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.
Like the borough that hosted it, this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival managed to unite seemingly disparate phenomena with a ragtag, homespun charm. Part reading series, part book fair, part publishing-industry confab, part literacy campaign, the second annual BBF had something for nearly everyone, and thus drew thousands to downtown Brooklyn. The literati may have looked askance at the radical pamphleteers; the publishers may have looked down on the self-published; the poets and the fiction writers may, for all I know, have faced off like Sharks and Jets behind the Starbucks… but on a mellow Sunday, under a crisp fall sky, no one came to blows.This plurality of purposes and preferences is, in your correspondent’s opinion, the great strength of the BBF (and, if I haven’t made it clear, of Brooklyn itself). Events like this provide an important opportunity for readers to meet the producers of the books they read, and vice versa. Moreover, they encourage aesthetic cross-pollination and discovery. Whereas one walks away from BookExpo America wondering what the point of publishing all those books can possibly be, one strolls the crowded flagstones of Cadman Plaza surrounded by people who love to read. It’s refreshing to see kids outnumbering the adults at the Children’s Pavilion, to see bedraggled tourists lounging on the steps of Borough Hall to listen to poetry, and in particular to see presses that aim for an African-American audience treated as full members of the publishing community. (I’m no expert, as one reader of last year’s BBF dispatch pointed out, but at BEA, too many presses publishing primarily black authors were cast into the nether regions of the Javits Center.) As Jason Shure of Housing Works said, in his introduction of George Saunders, Lynne Tillman, and Joshua Ferris, the Brooklyn literary boom offers a local counterweight to the various macroeconomic trends that threaten the culture of the book.Again notable at the BBF this year was the emphasis on independent businesses. Local stalwarts BookCourt and Housing Works Used Book Cafe sold books by featured readers, and presses like Akashic (whose own Johnny Temple helped organize the fiction readings), Soft Skull, Ugly Ducking, and Calamari showcased the breadth and depth of American independent publishing. The friendly folks from A Public Space, Tin House, and the wonderful Nextbook showcased the best of both print and web periodicals. Minneapolis made a strong showing, with Milkweed, Coffee House, and Graywolf all operating booths. Works from across the world were offered in translation from Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, and Host Publications, to name a few. And at least a couple of literary magazines, Five Points and The Chattahoochee Review, made the trek up from the South… which points to the BBF’s ambition to get on the national map.Still, with its emphasis on the general reader, the BBF may not become a must-attend event for publishers. (Notable no-shows this year included NYRB and McSweeney’s, though Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng gave a talk related to What is the What.) There’s not much to do at the BBF besides buy or sell a few books, meet some cool people, and catch a reading or two in the too cozy confines of Borough Hall. None of which will make the morning papers. But there’s a dignity in that. I’m happy to take the Brooklyn Book Festival just as it is.
It was about half way through Deborah Eisenberg’s reading that I saw that familiar shape. The back of a head, maybe six rows in front of me and off toward the aisle. It was unmistakable – balding, grayish and round, round like a human head really ought to be, perched on the shoulders of a diminutive gentleman. It was unmistakable, yet highly improbable, given my complete ignorance of Deborah Eisenberg’s private life.Question: what do The Moderns (IMDb), My Dinner With Andre (IMDb), The Princess Bride (IMDb), and a number of Woody Allen films all have in common? They all benefit from the presence of the great Wallace Shawn, actor and writer. And there, on a cold late-October afternoon, in an auditorium down by the lake, was someone who looked exactly like Wallace Shawn. At this point I was not even entertaining the possibility that it really might be him. After all, why would Mr. Shawn leave the familiarity of his Manhattan apartment for the chill of Lake Ontario? In October? That, to pilfer shamelessly from the man himself, would be inconceivable. No, it must be his double. A northern doppelganger for the ultimate New Yorker.Then intermission came. I espied Ms. Eisenberg up in the balcony, and there, beside her, was that unmistakable head, now absent from the seat in front of me. Suddenly my doppelganger theory was becoming increasingly less likely, and what was once inconceivable was now irrefutable – Wallace Shawn was in the audience. A quick Web search later that day would fill in the blanks, and inform me about the decades-long relationship between the two.After the readings, there he was again – standing alone in the foyer, looking bemused. (When does he ever not look bemused?). So I approached and said to him, cleverly, “Hey, you’re Wallace Shawn!” “Yes !…. I am!” he exclaimed sounding like every comic character he’s ever played. I then welcomed him to Toronto and told him how much I enjoyed his work. He replied with a cheery “Great!” It was at this point in our Algonquin Round Table discussion that an elderly gentleman brazenly muscled in on our conversation, and so I retreated. All those questions left unasked – not just about his own work but that of his father, legendary New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn. Ah well, another time.As for Deborah Eisenberg, she delighted the audience with a short story from her latest collection, Twilight of the Superheroes. The story – “Some Other, Better Otto” – introduced us to a 60-ish grouch named Otto, and his much younger lover, the thoughtful William. Otto was bringing William to a Thanksgiving celebration where we would meet his siblings. As Eisenberg says, you meet people in your family that you would never happen to run into otherwise.Eisenberg’s reading was one of the highlights of the International Festival of Authors, ten days of readings, talks, and panel discussions. Another high point was the chance to hear, and later to briefly meet, Edward P. Jones, who read from his story “Blindsided”, from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Blindsided begins with a black woman’s bus ride to see Sam Cooke in Washington D.C. Prior to her outing, her white boss warns her that all black peoples’ entertainment will lead to blindness. And during the course of the story, on the bus ride, she quickly and unexpectedly goes blind. And that’s just the beginning. With its eccentric characters and the heart-breaking plot, the story delicately balances humor and moments of extreme poignancy.The iconic Ralph Steadman, in town to promote his book The Joke’s Over, was also at the festival presenting a slideshow of his illustrations, many of which have given surreal shape to Hunter Thompson’s hallucinatory and incendiary prose. Indeed, throughout Steadman’s slideshow, with its verbal asides, his late friend and partner-in-crime was ever-present.A couple of years ago I read and wrote about Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading in which he touches on the library in all its variations, throughout history, throughout the world. Now Manguel delves even deeper with a new work The Library at Night. During a reading and a panel discussion at the festival, Manguel spoke of his own private library in France, of losing himself in its stacks, and of the distinctions between day and night. During the day, one seeks to find – one moves purposefully. At night, the activity becomes more ghostlike. Books speak to each other and conspire, the searcher going wherever the books lead him.Manguel contrasts the processes of reading and writing (two different kinds of solitude). After writing, the writer likes to be with other writers who understand, but not necessarily to talk about the specific work. More of a silent understanding. Whereas after reading and being moved by a written work, a reader becomes evangelical about it and would like nothing more than to spread the word.He also contrasts such classical libraries as Alexandria (the library that contained everything) with the web (the library that contains anything.) He’s far from anti-internet, but believes it must never take the place of the real thing. And he prefers his own massive private library to public libraries or archives if only because he would always want to keep the book, and mark it up. Manguel loves the tangibility of books. One’s own books. They remind us who we are, he says. They provide optimism in the face of encroaching stupidity and horror.
Jonathan Richman, along with his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, took the stage, strummed his acoustic guitar and began to sing. Nothing. The mikes weren’t working. Where other performers, and indeed lesser legends, might have turned diva, Jonathan simply announced – loudly, to make up for the microphone – that he and the techies would confer for a few minutes, sort out the problem, then the show would go on. Nothing to get uptight about. It was all very casual and friendly.True to his word, he returned to the stage a few minutes later and tried again. Still nothing. And where the diva might have stormed off, Jonathan simply walked to the side, and with clear, unmiked guitar and his best project-to-the-back-of-the-room voice, he began to sing.The audience in the sweltering hall seemed to make the extra effort to keep quiet, almost leaning in so as not to miss anything, and Jonathan responded by singing loud and clear. It was the best “show-must-go-on” moment I’ve ever experienced. Ten minutes later, the mikes began working. For me, the magic of those few unamplified moments set the tone for a glorious evening.This was the second time I’d seen Jonathan Richman over the past decade, and each time it’s like a visit from an old friend, albeit one who plays killer Spanish guitar and seems to have an extraordinary facility with languages. Worldliness aside, his are the most personal of shows, full of joy, optimism, wonder and romance. But also songs of caution, imploring us in his own way not to get too caught up in technology.Early Modern Lovers songs like “Pablo Picasso” take on a new life in this setting, and sit comfortably amid later fare like “In Che Mondo Viviamo”. One minute he’s swiveling and gyrating through “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar”, the next he’s singing songs about cell phones and the demise of human interaction.The truest of troubadours, Jonathan Richman goes from town to town sharing his latest musical offerings, his latest stories, letting us into his world for a couple of hours while he serenades us in the most intimate of settings.
My inner dramatist will have a debut outing at Sweet: Actors Reading Writers, Thurs. 12/2 at 7:30 pm, Three of Cups (First Ave at 5th Street, NYC). Actor Tonya Edmonds will perform an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Sebastian & Frederick. Other featured writers: Ed Park, Amanda Filipacchi, Jonathan Dixon, Maya Pindyck.