The Coolness Factor of Iowa City

Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City

Coolness factor of Iowa:  6-7/10

Coolness factor of Iowa City:  9/10

On a typical day my coolness factor is low. My cool thing is bicycling instead of driving.

My coolness goes way up when we visit Iowa City, my hometown.  As we drive up Dubuque Street, past City Park, past Tudor frat houses, past shabby old houses with cupolas and porches, my heart lightens. My husband says,  “You seem happier and more confident.”

It’s probably because we can walk everywhere.

The coolness factor of Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, is high.  It is a lovely university town, with tree-lined streets and a pedestrian downtown. The slightly tacky UNESCO effect is the installation of plaques with writers’ quotes on the sidewalk, which I try to ignore.  (The writers attended or taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) The town used to be cooler a few decades ago when there were actually more bookstores.  The few surviving stores have smaller collections than they used to.

What we actually like to do is walk around town. We walked to Oakland Cemetery and looked at the Black Angel.  There was a legend about the Black Angel:  it turned black because of some eerie love story gone amok, or something else we made up as girls.  Actually, the statue turned black because of an outdoor oxidizing effect on bronze.

The Black Angel at Oakland Cemetery on a dark November day.

We discovered the grave of Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentine printmaker who came to teach at the University of Iowa and established the printmaking department in 1945. He was best known for the Nazi Drawings.  I love the sculpture on his gravestone.

Mauricio Lasansky’s grave.

Then we did our personal house tour of lodging houses, because both of us lived in rented rooms our senior year of college.  On the way to the graveyard, we passed the house where I lived in a minuscule room.  The house is even more run-down than it used to be, if that’s possible. They’ve put siding over the picture window, so the new lodger must  live in almost total darkness.  But I was happy there, and I liked the attic kitchen, where I ate ramen noodles with the rest of the lodgers.

I lived happily in this run-down house!

Across the street from the rooming house is an elegant private drive where we  walked to escape student life.

We used to do our laundry late at night at the apartment house (see pic below) across the street so as to avoid the laundromat.

The laundry…!

And then my husband and I walked on to the Iowa City Public Library, which is really a bustling community space these days. Although I preferred the old Carnegie library, this accommodates many more readers. And we enjoyed looking at this mural on loan.  It was originally commissioned for the Jefferson Hotel in the ’30s.

Another lovely day in Iowa City!  And we were very cool for a day.

The mural shows the building of the railroad.

Memories of Bookstores and The Guardian on Prairie Lights

Prairie Lights Books

Prairie Lights Books

Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City is featured in The Guardian’s “Interview with a Bookstore.” Not only do I sometimes shop at Prairie Lights, but so does Obama (see YouTube, March 25, 2010).

Founded in 1978, it is the oldest bookstore in town except for Iowa Book (founded in 1920). It stocks classics, literary fiction, poetry, history, local history, biography, nonfiction, SF, mysteries, travel, small press books, and journals.  Until recently, it even stocked Loebs.  It hosts readings three or four times a week.  We have attended readings by Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Sherman Alexie.

What I like most about the Guardian piece  is the quotes from the staff.

If you weren’t working in a bookstore, what would you be doing?

Kathleen: Writing the books? Would rather sell the books. It’s easier, and the quality is better.

Don’t you love that answer?   I’ve always dreamed of owning a bookstore, but not ardently enough!

And Kathleen says her favorite regular is IndieBob, who has an excellent blog, The Indie Bob Spot, about visiting independent bookstores in the U.S.

Here are two more staffers’ answers to the question about what they would do if they didn’t work at a bookstore:

Terry: Night watchman at a cranberry silo.

Tim: I’d probably still be in the restaurant business, either waiting tables or tending bar, bemoaning my existence and spending too much money on books.

A fun article!


The Epstein brothers at Epstein’s Books in a temporary module in 1974.  (I have no idea why Harry is holding a lamp.)

MEMORIES OF BOOKSTORES IN IOWA CITY.   Growing up in I.C., I loved Iowa Book and Supply (then saucily referred to as Iowa Book & Crook, and even looted once in the ’60s).   There I discovered E. Nesbit, Catcher in the Rye, Tolstoy, Doris Lessing, Robertson Davies, Sisterhood Is Powerful (edited by Robin Morgan),and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. On Career Day, when my non-career-oriented friends and I claimed we wanted to own a bookstore in Scotland (were we absurdists, or just absurd?), we spent 20 minutes at The Paper Place, a now defunct paperback bookstore, and then decamped to Burger Palace.  Later,  Epstein’s was the hip place to buy  small-press books,  poetry chapbooks, and paperback classics, and attend readings by the Actualist poets:  Ansel Hollo, Darrell Grey, Allan Kornblum (later founder of Coffee House Press), Dave Morice, and Morty Sklar.   Alas, urban renewal and a relocation to a temporary building on a torn-up street drove Epstein’s out of business in 1977.

I have so many bookstore memories!  I just wish more bookstores were still in business.

A Trip to Iowa City: Not Buying One Book!

Prairie Lights Books

  Prairie Lights Books

I am not an addicted consumer.

That’s what I thought.

But I do love bookstores.  Any bookstores.   Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris, Jackson Street Booksellers, Skoob, Prairie Lights, Waterstones, The Haunted Bookshop, The Bookworm, The London Review Bookshop, Oxfam, Barnes & Noble, The Strand…

But since my book binge in London, whence I carried 15 paperbacks in a suitcase I could barely wheel across the airport and mailed a box of books home, I have decided to cut back on buying books for a while.

It has been three weeks since I bought a book.

At first I felt flat.  Now, honestly, I think I am becoming delirious.  E-books don’t count as books, do they? They are so cheap…  and they’re not physical objects!

No, no, no!  I think e-books are books…sort of!

Today we went to Iowa City, and we did not go to any bookstores.  It is a bit odd not to go to a bookstore in a UNESCO City of Literature.

There are, however, many other things to do.

We went to Hickory Hill Park, a beautiful wooded park  on the north side of town.  We THOUGHT we were near the big open field near the cemetery where my mother is buried.  But the park has acquired more acres since we lived here, so we took a wrong turn and got lost.  We found a map in a kiosk by the parking lot–later!

Hickory Hill Park

                               Hickory Hill Park

Then, because we felt like sitting and reading, we went to the University of Iowa Library. Here is a book all will want to read, Gods, Kings and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mespotamia.

IMG_3490No, I don’t actually want to read it! I’m joshing.   But someone will.  It’s on display.

The first floor of the library is a space-age looking area broken up by colored cube-shaped study rooms, soft couches and comfortable chairs, and a cafe with a large-screen TV.  It looks a little like the Jetsons’s futuristic house, sans robot, in the 1960s cartoon show, The Jetsons.

The library looks a littlle like the Jetsons's home, sans robot.

The Jetsons!

We, of course, prefer the floors of the library that actually house books.

I spent an hour reading  journals.  I was mesmerized by a bound volume of the 1960 issues of Analog:  Science Fiction and Fact.  Established in 1930, this  magazine publishes science fiction based on real science and articles on science. I very much enjoyed reading a rather poorly-written novelette by a no-name author (sorry!  I didn’t have even a pencil to take notes with!) about a man with telepathy on a mission to prevent witch-burnings.   It seemed very appropriate for Halloween.

Then there is Classical Journal.  You can never  fall behind in the field of classics, because it is always the same ancient Greek and Latin literature,  but it’s fun to catch up on scholarly journals. It’s not always fun, though. And so I perused a tedious article comparing Cicero’s Pro Archia to Pro Balbo.  SNORE…. Then I read a review of what sounded a really unnecessary abridgement of Herodotus.  Then, in the June 30, 2014, issue, I found a brilliant analysis of  one of Propertius’s elegies, in the article, “MARRIAGE CONTRACTS, FIDES AND GENDER ROLES IN PROPERTIUS 3.20″ by MELANIE RACETTE-CAMPBELL.

If you’re interested, here’s a sentence from the abstract (which I found online):

Propertius 3.20 uses the language of fidelity and contracts that was traditionally associated with solemn legal ceremonies and agreements in his depiction of a socially illegitimate relationship between a lover and his mistress.


And then afterwards we dined.   There’s The Brown Bottle (Italian), Pagliai’s (the thin-crust pizza I grew up on), and the Hamburg Inn (burgers and breakfast:  every  Presidential candidate goes there!).  These are places we ate at with my mother.  And the pedestrian downtown is now mostly a restaurant-bar area, with lots of ethnic food, burgers and chicken wings, something for everybody.  (But the French restaurant did go under.  Too bad!)

President Obama at the Hamburg Inn

President Obama at the Hamburg Inn

If the Hamburg Inn is good enough for the President….

Anyway, can you believe I didn’t buy one book?

A Different Island & the CIA in Iowa City

I fell down twice on my walk.

“Are you okay?”

It’s just snow.

I was, however, upset that my coffee cup splatted into the snow.  Plus yellowish snow–we’re talking dog pee–suddenly covered the lid.

So there I was with a disgusting cup of coffee to get rid of.  I tossed it in the trash can at the coffeehouse.

When I fell down again while punching the button on a traffic light, I was miserable.  It’s just snow and ice but I’ve had enough of it.  I decided to go off my diet.  I’ve been dieting since November, not so I’ll lose weight, which is impossible, but so I won’t gain 10 pounds this winter.  So I bought a malt cup at the Git ‘n’ Go, and at the counter we talked about our favorite ways of eating malt cups.  I use a spoon.  Someone said she let hers melt and drank it.

At home I told my husband I had fallen down and was sick of living in the Midwest and wanted immediately to take a vacation and get away from winter.

I wailed, “Why am I going to England?  Why aren’t I going to an island?”

“You are going to an island.  Just the wrong island.”

And it is quite possible he’s right.

Next year, a different island.


I recently read the article,  “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, by Eric D. Bennett, an Iowa MFA, author of a forthcoming book called Workshops of Empire.  The subhead says, “With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.”

A quote on the "Literary Walk" in Iowa City

A quote on the “Literary Walk” in Iowa City

Growing up in Iowa City, we were proud of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first MFA program in the nation, founded in 1936.  Whenever Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving or John Cheever or anybody who taught there published a book, there were big displays of the books in the window of Iowa Book and Supply.

As undergraduates at the University of Iowa my husband and I both took Fiction Writing multiple times (a fun, easy 3-credit course that could be repeated indefinitely).  One of the T.A.’s, T. Coraghessan Boyle, became famous, though most were never heard of again.  (What happened to Sara and Nancy?)  And I did take a course from Arturo Vivante, a doctor and fiction writer who seemed stunned and despairing to find himself teaching a summer course to undergraduates.  He was especially hard on two high school English teachers who were taking the course to learn to teach creative writing.

Am I surprised to learn that the CIA funded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s International Writing Program during the Cold War?  I would be more surprised if it hadn’t.

Call me psychic, but I sometimes joke about how all the writers in Iowa are “locked up” at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City.  I mean “locked up” in a lot of ways:  taught, controlled, and spit out into a network.

In the article Bennett talks a lot about the styles of writing that are encouraged and are not at Iowa.  He preferred Ethan Canin’s style to that of Marilynne Robinson and the late Frank Conroy, whom he deemed cold.

He writes,

At Iowa, you were disappointed by the reduced form of intellectual engagement you found there and the narrow definition of what counted as “literary.” The workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into. You entered with something undefined and tantalizingly protean and left with muffins. You really believe this. But you can also see yourself clearly enough: unpublished, ambitious, obscure, ponderous. In short, the kind of person who writes a dissertation.

My husband and I are laughing at this.  Muffin tins?  If they could get us all to write the same way, wouldn’t the world be a merry place?  Then we wouldn’t need workshops.

To write a whole book on this seems, well, perhaps revenge?

Perhaps the book is better than the article.