Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Fair 2010

It's great even when abbreviated ...

This was year 27 of the Miami Book Fair International, and year 50 of its host, Miami-Dade College. I've been attending ever since year one -- even the year when most events were canceled due to severe weather -- and I'm ashamed to say how close to its beginning I attended Miami-Dade College. (Hint: it was the first year of South Campus when we had to attend classes at my old high school because the classroom buildings weren't finished yet).

I could only make it for the final day of this year's fair, but I appreciated all the more the few events I could attend. I started out with some levity in the Mateo Theater, an intimate space with a semicircular stage only about a dozen feet across. T. Cooper presented his odd little work, The Beaufort Diaries, about a polar bear who goes Hollywood. This graphic novel has spawned a video and might grow up to be a feature someday, especially with the attention it's gotten from David Duchovny and Leo DiCapprio. Here's what he showed us, as projected from his MacBook.

Then Vicky Hendricks, Miami's femme fatale of noir, gave us part of a story that takes place in Key West. Let's just say the place is going to the dogs. But you already knew that. This is from her new collection titled, aptly enough, Florida Gothic Stories, a follow up to her appearance in the collection, Miami Noir.

Finally Preston Allen, my old compadre from the Butterfly Lightning reading series (the website is gone but you can still view it at the Internet archive), read from his latest novel, Jesus Boy, about the steamy relations between bible thumper Elwin Parker and a lady old enough to know better. The book has a serious message that goes down more smoothly with its chuckle-provoking coat of sugar.

Fortified by this trio, I felt ready to face Writing On The Edge, an anthology of articles by fiction writers who were invited to witness the work of Doctors Without Borders. Tom Craig interviewed two of these writers, Damon Galgut from South Africa and Hari Kunzru from Great Britain. All the while they were accompanied by a running slide show of images collected from around the world, wherever the good doctors are involved in providing relief.

As the presentation progressed I began to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem. As it happened, the evening before I had attended a fundraiser for an organization called ProNica that assists the poor in Nicaragua. Coming from that narrow focus on a single locale in a single country, it was devastating to see the same scenes repeated in nation after nation. Just to give you an idea, here's a partial list that I jotted down from the captions in the slide show:

Armenia ... Assam ... Burundi ... Cambodia ... Chad ... Congo ... Morocco ... Palestine ... Sierra Leon ... Somalia ... Sudan ... Ukraine ... Uganda ... and as you can see from the gaps in the alphabet there are many more. One of the panelists quoted Harold Pinter, who said simply, "Most people in the world live in hell." What can be done? Well, if you're a doctor you can sign up for a six to nine month stint in hell, and wake up every day knowing that you will save one or more lives. If you're not a doctor, you can send them some money. It's not much, but it's a start.

After this it was comforting to get a longer view of history. Biographer Stacy Schiff's latest project is Cleopatra:A Life -- though, as she said, considering that her subject lived from 69 to 30 BCE, she wasn't sure if it was biography or paleontology. It's one thing when you can read all of Ben Franklin's letters or interview everyone who knew Richard Feynman, but quite another thing when 2,000 years have passed and the person of interest is a feature of ancient history. Schiff reminded us that over the intervening years the language, culture, religion, and calendar have all changed. Even the topography of Egypt is not what it was -- it's flatter -- and the Nile itself has moved over two miles from where it used to flow.

Given this, she appears to have done wonderful work by going back to the available sources -- what the Romans of the day had to say about Cleo -- and cutting through centuries of myth and romanticism. One notable correction is that the notorious queen was not known for her beauty but for her charisma. Hey, Marc Antony, you're going to love her -- she's got a great personality! She also had an unerring knack for who to get pregnant with, and when. Not a bad way to play the game when you're in the business of hereditary rule.

After grabbing a crepe in the food court I wrapped up my day with a duo of poets (Jim Brock, where were you?). Geoffrey Philp read to us from Dub Wise in his mellifluous Jamaican voice, and Nina Romano from her latest collection titled Cooking LessonsDon't let this title fool you, though. This is far from an episode on the Food Channel, and Nina evokes far more of life than the satisfaction of appetites. I was particularly taken with the poem about an encounter with a deer in its death throes on a high and dark mountain road. I still have the chills to prove I was listening.

Until next year ...
Times are hard ... anyone want to buy a paper?

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