Saturday, November 22, 2008

Marketplace of Ideas - Part I

The Miami Book Fair turns 25 ...

The world economy may be tanking, the value of your home and retirement funds may be shrinking before your eyes, but if the Miami Book Fair is any indication then the marketplace of ideas is still alive and thriving.

I doubt that even its most ardent supporters back at the beginning expected it to be the runaway success it has been, but our good old Fair has become the premier event of its type, and it just keeps on coming. Even with the five-dollar admission fee now being charged, the streets are packed, readings are filled to near capacity, and appearances by people like Art Spiegelman have to be managed by distributing tickets. Tickets! To hear a writer! Is this great or what?

Once again C-SPAN (their broadcast van still labeled "Campaign 2008") parked in the street to pump select venues to a national and international audience by television and the Internet. (The oddest of bedfellows: "Book TV.") All of this serves up as rich and varied an assortment of thoughts, fantasies, memories, histories, essays, and poetry as you might care to imagine.

My visit this year was somewhat more abbreviated than the marathon session I described a couple of years ago, but it was still packed with stimulating material.


The first session I attended was the troika of Florida International University professors and alumns: John Dufresne (please pronounce it "Dufrayne"), James Hall, and Dennis Lehane (rhymes with Dufresne -- and you'll understand why I emphasize it if you were there).

Dufresne's latest novel is Requiem, Mass., a title so fortuitous it's amazing no one has used it before. It makes me think of an exercise that John is fond of giving to his creative writing classes: First you come up with the name of a town (mine was Sheetrock, Fla. -- you can use it if you want to), then describe walking through it, then walk into one of the buildings, then meet someone ... perhaps they speak to you, or you to them ... and before you know it you are waist deep in a new piece of fiction.

In this case however Requiem is a fictional Worcester, so the town preceeded the name, and the main character is a sort of fictional Dufresne who "like me comes to Florida and works in my office but is not me." Obviously some of the material owes a lot to John's life, though the division between fiction and memoir has never been more murky. Perhaps if the oft-stated equality between the two is correct then we should give up trying to tell the difference. (Didn't Jack Kerouac do that many years ago?)

The first passage John read was a delightful though hair-raising confrontation between the boy Johnny and his authority figures in Catholic school, attending which "is a scab you pick for the rest of your life." I will only say that amorous priests are not the only things to beware of -- watch out for those vicious nuns!

The other selection about the fate of his first-crush babysitter was classic Dufresne, gentle, cruel, dispassionate, and heartbreaking all at once. Kind of like life.

James Hall -- who, along with host Les Standiford, was responsible for bringing Dufresne among us and establishing the excellent writing program at FIU -- is well known for his dramatically plotted mysteries. Today he shared a new twist on murder, that of a young woman killing an older one, which is a combo he's never dealt with -- although he freely confessed to killing many of his characters over the years, and in bizarre ways, too.

He is, in fact, a veritable poet of the genre, and this example from Hell's Bay is no exception. Both murderer and victim are carefully drawn, and the moment of truth approaches both breathlessly and meticulously. The setting itself adds the perfect ironic touch -- the idyllic Peace River in Central Florida.

Dennis Lehane, the FIU grad who has been following along in the successful wakes of his mentors, has just produced his most prodigious novel. At 700+ pages, The Given Day takes place in 1918, but before you start yawning let me hasten to add that it includes some of the snappiest writing about baseball I've ever heard. Babe Ruth lives!

In the second session I caught Scott Simon, one of NPR's most mellifluous voices, reading from Windy City: a Novel of Politics. This is about the best time I can think of to come out with a political piece set in Chicago -- and it's funny, too. Simon says his aim was to do something "about 80% humor and 20% serious." Sounds like a wild ride. And Simon showed off his acting abilities as he impersonated his character, Mayor Sonny Rupini, with great gusto.

Simon was also the first, but not the last, to elicit applause by referring to the recent election results. People are still gushing, and ever on the lookout for ways to show enthusiasm for our new President-Elect.

Also sharing the podium was Russell Banks, who has produced a meditative monologue on the American character called The Reserve. This began when he was interviewed for a French film the aim of which was to show the contrast between America as seen by its writers and America as perceived by the French through American cinema. How convoluted is that? Keep in mind it's a film about that, to be shown to the French.

Over eleven hours of interview was condensed to less than an hour in the film, so Banks took the entire transcript and edited a more complete version into book form. It appears to be full of insight, and of course beautifully written.

My apologies to Alan Cheuse -- who appears to have struck a similar chord in To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming -- for having to duck out during his reading. You can't be everywhere at once. But let me just ask publishers ... is it the latest thing that novels have to have subtitles so you will know that they're novels and what they're about? I thought that's what cover blurbs were for.

Anyway, I had just enough time left to consume my once-per-year arepa (a kind of grilled-cheese sandwich made with discs of sweet cornbread, yum) from the Arepa Queen in the food court, and to pick up a couple of bargains at the book stalls. Penguin was giving away free books containing sample chapters from eight of their current best-sellers, the first time I've seen that. "Collect the whole set," said the booth jockey with a grin. The Nation had free sample issues to hand out, including the one from election week. And I purchased one hardback from Florida University Press, a history of Florida railroads.

The book was $21, marked down from the retail of 27.50, so I saved more than enough to pay for my arepa. I don't know how business was overall, but it appeared brisk, at least to judge by the amount of browsing going on. However, I did see a sign at Pineapple Press, a publisher of books about Florida, that said ALL BOOKS 25% 50% OFF -- something you don't usually see until the final day of the fair.

And that brings us to ...

[Part II will be posted on Sunday.]

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