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Travel stories written in 'key of terror'

BY MADISON BENNETT | SEPTEMBER 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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Christopher Merrill is fascinated with war and the way it has changed society over the past decade.

And after traveling to numerous countries, the UI International Writing Program director compiled his experiences and wrote his latest book.

"It's written in the key of terror," the 55-year-old said. "I'm trying to understand something about how we respond to terror, how we respond to fear."

Merrill, who is also president of the Iowa City City of Literature Board, will read excerpts from his newest book, The Tree of Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, and War, at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

The latest addition to his literary works is his fifth nonfiction book, which focuses on expedition and war.

Although he is no stranger to reading his work at Prairie Lights, he said, he is excited to have another audience for The Tree of the Doves.

His publisher at Milkweed Publishing, Daniel Slager, agrees.

"Writing and reading are solitary activities, and yet books are full of ideas, and people like to exchange ideas," Slager said. "Events such as the one at Prairie Lights offer an opportunity not only to celebrate the publication of a book but for the writer to engage with the audience."

The book comprises three long essays dwelling on tradition, transformation, and travel. The book journeys from Malaysia to Beijing and touches upon the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I am simply in awe of the quality of the writing, which is smart, vivid, and puts the reader immediately into the far-flung locales Chris is writing about," said Ethan Rutherford, the book's editor. "He makes the reader a traveling companion, which is a wonderful thing."

What makes The Tree of Doves different from his other nonfiction pieces, Merrill said, is that he works this time with a broader canvas. Through the three essays, he looks into the ways society has dramatically changed over roughly a century.

"What makes this book so special is its scope," Slager said. "It feels, appropriately, as if you are traveling the world itself, gaining a wider perspective on not just history, literature, and current events but on the larger questions in life: where are we headed, what is to be done."

In addition to his nonfiction work, Merrill has published four collections of poetry, and his work has been translated into 25 different languages. He received the Peter I.B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets for his collection Watch Fire in 1995.

Merrill has not yet chosen from which passages he will read but said he is optimistic about the crowd's reaction to The Tree of the Doves.

"I hope I caught something about what it has meant to be alive during the past 10 years," he said.


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