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Growing up in New Jersey, Meghan Daum, 32, saw the Hudson River as “just another avenue” to get where she wanted. Eventually, she moved to Manhattan to study creative writing at Columbia. It’s a cliché: Fast-paced New York entices aspiring talent. Less common is the story of cornfields luring away the talented urbanite. But in 1999, after establishing herself as an essayist for Harper’s and The New Yorker (some of those magazine pieces are collected in 2001’s My Misspent Youth), she upped and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. “It was one of the first times in my life when I forced myself to have no preconceived notions or goals,” she says. “It was the best thing I ever did.”
Greener pastures became fodder for her first novel, The Quality of Life Report (Viking, May). After visiting fictitious Prairie City for a story, New York Up Early correspondent Lucinda Trout decides to leave her old life behind. The heartland, as she sees it, is “Sissy Spacek-movie serious,” a place where “not only did substance trump style but a very nuanced and therefore quietly sophisticated style was born out of the substance itself.” For Daum and her heroine, geography affects the emotional landscape: In the vast, open prairie, Lucinda gains “enough space to see what you’d do with yourself when given so much room, enough space . . . to get yourself in a whole lot of trouble.” The book also explores the modern-day urge to “customize” one’s life. Twentysomething Lucinda learns that the harder she strives for an ideal existence, the more she’s thwarted. “It’s much more difficult to live the life you choose than to go down the obvious path,” Daum says.
Currently working on the Quality screenplay in L.A., Daum says she sometimes looks at the glistening beachscape and concludes, “Well, it’s no prairie.” Though she’s happily anticipating her May book tour, which will bring her back to New York and her friends—not to mention the sushi, which is sub par in the land of Velveeta—she hopes to stay in the Midwest forever. “I feel very much at peace there. It’s a great, great place to be less distracted,” she says.
Meghan Daum reads May 18 at KGB, 85 East 4th Street, 212-505-3360, and May 20 at Barnes & Noble, 4 Astor Place, 212-420-1322.
MCSWEENEY’S READING WITH MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, J. ROBERT LENNON, BEN GREENMAN, AND OTHERS
Galapagos, 70 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 718-782-5188
Another event for Eggers loyalists and those who like their literature in dim bars, co-billed with music. Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham is joined by other novelists whose shorter work is published by the renegade press.
Caffe Sha Sha, 510 Hudson Street, 212-242-3021
The Brooklyn-based octogenarian’s sci-fi novel, The Mount, was a VLS favorite last year—a simple story about a boy and his alien owners that can also be read as a well-timed allegory about trading freedom for security.
Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Avenue, 212-831-3554
Though sprinkled with recipes from the Italian kitchen of her childhood, Chen’s Rosemary and Bitter Oranges is an account of growing up in a war-ravaged Tuscany.
RICHARD HOWARD+MAXINE KUMIN
Dia Center for the Arts, 548 West 22nd Street, 212-989-5566
Talking Cures, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Howard’s 11th volume of verse includes uncanny impersonations of Whitman and Cather. Kumin’s Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems 1958-1988 appears later this spring.
ZZ PACKER+MARTIN ROPER
KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street, 212-505-3360
ZZ Packer reads from her eagerly anticipated debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Her provocative stories—mostly about black teenage girls in the South—don’t conform to tidy, predictable structures. Roper presents his debut novel, Gone, previously excerpted in The New Yorker.
RUTH L. OZEKI
Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 16 West 32nd Street, 212-494-0061
Following her award-winning debut novel, My Year of Meats, Ozeki’s new All Over Creation tells the story of a prodigal Japanese American woman returning home to her family’s Idaho potato farm. After 25 years away, she must cope with a dying father and an Alzheimer’s-devastated mother, among others from her past.
92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, 212-415-5654
McEwan’s novels possess engaging narratives that can be read with breezy ease. His latest novel, Atonement, follows a crime and its repercussions from the chaos and carnage of World War II through the close of the 20th century.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON
New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, 212-930-0855
Historian and cultural critic Dyson, author of the Tupac bio Holler If You Hear Me, will talk about pride as part of the “Seven Deadly Sins” lecture series.