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Miami Book Fair: Another literary triumph

November 16, 2009

bookfair1An Associated Press story 10 days ago called Miami Book Fair International “recession proof.” Now that this year’s edition — the 26th — is behind us, I say, “Recession? What stinking recession?!”

Judging from the capacity crowds at book fair venues large and small, for writers famous and obscure, for literary writers and show biz celebrities, South Florida readers were clearly in a mood to forget the economy in favor of the riches only literature can provide.

Celebrities like Al Gore, Iggy Pop, and comedians John Hodgman and Larry Wilmore may have packed the fair’s biggest room, The Chapman Conference Center, which holds upwards of a thousand people. But so did literary titans Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Jeanneatte Walls, Orhan Pamuk and Tracy Kidder.

Smaller venues were often standing room only, too. People had to be turned away from a pavilion featuring Leonard Pitts Jr. and Ana Menendez. In another tent right next door, a nearly capacity crowd listened to a panel of literary women’s writers, Lydia Davis, Jill McCorkle, Mary Karr and Jayne Anne Phillips.

Thousands thronged the exhibitors booths. Squeals of delight and laughter fluttered from the Children’s Alley. Lines of people sometimes hundreds strong waited patiently to get books signed by favorite authors.

On Sunday, more than a hundred people showed up at 11 a.m. for a nonfiction panel featuring essayists and biographers Brad Gooch, Philip Lopate, Kenneth Turan and Francine Prose. They were rewarded to an intellectually challenging discussion, clearly expressed. I learned new things about Anne Frank , Joe Papp, Flannery O’Connor and Susan Sontag.

Not all the joys of book fair come from on stage. Meeting old friends and chatting about books and writers is a constant source of energizing fun. For someone who has been attending and covering the book fair for 24 years, I relished the chance to reconnect with people.

Some of my personal highlights:

–Chatting with freelancer Ellen Kanner and Granta editor John Freeman — and realizing I had used book reviews by each of them, probably on the same day, when I was book editor at the Sun Sentinel.

–Talking H.P. Lovecraft with literary novelist Dan Choan.

–Bumping into old acquaintances, like the writers Robert Olen Butler, Gwen Cooper, Ana Menendez, Christine Kling, Tara Kai, Les Standiford, Campbell McGrath, Lynne Barrett, John Dufresne, Connie Ogle (the Miami Herald‘s book critic) and David Plumb, one of the most underrated poets in America (check out some of his poems to see if you agree with me).

–Introducing crime novelists Paul Levine and Jeff Lindsay, who kept their audience in a state of constant laughter with an unending series of jokes and wisecracks.

–Margaret Atwood singing a hymn from her new novel, The Year of the Flood.

–Jill McCorkle reading a hilarious story, “My Big Foot.”

–Barbara Kingsolver, striding the stage, microphone in hand, like an evangelist for literature.

–Tracy Kidder speaking with quiet passion about the lack of medical care in Burundi.

–Jeannette Walls talking eloquently for 35 minutes without notes.

–David Small, after his Comix Galaxy appearance, confessing that he’s still stunned by the huge success of his graphic-novel memoir, Stitches.

–Isabella Rossellini showing examples of her short film series, Green Porno, and explaining her writing process (she gets up at six and writes till 11).

And really, these are only a tiny fraction of the pleasures on offer during the eight days of the 2009 Miami Book Fair International, which concluded yesterday. No wonder organizers in Los Angeles, Boston, Nashville and elsewhere have copied the format pioneered in Miami in 1984.

I hope you didn’t miss it.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2009 1:56 pm

    I am SO SORRY I missed it this year — but so happy to hear that literary South Florida is alive and well. Thanks for the report — see you there next year!

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 16, 2009 2:15 pm

    You can bet I’ll be there. See you then.

  3. Tommy permalink
    November 16, 2009 2:24 pm

    The panel I attended yesterday featuring Wolman and Blount Jr. was brilliant. Thank You for the recommendation. Volunteering at the fair was a much more rewarding experience than I could have imagined. Next year I will not make the mistake of wearing new shoes to the street fair.

    Selection of titles I picked up this year:

    1941 edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
    First Edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010
    Autographed copy of Hell by Robert Olen Butler (which I am enjoying)

    Yesterday I was struck by the opportunities living here in South Florida affords my quest for culture and interesting cerebral adventure. Last month we had the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, this month Miami Book Fair International and next month Art Basel. If the weather was as mild as it is today I would never entertain the thought of moving.

    It is a shame our paths did not cross, sounds like you had as much fun (if not more) as I.

  4. rachel permalink
    November 16, 2009 3:31 pm

    What did you learn about Susan Sontag?

    I’m sorry that I missed the fair part of the book fair, I missed some stuff I really wanted to see. Did anyone go to the panel on censorship? I am very glad that I got the chance to see some of the authors last week. The book fair is such a wonderful event, we are lucky to have it.

    Tommy, I am extremely jealous of your finding that edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a first edition? Give it. Just kidding. Kind of. Maybe sometime you would let me hold it in my hands. And look at it. I have the Library of America edition so I would love to see what the real one looks like.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 16, 2009 3:51 pm

    Aha! I see someone visited the Antiquarian Annex!

    The Miami Book Fair is so big and rich, there’s plenty of fun for everyone, and some left over besides.

  6. Colleen Lockwood permalink
    November 16, 2009 4:09 pm

    Hi Chauncey, LOVED the book fair. Like Tommy said, the 1pm panel yesterday was great. Word entymology and philosphies, the art and story-telling power of letter-writing, spelling and misspellings as a form of world progress (or lack thereof). Fun. Brought to mind a book from long ago – “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Insanity, Murder, and the Making of the Oxford Dictionary.” And the always interesting addition of new words to our vocabulary — starting out as as slang (googling, locavore) and for those with enough staying power, becoming officially recognized — being added to the dictionary.

    Seeing Margaret Atwood and Ruch Reichl in person was a treat. (And Roy Blount Jr from NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell me was no slouch!)

    And the fair part of the bookfair made for some great finds at great prices. Thanks to you for your recommendations, thanks to Marty Kaplan and others for organizing. Great event. Glad to be a part of it for the first time this year.

  7. Tommy permalink
    November 16, 2009 4:11 pm

    Rachel, I was mistaken. The edition I own is the first printing of the 1960 second (revised) edition. Difference in price; about $3000.00. Seeing as the one I purchased is worth over $300I am still reeling from the luck I had and questioning whether it was mislabeled. Sorry to get your hopes up. I would also love to see a first edition. You can hold, look at, and breathe in the one I own, which is pretty choice. The value of this book (any book) goes well beyond its’ monetary cost, of course I don’t need to tell you this. She will go in a place of honor among some of my other prized titles found scouring the shelves.

  8. Tommy permalink
    November 16, 2009 4:37 pm

    Yeah, what did you learn about Susan Sontag? Death Kit is a favorite of mine.

    Diddy the Good

    “Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives. Like insecure tenants, never knowing exactly the extent of their property or when the lease will expire.”- Sontag

  9. rachel permalink
    November 16, 2009 4:54 pm

    Tommy, yes please. I would love to see it. Still pretty damn impressive. I wrote my thesis on that book and would really like to see it sometime. Good find.

  10. November 16, 2009 6:35 pm

    It is a wonderful event. It had so many great people it was hard to see them all. The people all seemed to be have a great time. Food um, um good. The operation it self is about as close to perfect you will get. That is a nice little college. It was nice to meet you there a bit Chauncey.

  11. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 16, 2009 7:58 pm

    Philip Lopate, in his fairly brilliant discussion of Sontag, who he clearly admires, did not hesitate to say things about her that were less than flattering. For example, he said she was not a very good fiction writer, because she lacked humor. This I already knew, but I was deeply impressed to hear someone of his stature say so. He said she was an intellectual snob, with no sympathy for ordinary people — although, he added, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of the work she chose to do. And he said that in the 30-page essay, she was unsurpassed. But that when she sought to write book-length essays, her writing and her thinking grew “attenuated.” I’m coming up with all this from memory, as I took no notes, and apologies to Mr. Lopate if I’m mischaracterizing anything he said.

  12. Oline permalink
    November 17, 2009 9:09 pm

    Thanks for this report. I had to miss it this year but feel as if i were there. thanks, chauncey

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