Monday, November 17, 2008

Miami Book Fair 2008

Here's my account of the weekend I just spent at the Miami Book Fair with Achenblog friend Seasea. Some of it is in paragraph form, some of it is sentence fragments. Sometimes it deteriorates into a list format. I make no claims for it as literature. But I wanted to share with interested parties who were unable to attend. The book fair was interesting, entertaining and educational in balanced measure. Starting with Saturday morning (although the chronology isn't strictly followed throughout)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Martha Weinman Lear began by saying that "age-related memory loss" is a misnomer because the memories are not lost. The information is still in there, but as we get older it takes longer to retrieve. The three characteristics of memory-related issues in older people are (1) difficulty remembering names [I agree with Dave Barry's assertion that it's not just names, but all nouns] (2) difficulty multi-tasking and (3) slower processing of new information. Lear says it's not just American Baby Boomers who are obsessed with this subject, but people all over the world; it's a very hot topic right now and much research is going on.

One of the chapters in her book is about the things you never forget, and why--that relates to the three kinds of memory: (1) episodic (things that happened to you) (2) semantic (facts, expressed in words) and (3) procedural (how to do things). The third is the most important and you will not lose those memories. For example, you might forget the name of the restaurant where you ate last week. But you probably won't forget what a restaurant is, and you surely won't forget how to eat. So her conclusion is that the brain is constructed in the best way it can be, and you should stop worrying and be happy.

Sue Halpern's book is more research-intensive; she spent a number of years hanging around a specific research facility and she has summarized the recent advances and hopes for the near future in the field of memory. She distinguishes between "normal age-related memory loss" and diseases like Alzheimers, but says anything that aids in memory retention for "normal" people will also help Alzheimers patients because they are also subject to the normal aging process in addition to the disease process.

Halpern, who incidentally is married to author Bill McKibben, made a dramatic presentation of her main point. She said, "What if I told you there is a pill that will enable your brain to grow new brain cells--would you want it? What if I told you it has no side effects, would you want it even more? And would you pay me a lot of money? " (laughter) And she revealed that this miraculous --and free -- remedy is EXERCISE. Numerous studies with animal and human subjects have shown that 45 minutes of aerobic exercise a day has a significant effect on the subjects' performance on memory tests and also the number of new brain cells and synapses that are produced. So, hit the road, people!

As for magic foods, the research on chocolate and red wine is ongoing, but blueberries and walnuts have shown good results already. Halpern stressed that large doses of vitamins and herbal supplements can be dangerous and have not been proven to help. She recommends that you stick to eating healthy food--nobody ever overdosed on walnuts and blueberries.

= = = = = = =

We went to the next session in hopes of seeing Joyce Carol Oates, along with two other authors, but Oates was a no-show, much to the general chagrin of the attendees. We stayed, out of courtesy to the other two authors, and heard them read:

Francine Prose - Goldengrove, A Novel
Patrick McGrath (pronounced like "McGraw") - Trauma: A Novel

= = = = = =

"Words Matter"

Mim Harrison - Smart Words
Ammon Shea - Reading the OED
(Check out Harrison's blog)

Mim Harrison thinks that Americans are smarter than they sound. She loves words (here's one: epeolatry, the worship of words) and believes that we should endeavor to use more variety in our vocabulary. She's not advocating sesquipedalianism, not altogether anyway. Some shorter words meet her criteria as interesting words that she'd like to hear more of; two examples she gave were "pelf" and "screed." Her book is a collection of 500 words which, if we all learn them and use them, will make us sound smarter.

= = =
A riveting speaker, Ammon Shea spoke "in defense of non-narrative prose," pointing out that Jean Cocteau once said, "The greatest masterpiece in literature is just a dictionary out of order."

Shea did indeed read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (21,730 pages). He warmed up for the task by reading Webster's 2nd Edition, a book which he liked so much that he proceeded immediately to read Webster's 3rd edition. He was fascinated by the discovery that those two works were so dissimilar. In 27 years, the number of words went from 625,000 to 450,000, and the definitions, he says, also underwent a significant renovation. I'll take his word for it, for now.

On to the joys of the OED. This work contains about 2.5 million quotations to illustrate the meaning and usage of various words, so that "opens it up" as film directors like to say when they make a play into a movie. Shea testified to the emotional content of the dictionary, inviting us to contemplate the idea that a word can create a feeling, can call up a memory, and the memory of the word can affect the way you view the world. Good example: "petrochlor - the smell of rain when it first hits the earth." That is bound to get an emotional response from you and you will think of it next time you are in a position to smell your freshly-rained-upon lawn. Since you probably didn't know that word before, it also illustrates another point, that if you only go to the dictionary to look up the spelling or definition of a word you already know, you are missing out on a world of possibilities--great words you might never know. Here are some:

bouffage - a good meal
bayard - (a person with) the self-confidence of the ignorant
scrouge - to stand uncomfortably close to a person

Shea said that he was not allowed to watch television as a child and his parents explained to him that reading was a more active pastime which would use and develop his imagination. He found that to be true, and says now that if reading a novel, play or essay uses your imagination, fires up the neurons and activates your brain, reading the dictionary does it even more, because you have to bring more of yourself to the task. As he travels around, people often jokingly ask what will he read next, the telephone book? the railroad schedules? and he said he used to be somewhat offended by that sort of inquiry; after all, the Oxford English Dictionary is hardly to be compared to the telephone book. But as time went on, he met people who did read, for example, railroad schedules, and he came to see that there is value in that as well--if you picture the places you are reading about, imagine yourself going there, making the connections, and so on. He says he has respect for people who derive enjoyment from that.

I have always liked "reading" through the Atlas, and I suppose that is an extreme example of "non-narrative prose."

I'm pretty sure, from listening to him and observing his behavior, that Shea has some mild form of autism, like Asbergers Syndrome or something, that puts him out of the normal range of human psychology (ditto for his readers who sit by the fire with the railroad schedules night after night). I'm very glad that he is able to share his experiences by writing this book and speaking at the book fair. Hooray for (us) abnormals, I say! I loved one particular thing he said about reading the dictionary, which really applies to any reading experience. He said that it "makes us avoid the actual world while at the same time feeling more a part of it than ever."

= = =
The person who introduced Paul Yaeger said, "As a child, he was annoyed by the term 'the three R's' to refer to Reading, Writing and Arithmetic."

Yaeger continues to be annoyed by the misuse of the English language. A meterologist by education, he is irritated in the extreme by the overuse of prepositions on the part of television weathercasters (A cold front is moving "up into the region," or even, absurdly, "on over into the state").

"It goes without saying" that he really hates THAT phrase.

He is on a crusade against the trendy and its flip side, the trite.

Yaeger has a blog, too. He also recommends this group effort language blog whose contributors include Geoffrey Nunberg, one of my favorite linguistics experts.

Saturday night: Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rock Bottom Remainders:

I've never seen so many band members on stage at the same time. I didn't get an absolutely complete list, but here is the general lineup:

  • Mitch Albom
  • Dave Barry
  • Sam Barry
  • Richard Belzer
  • Roy Blount, Jr.
  • Kathy Goldmark
  • Matt Groening
  • Vicki Hendricks
  • Carl Hiaasen
  • Frank McCourt
  • Ridley Pearson
  • Jenine Sabino
  • Amy Tan
  • Scott Turow
  • Steve Watts
The Remainders kicked off with their classic opening song: "If the House is a-Rockin' Don't Come Knockin'."

Mitch Albom did an Elvis imitation. I'll say no more about that.

Amy Tan performed lead vocals on "My Boyfriend's Back" while the backup vocals and instrumentals accompanied in a variety of keys. Most of the time Dave did tell everybody what key the number would be in, but for that one song, apparently the information wasn't entirely disseminated. Oops. Amy apologized and said they hadn't had time to rehearse it. Dave just laughed at her (and himself, and the rest of them--and maybe at us, too, for listening to it.)

Frank McCourt played harmonica and performed vocals on a rousing version of "Don't Fence Me In" and then later did an encore with the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better."

The band didn't leave out their standards, "I'm in Love With a Proofreading Woman" and Kathy Goldmark's composition, "The Slut Song."

Sam Barry's rendition of the gospel tune "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine" is a favorite of mine and a reminder that the Barry brothers share the burden of having grown up as "preacher's kids." They have my sympathy on that score.

Joining the band at various times were Dave's wife, Michelle Kaufman, and their daughter Sophie (singing "La Bamba" with mucho gusto) and the fiancee of Rob Barry, Laura Schweitzer. Laura's sparkly diamond ring was visible to the back rows as she belted out "I Love Rock and Roll" -- she's gonna fit right in at the Barry house.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Any friend of Cesar Chavez is a friend of mine.

Peter Matthiessen: his new novel is called Shadow Country. It has been criticized as a rehash of a trio of novels previously published, but he said he spent seven years completely reworking the story, which was originally written as a single book. The problem was that the original book was 1,300 pages long and it frightened the publisher, who insisted on breaking it up into three separate novels. Matthiessen wasn't satisfied with the result and now he thinks the final project (at 900 pages) is much better. The committee for the National Book Award agrees; it's on their short list for the soon-to-be-announced 2008 prize.

I was not familiar with Matthiessen's work before but he has been an activist and envionmentalist for a very long time. He's working on global warming issues relating to native people and polar bears. He also advocates for other native American issues, and would like us to join him in pressing for the release from prison of Leonard Peltier. Peltier has been locked up for 32 years; everyone else who was convicted in the 1975 Pine Ridge Reservation incident has been released. It wouldn't be far-fetched to consider Peltier a political prisoner. Even the judge who sentenced him is in favor of releasing him at this point.

When asked during Q&A what can we do about global warming, Matthiessen replied, "I like to think we can all do something. Cesar Chavez, who was the greatest man I ever met, used to say that instead of sitting back and saying 'what can one person do' if everybody did something, no matter how small it might be, we could turn any situation around, eliminate injustice, poverty, pollution, whatever."

After expressing his admiration for Chavez, Matthiessen declared that his "prime enemy in life" is Exxon-Mobil, noting among other things that "they have never paid a cent" in damages relating to the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Then someone asked what his next project would be and Matthiessen said, "Well, it's been 30 years since I cleaned my office, I'm starting on that now." He is also "taking notes" for a new novel but says that at 81 years old he isn't planning any more heavily researched nonfiction projects, because "time is not on my side."

* * * * *
Roy Blount, Jr. -- another word lover: "My mother didn't breastfeed me. I forgive her. Instead of mother's milk, she gave me words."
Blount's book, Alphabet Juice, the Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof, is a different approach to language. He emphasizes the relation between the way we say a word, and its meaning, for example the word "through" -- your tongue starts at the front of your mouth and travels towards the back, while your lips form a kind of tunnel opening shape. "Piss" - just the opposite, your lips start tightly closed and then they part and out streams air, at first quickly and then more slowly and then it stops. The book is filled with observations of a similarly off-beat type; it's a celebration of Blount's delight in language.

Roy Blount story: Barack Obama was a guest on "Wait, Wait, Don't tell Me" before he was a candidate. He talked about being a senator and how he was surprised to find that each senator has his own desk on the Senate floor--also that previous senators had carved their initials into the wood of the desks the way school children sometimes do. Asked whether he would follow the tradition, Obama replied that in view of the fact that he was the only African American senator, he was thinking of using spray paint, instead.

We later ran into Blount in line for crepes, and I took the opportunity to express my appreciation for his performance with the Rock Bottom Remainders. In point of fact, his rendition of "Oh, Boy" was one of the best numbers they did and the one that stuck in my head the next day. He was rather sheepish and said he thought the band had more fun than the audience did, and that he appreciated "being indulged." He agreed with my expressed opinion that the crepes were the best food available at the book fair. (Most of the other choices involved deep frying or sausage, or both.)

One of the fun parts of Roy Blount's presentation was seeing Carl Hiaasen, who shared the stage with him, crack up listening to Roy's stories. The same was true of the Frank McCourt/Dave Barry pairing. Dave was about to fall off his chair at several points. I did not take notes at that event. Dave discussed his book The History of the Millennium (So Far) and later he autographed my copy of it--this is the first personalized Dave Barry book I've ever had, after all these years. Frank McCourt signed my Achenblog Bookbag so now it has four signatures -- quality, not quantity, is what I'm going for.

Carl talked about his golf book, The Downhill Lie, a Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport which I have discussed elsewhere. He told all the goriest stories from the book and someone got up afterward and said, "I just want to thank you for your presentation. I've been trying to lose weight, and after those stories (the rats, the toads) I'm going to find it easy to skip lunch today."

* * * * *

What we didn't see:
  • Salmon Rushdie
  • George Hamilton
  • Michael Cunningham
  • Wally Lamb
  • The International Pavilion
  • The Comix Gallery
  • Art Spiegelman
  • Jim Morin
  • Linda Gassenheimer
  • Sister Souljah
  • Senator Mel Martinez
  • Scott McClellan
  • Russell Banks
  • The Write Out Loud Cafe
  • Alan Cheuse

and hundreds of other people and events...

...and, believe it or not, I didn't buy as many books as I had planned. Because I didn't really have time to shop. But we did have a great time.

Aside from the book fair itself, we did a little sightseeing around Miami. Saturday night we sauntered around Bayside Mall and ended up having dinner at the same Cuban restaurant we patronized last year. It's authentic Cuban food at a reasonable price; why go elsewhere?

We stayed in Miami Beach, at a very funky hotel called The Whitelaw. On Sunday afternoon we hopped on the local shuttle bus - for 25 cents you can tour South Beach. We debarked at Lincoln Road and walked up and down the pedestrian mall there.

I went for a run on the beach both mornings we were there. Miami Beach has a great boardwalk, mostly well away from the street traffic. The weather was hot on Saturday but cooler on Sunday--clear blue skies and gentle breezes, nothing at all to complain about.

I meant to take more pictures, but this is all I ended up with--and at least one of these is Seasea's; on Sunday night I commandeered her camera and downloaded everything she had onto my laptop. Did not even give her a chance to refuse. (Thank you, Seasea--and thanks also for coming all the way to the other corner of the country to share the Miami Book Fair with me.)