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Miami Book Fair boasts glittering and timely slate of writers.

October 25, 2010

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

I don’t know why anyone is surprised that Mark Twain’s century-old Autobiography is a bestseller — he’s our greatest and most entertaining writer, after all. My only surprise is that he’s not scheduled for the Miami Book Fair International. Every other hot author seems to be.

Consider: The book fair, scheduled for Nov. 14-21, not only features Jonathan Franzen, author of the most-talked about book of the decade (and the century and the millennium, at least thus far), Freedom. It also boasts Patti Smith, the rock ‘n’ roll poet whose memoir, Just Kids, was recently nominated for a National Book Award.

And even more impressive, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Nigerian novelist and playwright favored, briefly, to win this year’s Nobel Prize (in the end it went to Mario Vargas Llosa).

I’ve covered the book fair for more than 20 years, affording a peek behind the curtain at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College, where executive director Alina Interian routinely wrings miracles out of chaos. With the aid of a ludicrously small staff, she manages to put on this massive literary event — more then 300 international famed authors! — year after year.

For 2010, however, Interian and her minions have outdone themselves with not only the usual broad variety of top-notch writers, but also with an amazing degree of timeliness. And she’s achieved this feat in the second year of reduced budgets, courtesy of the limp and limping economy.

It’s almost as if the book fair’s organizers are making up for a reduced slate of programs by upping the ante on the quality of writers.

Of course, a good deal of luck is involved. Sure, anyone could have picked Franzen’s book as a big item (though perhaps not quite as big as it has become). But back in the late spring and early summer, when Interian and her staff were first contacting authors and their reps, who could have predicted that Patti Smith would be nominated for a National Book Award? Or that Ngugi, an African novelist most Americans have never heard of, would suddenly come out of nowhere to dominate Nobel talk for a week?

For an event like the Miami Book Fair, however, this kind of luck is the product of hard work. I mean, just consider some of the other amazingly relevant writers on the schedule:

Laurie Halse Anderson, whose YA novel Speak is currently embroiled in a banned books controversy in Missouri, where a fundamentalist college professor, calling it “soft pornography,” demanded its removal from schools.

Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s greatest living novelist, and another perennial Nobel hopeful.

Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad) and Julie Orringer (The Invisible Bridge). Franzen was inexplicably snubbed by the National Book Award nominating committee. But he wasn’t the only one. Egan and Orringer both had lavishly praised break-out books this year.

Salman Rushdie just announced that he is at last writing an autobiography that will cover the  Iranian fatwa against his novel The Satanic Verses, and the 10 years he spent in hiding with a bounty of $2 million on his head.

Gay Talese kind of falls into the “he’s-still-alive?!” category. Yes, indeed, and one of the fathers of the New Journalism has a new collection just out, The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese.

Among the other notables on the schedule: Pat Conroy, Michael Cunningham, Edwidge Danticat, Dave Eggers, James Ellroy, Nora Ephron, Ian Frazier, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Sebastian Junger, Larry Kramer, Greil Marcus, Ann Beatty, Walter Mosley, Gay Talese, John Waters, E.O. Wilson, Eugene Robinson, Simon Winchester — and that’s just scratching the surface.

Is this line-up really more impressive than last year’s? As a book lover, I can’t say. It’s always impressive, offering extravagant pleasures to anyone who still reveres reading and writers.

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