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 2011, I spent three weeks alone in St. Petersburg, Russia, conducting research for my undergraduate thesis. During that time, I rented an apartment belonging to a family friend’s former nanny. Like most Russians, the nanny was out of town for the season, but her pregnant daughter Nastya lived in the adjoining apartment with her husband Tolik. Although they must have had work, they seemed to be home, like me, at odd hours of the day. Occasionally I would return from the library to find Tolik smoking a furtive cigarette out of the open living room window, or huge vats of fruit boiling, unattended, on the stove. This meant Nastya was making jam, which I would later eat in tiny stolen spoonfuls from the excess jars she stored in her mother’s fridge. I had hoped Nastya and Tolik would provide a social counterbalance to my asocial days of reading and translating, but the couple adhered to a strict policy of benign neglect. After days without a real conversation, the icons hanging in my bedroom began to take on sympathetic expressions as I vented my research-related frustrations aloud. I was relieved when Nastya and Tolik came over, late one Monday night, to invite me on a daytrip to Finland. They were planning to scope out cheap land for a dacha, Russia’s unpretentious version of the summer home. Naturally, I accepted. We piled into their well-aged, light blue sedan around 9am on a Wednesday. Tolik drove, Nastya sat in the passenger seat, and I got in the back, which felt cramped even for me who, at 5’2”, was last considered tall in the fifth grade. After stopping for cash at a nearby ATM (for bribes at the border?), we were off. Immediately Tolik bombarded me with questions: Does everyone in America own a gun? Do you have black friends? What’s your grandmother’s pension? What sort of car do you drive? I began to wonder if he had been keeping a list since I arrived. To most of them I pled ignorance (“I don’t know” being one of my favorite Russian phrases), or demurred, “New York City isn’t really America.” Tolik either ran through all the questions on his list, or grew weary of my diplomatic answers, because eventually he turned up the Russian pop on the radio and relaxed into the drive. I did not relax. I worried about my lungs (the car smelt strongly of diesel) and my teeth (might the engine’s vibrations cause one to chip?), while wistfully eying the poetry book I had brought (if only I had thought of ear plugs...) Trees stood a few feet from the road on both sides; there was nothing to look at but forest, and it all looked the same. Maybe, I thought, I should have stayed home. As we approached the border crossing, Tolik pulled onto the shoulder and turned the music down. “Do you have your passport?” I held it out to him, visa page open. It was, I realized, a single-entry visa, meaning once I left Russia, I wasn’t allowed to come back. “Put it away,” he told me. Then, “Don’t say anything.” He smiled before turning back onto the road. The guard booths advanced. Visions of Russian prison danced in my head. Tolik rolled down his window and began speaking to the guard like they were old friends from school. Within two minutes, they had waved us into Finland without asking to see so much as a driver’s license. Tolik and Nastya did not appear to have a destination in mind: they were actively scanning the landscape through their windows, hoping, I imagined, to spot the perfect plot for their dacha, illuminated by a ray of sunlight or ringed, perhaps, with daisies. What they were looking for, it turned out, was water. Tolik hooked a left down a gravel road on the far side of a large lake. It led us to a large decrepit building that looked as if it had once served as an asylum. While Tolik and Nastya searched for a woman to interrogate about the area, I wandered off to photograph a Jeep decaying in the forest. On the way back, we stopped at Vyborg to see an ancient Swedish fortress. As is often the case in Northern Russia, the day, which had started off blue as a Picasso painting, had turned cold and grey. Only a few minutes after we left the car, the clouds burst open. “Run!” Nastya shrieked. We were soaked and breathless when we finally reached the museum. Nastya twisted her hair and laughed as a thin stream of water fell to the floor. Tolik bought us all coffees from a vending machine. We drank them standing up. Then, since the rain had abated, we decided to climb the tower. In the 15 minutes it took to scale the steep, winding stairs, the sun had come out and a rainbow had formed. Tolik insisted on taking several photos of me in front of it, all of which he proclaimed “beautiful,” although, when I looked at them later, I found my eyes were closed in all but two of the pictures. The drive back was long and miserable. By the time we got home, around 6pm, I was irritable and hungry enough to regret giving up a day of solitude for one transcendent moment in the rain. But something changed after that. Nastya told me to help myself to her jam. Tolik would offer me a cigarette whenever he came in to smoke even though each time I politely declined. The rain had washed some invisible boundary away. The following December I got an email from them, wishing me a happy new year. “If you’re planning to come to St. Petersburg in the New Year, stop by for tea,” they wrote, before signing off, “Your Russian friends.” Images courtesy the author
To voice their disapproval of the circumstances of Salman Rushdie’s absence, four writers read from The Satanic Verses — a book that has been banned in India. They were advised to leave. What kind of real intellectual discussion could go on in a setting that had proved itself so hospitable to self-censorship?
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sends in an account of her visit to the first annual Decatur Book Festival (with photos!) Sounds like a great event. The first annual Decatur Book Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, exceeded its organizers expectations. I know, because by Saturday afternoon they and the volunteers were grinning a lot and commenting to anyone who would listen how surprised they were. Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book which hosted a bunch of speakers, never seemed to lose his smile. I was excited, because this was the first really large, general-interest book festival Atlanta has ever had. Crowds increased throughout each day and people continuously entered ongoing author talks (unless they were too packed), adding to the feeling that you were at an event of public interest as important as a town meeting or a political rally (except everyone was in a better mood). You had to squeeze through clumps of strollers winding past the dealer tents. Ron Rash (The World Made Straight) started with about 45 listeners at about 10:30 a.m. in the 200-something seat auditorium in the Decatur Library, and ended with over 60. At about 4 p.m., the Atlanta Journal Constitution panel filled the same auditorium. At the local Holiday Inn, there were long lines for signings by both pop-lit writers like Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Pulitzer-winners like Robert Olen Butler (pictured above) (A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain).The city of Decatur (pronounced De-KAY-tur) is basically part of Atlanta. As of the year 2000 the city-within-a-city's population density was 4,343 people per square mile, 65% white, 31% black, with a median household income of $47k. It has a great little downtown area with a public library and courthouse and a Holiday Inn conference center a few blocks from each other. That and the restaurants and funky shops make for nice strolling, but going back and forth to get from one author event to another at these places turned into a real workout. From about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day I ran, literally, to get to author appearances.The kickoff event, advertised as a "parade" led by the Cat in the Hat, consisted of a few costumed volunteers followed by a horde of kids down a city street to a small park. There, the mayor of Decatur and another volunteer read/enacted Green Eggs and Ham in an open-air tent too small to hold the overflow crowd. (pictured at right) No one complained, though -- either because it was free or because the reading was pretty lively.The biggest problem (besides distance between venues) seemed to be too small spaces for the most popular authors. Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer) gave a talk in a courtroom that held less than 150 people, I think, nowhere near the number who were turned away (though they gave patient fans who couldn't get in the first chance to get books signed when he finished talking). Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones (The Known World) was put in an auditorium in the Holiday Inn conference center that held at most 110 seats (I counted). Fans filled the aisles and every open space for his talk. They sat quietly enthralled as he read a couple of stories from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar's Children. Unlike some authors, he adopts the voices of his characters with an actor's ability, and he had the audience laughing at words which on the page seemed more serious. He and other writers deserved a larger audience; maybe next year the organizers will get nearby Agnes Scott College to provide some larger auditoriums.The Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers held their annual fair in conjunction with the festival. One dealer had a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee on sale for $12,000, another had a first edition of Live & Let Die by Ian Fleming for $750. There were a lot of cheaper works, but even if you weren't into first editions, it was fun to walk through and marvel at the beautiful bindings and old children's books (I saw a bunch I wish I still had).Maybe the festival owes its success to the lack of big book festivals around here, or the higher level of education of the Decatur population (over 60% have college degrees); maybe the summer's high gas prices made folks more frugal and disinclined to travel (the festival was free); maybe no one wanted to deal with traffic and so stayed close to home. The audiences skewed mostly to families and retired folks -- I saw very few late teens/20-somethings, despite the nearby liberal arts college. Does the lack of MTV/GenX/Y readers bode ill for the future of books? Should publishers only aim at the very young or the very anchored?Whatever, I'm just glad that Atlanta finally has a big general interest book festival in a friendly location. It's near a MARTA station, the city's bus/rail transit system. There's a lot of parking if you drive yourself. You can picnic under trees by the courthouse and listen to musicians perform at a gazebo (rocking blues, even!), and Sunday night they had fireworks. There's restaurants and cafes nearby, and Eddie's Attic, a longtime acoustic music club where Wesley Stace (Misfortune) and others performed. One of the cafes, the Red Brick Pub, has over 200 kinds of beer including local brews like Athens' own Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (which we here in Athens are fond and proud of). Plus Jake's Ice Cream was serving their seasonal honey-fig ice cream. I'll go again next year.
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.
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