Iowa City Book Festival Road Trip Recap

This past weekend I attended the annual Iowa City Book Festival. It’s a three day celebration of books. Friday morning Ruth, Cayt, and I made drive from Chicago to Iowa City in just under four hours. We talked non-stop about what we’ve been up to since our last literary road trip together, caught up on news regarding former coworkers (from the good old days at Borders), talked about blogging (Cayt recently started writing a blog, lumiere pure), but mainly we talked about books we’ve read and books we want to read.

In Iowa City we met up with out friend Missy, who lives near Des Moines, Iowa, and much later in the evening her friend–and now our friend–Stacy joined our merry band of book lovers.

Carved relief print from the carnival.

After lunch our first order of business was a bookstore visit, or two. The first book stop was a new used bookstore in the Sycamore Mall, Defunct Books. Everyone bought something there except me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve left a bookstore empty handed. I think I was worried about loading up too soon.

That’s only partially true.

As I packed the evening before, my partner, Laura, asked how much spending money I was taking. What she really meant was: how much book money do you need? I actually said none, that I wasn’t going to buy any books. She laughed, said sure, and asked again. No, really, I’ll only buy one book I said. She knows me too well and needless to say, I left the house with book money in pocket. While at Defunct Books I was still thinking I wouldn’t buy any books this trip. Or maybe just one.

Our second bookstore was The Book Shop. We were thrilled to get inside this cute little shop as last year it was closed when we made our first literary pilgrimage to Iowa City. I haven’t seen such a stuffed bookstore in a long, long time. This is a used bookstore where you can dig. And you might well have to dig if you’re looking for something specific.

My mind was overwhelmed by the disproportional book/space ratio which cured me of my temporary ‘I won’t buy any books’ insanity. I purchased a mass market copy of James A. Michener’s Poland and a worn but sturdy cloth copy of Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste: How to Form It: with Detailed Instructions for Collecting a Completed Library of English Literature.

I wasn’t familiar with Literary Taste before spotting it, but I love old books about literature–the pomposity of opinion (now that I’m no longer knee jerky about literary canon arguments) humors me and I’ve found that such books often contain nuggets of insight that help me see books or literary history from a new angle. If nothing else, they feed my thirst for talk about books, even if I don’t agree with the author’s opinion.

The festival officially kicked off on Friday evening at 6 or 7pm (depending on what ticket level purchased) with a carnival at Hotel Vetro that featured food, games, activities, and prizes. We won t-shirts playing Plunko, made prints from original book related carved relief art, tried the wine toss, and played book darts where I won an advance readers copy of Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful. I’ve never won a book playing darts before. Mr. Goolrick was at the carnival, but I didn’t want to disrupt his conversation to ask him to sign the book.

There was also free ice cream, a Fifty Shades of Grey photo booth, a tarot card reader, a live band, and a cake walk. The cake pictured below looked like the grand prize to us. Later in the evening after we left the festival and were savoring crepes at our go-to restaurant, Crepes De Luxe Cafe, we saw the winner walking down the street carrying this cake.

After crepes we went back to our hotel where Stacy joined us. The five of us got wild and played Booktastic! for a couple hours.

The cake!

The next morning, Saturday, started with breakfast at the hotel and, for a couple of us, morning pages on the patio. Then we drove downtown and re-oriented ourselves with bookstore locations in relation to the University of Iowa campus (where the festival was held) before parking and getting coffee. Missy went to UI and was a campus bus driver, so she is our official Iowa City driver and guide.

After that, our first book stop of the day was Prairie Lights. We didn’t have much time to browse since we arrived shortly after 9am and the first author events started at 10am. I walked out with a copy of John Boyne’s The Absolutist, which I’ve recently heard praised on several book podcasts.

And I just realized that once again I did not make it upstairs to their cafe. Guess I’ll have to go back.

Our group of five split up into various directions for different events. Cayt and I headed to Seamans Center for “Literary Friendships” with Dean Bakopoulos and Patrick Somerville. I wasn’t familiar with either writer, but my friend Cayt saw Dean Bakopoulos’s sister at Printer’s Row in Chicago last month. We were interested in hearing what they’d have to say on literary friendships and ended up excited about both writer’s work. Bakopoulos, he’s the one in the checkerd shirt in the picture below, spoke first and talked about how important it is for a writer to have a friend who understands the feelings of futility that come up when writing, the anxiety about how you spend your time in general and, more specifically, how the novel you’re currently writing sometimes seems like a stupid waste of time. Such friends are also there to talk you down after a bad review of your work.

Bakopoulsos is in the checkered shirt, Somerville wearing cap.

Dean read from his novel My American Unhappiness and explained some of why he came to write it. Then Somerville read from and talked about his recent novel, This Bright River. During the Q&A session someone asked him about the recent brouhaha regarding Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times and his piece in Salon. I hadn’t heard about, and it good to get the inside scoop from the man himself.

Cayt and I both bought copies of Bakopoulos’s My American Unhappiness and Somerville’s first novel, The Cradle. Prairie Lights was there selling the books and both authors personalized and signed our copies. They’re both interesting guys and I’m excited to read their books.

Next it was lunch time. The five of us had lunch together before breaking up again into various groupings for various events and/or bookstore visits.  Ruth, Cayt, and I headed toward Murphy-Brookfield Books. Ruth peeled away from us during the walk to visit The Haunted Bookstore and caught up with us later. Murphy-Brookfield has an outstanding fiction section (as well as literary criticism and history). Ruth and Cayt did their thing in the store and took off for a 2:30 author event. I stayed a bit longer and eventually left with a copy of The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter.

I should note that when I say I “left with a copy” of whatever book that it does indeed mean that I actually paid for the book.

The next author event I was going to was at 3:30, but I left time for a stop at The Haunted Bookshop which was the first bookstore I’d visited in Iowa City a couple years ago (recommended to me by Missy). It’s my favorite Iowa City bookstore. The staff is always so friendly and not in that artificial, empty manner that reverberates with waves of the boss’s most recent reminder to be friendly.

After a ridiculously short 15 minute browse, I walked out of The Haunted Bookshop with Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed with Magellan and Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and headed back to the Seamans Center for Christopher Farnsworth’s talk.

Farnsworth is a funny guy with a gently self-deprecatory sense of humor. He talked a bit, read from his latest Nathaniel Cade thriller, and then took questions from an audience. I just finished his first book in this series, Blood Oath, last week. During the Q&A I asked Farnsworth if he was a monster/vampire geek as a kid or did he come to the genre as an adult. First, he thanked me for not assuming he’d always been a geek, but then said that he’s always been into monsters because he hated vampires. He was traumatized at 2 or 3 after watching a Scooby-Doo episode with a vampire. After that he really wanted to know how to kill vampires and read the usual books, comics, and watched all the classic vampire movies.

Christopher Farnsworth

I took a breather after Farnsworth’s talk and sat and relaxed for a bit, looking over the books I’d purchased throughout the day and had a nice conversation with a fellow first time festival attendee from Kansas City who was attracted to my stack of books. It was her first visit to Iowa City and she was impressed by its dedication to books.

Our last event of the day was Zach Wahls. I was one of the millions who watched his testimony at the Iowa House of Representatives after it went viral last year on YouTube (here’s a link). Wahls has a book out, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, and he really packed ’em in at the Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber. It was a standing room only crowd. The rest of my group had been in that same room for Ridley Pearson’s event and saved a seat for me or else we’d have been sitting on the floor or listening in the hallway. As it turned out, we were sitting in front of his moms. We introduced ourselves and chatted a bit. It was a pleasure to meet them.

After brief introductory remarks, Wahls read several passages from his new book that sparked both laughter and some sorrowful head shaking. He’s a passionate and charming young man, and so well-spoken.

After this inspiring event, it was time to head back to Chicago. First, however, we asked someone to take a picture of the five of us. Here we are:

Stacy, Missy, Cayt, me, and Ruth.

We walked back toward the parking garage sharing highlights of our day, got another round of coffees to go, and said good-bye to our Iowa friends. The book talk continued on the way home, with talk of our next book get-together.

As I think about the weekend, I’m thankful for the friends that books have brought into my life. I’ve heard people talk about how book lovers are or can be antisocial (or, more kindly, introverts), and while that might be true for some, at various times in their lives, me included, my love of books has given me some fabulous experiences and life-long friends. We don’t necessarily like the same kinds of books, but there’s enough overlap and commonality in “the book life” to cross bridges and make connections. Books can and do open doors, both to the new worlds they contain within their pages and to the world around you.

If you’re looking for some bookish destinations check out BiblioBuffet for a list of US and International book festivals.

Do you go on book adventures with friends?

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