In Person

Book Expo Dispatch: Overwhelming and Underwhelming

Overwhelming and underwhelming: that's the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It's overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture - an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor - along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven - much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after - including the LBC affair - were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I'll wrap things up with a more detailed report - including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily - by the end of the weekend.
In Person

Book Expo Dispatch: A Quick Rant

Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There's acres and acres of books. It's quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you're a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there's no wireless access there either. Instead there's three computers with signs posted above them that say "Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting." It makes it hard to blog, is all.
In Person

Book Expo Dispatch: Blog Two Point Blah

The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, "Blog 2.0". The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I'm wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren't scary, they're a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the "2.0" moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly "1.0", and the audience in the half-filled room wasn't exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote "individual voices over institutional voices," whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn't a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.I did, however, get the opportunity to meet Booksquare, and I'll be seeing other bloggers soon, including Sarah Weinman, who's giving a talk called "Syndicating Litblog Book Reviews," shortly.
In Person

A recommended play

Mrs. Millions and I don't get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called "Recent Tragic Events" and it looks at the mundane - in this case a blind date - through the lens of tragedy and shock - this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, "Six Feet Under," and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play's main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates' grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly's shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates' prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by - get this - a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it's somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you're in Chicago, check it out.
In Person

An Evening with Douglas Coupland

Last night I went to a reading given by Douglas Coupland during which he read passages from his new novel, Eleanor Rigby, and also previewed a lengthy passage from a work-in-progress. Flying on codeine (Coupland, not me), he shot off on various random tangents that, in the end, were twice as entertaining as the readings themselves.Instructed in piano at a young age, Coupland recently decided to give himself a refresher so that he could impress and astound his family with a note-perfect rendition of that Charlie Brown Christmas Piano Thing (which probably has a simpler title than that). Unfortunately the task proved to be more physically traumatic than expected and his left hand went into painful spasms. Hence the codeine, which incidentally Coupland now swears by and highly recommends for recreational use.I should mention up front that I'm not actually an ardent Coupland reader. In fact, I've only read one of his novels (Miss Wyoming). I recall enjoying it thoroughly, but I must also confess that I don't remember a thing about it. Other than the pleasurable experience of reading it. Otherwise, sorry - complete mental block. However I will say that he's a tremendously engaging speaker - quick-witted, completely engaged with his audience, and with a dry, understated, almost deadpan delivery.Eleanor Rigby is indeed the story of one of the lonely people - Liz Dunn. Coupland spoke of the manner in which he describes his characters and his settings. How, in some works, he deliberately avoids over-describing things, leaving the reader to project his own image of a certain protagonist, or of a certain room. Other times, as Liz Dunn herself states, there should be no confusion as to the detail. So, here, the facts are laid out: her age, her overweight awkwardness. These details are necessary in setting the character. They affect her frame of mind. They affect her loneliness.As for Coupland's work-in-progress, it will be a sequel to Microserfs entitled jPod. Allusions to the ubiquitous iPod aside, jPod is actually the name of a corner of an office housing 6 employees whose last names begin with a J. Coupland says that this novel will essentially be about "corporate intrusion into private memory." Heady stuff. But the passage he read came off a bit light-weight and a bit forced. It was a scene in which the 6 employees discuss McDonald's, and in particular Ronald McDonald, and in particular Ronald McDonald's sex-life. They decide that they should each compose and read to the group a "love letter" to Ronald. Then we hear the letters, and they were amusing to a point, and I suppose they do reveal a bit about the individual characters, and the passage seemed to go off well with the audience. But the whole thing came off a bit jokey. And once the whole unusual premise was set, even a bit obvious.His random tangents, however, were truly memorable, as much for their delivery as for their content. How, for instance he suffers from what he calls "executive dysfunction" rendering him inexplicably yet completely incapable of performing such simple tasks as opening an envelope. Until, that is, a doctor-friend suggested doing these impossible tasks at half-speed. Which apparently works. And also how he and his 78-year old father, with whom he has nothing in common, have recently and surprisingly bonded over their mutual affinity for a reality show called The Swan.Whether or not I pick up the new or the next Douglas Coupland book remains a bit of a question mark. What is certain is that if he does another reading in town, codeine or no codeine, I'll be there. And I'll be the one listening intently for the random tangents.
In Person

Anne Garrels

I had the opportunity today, along with a small group of fellow grad students, to meet NPR reporter Anne Garrels. Garrels has become famous over the last couple of years for being one of the 16 American journalists to remain in Baghdad during the war. Her sometimes harrowing reports from the Palestine Hotel seared her voice into the memories of many Americans. She's been back to Baghdad since that initial period, and she'll be going back again soon. She exudes an interesting mix of enthusiasm and fatalism about reporting in such a precarious situation -- there was much mention of kidnappings and beheadings. She is quite pessimistic about the situation in Iraq, and she seemed genuinely astonished by the way she has seen the Americans handle the reconstruction. The logistics of reporting in that part of the world were perhaps the most fascinating part of the conversation. There is seemingly endless second- guessing about at what point it becomes too dangerous for reporters to be there, and in the meantime much of the time and budget seems to be taken up by solving security issues. There was, in the room, an almost palpable sense of concern for Garrels' well-being. Certainly she is more than capable of handling the situation, but even so, after meeting her in person, we began to worry about her impending return to Iraq. After her time was up in the classroom we all sort of followed her out of the building -- she had kept up the conversation even though it was time for her to go -- and outside where she smoked a cigarette and we huddled around her, telling her about ourselves. When she was done, she wished us all good luck, and we all wished her good luck back, and we meant it.Side notes: Garrels mentioned that Anthony Shadid, the Washington Post reporter who won the Pulitzer for his Iraq coverage, is working on a book. She said that his deep understanding of the situation over there should make the book very good. She also mentioned the Committee to Protect Journalists, of which she is a director. The website keeps track of journalists who have been killed in the line of duty, underscoring what is at stake for journalists who put themselves in dangerous situations. Finally, I should mention her book, which, after meeting Garrels, I would really like to read. Have a look: Naked in Baghdad