Jonathan Lethem launches New York State Writers Institute season

Jonathan Lethem is a serious writer who has blended genres (sci-fi and mainstream literary) and garnered major awards: a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2005; the National Book Critics Circle award for “Motherless Brooklyn” in 1999; and World Fantasy Award for best collection of short stories for 1996’s “The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye.”

His latest novel, “Dissident Gardens,” is a multigenerational family tale about communists and radicals living in Queens, from the 1930s to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, and is the biggest canvas Lethem has every worked with. Central to the novel is the tale of two women struggling to follow their dreams: the mercurial Rose, known as the Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, who torments anyone within reach; and her daughter Miriam, who, much to her mother’s chagrin, embraces Greenwich Village counterculture.

The novel comes out Tuesday; on Wednesday, Lethem will open the fall season at the New York State Writers Institute.

As fans of Lethem’s work know, his mix of high and low is often leavened with wonderful touches of humor. And that’s something the Library Journal points out in its starred review of “Dissident Gardens,” saying the book is “a moving, hilarious satire of American ideology and utopian dreams. … Lethem enthusiasts may find this to be his best yet.”

In an interview earlier this year at Book Expo America in New York City, the 49-year-old novelist spoke about the lack of similarity between his novel and his life. He grew up in Brooklyn (not Queens), and though his parents were countercultural (his mother was an activist, but more of a “Yippie,” he said, and his father was a painter), they were far from the card-carrying communists in his book.

In addressing a question about the explicit political content of “Dissident Gardens,” Lethem didn’t shy away from seeing a higher purpose in his — and all — artistic work: “I think that art is helplessly political. … When you make art, it occupies some sort of implicit political space. It either shores up the status quo and people’s assumptions or it interrogates them. At some level, it just can’t help do that.”

Lethem will present an informal seminar at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday in the Standish Room, Science Library, on the University at Albany’s uptown campus, followed by a reading at

8 p.m. in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center.

Lethem is just one of many notable visitors to the Writers Institute this fall.

Some of the other literary names of note:

Short story writer and UAlbany professor Lydia Davis, on Oct. 1. She recently won the Man Booker International Prize.

Bill Bryson (Oct. 5), who has written about travel, history, science, and the English language in such books as “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (2004), “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” (1999) and “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” (1998). He has a new book, “One Summer: America, 1927,” about American history,

T.C. Boyle (Oct. 8), whose novels include “Drop City” (2003), “The Road to Wellville” (1993) and “World’s End” (1987), and whose latest collection, “T.C. Boyle Stories II,” is slated for publication in October.

Ayana Mathis (Dec. 3), whose novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” (2012), about a family’s struggles during the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the South to the North. It was the second selection for Oprah Winfrey’s new book club.

All events at the Writers Institute are free. For more information, call 442-5626 or visit In addition to visiting writers, the institute offers screenings of classic films. More information about the film series can be found on the institute’s website.

The fall season of visiting writers:

Sept. 11: Jonathan Lethem, novelist. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Standish Room, Science Library, Uptown Campus; 8 p.m. reading, Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus.

Sept. 17: Marie Howe, New York State Poet, and Sydney Lea, Vermont Poet Laureate. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Standish Room; 8 p.m. reading, Huxley Theatre, State Museum, Cultural Education Center, Albany.

Sept. 26: Gilbert King, nonfiction author. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Recital Hall; 8 p.m. reading, Recital Hall.

Oct. 1: Lydia Davis, short story author and translator. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Recital Hall.

Oct. 5: Bill Bryson, nonfiction author. 7:30 p.m., Clark Auditorium, State Museum, Cultural Education Center, Albany.

Oct. 8: T.C. Boyle, fiction writer. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Standish Room; 8 p.m. reading, Recital Hall.

Oct. 9: William Kennedy lecture on “William Rowley: Journalism and Social Justice,” celebrating the 40th Anniversary of UAlbany’s Journalism Program. 4 p.m., location TBA.

Oct. 18: Luis Gutierrez, U.S. congressman and author. 7 p.m. reading, Main Theatre, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus

Oct. 22: Roxana Saberi, journalist and screenwriter 7 p.m. film screening of “No One Knows About Persian Cats” (Iran, 2009) and commentary, Recital Hall.

Oct. 23: Ava Homa and Kaziwa Salih, writers of the Kurdish diaspora. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Recital Hall.

Oct. 24: Goli Taraghi, Iranian fiction writer. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Standish Room; 8 p.m. reading, Standish Room.

Oct. 25: A Celebration of Swedish Author Stig Dagerman (1923-1954) with his daughter Lo Dagerman and translator Steven Hartman. 7:30 p.m. reading and film Screening, Page Hall, 135 Western Ave., Downtown Campus.

Oct. 29: Douglas Bauer, fiction writer and essayist. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Standish Room. 8 p.m. reading, Assembly Hall, Campus Center, Uptown Campus

Nov. 7: American Shakespeare Center performance of “Othello,” featuring Rick Blunt as Iago and Fernando Lamberty as Othello. 7:30 p.m. performance, Main Theatre, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus. $15 in advance, $20 day of show. Box office 442-3997

Nov. 14: Robert Orsi, religious studies scholar. 7:30 p.m., keynote lecture of the Researching New York 2013 conference, State Museum, Cultural Education Center, Albany.

Nov. 15: Ben Coccio, filmmaker, screenwriter. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Science Library, Room 340. 7 p.m. screening of “The Place Beyond the Pines” followed by a discussion, Page Hall.

Nov. 21: David Treuer, Native American fiction and nonfiction writer. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Standish Room; 8 p.m. reading, Standish Room.

Dec. 3: Ayana Mathis, novelist. 4:15 p.m. seminar, Assembly Hall. 8 p.m. reading, Page Hall.

Vía Michael Janairo stories


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