At the Bay Area Book Festival
We spent a great Saturday wandering about downtown Berkeley at the Bay Area Book Festival, which was crowded with book-lovers of all shapes and ages … but it must be said, especially at the panels we attended, more women than men. Guys, it is clear, from the folks staffing the booths, you are publishing and selling. Guys, it is clear from the folks on other panels, you are making history, you are recording history, you are cherishing music and ideas and thoughts. But at the sessions we attended, one about how we deal with death, the other about personal taste in literature, the majority of people who stopped to take the time to listen to authors talking about their works, their research findings, their — um, maybe here’s the problem — feelings, were women.
That said, it’s irrelevant.
For everyone who attended, books are a way of life, and this was a chance to celebrate that. Here’s a small album of clippings from Saturday:
— The first street we walked down was Kittredge Street, which was called Writer’s Row for the occasion. Outside the Berkeley Public Library, the main entrance of which is on that street, a woman was giving a speech about the cruelty of the Oakland Police. She may have been correct, but imparted amid the tented booths of the festival, it seemed to have little relevance to what was going on around her. Perhaps the message was “Welcome to Berkeley.”
— We walked over to Allston Way/Eco Alley, to the Brower Center, for “How We Die: Making Sense of Modern Death.” Organizers were insistent that this not be called the “death panel,” and when I said that to a volunteer from whom I was seeking directions, she corrected me in a firm tone of voice. We took a seat next to Michael Freeman, a blogger who had marked up the schedule with colored pencil — indicating what he planned to attend, what he had a little interest in, what he was trying to get a ticket for — and was carrying a set of matching file folder. My copy of the schedule was pretty much wadded up in the bottom of my purse, and I felt as though it was the first day of school and I’d neglected to bring a notebook.
Anyway, the panel — including writers Katy Butler and Monica Wesolowska, physician/writers Louise Aronson and Jessica Zitter — was stunning. The give and take of the women was inspiring, as was their admission of being sometimes stymied by dilemmas, ambivalent. There were more questions than there were answers.
As Zitter, whose work was in the ICU, described readying herself to do a surgical procedure on a dying patient, she said a nurse appeared in the doorway, saying, “Cal 911, get the police. They are torturing a patient in the ICU.” There was a gasp in the room. My eyes watered. And that was 15 minutes into the first program we saw.
— I was sitting in the KALW booth for a while (because I’m part of “Minds Over Matter,” a quiz show broadcast on that station) when along came Michelle Longega Wilson, who was identified on a postcard she handed me as “Amazon bestselling author.” She is 9 years old, and, said the card, “she has presented ‘How to Write Your Own Book’ to groups of children ages 5-15 throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.” Her own books are “Lost in Venice” and “The Girl With a Magical Unicorn.”
Michelle said she’d really liked the book temple, and had taken “several” home with her, including a book about “girls who could control the elements.” Her friend, Amali Hart, had snagged a Hardy Boys book. On Sunday, Michelle was going to give her how-to talk, and share her experiences. I believe she was the youngest author to participate in the festival, and although she seemed to be taking this in her stride, she and Amali hadn’t taken the occasion for granted. They were dressed up in sparkly T-shirts.
— The latest of nine books written by Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review, is “Why I Read,” and that’s what she was discussing on stage with TV writer and novelist Erik Tarloff. During most author discussions, the interviewer (in this case Tarloff) introduces the author, but in this one, Lesser opened the program, introducing him. That’s only relevant to this description because her assertiveness in expressing her views was a kind of leit motif of their discussion.
Does Lesser, incredibly well-read and sharp, feel that her opinions are more valuable than those of others? asked Tarloff. Is there a “heirarchy of response”? “If that’s true,” she answered, “it’s just my manner. I like authority. I speak with an authoritative voice. … When I say I can’t stand James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ I’m not trying to be provocative. I’ve been dying to say that for 35 years.”
Tarloff had started his part of the conversation by proclaiming “I don’t quite get the book” to Lesser. The talk bounced along like that, interviewer poking interviewee with playful little spears. “What’s that little smile of yours?” she asked after she’d given a lengthy answer to a question. “You’re the interviewee,” he said, “so I will hold my opinion.” Then he turned to the audience, lifted his hand as though to hide what he was saying from her, and said, “She’s nuts.”
She seemed to quite enjoy it.