In brief: the Miami Book Fair 2014 was totally awesome. Great weather, interesting authors, stimulating conversation. Enough predictability that it was like coming home, enough surprises to keep everything feeling fresh. Some familiar faces and lots of new ones.
Here's a list of the author events I attended:
Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014
10:00 a.m. Jason Segel -- Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
2:00 p.m. Cornel West -- Black Prophetic Fire (interviewd by Helene Atwan)
3:00 p.m. Norman Lear -- Even This I Get to Experience
4:30 p.m. Ariel Schrag -- Adam; T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper -- Changers, Book 1: Drew
Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014
11:00 a.m. Tom Shroder -- Acid Test (interviewed by Dave Barry)
1:30 p.m. Charles U. Phillips -- Fighting More Than Fires: Race and Politics in Miami-Dade County; N.D.B. Connolly -- A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim
Crow South Florida
2:30 p.m. Maureen Corrigan -- So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (interviewed by Alan Cheuse)
4:30 p.m. Randall Kennedy -- Race, Affirmative Action and the Law; Bryan Stevenson -- Just Mercy; Dana Goldstein -- Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession
7:00 p.m. John Cleese -- So, Anyway...
I was right up front for Jason Segel's presentation. He brought in a children's theater group (hence the keyboard) and they did an introductory skit that made fun of his name (Jason Seagull, Jason Bagel, etc.)--it was very entertaining, in a kid-level way. The keyboard player provided background music for the comedy like a silent movie and really enhanced the effects.
Jason was very sweet and perfectly child-appropriate, unlike many of his movies. He asked everyone under the age of 13 to raise their hands and he said, "You are who I'm here for." He raved about the importance of reading books; he said "It makes you a better person." And he emphasized that there are all kinds of stories available, encouraging the kids to seek out the kind they like. He also had some self-esteem points to make, noting that he had been freakishly tall as a child (over 6 foot at age 12). When he was in school, the other kids would gather around him and one would jump on his back while the others chanted "Ride the oaf! Ride the oaf!" Ouch. He survived; in fact if he had been more normal he probably wouldn't have been cast in "Freaks and Geeks" and wouldn't have ended up rich and famous like he is today. His advice: "Be your best self. Don't worry about what other people say. There is only one you." He had some more adult advice, too--very deep: "Pain is caused by the idea that something is wrong." So if you accept that everything is as it should be, you will be happy. That isn't as crazy as it sounds; it's a good idea to meditate on.
I stood in line and had Jason sign the Achenblog book bag--that tote has so many valuable autographs on it now, I can never use it to carry books. After he signed, I said, "I brought you a present," and I whipped out Russell Brand's new "Trickster Tales" book, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. When Jason saw what it was, he grinned and said, "OH YEAH! THANKYOU!" in a way that made me believe he hadn't read it already. So: mission accomplished, there. I happen to know that Jason is about as big a fan of REB as I am.
My next move was to check into the hotel. I had a reservation at the Miami Sun Hotel, which is so close that it is almost inside the book fair campus.
Being so close means I don't have to pay for parking or drive my car at all--I just park in the free garage on Saturday morning and leave the car there until I go home.
This hotel is not the Ritz, but that's okay because I'm not Jennifer Aniston. 71% of the reviewers on TripAdvisor rated it "terrible." Here's a review from two weeks ago:
Hotel is very dirty. Bathroom is filthy. No customer service at all. Don't go there. Place is being renovated. The room we got was old, don't have a problem with it being old. It's the dirt that's disgusting.
My reality? I found the front desk clerk very nice. She gave me the wifi code without my asking, and we chatted about the book fair. She expressed interest in attending the John Cleese reading on Sunday, but didn't have a ticket, so I gave her my extra one. Later in the evening, when I had a problem with the tv remote, the front desk staff took care of it immediately. There were no bedbugs and the cleanliness level was well within the acceptable range. I was perfectly satisfied with the experience. [The elevator inspection was current, unlike the one in the more expensive Miami Beach hotel I stayed in a few years ago.]
Check-in was quick, and I was back to the fair for a quick lunch at the food court and a browse around the booksellers' booths.
Cornel West: "Like Martin Luther King, I am a Jesus-loving free black man." West is a Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary.
I didn't buy West's latest book Black Prophetic Fire, but I bought Democracy Matters, and I look forward to reading it. His presentation was something like church crossed with a jazz concert. He spent a lot of time talking about music.
The message as not laser-focused but very consistent: "Justice is what love looks like in public." "How does integrity face oppression?" "Channel your rage into love and non-violence rather than hatred and revenge."
Norman Lear: "All of you are here because I woke up this morning."
Lear has impressive energy at age 92. He has a lot of stories but he was so engaging while telling them that I didn't take notes. But picture this: over the years on a number of occasions he has gone on vacation to a house in Nevada with his wife and the following people: Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, and Neil Simon. And the wives. All at the same time. Imagine.
4:30pm Saturday T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper; Ariel Schrag
These three young authors are writing for the "young adult" demographic and they're all pretty cutting-edge. Their books deal with identity in a very modern (or should that be post-post-modern) way.
Ariel's book is about a teenaged boy who goes to New York to visit his older sister. A lot of her friends are gay and/or transgender, and he feels alienated because he's a straight, cis-gendered kid. But he's not especially masculine and gradually people start to assume he is a trans man, so he lets that assumption go unchallenged and joins in the social scene with his new identity.
The Coopers' book is a fantasy about a race of people who change into a different identity for each of their four years of high school. Gender can change, but also race and ability level and so on. Presumably some essential element of identity remains constant, because at the end of high school the person chooses one identity from the four to live in for the rest of his/her life. It's a book about empathy, and schools have used it to explore that concept. The Coopers also have a page on the Changers website called unselfies. They encourage people, in lieu of taking selfies, to "turn the camera around"--look outward instead of back at yourself, express yourself by showing images of other people or your environment. They aim to increase empathy with this, as well.
T. Cooper is a trans man, and has written about his life experience in a memoir called Real Man Adventures. One reviewer said the book is "at once groundbreaking, candid, very funny, occasionally sad, beautifully written and profoundly illuminating." It was published by McSweeney's. I read it and I agree with the reviewer.
Book fair tradition: the early morning jog over the bridge to the cruiseport. I'm not in top shape this year, but I got up and ran for about a mile and a half. In past years I ran the whole time, but this year I walked some and that meant I was able to take some photos. It's not art, but still kind of pretty:
Tom Shroder wrote the only book I managed to read in preparation for the book fair: Acid Test. It's a well-constructed, clearly presented examination of the search for therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs, including the story of the extreme resistance of the U.S. government to any kind of research or inquiry. Tom's interviewer was Dave Barry. Tom and Dave have a shared history that goes back more than 30 years. When Dave had the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile for a day, Tom went along as co-pilot--although Dave neglected to include Tom's contributions when he wrote the column about it. Tom was editor of the Tropic Magazine when Dave wrote one of the all-time classic cover stories, "Can New York Save Itself?". They have also collaborated for years on the Tropic Hunt/Herald Hunt/Post Hunt, at which hilarity inevitably ensues.
After the reading I went downstairs where Tom and Dave were signing books. I had Tom sign my bookbag, and I chatted to him and Dave about Tropic and related things. Dave was off to see his brother Sam, who was discussing Kathi Goldmark's book. I could have followed him there, but I had a schedule conflict, so I said goodbye and headed for building 6.
"Hey, Dave!" [inside joke]
1:30pm Sunday -- Charles U. Phillips and N.D.B. Connolly presented two views of racial inequality in South Florida. Phillips was in the first group of black firefighters hired in Dade County, and he worked his way up through the ranks to become the first black chief of the fire service there. Connolly has done a scholarly study of real estate activity in south Florida and how it supported racial inequality after Reconstruction.
2:30pm Sunday -- Maureen Corrigan with Alan Cheuse discussed The Great Gatsby. Best question: "Why does Daisy cry when Gatsby shows her all the beautiful shirts?" Maureen had a student who said Daisy cries because the ostentatious display and Gatsby's evident delight in it makes him similar to Tom, and different from the man Daisy fell in love with. I don't agree. I think Daisy is an airhead and she cries because the shirts are beautiful and she loves them so much. I don't believe she's thinking of Gatsby or Tom at that moment; she is shallow and sensual and living in the moment. The question of how we can like Daisy was also addressed. I'm afraid it's a lost cause for me.
4:30pm Sunday -- After the brief detour into classic literature, right back to social science: Randall Kennedy, Bryan Stevenson, and Dana Goldstein. Two law professors and an education journalist. Racism and injustice, and how can it be addressed. Good to know that these very intelligent people are putting their energies into solving these problems. The book fair audience encouraged them with frequent applause and a standing ovation.
7pm Sunday -- John Cleese was finishing up a three-week spate of appearances in support of his memoir, and he said he felt "bossy." He certainly was making an effort to be rude (and funny.) As he came out onto the stage with Petra Mayer (of NPR), he abruptly turned to her and shoved her, so that she was knocked off-balance. She recovered; I imagine Cleese is pretty good at judging how much force to put into an effect. Still, he can't know her personally and he was taking a risk of hurting her, for the sake of getting a laugh. He did it again later. I think he thought it was funny, but the audience was less sure about it. I know I didn't like it much. They had barely sat down and started to converse when he stopped abruptly and looked at someone in the audience. "What are you doing with that computer?" he demanded. "Tweeting," the audience member replied. "Well, stop it! There will be none of that. If I catch you at it again, there will be trouble." Well. Bossy, indeed. A bit later Mitchell Kaplan walked across the front of the auditorium and Cleese got huffy again; he didn't seem to know who Mitchell was and he feigned indignation, or else he really was indignant; I couldn't tell which. It was funny, though.
If you are interested in watching some of the presentations for yourself, the events that were held in the largest venue (Chapman Auditorium) were videotaped and can be viewed at booktv.org. Links here: