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History is on the side of writer Kevin Baker. His period novel, “Dreamland,” just sold to Birkin, Leonardo diCaprio’s fledgling film production company for an undisclosed amount. “Let’s just say I’m very satisfied,” says the 40-year-old New York native. Baker, the chief researcher on Harold Evans’ “The American Century,” completed two novels while working on the power publisher’s nine-year project. The first, published in 1993, was called “Sometimes You See It Coming” and based on the life of baseball slugger Ty Cobb. The most recent, “Dreamland,” which takes its title from a burned-down amusement park in Coney Island, was published only last month.
Set at the turn of the century, the novel’s walk-ons by famous and semifamous historical figures — from Freud to Big Tim Sullivan — have inspired comparisons to E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “brilliantly imagined and assiduously researched.” Not every review has been kind, though. Newsday’s Chris Lehmann excoriated the book, saying that “no convincing human situation has sprouted from the novel’s accumulated mass of historical detail.” Hmmm … sounds like a certain gazillion-dollar cinematic blockbuster we know.
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If your literary dreams include studying fiction writing at the University of Iowa, you may want to dream again. The famed M.F.A. program has nurtured some of the best, it’s true, including recent alumnus and lit world darling Nathan Englander. According to Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops series, however, Iowa ranks a few notches below a surprise number one, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
For the last three years, Scribner’s has put together collections of short stories plucked from M.A. and M.F.A. programs in the U.S and Canada. (This year’s editon comes out on April 14.) Series editor John Kulka says that the decision to include a story is made strictly on merit with no attempt to be “representational.” “We choose these stories blindly,” he says. Surveying all three collections, Salon added up the number of stories selected from each program. Michigan came in first with four. Though Iowa ranks in the middle, there are other surprisingly strong showings as well: Montreal’s Concordia University and Florida State University. Here’s how Scribner’s informal “rankings” compare to those of U.S. News and World Report’s Best Writing Programs, a survey from 1997.
U.S. News and World Report
University of Iowa (4.5 score, out of 5 possible)
Johns Hopkins University (4.2)
University of Houston (4.2)
Columbia University (4.1)
University of Virginia (4.1)
University of Michigan (4 writers)
Florida State University (3 writers)
Columbia University (3 writers)
Concordia University (3 writers)
Pennsylvania State U. (3 writers)
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Michael Cunningham, whose third novel “The Hours” won the PEN/Faulkner award last week, also won the Pulitzer Prize today in the fiction catagory. Margaret Edson, a kindergarten teacher, took the drama award for her cancer-related drama “Wit.” A. Scott Berg’s “Lindbergh” received the history prize, and former U.S. poet laureate Mark Strand received the prize for his “Blizzard of One.”
John McPhee, who like Cunningham is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, won in the general non-fiction category for “Annals of the Former World.” Two New York-area history professors, Edwin G. Burrows of Brooklyn College and Mike Wallace of John Jay College, took the history award for “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.”
Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.More Craig Offman.