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

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