Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Madeline Miller at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

Part 4 in my continuing adventures at the Gaithersburg Book Fest:

Okay, I'm going out of order because, in fact, Madeline Miller was the second to last author I saw at the book fest--but she deserves to jump to the head of the pack.  Ms. Miller has just won the Orange Prize for her debut novel, The Song of Achilles!  For those who don't know, the Orange Prize "celebrates excellence,  originality and accessibility in women's writing from throughout the world."  Congratulations, Madeline! 
I've actually had a galley of The Song of Achilles staring at me since last October.  I've been wanting to read it, and intimidated at the same time.  (I really need to read the book.)  Consequently, I was very interested in hearing the lady speak.  In her opening remarks, posted above, I learned that she's a school teacher, so perhaps that explains her comfort in front of an audience.

Now, I have to apologize for the video being a bit dark.  I was shooting in the ambient light under a tent, and by that point in the late afternoon it was cool and shady, with the sun backlighting the speaker.  Nonetheless, it's not too bad.  Below is a brief (3 minute) reading from the novel, and you'll see that Ms. Miller is an exceptionally talented reader.  She has background in the theater and it shows.

Alas, my little FlipCam holds only 2 hours of footage.  I was erasing earlier authors just to film what I was able to get.  Below is the very beginning of her Q & A session.  Gosh, I wish I could have recorded it all, because it was very interesting.  I filmed until I ran out of "tape."  Enjoy! And congratulations again to Ms. Miller on this huge honor, the first of what will surely be an impressive career.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Diana Abu-Jaber at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

Part 3 of my adventures at the Gaithersburg Book Festival:

If there was one author I was most excited to see at the Book Fest, it was probably Diana Abu-Jaber.  I've been a fan of this literary novelist/memoirist/thriller writer ever since I read her novel Crescent many years ago.  It's a real favorite, in part due to its depiction of the full richness of Arab (and Arab-American) culture, as well as romance, drama, suspense, comedy, tragedy--but I digress.  And I've never had the opportunity to hear her speak before.

Therefore, it was shameful that I missed her opening remarks, but there was socializing to be done.  After Ali (AKA novelist Allison Leotta) and I had chatted with Keith Donohue briefly, she introduced me to novelists Rebecca Coleman, who appeared to be out enjoying the day as we were, and Alma Katsu, who I'd met briefly at Thrillerfest and who was one of the speakers at the festival.  We were both, in turn, introduced to Eleanor Brown, who is apparently connected to the area via her parents who are local.  Anyway, all three ladies were lovely and we were still chatting away as Diana began to speak. 

Eventually, I excused myself, and joined the talk in progress in time to record Diana reading an excerpt from her most recent novel, Birds of Paradise.  What a surprise, I loved this novel!  My review may be read here.  In any case, it is that reading that is the video at the very top of this post. 

Below, are two videos of the Q & A session she did after the reading.

A note on the video.  Yeah, I know my shooting sucks.  It was very hand-held.  And most of the time I'm reasonably steady, but if there's big movement, it's a good bet that superstar puppy Maggie may have had a hand in it.  Between getting tangled in leashes and having her start eating my hair at one point, well, it can be a distraction.  But a very, very cute and forgivable one.  I'm so sorry I didn't snap a pic of her for you.

After Diana Abu-Jaber, Ali and I were supposed to head over to another tent where Eleanor was going to be having a conversation with writers Jen Lancaster and Sarah Pekkanen, but first I asked Ali if we could stop by Diana's signing line so that I could meet her.  Ali was so sweet about following along wherever I wanted to go, so we waited in line for several minutes, but it was worth it.  Diana was as nice as could be!  I think it was obvious that I'm a real fan and long-time reader.  I asked her about the Miami literary scene, because I'm considering relocating there, and she was like, "It's great!  Come on down!"  A very genuine and really lovely lady.  I'm so pleased to have finally met her; I'm just sorry that all my first-edition hardbacks are packed away.  Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to get them signed at a future event. 

Afterwards, Ali and I did go over to where Eleanor was interviewing Jen and Sarah, but the tent was packed.  After standing in the hot sun for a while, Ali was like, "Let's go back to our cool tent."  It was sort of good news/bad news in the land of literary fiction.  It was never hard to get a seat, but there wasn't the audience there was for some of the other festival offerings.  In any case, it was about time for Alma to begin speaking, and that will be the next post...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Keith Donohue at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

Part 2 of my adventures at the Gaithersburg Book Festival:

After getting her kids and hubbie settled in the children's village, Ali (AKA, novelist Allison Leotta) and I walked across the City Hall grounds in time to hear novelist Keith Donohue speak. Despite his novels being prominently displayed on my bookshelves, I have not read him yet. I've always wanted to, but you know how it is. So many books, so little time. Soon, Keith! But it was terrific to have a chance to hear him speak and read.

At the top of this post, you'll see video of Keith's opening remarks to the audience, before he began reading from his most recent novel, Centuries of June.  (Incidentally, he starts by referencing Eleanor Brown, who had introduced him.  Ms. Brown is the author of the delightful The Weird Sisters, which I reviewed here.)

The first video clip ends right as Keith was about to read the opening pages of his novel.  I have to confess that I did film him reading for about 12 minutes, but the little FlipCam I use is a very limited tool.  The biggest problem is that it has no ability to focus.  Second biggest is that it only  holds two hours of video.  Ultimately, I deleted the first reading in order to film more authors later in the day.  Consequently, we skip the first reading and head directly into the Q & A:

As you can see, the first Q & A segement leads into another brief reading, which can be seen below:

And here is the final Q & A segment:

Ali and I chatted briefly with Keith after his presentation, and he was very friendly. I kept running into him all day after that and we kibitzed briefly each time. It was nice to see authors sticking around beyond their narrow time-slot and attending their colleague's presentations.  I saw this over and over all day.  And there were other writers in the audience--ones who weren't speaking or signing at the festival--like Ali who was there hanging out with me.  Case in point, sitting in the row in front of us was novelist Rebecca Coleman, but more on her in the next post...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Who'd a thunk it? Gaithersburg has a rockin' Book Festival!

Last Saturday, I had the great pleasure of attending the Gaithersburg Book Festival.  I'm not kidding about it being a great pleasure!  A little background...  I spent my teen years in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  I call DC my hometown, and it is, but Gaithersburg is the place I most associate with growing up.  It's the place I remember best; it was where I spent my high school years.  And, relatively speaking, it's a fairly sleepy little burg. 

So imagine my surprise upon, after returning home for an extended visit, discovering that little ol' Gaithersburg has grown a world class literary festival--and after only three years!  I'd never even heard about it in the prior two years, but now like the National Book Festival in DC, it's on my radar, and is enough of an event to merit a visit home in years to come. 

Gaithersburg Council Member Jud Ashman
I actually got the whole back story late in the day when I ran into Gaithersburg Council Member Jud Ashman, who founded the festival.  I didn't so much "run into him" as go up to him and introduce myself.  I knew who he was, and wanted to congratulate him on a hugely successful event.  I expected him to be too busy or too important or too whatever, but it turned out that he was a super friendly guy (politician, go figure) and we had a really lovely chat.  He explained to me that in 2008, as the Bushes were leaving office, the future of the National Book Festival was in doubt.  Per the Librarian of Congress, there was no guarantee that the Obama administration would fund it.  (Because that Obama isn't nearly the book-lover that George Bush was.  *rolls eyes*)  Anyway, when Ashman heard about this, he feared that the region would have no book festival at all, and it was then he thought of bringing a festival to G'burg. 

It's a modest enough idea for a modest town, but I'm fairly overwhelmed with the execution.  I don't know what the first two years were like, but this year boasted over 110 authors, some local, some flying in from all over.  Among them were celebrities, #1 bestselling authors, and writers of every stripe.  In addition to the many talks, interviews, and panel discussions taking place all day, there were many interesting exhibitors, writing workshops, and a truly magical "children's village."  I know this because I spent part of my day with children, and man did they have a good time!

I spent the day in the company of my friend, novelist Allison Leotta, and her lovely family--including six-month-old beagle mix, Maggie.  Let me tell you, if there was one star of the day, it was that puppy!  Ali's husband took the kids for the better part of the day, and we took the puppy.  Everywhere we went we were stopped by friendly dog-lovers.  Everyone at the festival was so friendly, attendees and authors--several of whom with which I had really lovely interactions.  It was a great day for community.

There's much more to tell, but happily, I brought my little FlipCam with me, so all weekend I'll be posting about the authors I saw, augmented by some admittedly shaky hand-held video.  It is, as they say, better than nothing.  For now, rest assured the next year's festival on May 18, 2013 is already on my calendar.  And Mr. Ashman envisions a future when the city supports a multi-day festival.  I'm so there!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A powerhouse opening to a dazzling work of fiction

by Richard Ford

Every review of Canada is going to begin the same way, with the stunning opening sentences of the novel.  “First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later.  The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed." That’s a bit more sensational than the average start of a serious literary work, but it telegraphs so much of what is to come.  In fact, I’ll give you a run-down of what those opening sentences illustrate:

·         This novel is told from the point of view of a first-person narrator who speaks with a simple, clear voice. 
·         Despite the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning pedigree, this is a plot-driven novel bordering on a literary thriller.
·         This is a coming-of-age tale.
·         This novel is being told in reflection from some point in the future.

That’s a fair amount of info to glean from three sentences!

The novel’s narrator is 15-year-old Dell Parsons, one half of a set of fraternal twins.  The other half is his sister, Berner, older by six minutes and always the more worldly of the two.  The novel opens in the summer of 1960, and the family of four (with father, Bev and mother, Neeva) is living in Great Falls, Montana.  The kids have had a fairly rootless upbringing, due to Bev’s Air Force career and a lack of extended family connections. 

Dell relates the family history, beginning with his parents’ courtship and ill-advised marriage.  “…they were no doubt simply wrong for each other and should never have married or done any of it, should’ve gone their separate ways after their first passionate encounter, no matter its outcome.  The longer they stayed on, and the better they knew each other, the better she at least could see their mistake, and the more misguided their lives became as time went on—like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense.” 

It’s the older Dell, nearing retirement, that can look back on his past and family history and see things so clearly.  His story is told in a combination of his older and younger voices.  Nonetheless, given the above, it’s no surprise he describes his family as “doomed.”  Bev doesn’t adjust well to life outside the military, and a series of poor decisions leads the family, and particularly the teens, into dire and life-altering circumstances.

Like all novels being told in reflection, this one features quite a bit of foreshadowing—again, you can see it in those opening sentences.  This continues throughout the novel, and there’s a reason that foreshadowing is one of the most commonly used literary devices.  Because it’s so darn effective!  Rather than diffusing the novel’s tension, it ratchets it up, and it definitely keeps readers turning pages.  It’s amazing how powerful a simple “I never saw her again” or “considering how her life turned out” can be, and when the foreshadowing is of a crime, even more so.

Despite the novel’s page-turning plot, characters are given equal attention.  This is obvious early on as Dell describes his father:
“He was a non-stop talker, was open-minded for a southerner, had graceful obliging manners that should’ve taken him far in the Air Force, but didn’t.  His quick hazel eyes would search around any room he was in, finding someone to pay attention to him—my sister and me, ordinarily.  He told corny jokes in a southern theatrical style, could do card tricks and magic tricks, could detach his thumb and replace it, make a handkerchief disappear and come back.  He could play boogie-woogie piano, and sometimes would ‘talk Dixie’ to us and sometimes like Amos ‘n’ Andy.  He had lost some of his hearing by flying the Mitchells, and was sensitive about it.  But he looked sharp in his ‘honest’ GI haircut and blue captain’s tunic and generally conveyed a warmth that was genuine and made my twin sister and me love him.” 
That’s only a small part of Dell’s recollection of Bev.  Could I describe my own father so well?  I doubt it.  Even relatively minor characters have a feel of completeness about them, leaving me with linger questions about them long after they’d come and gone.  How much did Mildred really know about her brother’s life?  Did Florence see Dell again? 

The novel’s prose is not ornate, but it’s beautifully crafted.  Ford expertly paints the time and places in which the novel is set.  Clearly, I could go on quoting from and discussing this novel indefinitely, but better you should make these discoveries on your own.  Near the novel’s end, Dell states, “There’s little else to say.  I have that as my satisfaction.”  And by the time you reach this astonishing work’s end, you’ll have yours as well.

NOTE:  I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Ford read from and speak about Canada at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC this evening.  Below is video of his Q & A session after he read from the novel.  These three videos are 8-10 minutes long, each.  Sorry that the video is slightly out of focus.  The FlipCam I use has no focus control.  This was my first time hearing Mr. Ford speak.  Very interesting!