Booking The Weekend For Our Biggest Literary Event
Visting the country’s biggest book fair, the L.A. Times Festival of Books at UCLA, is like one’s attitude about reading books: You’ll never get to everything. Nevertheless, circumnavigating the booths, readings, panels and 140,000 or so bibliophiles who crowd the Westwood campus is both a challenge and an opportunity like no other in the US.
“Mystery: Laughing in the Face of Death” was a great eye-opener, to begin my frantic panel perambulations. The Times’ own entertainment reporter Mary McNamara, who whipped up a celebrity death at the Four Seasons Hotel in her novel Oscar Season, drew on her experience interviewing the famous, “…from tics of the way they talk to the fact you can be introduced to someone 1100 times and they still won’t remember you.”
Lisa Lutz (Curse of the Spellmans) created her latest based on a family-run private investigation office in San Francisco. “There was always an undercurrent of paranoia in the office,” Lutz claimed. A typical exchange? “Oh, we love you. Don’t forget to shred that.”
Susan Kandel (Christietown) was self-effacing about her own background for her laugh-inducing abilities: “Art criticism is not really known for its humor.” But she did buttress the hopes of writers in the hall by announcing, “I’m not funny…But you can take your time for a comeback. You can reply two months later.”
Festival of Books favorite Amy Goodman, widely known for her show “Democracy Now,” who has a new book out with her brother David, Standing Up to the Madness, responded to the recent revelation of military experts who serve as analysts on TV while answering still to Pentagon paymasters: “What about the viewpoint of reporters in Iraqi hospitals, Iraqi communities and peace movements around the world?” Tom Hayden (Writings for a Democratic Society) silenced the Ackerman Ballroom capacity crowd with this thought about the contentious Democratic primary: “Does Barack Obama have to prove himself an antagonist to the Muslim world? Does Hillary Clinton have to prove herself a man?”
Shedding a bit more insight on the military TV personality scandal, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, at another political panel, recounted back in 1999 asking about the selfsame subject of CNN’s Frank Sesno. Sesno’s explanation for the lack of anti-war viewpoint in war analysis: “The generals are analysts. The peace activists are advocates.”
The weekend of the Festival of Books is all about literary immersion. One walks through the booths and runs into friends and fellow authors, like writer and USC instructor Christopher Meeks, who has a collection of loopy and conflicted characters populating his latest collection of stories, Months and Seasons.
And Book TV on CSPAN2, which covers many of the panels, provided even more coverage when I returned at the end of each sweltering 90-degree day. Arianna Huffington’s Right Is Wrong was discussed at one point, and it enabled me to replay the tape and copy down verbatim this remarkable passage: “(The right) is wrong about American values because it has reduced them to gays, guns and abortion and has ignored both the moral imperative of fighting poverty and the biblical admonition that we shall be judged by what we do for the least of us.”
Gary David Goldberg, creator of the TV series Family Ties, was cajoled out of Vermont retirement and was greeted by quite a following as he discussed his life, partially to be found in his autobiography Sit, Ubu, Sit. His many delightful stories included convincing a Biology teacher to give him credit for one unit to graduate college. The professor agreed to do so with the proviso that should Goldberg ever win an award for his writing, his speech would present at least one scientific fact. So, when Goldberg won the WGA Award his third year in Hollywood for an episode of M.A.S.H., he began his speech, “Ladies and gentlemen, photosynthesis is a process by which…”
Goldberg also lovingly spoke of the effect his adorable but in-your-face Brooklyn grandmother had on him. Once during a flight, she refused at first to fasten her seatbelt because, as she said, “I don’t want to be locked in.” The flight attendant patiently explained they were about to enter some turbulence. “Who told him to fly this way!” Grandma shot back.
At the end of the weekend, it was my great pleasure to have a few moments with Chris Hedges (I Don’t Believe in Athiests) before his participation in another well-attended political panel at Ackerman. He held forth on the decimation of foreign bureaus for TV and print journalism and explained the lack of historical analysis in war coverage, “…when you send in reporters who do not understand the antecedents of a crisis.” As for the never-ending occupation of Iraq, Hedges in his typically brilliant, laser-focused way, startled the audience with this assessment: “I think the fact that we talk about Iraq as a unified nation proves that we do not understand that Iraq as a nation no longer exists.”