First, the good news: The National Book Foundation presented Mitchell Kaplan its “Literarian” lifetime achievement award this year. He definitely deserves it.
Now, the stream of consciousness recollection of the Book Fair Experience, 2011:
I got to downtown Miami about 11:00 a.m. on Friday, welcomed by a moderate warm rain and wall-to-wall school buses. The sidewalk was swarming with kids, big and little. I browsed the booksellers, checked into the hotel, educated myself about the overnight parking situation, and then left for the airport about 2:30. I had plenty of time to explore the airport parking lot and terminal, watch the people and read my book—I was carrying around Andy Borowitz’s Fifty Funniest, so I was adequately amused.
Toni arrived a few minutes early and we were out of there, back to downtown via the scenic route. We took a quick tour of the Miami Dade College campus which hosts the fair and a more leisurely stroll through Bayside Marketplace—which is right across Biscayne Boulevard—and then had dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp. Good food, topped off by a movie trivia quiz inflicted on us by the waitress. Toni knew most of the answers, but she wasn’t given any prizes. I failed to see the point.
Next we were off to Midtown Miami, a new area to me and in fact pretty newly developed—I don’t know the history but I wouldn’t be surprised if it used to be a slum. The Friday night event we chose to attend was the Literary Death Match, held at a bar called Bardot—it’s like a secret club, no markings on the street side, you have to go around back and come in through the parking lot entrance. I didn’t know there was a parking lot, so I used the parking garage across the street. Turns out, that was a good move because it only cost $3 instead of the $15 the bar was charging.
Jennifer Hayden was the victor in the Literary Death Match. Terry Shine was eliminated in the first round. The other contestants, alas, I have no record or memory of their names, and only a sketchy recollection of their performances.
Terry’s defeat was probably a victory in disguise because that kind of Charlie Brown experience is what he is best at making into funny-in-a-pathetic-way anecdotes. Besides, none of his competitors was given a Florida Book Award this year -- so he can be comforted in that knowledge. (More about the FBA later)
Back to the hotel for the slumber party/gabfest—we didn’t get to sleep until pretty late, but hey, we had a lot of catching up to do.
Up by seven and off in search of coffee. It’s Miami; we didn’t have to go far. We sat in the street corner café and plotted out our strategy which didn’t include any autographing lines, because Toni only had a few hours and we had not a moment to lose. We started with
Senator Bob Graham
Senator Graham and I have a history, although he may not remember it. Back in the early 80s I was doing my community activist thing in Key West, fighting an imminent cruiseport that the city and Chamber of Commerce types proposed to build with Community Development Block Grant funds. Using those funds requires community input but the powers that be in Margaritaville had ignored that. We wrote numerous letters to then-governor Graham in protest of the steamroller tactics of our local officials and tycoons—and he wrote back, too. In the end we carved out a compromise that allowed our native culture to co-exist with the cruise ships, but that’s another story. Graham was a good governor, as far as I could see—his administration was instrumental in requiring communities to create long-term development plans, and that was urgently needed in the Keys—too little, too late, perhaps, but also, better than nothing.
So, fast forward: Graham was quite the mover/shaker in the Senate, chairman of the intelligence committee, and co-chair of the 9/11 commission and later of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. What I didn’t know until very recently is that he was the brother of Phil Graham, longtime publisher of the Washington Post.
From his work with the intelligence committee and the 9/11 commission, Graham knows a lot more than the government will let him tell us, but at least he did oppose the occupation of Iraq and hasn’t changed his mind about that. His novel, Keys to the Kingdom, is a way around his frustration of not being able to inform the public. He says it’s a mixture of historical fact and “informed conjecture” – the reader can work out which is which.
It was a real pleasure to see Graham talk. It is evidence of how well he spoke that I didn’t take many notes, so I don’t have many specific quotes. Someone asked about the role of third parties in presidential elections and he said he didn’t think they were very significant. He cited Teddy Roosevelt and Ross Perot. Someone shouted out, “What about Eugene Debs?” And Graham said, “Did he run for president?” So he lost some points there, but the audience members were quick to enlighten him; in fact Debs ran for president four times, receiving nearly a million votes in two elections, 1912 and 1920, the last time running his campaign from a prison cell.
At the intersection of the Miami book fair, Bob Graham, Dave Barry, and Tropic magazine is this interview, published in 1983:
P.S. The blockbuster event we missed while watching Senator Graham: Jeffrey Eugenides and his book The Marriage Plot. Oh well.
11:00 A.m. James Gleick and Dava Sobel. Gleick’s book is Information; Sobel’s is Copernicus. Here’s Gleick’s soundbite: “History is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” Very poetic. Copernicus fact: on February 19, 2011, the 537th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth, atomic element number 112 was named Copernium (symbol Cn) by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Still adding to his legacy, after more than half of a millennium! You go, Nic! On the other hand, we are still saying that the sun rises in the morning and sets at night…
We left the nerd fest and immediately got in line for Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson. I held our place in line while Toni went foraging for some breakfast. She found an arepa—again, it’s Miami, you don’t have to go far before you run into an arepa vendor. Meanwhile, I chatted up the person in line next to me, which is just a no-brainer at the book fair. You know you’re going to have a lot in common with the person waiting with you to see one of your favorite authors. The person in question turned out to be a former postal employee named Terry who lives in Oregon but owns a house in Coral Gables. Terry had an extra ticket for the Dave Barry happening, which was good because Toni and I didn’t have any tickets. (To clarify: the tickets are free, and the worst-case scenario is that without one you have to go to the end of the line, but you still get in, eventually.) So, when Toni returned, she used the proferred ticket and I just went along and handed the volunteer at the door a ticket for a different event—they all looked alike, and as I said, they were free tickets.
Dave and Ridley had a very smooth presentation, scripted and choreographed and accompanied by slides. I’ve heard the weinermobile story many times (Dave was delighted to be offered a chance to drive the Oscar Meyer promotional vehicle because his son was in middle school at the time. He drove it up to the line of parents waiting to pick up their kids and used the loudspeaker to announce: “Rob Barry, report to the weinermobile”)—but this was the first time I had seen an actual photo of the vehicle in question and Rob, grinning, beside it. “He had recovered by the time the picture was taken,” said Dave, "but if a 12-year-old could have a heart attack, believe me, he would have.”
Dave and Ridley discussed their latest Peter Pan book, The Bridge to Neverland. This book is a companion volume to their Peter Pan trilogy, which, just to be different, is four books. So that’s five books altogether, and apparently they are having fun and making money so they’ll probably keep going. According to the Amazon reviews the books are great. I own The Secret of Rundoon, in hardback, double-autographed, but I haven’t read it.
After the Barry/Pearson session, we sallied forth to browse the booths—neither of us was eager to load up on three dimensional objects that would take up space in our respective homes, but it was fun to shop. I scored a $1.00 copy of Silas Marner—I want to have it at my house but I keep giving it away so I needed that. Otherwise, the one book I was looking for, The Lost Memory of Skin (more on that later), was not to be found at the Books and Books booth, so I decided to get it from the library instead. The street fair is an exciting part of the fair—McSweeney’s is there, and the ACLU, and people promoting Kabala and the Green Party, as well as newspaper publishers, “Muslims for Peace,” my local used book store (“Bookwise”), lots of authors selling their own books, and so on. We visited the food court where Toni bought Greek food and I queued at the “Crepe Express”—as Toni pointed out, the name wasn’t particularly apt—she walked to the other end of the food court, bought her food and came back, to find me at approximately the same position in line as when she left. I don’t care. It’s the only time I get authentic French crepes and it’s a highlight of the book fair for me. I had chicken, spinach, mushrooms and cheese in my crepe. YUMMMMMM!
We still had time to visit the Chinese pavilion, but there was no entertainment going on at the time we were there so it wasn’t particularly interesting. Chinese products on display? Really? What is the point of that? Virtually everything in America is a Chinese product. We don’t really need a table full of fans and plastic jewelry to represent Chinese manufacturing. Anyway, let me take this opportunity to mention that, in case you aren’t aware, China is on its way to being in charge of everything. It’s just a matter of time. I’m not worried about it because I believe they will do a good job of running the world. And they respect old people, which is what I’ll be if I’m even still alive when my prophecy comes to pass.
The end of the fair for Toni. We went back to the hotel, got her stuff, and picked up the car from the parking lot (It has a car elevator! I think it’s the first time my car has been on an elevator—I hope she enjoyed it.) We had a smooth trip to the airport and Toni was there in plenty of time to go through security and relax before her flight.
When I left the airport I avoided the mistake I made the day before. That mistake was, following the directional signs showing the way out of the airport. I know NOW that there is a sharp right turn that is NOT marked that you have to take if you want to get on the expressway. I made the turn and so avoided the scenic route and got back to the book fair in time to be early for the Rock Bottom Remainders show. Also, I got my car in the FREE parking lot. That’s another highlight of the book fair, and another thing that I only do once a year, parking for free in downtown Miami.
So—I got to the RBR concert, an hour early, but the seats were mostly all taken already. I spotted my line-buddy Terry and sat in the same row—after I scrounged a chair from behind the stage.
The concert was great, but I missed Kathy Kamen Goldmark. The only female contribution was Dave’s wife, Michelle, and daughter, Sophie, doing their traditional tune “La Bamba”—Dave always mentions that Michelle is Cuban and Jewish; I think he should also say she is a sportswriter, just to make the Venn Diagram even more interesting. Andy Borowitz contributed his signature “political” song, the Monkee’s “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”. He rocked. I have a special fondness for the one gospel-tinged number the band did, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” led by brother Sam Barry. I like thinking of Sam and Dave growing up as Preacher’s Kids. I have a lot of sympathy for Dave’s Sunday School teachers.
After the concert I went back to Bayside and shopped the boutiques for a while, had vegetables and rice at the food court, and then came back to the hotel to REST. I fell asleep at a reasonable hour, and got up early to go jogging—I was out the door by 6 a.m., inspired by Toni’s scheduled half-marathon in St. Pete. But before I got far it started raining and I wimped out—only jogged about 3 miles but it was nice, anyway.
Russell Banks, Michael Ondaatje, William Kennedy
I am not familiar with any of these writers’ works but I’m aware that they are famous and have won lots of awards. I showed up in passive mode, ready to absorb whatever they had to offer. I was really surprised at how deep the discussion got, right away—all of them read passages from their books that dealt with the nature of reality, the meaning of “truth” and so on. Russell Banks spoke for the panel when he said, “The most interesting thing about life is that you can’t really know anything about it.”
I was most interested in Banks’s novel, “The Lost Memory of Skin,” because I’ve been hearing about it for a while. It is set in a fictional version of Miami, and deals with the phenomenon that occurred here when a law was passed that dictated where a convicted sex offender could live; the law was so restrictive that there was only one place in the city that qualified, and sex offenders gathered there, under a bridge, to live. If it was a literary invention, it would not be entirely believable but it is a historical fact in Miami, this really happened.
I didn’t buy this book at the fair but later ordered it from Amazon, along with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot—I look forward to reading both of them during Christmas break.
William Kennedy’s book is something about Cuba and/or Ernest Hemingway, but it’s really about the nature of reality, you get the idea.
Michael Ondaatje’s book, Cat’s Table, I didn’t really get a feel for it. I was distracted by his unidentifiable accent—British English is his second language, apparently.
I had planned to stay in the main auditorium and hear George McGovern speak on “What it Means to be a Democrat,” but he canceled, so instead I went to a double header on Florida history: Beth Brickell on William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and then Les Standiford and John Blades on The Last Train to Paradise.
The first thing you need to know about Beth Brickell is that she is not related to the power couple who founded our fair cities. She doesn’t even pronounce her name the same; she says Bri-CKELL—we say BRICK-ell. Her parents’ interest in geneology encouraged her to pursue the story, however, after she heard about the Brickells during a stay in Florida (she’s originally from Camden, Arkansas). She was in Florida to film a television series. She played the wife on the show Gentle Ben. What list celebrity would that make her? D? E? Anyway, it was interesting trivia.
The history of South Florida—they always emphasize how recent it is and how when the founders arrived here there were essentially no American inhabitants—there were Indians, but that is pretty much glossed over. The amount of chicanery that was involved in luring people to buy land and / or move south is also rarely mentioned. Nevertheless, William and Mary Brickell were interesting folks. William got rich in the 1852 Australian gold rush—probably not by finding gold, but by selling things to the prospectors. He met Mary in Australia and they moved to the U.S. William had an interest in the oil industry when it was just beginning, and that interest led him to make the acquaintance of Henry Flagler and John D. Rockefeller. Mary missed the mild climate that she had known in Australia and so the adventurous couple bought 2500 acres in South Florida and moved there to establish a trading post. At the time they arrived the region had an official population of 12.
If you want to know the rest, you can read the book.
I have read the Standiford book; it’s about the building of the Overseas Railway. It’s really amazing and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in history or civil engineering. The railroad from Miami to Key West was the largest privately financed project ever undertaken, Standiford says, and they were doing something that had not been done before. They used steam-powered machinery to create the pilings and bridges and causeways. It was a massive operation and a logistical challenge because they were so far from civilization and they needed so many workers. The new edition of the book has added a large number of photographs from the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach (John Blades was there representing the museum.)
After the Florida history session, I headed off for my final event of the fair, the Florida Book Awards. I am happy to report that T.M. (Terry) Shine’s book, Nothing Happens Until it Happens to You, won the award for fiction this year—not just the award for “best title” that I have repeatedly (if unofficially) nominated it for. Terry dramatized a passage from the book with the help of his charming teenage daughter. Two other authors also read, and the presenter boosted the Florida Book Awards, saying it is the “most comprehensive” state book award program in the U.S.
Henry Cole presented his book, A Nest for Celeste, with slides because it’s a children’s picture book. Really cute: it’s about a field mouse who hitches along with J.J. Audubon on one of his expeditions.
Christina Diaz Gonzalez’s young adult novel, The Red Umbrella, is set against the background of Operacion Pedro Pan—that’s the program whereby parents in Cuba sent their children to the U.S. to escape from growing up under the Castro regime.
Jose Alvarez won in the Spanish language category. He didn’t read from his book because most of us in the audience wouldn’t have been able to understand it. He described it, though, and it sounded interesting; it is the story of his remembered childhood home in pre-Castro Cuba. Nostalgia or cultural anthropology, either way it is a record of a lost time and place.
I left the book fair about 5 p.m. and consequently did not see Michael Moore. I expect he was a dynamic speaker but then again I pretty much know what he thinks about everything. He’s fairly predictable and I already know that I agree with the substance of what he says 99% of the time but am still capable of feeling offended by his presentation. I wasn’t offended by his Oscar speech, though—I thought it was excellent. “We live in fictional times.”
But this isn’t fictional: The Miami Book Fair, 2011. I was there.
Due to being disconnected from the internet for the entire first half of December (thanks a lot, AT&T), I am very limited in being able to enhance this narrative with links and photos. (I’m in a Panera right now and have been notified that the internet connection is limited to 30 minutes because it's the lunch hour) I'm posting it anyway, and maybe I'll add more when I have an actual internet connection.