the reading at Left Bank, including local teachers and students, a few folks I knew from Chicago, a friend’s mom, and the parents of one of M’s best buds, Michael and Mary Beth, who were also my hosts for the night.


They were most gracious, and after the reading, we went back to their house for an informal get together with some of their friends. The best part came, however, after everyone left, when Michael and Mary Beth told me about their lives, especially how they’d founded a radical Catholic collective. That night, I slept beautifully under a framed poster of the Grateful Dead.



That's Michael and Mary Beth in the pic above, and this is their house in St. Louis, where I stayed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Library Journal

Obejas, Achy.
Akashic. Mar. 2009. c.300p.
ISBN 978-1-933354-69-9. pap. $14.95.

This superb novel by Cuban-born writer and poet Obejas (Memory Mambo) follows the story of Usnavy, who, despite a bleak childhood in a small provincial city near Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, achieves his rightful place in the world as a standard bearer for Castro and Che after the 1959 revolution. However, this all changes in 1994, when the Cuban government permits any and all to leave Cuba by any and all means. Usnavy's best friend leaves without a word, and suddenly the dollar becomes the currency for all goods necessary to his wife and daughter—and to himself. In the midst of this turmoil, Usnavy's only constant is his pride in the oversized stained-glass lamp he inherited from his mother, and for the first time he becomes curious about its origins. He seeks out knowledge from the aptly named Virgilio, a restorer of old glass lamps, and is led through the Dantean mazes of Havana and a secret family history. Although initially confusing, Obejas's writing style effectively mimics the plot, as the author navigates a maze of histories and ethnicities. Recommended for larger public and all academic library collections.

—Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Obejas, Achy (Author)
Mar 2009. 300 p. Akashic, paperback,20$15.95.

A fatherless child named in honor of the big U.S. Navy ships in Guantánamo Bay, Usnavy, weary and
destitute at 54 in 1994, still believes fervently in Cuba s Communist mission even though his neighbors are
fleeing to the U.S. under the cover of darkness on any thing that will float. Usnavy works, navigates state
bureaucracy, plays dominos in the square with his ribald buddies, and basks in the radiance of his only
treasure, an opulent, Tiffany-like stained-glass lamp. A rare object of beauty, an embodiment of light and
transcendence, it links humble and honest Usnavy to a hidden facet of Cuban history, and to the freer world of creativity and its shadow side of greed and desperation, deception and secret justice. Following the substantial Days of Awe (2001), prizewinning, ever-innovative Cuban American writer Obejas evinces a new, focused lyricism as she penetrates to the very heart of the Cuban paradox in a story as pared down and intense as its narrator's life . Inlaid with images of transformation, this Havana story in the Hemingway mode illuminates the tragedies and resiliency of a twilight land caught in the spell of a failed dream and portrays with exquisite sensitivity a man reaching toward the light.
-Donna Seaman

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Wild Pug, Chicago

We’d really only planned one gig in Chicago – the WCF reading – for a while and then Drew Ferguson wrote me an email out of the blue, asking if I’d take part in his series up at the The Wild Pug in Uptown. I thought he meant, you know, later. But he meant right away.

Drew, by the way, was absurdly modest in all his communications. Like, for example, didn’t mention that he’s the author of The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second. The Chicago Reader has a review of it in which Robert McDonald says: "...the resulting blend of humor and heartache makes for the most true-to-life queer coming-of-age story since John Fox's 1994 Boys on the Rock..."

So last Thursday I drove up to my old neighborhood – I really love that neck of the woods – for the reading. The area’s been changing since before I moved up there (in the mid80s, then again in the mid90s, after a brief excursion up to Rogers Park) but there are things that remain exactly the same, like the Green Mill and the fried rice joint on Argyle with all the dead ducks in the window.

And there are things that are in constant flux. When I stood in front of the The Wild Pug – now spacious and inviting, with a separate bar and reading room in the back – I was sure I’d known it in its previous incarnations but I simply couldn’t remember any of them.

Also on the bill at this gig was Brian Bouldrey, an old grad school chum. Brian wrote The Genius of Desire, Monster: Gay Adventures in American Machismo, is editor of a slew of Best American Gay Fiction and author of so many other titles it’d take a page to list them all. He’s also hysterical, on and off stage so – while I was thrilled to see and hear him (and gossip: he’s got a new job in Alaska!) – I was a tad worried: He’s a really, really good reader – and my stuff, by contrast to his (though his can be dark too), is pretty sober.

Plus, reading at a bar is a whole different experience than in bookstores. And the reading room at The Wild Pug is the epitome in a lot of ways. For starters, there’s, you know, liquor. Hard core. Me, personally, I had a Glenlivet.

And it’s dark, or at least hazy. For me this meant some readjustment. I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the Ruins text but it’s not memorized, so I still need the page as a reference. But in the dark, it was a bit more of a challenge.

And it’s noisy – I mean, really noisy. I don’t have the strongest voice so I had to really put the lungs to work. But the static created by bar noise – voices, glasses, laughter – has a certain charm. It can knock me off balance – I lost my place a couple of times and quickly recouped – but the tension, I think, adds to the overall ambience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love bookstores, with their flood of light and all-ages comfort, but there’s something inviting and seductive about reading at bars that I find enchanting. And Thursday at The Wild Pug, I think I had one of the best readings so far on this tour.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Car Gods Are Angry

After Madison came the vast American pampas of Iowa, where presidential dreams rise and fall. It’s amazing to me, cruising past these Midwest acres which are so the picture of apple-cheeked Americana, that the current commander-in-chief found the wave here.

Of course, I’d barely slept the night before worrying about the car wobbling and had, in fact, had the tires “weighted” and “balanced” (whatever the hell that means) at the Madison Firestone, and while we the car was no longer doing a violent shimmy shimmy, it was still on Parkinson’s watch in that crucial 45 to 60 mph zone.

Truth is, I love cars, love driving, love being on a highway, and love when the Midwest opens up with its infinite horizon. And for the full effect, you really do have to leave the cities and venture out to where the interstate becomes a grey ribbon sided by green and gold acres like a giant patchwork.


And, er, that bastard GPS decided that it was Iowa-friendly and actually guided me beautifully, with ETA and maps and where to fill up, all the way to M’s parents’ house.

There, I managed to get about an hour’s worth of sleep before the reading. It was a wet and foggy night and M’s mom and dad drove me to Prairie Lights in Iowa City, about 30 minutes away, where we met up with M’s sister Carrie and her friend Allison. There were about 20 people, a good chunk of them students earnestly taking notes. At least one of them was a Cuban-American – I deciphered this from his questions and later realized I knew his dad (perpetuating the notion that all Cubans know each other).

One of the real pleasures of reading at Prairie Lights this time was the introduction I got from Roberto Ampuero, whom I’d met last summer in Spain during the Semana Negra de Gijon (which was actually ten days … ). Roberto is a critically acclaimed and best-selling Chilean novelist and, as it turns out, professor at the University of Iowa. He’s the author of the Cayetano Brulé detective series and Nuestros años Verde Olivo (about his years in exile in Cuba) and the metafictional mystery Los amantes de Estocolmo.

In other words, he’s a very, very big deal. And hearing him talk about how much he loved Ruins, and how powerfully it evoked Havana – “La Habana,” as he said with a grin -- was both moving and an honor for me.

After the reading, M’s family and Allison and I retired literally next door for a celebratory round of white Russians and a couple of beers. And then we went home, where I crashed so hard it felt like I’d hurled down a long black elevator shaft in a 12 story building.

The next morning, resting in Cedar Rapidian splendor, I vaguely heard the phone, like an echo in a very vast valley. I finally climbed downstairs – M’s parents were long gone to work – and found a delicious bag of chocolate chip cookies and a small black piece of what turned out to be my car.

I really couldn’t face the awful reality of it so I sipped some coffee, checked my email, puttered, and finally surrendered to the voicemail and the evidence on the back of my PT Cruiser: M’s dad, perhaps sleepy from what was for him a late night (I did consider the possibility of displaced anger … ), had banged into my car. It was a rather small area but he did manage to hurt three different parts: the tail light, the bumper and the back fender.

On the way home, the GPS worked great (I also had M’s mom’s GPS as backup), the wobbliness was fairly contained, nothing fell off the car, and, now, the challenge is before me for this week: to rush repair or rent for the rest of the tour?

I’m mulling, I’m mulling.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In praise of Jeanne Huie

Madison on Monday, I’m headed north, but, first, I need a new tire. Well, fine. It takes a little longer than I expect and I actually find myself on the interstate pushing it for time. And traffic is hideous, there’s construction and we’re moving about 30 miles an hour, max.

And then I notice something: I am actually nearing Milwaukee, not Madison.

“Everybody makes that mistake,” says my friend Desi, “even people who live in Madison, like us.”

It seems that I90/94 split so seamlessly, I rolled east instead of west without the vaguest idea.

Desi – a pal from Cuba – and I had planned dinner but the tire matter had nixed that. Now I faced the fact that I would be late for the reading in Madison.

I’ll confess something right here and now: All of my prior readings in Madison had been at independent bookstores and at the university, so that there has always been a culture of warmth and familiarity around them. In my experience, indies are more personal – maybe because, publishing mostly with indies myself, we all feel like we’re on the same team, swimming against the currents. And while I’m happy to be a part of the Barnes & Noble Discover Program, so far all my B&N experiences had had a kind of clean, executive veneer to them. Not unfriendly, not in any way unpleasant, but just not quite the same.

So I when I called the Madison B&N to say it wasn’t looking good, I wasn’t expecting more than a quick “Thank you for letting us know.” Imagine my surprise when the bookseller on the phone insisted I talk to the manager. And imagine my shock when Jeanne Huie, in her warm motherly voice (spiced with just a tinge of Kentucky drawl), tells me to be careful, that she’ll hold down the fort and change the reading time by half an hour.

“It’ll be fine, dear, don’t worry,” she said.

I know, this doesn’t sound like much – but even before laying eyes on her, Jeanne Huie practically exuded love.

I immediately called Desi again. “Oh, that’s Madison,” she said. “It’s the most relaxed place in the world.”

I had managed to get back on track to Madison (after various wrong moves – the construction didn’t help – there was one place where you couldn’t get back on going north if you got off the interstate, which took me on a little tour of rural Wisconsin) but then, just as I exited the construction zone, I began to notice a distinct wobbling to my car.

I don’t mean a little tremble because of high speeds. I mean, a spirited, robust, martini shaking teeth rattling wobble that felt as if the new tire was going to spin right off the axel and hurl me to kingdom come. It took me a bit to figure out that it only happened when I hit the 45-60 mph rage. Anything less, no prob. Anything more, fine – except that there were too many state troopers on the highway to risk repeating my Mishawaka experience.

I call Jeanne Huie back. “Listen, this is looking ugly. I don’t think I’m going to make it before, I dunno, eight …” I’m thinking: If at all.

“Well, you just come on in … I’ll still be here. I just feel so bad, with you making such an effort. If there’s anybody here still, we’ll do the reading, and if not, you can sign some stock. Plus, I’ve got some treats for you to eat.”


I was now beginning to wonder about Jeanne Huie.

And then I realized something else: Coming in from Milwaukee versus Chicago meant all those carefully calibrated directions from Mapquest sent to me by Akashic were, er, worthless. And, no, of course I didn’t have a map.

But then I also realized I had my groovy new phone with a GPS. So I did my best to input the info while driving as fast as I could and wobbling like a penguin on amphetamines but, alas, no -- complete systems breakdown. The GPS kept instructing me to go to “an open area” to get a stronger signal. And Desi’s phone wasn’t answering either.

I thought: I am so fucked.

I was literally sweating. My mouth was dry.

Desperate, I called Jeanne Huie again and pretty much told her we had to cancel.

“You just come on in, honey,” she said. “I want to make sure you’re okay, all right?”

As I got into Madison, I called CHACHA – one of those text services that will answer any questions (seriously, they’ll give you a response to What is love?) and begged for driving directions to the B&N from the interstate. The car was shaking so badly, the CHACHA people wrote back twice to ask what I meant because my ever more anxious texts were gibberish.

Thanks to CHACHA, I finally wobbled my way into a parking space at the biggest B&N I’ve ever seen in my life. It looked like the Astrodome. I didn’t even bother to grab my book with the marked out prepared text because, at one solid hour late, there could not possibly be a soul at this reading. I rushed inside, where the vastness was overwhelming, but one of Jeanne Huie’s people immediately grabbed me (gently) by the arm and lead me to the back reading area while another paged Jeanne Huie. They were like a tactical team in the trenches, everybody taking care of their task exactly as needed.

I was breathless, my heart beating through my chest and my adrenaline pumping like the most amazing LSD.

And then I really think I am hallucinating because Jeanne Huie – a sweet faced grandma – extends her hand to me, practically hugs me, and reveals 15 very relaxed Madison souls still waiting for me to read.

“I’m so sorry but a few of them had to leave,” she said, apologizing while I considered how inappropriate it would be for me to throw myself at her and hug her. She offered me water, marshmallow treats and cookies.

So I grabbed one of the books in stock and I read. And then, for more than an hour, I took questions and generally chatted, hung out and shared with the folks who’d waited – a diverse group of Madisonites, many of them with first hand knowledge of Cuba, others with a keen interest.

“I could have gone on for another hour,” Jeanne Huie said while I signed books, including hers. The store was closing.

Desi leaned over. “This woman was amazing,” she said. “Every time you called, she’d give a progress report over the PA. And she kept us all entertained, telling us all about you – what you’d done, your other books, the Discover program.”

“I have to tell you, Jeanne, this is just about the nicest Barnes & Noble experience I’ve ever had,” I said.

She grinned. As I gathered my things, Jeanne told me all about her journey to Madison, how she’d come up to be close to family.

“You mean you’re not from here?” I asked, a little surprised.

“Oh no,” she said, “I used to run a little independent bookstore in Kentucky. Oh, I forgot these.”

She handed me a little gift box of tea and a handwritten note thanking me for coming to Madison to share my work.

I never read in Jeanne’s store in Kentucky but, suddenly, it all made sense to me.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Updated Tour Sked

LaFayette: 'Nuff Said

The Post WCF celebration

L to R: Patrick Reichard, Sarah Frank, Bajo Ojikutu, Mary Hawley, Mike Puican, Ceci Vaisman, moi, Elise Johnson

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Chicago Headquarters: WCF!!!

There’s nothing more thrilling, or nerve wracking, than looking out at an audience and seeing worlds colliding. And that’s what always happens to me in Chicago.

Thursday night at Women & Children, it was a raucous cosmic rabble out there: former students, current students, a former roommate, the boy whose birth I witnessed, other writers, my girlfriend’s friends, my ex girlfriend’s friends (but no ex gfs!), former Trib pals, folks who formerly worked at the Trib whom I’d never met until that moment, that woman who comes to every reading I do at WCF, the folks from my writers group, a former landlord, the girl I met on a layover in Jamaica en route to Cuba who was dating a friend of mine (and whom I liked so much right away, I wanted to warn about his, er, wandering eye, but didn’t), bunches of dykes, at least a couple of Orthodox Jews, a hip little cadre of Art Institute girls, really cute Cubans (some new ones!), poetry community big wigs like Mike Puican (a/k/a, the world’s most handsome man), et al …

I’ve been coming to WCF since it first opened in Lincoln Park in 1979 (it’s since moved twice, having taken root in Andersonville, prob one of the country’s queer friendliest and most diverse neighborhoods), first as a reader and then as a writer. It’s a big, bright place, one of the last feminist bookstores still standing. Long before I ever had a book published, owners Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen would frequently book me, usually for poetry. When I was writing Days of Awe, the WCF staff practically doubled as a research team. There’s a whole different crew these days but they’re just as amazing.

Anyway, it’s always a little special to read here because it feels like home base. But this time it was really moving to hear Linda’s heartfelt introduction to Ruins. What got me wasn’t just how effusive she was, but how different it feels when somebody has read every word you’ve ever published and really knows your work. There’s familiarity, sure, but there’s also a bond that comes from having survived so much together (besides our literary adventures, Ann, Linda and I also served way back when on Mayor Harold Washington’s Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues, which revealed whole other sides of our personalities and temperaments!).

It was sweet and wonderful to see so many folks turn out (there were people standing all over). I don’t have the strongest voice in the world so I tried to be conscious of projecting. I noticed a number of people were following along on my reading – no doubt noticing that I actually edit quite a bit in the process, trying to make the excerpt as self contained and smooth as possible. When it was over, I was so flush and nervous, I actually needed to sit down.

I hung out for a good long while, greeting friends, signing books, meeting lots of new people. Afterwards, a group of us went to the Korean place down the street to celebrate. The worlds continued to collide.

“How do you know each other?” Ceci Vaisman, a terrific radio artist and former NPR producer, asked me about the poet Mary Hawley, who’d joined us.

“We used to be in a poetry group, ‘Girls Night Out’, which used to do readings all over the city,” I explained. “It included Patricia Smith, Susie Berger, and Cin Salach. Back then, the only one of us who had a book out was Debbie Pintonelli. Patricia worked at the Sun-Times, but as a copy girl.”

“How do you two know each other?” Mary asked in turn.

“We used to share a boyfriend!” Ceci said with a laugh.

“I was about to say that Mary’s one of my oldest friends,” I said, “and then I realized, wait a minute, Ceci’s one of my oldest friends … “

I looked across the table at Patrick Reichard, one of my very best buds, who was laughing and shaking his head. We used to room together and this kind of thing happened with alarming frequency. He’d already met Ceci at last year’s seder. Then he leaned forward and made a point of introducing himself to Mary and Mike.

NEXT: Lafayette, Madison and Iowa City.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Adventures in Mishawaka

Oh, man, so I'm driving to Mishawaka, which butts up against South Bend, Ind., home of Notre Dame University – this is familiar territory – not just Indiana but northern Indiana. This is so close to Michigan City, where I grew up on the coast of Lake Michigan, that my high school team, the Raiders, used to play against the Mishawaka Cavemen. Not that we were rivals or anything but driving to Mishawaka wasn’t a big deal. Parents didn’t even worry.

The scenery from Chicago to Michigan City is, of course, familiar: the busy and crowded Skyway (always in construction), then industrial and cloudy Gary, transformer lights and steel towers rising from the side of the road, and then, suddenly, green, a yellowish I-survived-the winter-green but green nonetheless, and clusters of naked trees up and down both sides of the highway.

I’m just rounding out from Michigan City, turning a slight south away from the lake shore, when, in a stuttery flash of light, my phone flips one hour forward. What? I’d given myself so much time, I’d so wanted to get there early and hang out at the Barnes & Noble café, I’m actually packing my lap top.

But no, no, no: the phone is telling the truth: Chicago, Michigan City, the whole curved panorama of Lake Michigan is on Central Standard Time but Mishawaka is, inexplicably, on Eastern Standard Time. Mishawaka is on New York time, as if it had just turned its snotty little municipal back on the entire Midwest.

Best case scenario, I’d be 10-15 minutes late. I called the store, of course, and talked to a very nice man named Dave, who assured me it was fine. “Be careful, don’t do anything crazy,” he said. I assured him I wouldn’t, even as my foot sank on the accelerator. The buzz of the air speeding around my PT Cruiser (the poor Midwestern girl’s version of a low-rider) intensified and the car actually wobbled.

I was on my way for almost 20 minutes and then, just as I was getting cocky, just as I was passing with impunity, a mess of twirling lights appeared in my rear view mirror.

“Do you know how fast you were going” asked the breathless state trooper.

“I dunno, 70, 80?”

“Seventy, 80? Lady, the speed limit is 70 – I clocked you at 105!

He wanted to know why I was in a hurry; he wanted to know what was wrong. I didn’t even try. I just told him the truth. He wandered back to his unmarked squad car – a big, thick American model with a grill that looked like a muzzled dog – and performed his investigative tricks.

I was good after that, going 70, doing breathing exercises. And Dave and I got to talk a whole lot more. As it turned out, my MapQuest directions to the store didn’t take into account a smattering of construction. And so Dave, who couldn’t remember street names but was fabulous with landmarks (“Is there a Martin gas station on the corner? Yes? Great!”), was transformed into a live GPS. Thanks to him, I finally crashed through the Mishawaka Barnes & Noble, my legs a little wobbly, my heart racing, 20 minutes late.

Waiting for me was an audience of three (which grew to five during the reading), two of whom I knew as former students, both from the University of Chicago: Lindsay, who’d been in my very first class on Jewish Latin American literature (and later went on to do her thesis on Days of Awe and even stayed at the house I shared with my then girlfriend in Havana) and Terry, who lives in Chicago and likes to drive, thus his Indiana cameo. It was, needless to say, a very intimate reading!

Unfortunately, this will not be the last of my Mishawaka adventure. A speeding ticket lingers on driving records and impacts stuff like insurance rates. So, in order to get that thing expunged, I’ll be taking a driver’s ed class in Mishawaka later this spring.

Sigh …

NEXT: Chicago, Lafayette Saturday, Madison Monday, Iowa City Tuesday, Chicago again on Thursday.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Interview with Donna Seaman on WBEZ (Chicago's NPR affiliate)

A link is to the right ... thanks!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Miami is a kind of calvary for Cuban and Cuban diasporic writers. We love it, we hate it, we feel its weight, and we utterly fear it. I woke up last Tuesday at my mom’s house in Kendall to a disconcerting call from one of the managers at Books & Books. “You know, we really like it when somebody introduces local authors,” she said. “Not one of us but, say, a person from the community, a personality.”

I was pre-caffeine but I thought maybe there was a misunderstanding. “But I’m not local,” I said, thinking, first and foremost, that it was going to be tricky to find someone so last minute.

“You’re Cuban!” said the Books & Books person, “Of course you’re local.”

One advantage to the Facebook events program – where I’d posted a notice about the reading -- is that you have both a quick read on who’s coming or not, and a quick way to get a hold of them.

And that’s how I snagged Ricardo Brown to do it. He had made the mistake of commenting on the page, saying he “wouldn’t miss it for the world.” So I sent him a brief note and, somewhat to my surprise, he not only agreed but also asked me to be on his radio show.

Who the heck is Ricardo? Only the best journalist in South Florida. Currently, he hosts El Factor Brown, a nightly news commentary show on WGEN-TV, Channel 8, in Miami.

Ricardo used to work as a foreign correspondent for the Spanish International Network, Univision, Telemundo and CBS Telenoticias. He was also news director for the HBC national newscast on Telemundo and CBS Telenoticias. He has covered major news events in more than 50 countries and has four Emmys on his mantle.

I mean, in Miami you don’t get bigger than Ricardo.

And, er, he’s my cousin.

Well, sort of. He used to be married to my dad’s cousin. But we always liked him so much – and I was so in awe of him – that we just claimed him right out.

And I call him Richard. Always have. Couldn’t begin to explain why, just do.

He was, of course, just delightful on the radio – throwing me total lobs, being so warm and sweet I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and squeeze him. We talked about the genesis of Ruins and I said that it had, in part, been inspired by my neighbors in Cuba, on Tejadillo Street in Old Havana. I added that less than a month ago, one of those neighbors, Jorgito, had made it to the U.S. by crossing the Mexican border. He’d said he was coming that night, and I wanted to dedicate the reading to him.

That evening, my mom and I got to the Books & Books early, a kind of miracle considering Miami traffic and construction (and both of our penchants for running late). “Oh,” said a staffer, “you know nothing starts on time at the beach, right?” There were maybe five people there, of which four were probably related to me.

The first time I’d read at B&B, in Coral Gables, at the old store, was also my debut as a published author in Miami and when I got there, it was pretty much the same scenario: a handful of folks, most of them familiar. I got so sad and felt so miserable I had to leave the store and go for a walk just to regain my composure. When I got back, I was stunned to find a line out the door.

That experience should have kept the tremors at bay but, truth is, the only time I’d ever been scheduled to appear at the Miami Beach store before had been pretty dramatic: it was for Days of Awe, slated for September 12, 2001. Needless to say, we cancelled. As I looked around this time, I worried again … it doesn’t matter how many readings I survive, how many books I publish, it’s still scary – and especially in Miami. Why? Because I’m Cuban and thus I’m local.

By the way, the new B&B space is lovely – it’s just off the mall, a little twisty to find the bookstore itself but not at all difficult. Upfront, B&B has set up a café, not as big as the one in Coral Gables but the same idea. And, of course, the entire staff there is just terrific: knowledgeable, friendly, tireless.

Richard showed up at B&B shortly after my mom and me. Totally casual, with one of his sons in tow (a tall, Irish looking young man – reddish blond hair and moustache – with a very Cuban swagger). I would have much to thank Richard for the next day, since two other local radio programs – tipped off by my appearance on his -- would call for interviews. But for now I was just glad to see him.

It seemed that within minutes of his arrival, the place got packed. The B&B staff set out more chairs and still there were folks standing on either side of the room and along the back. Among those in attendance were Moisés Asís, a wonderful Cuban Jewish writer I worked with on Havana Noir (and who I hope to include in an anthology of Latin American Jewish writers I’m editing with Lawrence Schimel), the spectacular Jordan Levin from The Miami Herald, and Adrian Castro, one of my favorite poets. There were so many relatives of mine there, I stopped counting. The one person nowhere in sight was Jorgito, and my heart sank a little.

Richard’s intro, though, brought it right back up. He was kind about the book but, for me, the most important part was when he talked about my Abuela Lala and my dad, and what original storytellers they were. It was personal, not so much literary, but that was precisely what made it so right, especially there, with so much family present.

Early in any book tour, the reading text is still being adjusted, but as I began I realized I was enunciating quite clearly, going slowly and deliberately at the text in a way I never do. And then I saw my Tía Yolanda was directly in my line of vision, and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a word of English come out of her mouth. I’m not saying she doesn’t speak it – for all I know, she may be tutoring Judy Dench – but I have never had a conversation with her in anything but Spanish. And the absurdity of her being there – strictly to support me – hit me so hard, I almost lost my place.

I was just about at the end of my text, finally relaxing into it a bit, when I heard rustling and saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. I glanced over and saw Jorgito, his wife Leticia and their daughter, all breathless. He grinned as big as the whole world.

When I finished, I took questions, as I often like to do, and these veered all over the place, from curiosity about how to travel legally to Cuba to the real identities of the characters in “Ruins” (fiction, folks, fiction). There was a lot of laughter and a very warmly casual atmosphere, which permitted me to back up and do what I had promised: dedicate the reading, albeit after the fact, to Jorgito, who blushed and waved, holding his daughter against him like a human shield.

The next day, I hung out with Richard and one of his producers, Gloria Diliz, in the a.m. and met Alex El Mago, who performed card tricks at the breakfast table. Then Jorgito and Leticia and I grabbed lunch, which turned out to be their intro to sushi – he was a good sport about it but we ended up adding some beef to the plates anyway!


Later I sat in with Ariel Gonzáles at WLRN, the local NPR affiliate. I always enjoy these chats with Ariel because he is supremely well-prepared. He has a calm, unpretentious manner. Even though we talked for more than a half hour, it felt like five minutes – it just turned into a conversation, which is really the best kind of interview.

I’d just gotten into my car and was headed out to hang with friends when I got an email from an old Chicago bud, Tomás Martínez, who’s now in management at Radio Caracol, one of Miami’s pan-Latino stations. He’d heard me on Richard’s show; could I come in and meet with Enrique Cordoba? Sure but Enrique Cordoba? Enrique’s a totally unassuming man, completely belying his status as a giant of Latino radio. When he interviews writers, it usually means Mario Vargas Llosa. So I was more than a bit nervous. We taped close to 40 minutes – and talked hardcore lit – but if you didn’t know that Tomás had just thrown this at him, you wouldn’t have had a clue Enrique hadn’t read the book. I don’t think it gets any smoother than that!

The last interview was Monday morning, which Gloria Diliz arranged, and it was a minor miracle we pulled it off. By then I was already long gone from Miami, nestled in Oakland with M. The time difference meant a 4:45 a.m. wake up call for a 5 a.m. interview – three hours earlier than sunny and beautiful Miami.

Can’t wait to go back.