A Book Festival By the Bay, in Three Acts
Jane Ciabattari Reports from Berkeley
At 6 pm on Friday, on the eve of the second-annual Bay Area Book Festival (this past weekend), the literati begin to gather high in the Berkeley Hills on the top floor of the UC Berkeley stadium, with its views of the recently renovated Cal stadium on one side, and, on the other, on a terrace that wraps around the stadium, a nearly 360-degree view including the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge.
Just an hour before, the volunteers from the FLUX Foundation finished Lacuna—a temple of books that is the centerpiece of the festival. It’s composed of 50,000 books donated by the Internet Archive, all free for the taking. (“Saturday was a shelf-clearer,” @lacunaproject tweets 24 hours later, “but we added more books and we’re ready for Sunday!”)
The first wave of gala goers includes Steve Wasserman, returning to Berkeley “like a salmon come home to spawn,” to take the helm at Heyday Books and retiring Heyday founder Malcolm Margolin, who is planning an April 2017 celebration of the 1970s book scene. Jonathan Lethem is up from his teaching post at Pomona, back in the place where he spent his formative decade as a writer. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik seems to be everywhere at once. Literary agent Sandra Dijkstra has in tow her author Shobha Rao, whose story collection An Unrestored Woman is set during the 1947 partition of India. Vanessa Hua, who has a story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities coming in September, a two-book deal with Ballantine, and a new Chronicle column, has a break from her twins.
Charlie Winton and Rolphe Blyth from Counterpoint Press, publishers of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and Karen Bender, are fielding positive reviews for this month’s debut novelist, Natashia Deon (Grace). Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl, Danish co-authors of thrillers starring Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, and Swedish crime-thriller author Anders de la Motte (The Game Trilogy), share a table. I bump into Moveable Feast curator Cari Borja, Daily Cal editor Michelle Pitcher, novelist Janis Cooke Newman (A Master Plan for Rescue), Lee Daniel Kravetz (Supersurvivors), and my Flash Fiction Collective co-founder Grant Faulkner, who heads National Novel Writing Month. Poets Tess Taylor (Work and Days) and David Roderick (The Americans) chat with Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie. Charlie Jane Anders (All the Birds in the Sky) looks rested after leaving her job at io9 at the end of April to focus on her next novel, which she says is “a straight-up science fiction book set on another planet in the future.” Memoirist Meredith Maran is up from Los Angeles. Carol Pogash shows me her clever “little red book,” Quotations from Chairman Trump. New Yorker author and 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner (for Barbarian Days) William Finnegan catches up with a surfer he knew at Ocean Beach. (“I was reluctant to come out as a surfer,” he writes of his secret passion.)
Drinks (including Coppola Sofia champagne) are served with grilled vegetables, mini sandwiches, salad, cedar-smoked glazed salmon, potatoes, brownies and mini cupcakes. The rooms buzz with conversation and the deck overlooking the Bay Area fills up. Occasional bursts of song drift in from the Paul Simon concert at the nearby Greek Theater. The sun goes from piercing to almost sundown as the fog rolls in along the distant horizon.
I spot fellow BABF program steering committee members Ethan Nosowsky, editorial director of Graywolf Press; Stephen Sparks of Green Apple Books and Peter Richardson (No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead). Richardson riffs on the DIY nature of the San Francisco literary scene, the new Dave Eggers’ 826 branch in the Tenderloin and the citywide celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love exhibit coming up next year.
At the center of the gala hubbub: Cherilyn Parsons, who was inspired by book festivals in Los Angeles and Jaipur to launch BABF in Berkeley last year. She built it, and 50,000 people came. This year she presides over an event with 300 authors, 15 venues, and a companion 10-film festival, a partnership with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and guest-curated by Tom Luddy, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival. She is relaxed over the three hours of the shifting, swirling party, stopping at one point to give a gracious thanks to all, including Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, Chronicle Publisher Jeff Johnson, and to announce, “Let the Festival begin!”
On Saturday morning downtown Berkeley is awash in books for blocks, with something for everyone: Radical Row, Literary Lane, Writer’s Way, Teen Town. Bookstores, publishers, literary organizations—Heyday, Booksmith, the University of California Press, Litcamp, Zyzzyva, to name a handful.
Saturday morning just after 10am, I climb into the balcony of the crowded Marsh Theater where families with children from two months old to teens are engrossed in the Word for Word Theater production of How a Mountain Was Made, Greg Sarris’ children’s stories inspired by the folklore of his Pomo and Miwok ancestors—the original peoples of Sonoma County.
Down the street, Charlie Jane Anders is moderating a panel on subversive speculative fiction with Jewelle Gomez, who is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her vampire novel The Gilda Stories, to be followed by poet Kay Ryan, former U.S. Poet Laureate, with California poet laureate Dana Gioia.
Mothers stand in line with their daughters at the Berkeley Public Library to hear Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton’s talk about their book Gutsy Girls.
Saturday afternoon I’m in the enviable position of moderating a conversation between Dana Spiotta, who has flown in from her teaching job at Syracuse, and Jonathan Lethem. They spin off each other effortlessly, creating electric moments as they talk about Brooklyn, Hollywood, how technology, film and music shape our lives, Sebald, and how it’s the job of the novelist to explore new forms. “Fiction is elastic,” Spiotta says.
“Barrett Rude Jr. is the single favorite character I’ve ever written,” Lethem says, of the lead singer of a 1960s soul group called The Subtle Distinctions, a character in Fortress of Solitude. He identifies with the man. And later, “You are not your container. Growing up in Boerum Hill my friends, neighbors, enemies, the people I was most intimate with were black. You’d not know by looking at me.” And what are you reading now? Lethem, having just taught Robert Musil, is eager to read Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K and Christina Stead. Spiotta pulls out a galley of Lethem’s A Gambler’s Anatomy (it’s due out in October, and set partly in Berkeley). Laughter. Is he blushing?
During the Q and A, a bookseller in the front row says she loves Innocents and Others, but asks Spiotta, how can I get men to read it with three women main characters? Spiotta suggests she tell them, “If I can read Philip Roth, you can read this book.” Lethem: “Tell them it’s about phone sex.”
In the next hour, Zyzzyva managing editor Oscar Villalon asks, Are Americans too insular? Was Nobel official Horace Engdahl right? “American writers are enfolding internationality within their work,” says Adam Johnson, who won the Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son and a National Book Award for Fortune Smiles. “Translators are the secret heroes of literature,” says novelist/translator Idra Novey (Ways to Disappear), here from New York. She gives a shout-out to two Bay Area presses publishing work in translation—Two Lines Press and Transit Books. Because of its size and location, Sweden is more in conversation than a lot of the world would be, points out short story writer Jensen Beach (Swallowed by the Cold). “We have to be. Smaller countries have to engage internationally, through books in translation.” He recommends Tove Jansson’s short stories.
“The last 23 years have strained my optimism,” Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo tells novelist Lori Ostlund, explaining the change in attitude between his 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool and this year’s sequel, Everybody’s Fool: “I remember my parents thinking the world would be less class-defined after World War II. There was a sense that evil had been decisively defeated. Look at the nation we are now and what we’re afraid of and willing to surrender. This book was being written with all of that in the back of my brain. So there’s evil in the book…”
The effervescent and compassionate Juan Felipe Herrera, just beginning his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate, wraps up Saturday.
What would Cesar Chavez think today? I ask Miriam Pawel, author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, who is up from Pasadena for her panel. “Chavez was largely self-educated—through reading,” she says. “He left school after 8th grade, and the schools he went to didn’t have much interest in educating Mexican American kids. He remained deeply skeptical of formal education, but reading and books played a vital part in his quest to organize and empower poor and disenfranchised people.”
First thing Sunday morning, Lit Hub executive editor John Freeman, who flew in the night before from New York, draws out cultural critic Rebecca Solnit on income inequality, storytelling, her books and her Lit Hub essays, including “80 Books No Woman Should Read” and “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” “I live a life of revenge on the patriarchy,” she says. Her next impulse: “I want to go after Silicon Valley some more.” Wall Street and Silicon Valley are her Two Towers of Evil.
Irish novelist Colm Toibin (Brooklyn, Nora Webster), chair of the PEN World Voices Festival, reunites with UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. (Dirks got him hired at Columbia University.) Toibin speaks eloquently about censorship in Ireland, touching W.B. Yeats and his patron Lady Gregory, the launching of the Abbey Theater, and the censoring of books and films through the 1950s.
Candacy Taylor’s multimedia presentation documents the untold history of racial segregation and terror along Route 66 with images from the Green Book, the “bible of black travel,” and her own photograph of these “sites of sanctuary” (including Berkeley’s Shattuck and Claremont Hotels). Taylor begins further research soon via fellowships at New York’s Schomburg Center and Harvard.
It’s a perfect bookend to the “History, Race and the American Landscape” panel in which Faith Adiele (Meeting Faith, a memoir about four generations over three centuries) talks about how her Nigerian/Nordic family and their neighbors, who settled in rural Washington, didn’t realize theirs was once Native American land, its earlier inhabitants displaced—and that later Japanese immigrants to the area lost their land while interned during World War II. And Lauret Savoy, who flew in from Massachusetts to discuss her memoir Trace, which explores her Native American, European and African-American history and maps her discoveries against our thoughts on place.
Frances Dinkelspiel (Tangled Vines) shares an anecdote from her “telling the truth” panel with Swedish screenwriter Stefan Thunberg: His novel The Father, written under the pseudonym Anton Svensson, is based on his own family of bank robbers. He is the “black sheep” of the family—the only one who doesn’t rob banks.
“The definition of the sexual revolution begins with the declaration, ‘I own my body,'” Mona Eltahawy (Headscarves and Hymens) tells Chinaka Hodge (Dated Emcees).
My conversation with John Freeman on Sunday afternoon focuses on the odyssey that developed the sensibility that has made him such an influential critic and editor. We also talk about the National Book Critics Circle Campaign to Save Book Reviewing he led while he was NBCC president (archived here), his anthology about homelessness (Tale of Two Cities) and his new literary magazine Freeman’s. (Issue 2 is due out in August.) “My job as an editor is to find those writers who are vibrating,” he says. “I’m like a tornado watcher, chasing after them.”
Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, 2007 National Book Award) reads from his new picture book, Thunder Boy Jr., on the Kids’ Stage. In one of the final Sunday sessions, Alexie recites his first poem, about growing up in Spokane, which ends, “And that was the summer I found a bagful of real silver dollars and gave all of my brothers and sisters, all of my uncles one and no one spent any. No one.” To applause. He and Daniel Handler, who tells me they met in the poetry aisle at Powell’s Books, keep the audiences in stitches for more than an hour.
As the curtain falls on the festival, shortly after two-time Pulitzer winner T.J. Stiles talks about the art of biography, the BABF website unveils next year’s dates: June 3-4, 2017. And the kudos begin streaming in.