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What We’re Reading: Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow

2013 November 14

What We're ReadingPotluck-Supper-375x489Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow: Essays by Andy Sturdevant (Coffee House Press 2013)

Writer, artist, curator, Minnesota arts industry professional, and transplant to the Midwest, Andy Sturdevant captures my city, state, and geographical region with clear-eyes and a compelling, conversational pen. (Stay tuned to the blog for an interview with Sturdevant next week on The Writing Life!) Sturdevant’s interests, scope, and knowledge cross so many disciplines that I dare you to find someone who can’t connect to something in this book. The back cover heralds the book as a “Keepsake, guidebook, and wunderkammer of enthusiasms,” which captures my feelings for it beautifully.

There are many essays about art, not surprisingly. In many of these, I found myself yearning to see more (although he does include context with a few photos of the original place and/or art as well as his own drawn recreations of the art in question). I could see many of these working extremely well as a full-blown exhibit or walking tour of sorts, with Sturdevant’s book in tow as your personal guide. Sturdevant has already lead some local walking tours during the promotion of this book, and has lead walking tours of areas of the Twin Cities previously. This crossover from book to real-life is one of the exciting and unique traits of this book.

The guidebook theme crops up again and again. One of the longer essays is a guide (and an art lesson) to all thirty-nine gubernatorial portraits and their artists in the state capitol. I found myself wishing I were walking down the hallway looking at these (and just might, at some point, do this myself). It also thrums with the giddy potential Sturdevant sees in abandoned storefronts in “A Field Guide to the Vacant Storefronts of East Lake Street;” as well as the hilarity and awkwardness of Midwestern culture. One of my favorite essays about our culture is exposed with the essay “First with mannequins, then with live models,” about Midwesterners and their clumsiness when greeting another by kissing on the cheek. Here’s an excerpt:

The kiss should land on the cheek for just a moment. Most of the time, it doesn’t touch at all. Make sure your lips aren’t too wet. I mean, don’t wipe your mouth with your sleeve before you go in or anything—you won’t have time anyway—but do what you can. There should be very little moisture upon contact.

Sturdevant even recently held a workshop in conjunction with the book on teaching Midwesterns how to properly kiss cheeks! And that brings me back to the events in conjunction with the release of this book: they have taken on a fascinating identity of their own. Often involving invested time from the audience, whether it be a walking tour, or even that workshop on kissing, they activate a community to interact and experience Sturdevant’s vision of our local places and cultural habits. Here’s to hoping for more book events like this!

Another way the book crosses over the traditional book sphere is it’s tone. The whole book feels as though I’ve downloaded a bunch of conversations, stories, and lessons directly from Sturdevant and let me tell you, I’m a  bit in awe. This guy knows his stuff. He is able to keep my mind walking alongside him throughout the book with his conversational, yet crisply intelligent tone that never veers over into preachy speak. He has a knack for capturing side tangents or brief moments in full color, such as at the beginning of the essay (and one of my favorites in the book) “At Matt’s Bar, in a Blizzard”:

There were few cars on the road, so I could walk down the center of the back streets I was traveling to avoid the unshoveled snow on the sidewalk and feel completely alone. The longer I walked though, the most sensitive I became to the noises around me. I realized I wasn’t alone at all: each block had at least a half-dozen people on it, noisily shoveling their sidewalks and driveways. the sounds they were making were agreeably rhythmic and suited to the sort of methodical trudging one must make over three feet of unpacked snow. First, there’s a metallic skid as the shovel hits the sidewalk, then there’s a muffled plop as the shoveled snow hits the fresh snow behind it. Repeat that, then multiply it a few times per block, and add in incidental conversation in English and Spanish if the shoveler has a partner helping out.

The fact that such a book exists, with a such a specific focus and deep physical ties is due to the bravery and dedication of Coffee House Press to publishing quality work. My love for Coffee House Press is no secret, and this book solidifies that. They’ve made some very brave and innovative editorial choices lately, and I encourage you to follow their book lists if you don’t already.

And, with it being Give to the Max Day here in Minnesota, consider supporting Coffee House Press and all of the amazing  literary publishers, organizations, and magazines of our dear state (not to mention nonprofits in general). Luckily for us, there are so many choices to make when deciding which of the many amazing nonprofits to support.

What other books can you think of that act as literary guidebooks? Any other authors come to mind who do unique, community-centric book events? What other publishers have a motto of quality over quantity?



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