Monday, November 21, 2005

A Day in the Life of the Book Fair

It's hard to believe, but I've been coming to the Miami Book Fair for 22 years, since it first began. During that time it rapidly matured from something that could have been a flash in the pan into the premier such event in the country.

Maybe it has something to do with publishers living in New York, which is growing grayer and colder by mid-November, while Miami is usually waiting for its first cool spell of the fall. But if it were only the weather, then surely mid-winter would be the time to insure the biggest draw.

Instead, what has insured the Fair's success is the maturing of community support. More than the existence of financial grants, it is the dedication of those who make it happen--people like Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books&Books, our favorite area book store--and those who turn out in droves to attend the hundreds of readings it produces, not only on the weekend of the Street Fair but throughout the year.

The Book Fair plays no small part in supporting the community of writers in the region. Writers, both successful and aspiring, have an annual fountain of inspiration in their midst, a chance to see and hear and hang out with some of the most notable figures in print.

I long ago gave up trying to take it all in. It's not possible. The readings take place simultaneously in twelve different rooms ranging in size from the large auditorium that seats up to a thousand down to intimate classroom or gallery spaces--even, in the case of The Spoken Word Cafe, a tent. And they last from 10 am to past 5 pm. Even if you don't eat (and who can pass up the opportunity to purchase overpriced fair food washed down with a five-dollar lemonade?) and even if you try to limit yourself to the things that interest you most, there are still schedule conflicts that force you to make tough choices, or to duck out of the question session at the end of one reading and sneak into the middle of another one already in progress. On top of that, you have to find at least a little time to do some book shopping in the stalls on the street.

But then, that's the fun of it. For a reader, the chance to wallow in readings of this quality, so plentiful that you can't do them all, amid heaps and stacks and racks full of books, is a feast that naturally belongs where it is on the calendar, right before Thanksgiving.

Just to give you a taste, here's how my own choices ran this year:


We arrived late but still caught the second of two travelogs. Elliot Hester, a native Miamian who spent a year making his way around the world, has written Adventures of a Continental Drifter. He entertained us with a tale about the night he was nearly beaten to a pulp by the martial arts bouncers in a tourist trap in Bangkok, saved only by his remote resemblance to boxer Mike Tyson. A lot more fun to hear about than to live through!

11:30 found us basking in the warm rays of Carribean culture. Robert Antoni took us through an all-night muddy bash during Carnival in Trinidad--enough to make you want a shower by the time he was done.

Then Pablo Medina shifted gears to the complete introspection of his cigar-maker invalid, a transplant from Cuba to Ybor City (near Tampa) where he was felled by a stroke and turned into a bed-ridden patient, unable to move. I've never heard such material so vividly portrayed since I read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, about a more horrifically afflicted veteran of World War I.

Finally Marlon James captivated us with his gossiping old Jamaican ladies and an account of how the "Rum Preacher" came to a bad end. As they say in the islands, "soon come, mon."

At 12:30 it was time to do politics. We sat in on George Packer's presentation on The Assassin's Gate, his study of how things are going in Iraq (the short version: not well). Hard to believe there has been enough time for him to research and write on this subject while it is still unfolding daily, but his interviews with people "on the ground," as opposed to those in high places, have yielded rich fruit.

The other member of this panel (David Rieff had to cancel) was Jonathan Ralston Reid, a Canadian who has written The Collapse of Globalism. This is not something he's predicting, but something which has already happened, according to his interpretation. All the promises of the "new world order" having failed, with the opposite results all around us, does make it look as if the emperor paid too much for those invisible clothes.

I'm pleased to be able to count some of the authors as friends and mentors. After lunch we had poetry for dessert at the reading of James Brock (friend), Michael Hettich (maybe not quite friend but certainly acquaintance), and Campbell McGrath (closer to the mentor category since my workshop with him at the Seaside Writer's Conference). It was good to note how "friendly" these differing voices were with one another. And always a pleasure to listen to.

[An example of schedule conflict here -- one of our friends was notably absent because she just HAD to see novelist Amy Tan, currently appearing in another building.]

But we weren't done yet. At 4 p.m. we heard Bruce Feiler on Where God Was Born. Feiler is personally exploring the historical landscape of the Bible, visiting such places as the Garden of Eden (currently paved). His earlier work, Walking the Bible, will soon make an appearance as a Public TV documentary series. Consult your local listings.

Also on this panel was former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who has written a scholarly Life of David. Most memorable for me in his presentation was the description of what happened to the Israelites after they arrived in the Promised Land. Miffed at the way they behaved, the vindictive God that they had back then arranged for an army to come in and move them back out. The lesson in this was that the important, essential thing was not having a nation, or a temple, or even a rabbi or priest, but that every person would have their own relationship with God. It was a maturing of the concept of religion, and emphasized that religious experience was directly available to each individual.

Sherwin B. Nuland was the final participant in this session, and introduced me to someone I was ignorant of: Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the 13th century who dared to correct the Talmud if it differed from the opinions of science. Where is he when we need him?

By now you catch the drift--we're only at the end of day one, and worn out. Time to ride the people-mover down to Pericone's Italian eatery, and to dine amid the outdoor foliage.


We launched into Sunday with John Dufresne (both friend and mentor) who regaled us with more samples from Johnny Too Bad (which might have been titled The Further Adventures of Spot the Dog). I confess I have not yet finished this book, though I already own an autographed copy. The way things are going, John may have read it to me by then. He also gave us a new "found" story ("I no longer make things up, I just write them down.") about a green-card wedding and its aftermath.

John's partner for this session was Richard McCann, a new discovery for me. McCann's careful, intimate prose cuts close to the emotional bone. And I was delighted to hear him relate how long he labors compulsively over his revisions.

Interestingly, both authors had photographs to back up their tales, prompting me to think we should all have to prove the veracity of our fiction by presenting the evidence.

On the advice of my sister-in-law we hastened over to the auditorium at 1:00 to catch Jonathan Safran Foer reading from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Mr. Foer is entirely too well poised and assured for someone of his tender years and has no right to be able to write as he does, with wonderful inventiveness and killingly accurate insight. Media hype has not obscured the scale of this talent which, if we're lucky, will be with us for quite awhile. Our time was well spent.

At 3:00 we attended Science Matters, which was broadcast live on CSPAN. It seems a new publisher, Atlas Books, is bringing out a continuing series of science books written by novelists for the lay reader. The idea is to come up with eminently readable and interesting treatments on the lives and works of scientists.

Judging by the three examples, the project is off to a great start. In The Discoveries, Alan Lightman has documented a number of scientific breakthroughs during the 20th century, ranging from Einstein's first theory to the discovery of the structure of DNA to measurements of the distance to the stars.

Rebecca Goldstein, a former mathematician herself, has written The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gรถdel--a proof, she insists, which is accessible in its outline to the lay reader, with little math or symbols required. I'll let you know after I read it. I took a class in statistics once, and a year later I could no longer read my own crib notes for the final exam.

Finally, David Leavitt has written a new account of Alan Turing's invention of the computer. Titled The Man Who Knew Too Much, the book focuses equally on Turing's famous contribution to the breaking of the German Enigma code, his invention of all the key concepts used in computer design long before they could be built, and his persecution as a "security risk" due to his homosexuality. Having read the other Turing bio, Alan Turing, the Enigma, I look forward to this new insight into his life and work.

Finally, it was 4:30 and time for poetic dessert again. Philip F. Deaver, Andrew Glaze (who I met while hosting the Butterfly Lightning readings), Jesse Millner (friend), and Susan Wheeler collaborated to bring a perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Only 363 days until the next one. Book your rooms now.

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