The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Also known as the Program in Creative Writing, the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop began in 1936 and immediately counted Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren and Dylan Thomas among its students.

Now, 87 years later, the IWW is still cultivating writers of literary and popular works.  Some of their novels reference life in a town very like Iowa City.  Some are set in places that couldn’t be more different.  Here is a selection of books published in 2023:

The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor

The Late Americans reads more like his interconnected story collection Filthy Animals (2021) than his debut, Real Life (2020), though both are campus tales centered on graduate students. In Iowa City, there are dancers who frequent the poet bar, poets dismissed early from seminar, art students whose day jobs label them outsiders, and those who will trade art for the security of med school or banking. Among the large cast, students and townies who come and go, sometimes in deep focus and other times in side roles, is Ivan, who dabbles in making porn, and his boyfriend, Goran, who doesn’t know how to feel about it. There’s poet Seamus, dancer Noah, and landlord Bert, whose lit-fuse presence bookends the novel as he becomes a menacing, sort-of lover to them both. Taylor writes feelings and physical interactions with a kind of sixth sense, creating scenes readers will visualize with ease. At the beginning and ending of things and in confronting gradations of sex, power, and class, ambivalence pervades. Lovers of character studies and fine writing will enjoy getting lost in this.  From Booklist Online

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld

When yet another shmopey guy—this time, her office mate at the Saturday Night Live–style show where she works—starts dating an uber-hot and talented female celebrity, comedy writer Sally channels her rage/certainty “that a gorgeous male celebrity would never fall in love with an ordinary, dorky, unkempt woman” into a sketch. The host and musical guest for this week’s episode of The Night Owls is the “outrageously handsome” superstar Noah Brewster, who seeks Sally’s help punching up his own sketch—she’s known around the studio as the queen of comedic structure. Sure that there could be nothing between them, due to the aforementioned law-turned-sketch, intimacy-phobic (and perhaps ordinary, dorky, and unkempt) Sally is her best, brilliant, warm self with Noah during the weeklong lead-up to the show, a fun and frenetic frame for the book’s first half that’s full of insider-feeling, behind-the-scenes excitement. You can see where this might be going, and yet how much you’ll enjoy getting there. Dialogue zips and zings as hearts plummet and soar through Sally and Noah’s meeting, misunderstanding, and years-later rapprochement as COVID-19 dawns. Sittenfeld’s (Rodham, 2020) meta-romance is an utterly perfect version of itself, a self-aware and pandemic-informed love story that’s no less romantic for being either.  From Booklist Online

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton The epigraph of Booker Prize–winner Catton’s fine new novel is a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is appropriate given that the spirit of the Bard is mightily present. Mira Bunting is a young Kiwi horticulturalist and founder of a New Zealander activist collective called Birnam Wood. Bunting has a habit of assuming false identities to look at listings of land she cannot afford to buy and plants crops without permission on overlooked patches of land. In essence, Birnam Wood is a guerrilla gardening group, a combination of environmental anarchists and direct-action protesters. “Birnam Wood was . . . a pop-up, the brainchild of ‘creatives’; it was organic, it was local; it was a bit like Uber; it was a bit like Airbnb,” writes Catton. Bunting herself turns trespassing into a type of performance art. But when she inadvertently meets an American billionaire, Robert Lemoine, her world and the future of the collective change in ways she could not imagine. Catton’s filmic novel features vivid characters, not all of them likable, and sharp, sizzling dialogue. Themes in the intricate plot include identity politics, national identity, and exploitation by the -super-rich. Birnam Wood is tightly wound and psychologically thrilling, and Catton’s fans and readers new to her powers will savor it to the end.   From Booklist Online

The Thing in the Snow by Sean Adams

When confronted with a blank space, the mind tends to wander. Adams’ second novel, following The Heap (2020), takes place in such an environment. Hart is transported via helicopter to a research facility known as the Northern Institute, where it’s bitterly cold and snow-covered. He’s tasked with supervising two other employees, Gibbs and Cline, as they keep the recently vacated facility primed for an eventual but vaguely pending return. His instructions are helicoptered in each week, and feedback is curt to the point of mechanical. What, then, to do if a thing is spotted on the barren landscape outside the facility, where it is forbidden and dangerous to venture? The banter among the three about their monotonous tasks and their stress about the thing in the snow veers into the absurd. Adams’ quirky look at a confined and isolated workspace also offers an almost Stoppard-like look into character development while making a rather bleak but humorous statement about contemporary working life. Though the world Adams created is spare, the reading mind fills every corner with all that is dreamed and feared. From Booklist Online

Playhouse by Richard Bausch

Novels about contemporary stagings of classic plays, such as Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (2016), Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling (2011), and Adam Langer’s Cyclorama (2022), contrast epic social changes with timeless aspects of the human condition. Fiction virtuoso Bausch’s psychologically lush and situationally entangled tale is catalyzed by the building of a glitzy Globe Theater in Memphis and its ambitious, inevitably stormy opening production of King Lear. This endeavor forges highly problematic relationships, bringing back together the former husband of one of the two philanthropists funding the venture—his ex-wife and her wife—and a former TV anchor struggling with alcoholism and disgrace over an allegedly inappropriate involvement with his underage niece-by-marriage, who is also appearing onstage. Add a visiting artistic director with attitude, bad ideas, and his own woes; the imperiled marriage of the set designer and the general manager; and a leading actor who has just taken her dementia-afflicted father out of an assisted living facility against her family’s wishes. Profound turmoil ensues, driven by conscience, longing, gossip, guilt, anguish, rage, and sexual assaults, all taking place in a vibrantly depicted city assailed by nature’s fury. With Shakespearean moments of confusion, regret, and dissemblance, sharp-witted banter and all-out showdowns, Bausch’s enthralling, tempestuous, empathic drama illuminates with lightning strikes paradoxes of family, loyalty, and love.  From Booklist Online

Gloat global, insult local


Hey Madge, I soaked in it!

In a self-immolating polemic in the Atlantic,  University of Iowa “journalism” professor Stephen Bloom (seen mugging at left in what must be a pretentious Palmolive print ad) has succeeded in making “reporting” a smug act of self-pleasure. Read it…I’ll wait.  Are you reveling in his urbane wit?  Neither is the rest of the state.

I loved Postville, which makes his level of probing insight gleaned from twenty years of experience into the folkways of us ignorant herkamur jerkamur locals all the more indicting. One would think there’d be a statute of limitations on vaingloriously claiming alien status, but nope, he’s apparently STILL NOT ONE OF US.  Et tu, Stephen? Bloom turns the dagger against his meal ticket in Karl-Rovian fashion, swift-boating our most enduring strength into our greatest failing.  The fiber of Iowan character and honesty is mystically morphed into the bullheaded complacency of the docile, meek, and stupid.

“Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow.'”

By that rationale, only an abject failure would choose to gorge himself on the public teat for a score of years in a dank cesspool of human filth, no? Perhaps Agent Donnie Brasco is striving to meet the irony-hungry readership of jaundiced university-town hipster literati. Unlike his target demographic, Bloom won’t be an office temp this summer. He’ll come home from his current stint as a visiting scholar in Michigan (a true, Tom Joad), where he moonlighted by scratching together an egotistical rant on the putrid state of Iowa’s economics and culture, ultimately comdemning the Hawkeye state as a place so woefully backward to not deserve the first-in-the-nation caucus on the grounds that most of the unrepresentative citizenry will probably spend the evening walking into walls and groping with childlike glee at shiny things.

With broad brush, Bloom paints a mishmash of cartoonesque semi-Southern sweeping generalizations and stereotypes that would make Joseph Goebbels proud. In any other pocket of the world, such irresponsible erudition would be condemned as racism or bigotry. Subject matter plays second-fiddle to his own reflected self-glorification when not unlike a beleaguered Jane Goodall, Bloom is seemingly forced on our public dole at a redneck’s gunpoint to entrench himself among Iowa’s mouthbreathing, knuckledragging chimps for two decades. If that’s true, kindly lift your barrel off his turtleneck, Cletus, and let this card-carrying member of the sophisticate be on his way.

Come deadline time and lacking of a poetic capstone to this composition, Bloom clumsily contrived a story a la Jayson Blair of how he can’t walk his Labrador around Iowa City without a hayseed Elmer Fudd inquiring of him how well she can track a scent. Clearly his constitutionals lead him past noted cobblestone-paved coondog haunts such as the New Pioneer Co-op and International Writer’s Workshop.

Bloom has offered up in defense that he was doing “the real job of journalism” and if you feel affronted, it is because you want to “kill the messenger, ignore the message.” That’s fine. There is a whole heck of a lot of truth in the article.  All of Iowa’s fiscal and cultural ills, incidentally, are not being courageously battled in “Keokuk…a depressed, crime-infested slum town”, but by smug, suede-elbowed cosmopolitans on sabbatical in between lattes as they ride the gravy train in academia’s ivory tower.  Ones like Bloom who valiantly in the face of logic persevere a cush lifestyle of oppressive yawns, having his TAs scribble red letters on top of lazy, uninspired doggerel (remind you of anyone?) and taking semesters off paid to write bestsellers. Were he a Christian (he’s not, a belabored point he trounces in every other paragraph) he’d describe this as his cross to bear.

The rub is the subtext, where Bloom basks in his own intellectual glory comparatively, finding a way somehow to thrust himself in the role of detached omniscient third-party observer while wholesale impugning the Iowa electorate as thoughtless sub-sentient bovine in a tone that would only makes sense as an expatriate, not your employee.  Thank you, good sir, for altruistically miring yourself in the Marianas Trench that is Iowa for so long.  We really had no idea your bathysphere went that deep, you cut-rate Jacques Cousteau.

So what will become of Stephen Bloom? He is parrying off rebuttals such as this one as examples of aforementioned ignorance and anti-intellectualism. He’ll deservedly cower behind the bedrock Constitutional principle of free speech. In Iowa City, he will be protected as a generously publicly-subsidized snob and dandy. In the hearts and minds of the citizenry, he looks like something dragged out of the packing plants he documented a dozen years ago and has rendered and repurposed in every essay he’s written since.

You see, being a pompous (insert your word of choice) is inherently and indefensibly un-Iowan wharever y’are in these here Yoonahted States. And like his absurd east-side Iowa City Labrador, that dog don’t hunt..  Lookeee ma, I can fabricate a cutsie homespun ending too.. in “skuzzy” Davenport no less.

Merry Christmas Stephen Bloom.

Hit the bricks.

Food Week – From the Archives of a Famous Chef

I thought I knew all about bacon but --, ca. 1930sIf you are a fan of cookbooks, or any type of book related to food, then take a quick trip to Iowa City to see the The Chef Louis Szathmáry II Collection of Culinary Arts housed in the University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collection Department. This collection contains over 12,000 items relating to the art and science of cooking and eating, including cookbooks, fiction, pamphlets, artist books, manuscripts and much more. Louis Szathmary (1919–1996), was a Hungarian-born chef, restaurateur, food writer and owner of The Bakery restaurant in Chicago who built one of the largest culinary arts archives in the United States; in fact, the University of Iowa is housing only a fraction of his collection. In Books at Iowa 42 (April 1985), Szathmáry wrote: “To house this large and varied collection requires 31 rooms in the residential area above my restaurant (The Bakery) in Chicago.” That is a lot of tasty print!

However, don’t worry if you prefer to be an Armchair Cook– The UI Special Collections and Digital Libraries have digitized a huge selection of Szathmary’s Recipe pamphlets, such as “I thought I knew all about Bacon–“, that you can view online at!

See the National Parks through the eyes of a Geoscience student

Planning a trip to a National Park this summer? or Want to enjoy some of the natural beauty from afar? Check out University of Iowa Digital Library’s collection of thousands of images of U.S. National Parks taken by University of Iowa Geosciences Department ( You can browse the entire collection or search for a specific park, landmark, or natural formation. Here are a few of my favorites I found by searching for flowers and lake respectively:

Avalanche Lilies at Olympic National Park (Wash.); The University of Iowa
Avalanche Lilies at Olympic National Park (Wash.); The University of Iowa Department of Geoscience
Fishing from Trail Creek dock, Southeast Arm, Yellowstone Lake, at sunset; Photograph taken by Richard G. Baker of The University of Iowa Department of Geoscience
Fishing from Trail Creek dock, Southeast Arm, Yellowstone Lake, at sunset; Photograph taken by Richard G. Baker of The University of Iowa Department of Geoscience