Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Virginia Festival of the Book 2011

Last week was the wonderful Virginia Festival of the Book, an event I’ve been attending ever since it began in the 1990s. Like Charlottesville’s patron patriot Thomas Jefferson, I could not live without books. As usual far more panels were planned than I could possibly attend. But I did hear two of my favorite journalists – Jim Lehrer of PBS News Hour and Scott Simon of NPR’s Weekend Edition. Next to books, NPR and PBS are my favorite media outlets.

Of course, Jim Lehrer was a big hit. Very funny as he gave the Trailways Bus call "Witchita, Kansas City, Albuquerque," etc. demonstrating that no matter how famous a person may become, he never forgets his first job. Lehrer is of course well known for his journalism, interviews and moderation of the presidential debates. But he has also written 20 books during the time of his very high powered career. (He says it just takes sitting in the chair, but when asked later, how he finds the time, given his high powered career, he reported writing every morning for an hour or two at the studio before the rest of the staff arrives.)

Scott Simon was not talking news or politics. He has written a couple of other books, including the novel, Windy City, but his most recent book is about his family’s adoption of two Chinese girls. He was very emotional and broke up several times as he talked about his daughters.

But in addition to these blockbuster appearances, I heard other really good and interesting writers. (I must note that I did promise myself that I would refrain from purchasing books during the Festival since I still have many from last year that I have not read.)

My number one choice of workshops focused on two Americans who played roles in China during the late 19th - mid-20th Century. Lynne Joiner has written Honorable Survivor: Mao's China, McCarthy's America and the Persecution of John S. Service and Lawrence Kaplan, Homer Lea: American Soldier of Fortune.

John Service grew up in China in the 20s and 30s where his father had established a YMCA in the southern area. After college, he returned to China in the diplomatic service and spent his career during the Second World War trying to get cooperation between Mao and the Communists and Chang Kai-Chek and the Nationalists. He entreated the Roosevelt Administration to open communications with the Communists as he forsee their winning the Revolution. After the War, as the cold war began, Senator Joseph McCarthy began to identify Service as one of the Communists in the State Department. After being dismissed, Service sued and eventually prevailed with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding unanimously that there were no valid reasons for his dismissal.

Homer Lea was another interesting character who entered the Chinese scene in the
1890s. He was an American, a hunchback who studied about American military history and offered himself as an expert to the Chinese. It is remarkable that the Chinese believed he had the expertise, but as we can see in the nascent revolutions in the Middle East, often revolutionaries are simply hungry to get any help they can.

Later that day, I attended a panel of three National Book Award Winners that was moderated by another NBA winner, Henry Wiencek (who won for The Hairstons). John Casey talked about Spartina, and he won the award while he was on his own self-financed book tour. Jaimy Gordon won for Lord of Misrule, a story of a racetrack. She had written short stories but was mostly published in academic journals so didn’t expect the book to go far. Kathryn Erskine won for her book, Mockingbird, which was published as a young adult book (largely because the protagonist is a 10 year old), but it appears to tell a gripping story of the girl, who has Asberger's, dealing with the aftermath of a middle school shooting in which her brother is killed.

I went to another panel which was billed as “Reading Group Choices” and in fact some of the authors attend book groups either in person or by Skype or other electronic means. Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season, talked about The False Friend, which in particular attracted my attention since the story focuses on the memory of the protagonist about her role in an event, and finding that no one else remembers the event that way.

Tatjana Soli talked about her novel of the Vietnam about a group of journalists, including a woman reporter, unusual for the 70s, in The Lotus Eaters. The Nobodies Album tells the story of a novelist mother coping with the twin worlds of her fiction and the grim reality of her son’s accusation as a murderer while William Cobb wrote about the quest of two people to understand their pasts in The Last Queen of the Gypsies.

Regardless of her novel, I want to know more about Ruth Pennebaker, author of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, because she contributes to a blog named She was on a panel on “Novels about Family: Eat, Laugh, Love”, almost all of which seemed to have funny stories, a good thing when you’re talking about family.

The other writers were Kerry Reichs (her mother Kathy is the mystery writer whose fictional forensic investigator became the basis for the Bones series now so popular on TV). Kerry wrote Leaving Unknown, which tells the story of a young woman’s odyssey across America through all sorts of strange landscapes including Unknown, Arizona. Richard Morais, a former writer for Forbes Magazine, wrote The Hundred Foot Journey, the story of an Indian chef from Mumbai who comes to Paris to operate a restaurant and the myriad characters he meets along the way.

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