Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leafing through this year's 'Wapsipinicon Almanac'

Originally printed Jan. 20, 2012.

Over the past two months, I have spent far too many hours reading through all the letters and columns submitted in response to Stephen Bloom's online essay in The Atlantic — including several 1,200- to 3,000-word tomes that the writers refused to pare down for publication.

As a result, I now find myself having to fight hard against the temptation to try to cram all Iowa-centric writing into one of three categories:

Writing that expertly, passionately or eloquently disproves Bloom's explicit and implicit arguments.

Writing that strives to disprove Bloom's arguments, but unintentionally provides further evidence for Bloom's arguments.

Writing that doesn't give a whit about Bloom's pretensions and embraces everything about Iowa that Bloom disdains.

Luckily for me, Tim Fay's "Wapsipinicon Almanac" refuses to fit snugly into any of those categories. While some of the individual pieces in Fay's nearly annual collection are clearly in Category 1 or 3 — with a few in Category 2, as well — the letter-press-printed almanac, when taken as a whole, blurs the distinctions between nostalgia and satire and manages to live up to its reputation of being part New Yorker, part Farmers' Almanac.

As with its 17 predecessors, "Wapsipinicon Almanac No. 18" looks like it came straight out of the early 20th-century. And although the well-designed ads look like they come from that bygone era, they highlight the Iowa businesses that help make the state such a worthwhile place to live in. (Some of the local advertisers include Fired Up Iowa City, Houseworks, Eble Music, University of Iowa Press, Cafe del Sol coffer roasters, Iowa Artisans Gallery, the Haunted Bookshop, the Red Avocado and, of course, Prairie Lights Bookstore — where Fay and many of his most recent contributors will be reading at 7 p.m. today.)

But Fay's editorial sensibility is more on par with that of Garrison Keillor and his equally anachronistic radio variety show. Like Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," Fay's "Almanac" is simultaneously a self-conscious parody and a heart-felt homage to an art form that fell from popularity generations ago.

A similar sensibility is clearly at work in the essays:

"What Went Around Came Around," in which Winston Barclay recounts the history of Iowa City's Record Collector store and describes the rise, fall and resurrection of vinyl among audiophiles the world over.

"Fake Lake," in which Barbara Hass describes the history of Lake Delhi and the economic and environmental debates over whether to rebuild the broken dam on the Maquoketa River.

"Frankenfields Forever," in which Todd Kimm contrasts today's fields on modified corn and beans with the fields he grew up with 40 years ago.

And, as usual, Fay has filled his "Almanac" with reviews of Iowa-focused books that — well before Bloom's essay — help shine a journalistic and sociological light on state past, present and future. This year's list includes Stephen Longmire's "Life and Death on the Prairie," Ted Kooser's "Pursuing Black Hawk," Charles Shields's "And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life," Lisa Ossian's "The Depression Dilemmas of Rural Iowa" and Colleen Bradford Krantz's "Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation."

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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