Most authors aren’t good at reading their own books. This maxim, delivered so astutely and simply (and hilariously) by Adam Gopnik during his delightful appearance Thursday at megafest Miami Book Fair International, really can’t be stressed enough. Gopnik is probably an exception, judging from his storytelling — though I can’t be sure since he didn’t read from his book — but for the most part, he’s right: the majority of readings are painfully underwhelming. Not to mention that, as Gopnik also pointed out, reading to your audience seems “fairly condescending.”
“As if they can’t read or something,” he joked.
But when it’s good, it’s really good. And there were definitely some of those great moments at the Miami Book Fair this weekend. Authors Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh, for instance, could read from the dictionary late into the night and keep me begging for one. more. word.
Those two were exceptions during my personal book fair schedule. The panels and presentations, overall, were a total blast, though. From liberal America’s heartthrob Chris Hayes to the fiery, fun-to-watch-though-total-buzzkill Camille Paglia to the “Comics and Social Change” and “99 Percent” panels, erudition, insight, and laughs governed the weekend from morning to, well, early evening. (Fun kinda-fact: Had Rachel Maddow shown up — she booked but canceled — I can’t imagine the collective climax, the consequent tidal wave of puppies and rainbows and oxytocin (whaddup Naomi Wolf!) that would have consumed fairgoers who got to see both her AND Hayes.)
Some takeaways from the Book Fair if you don’t feel like reading our list: Miami Book Fair co-founder Mitchell Kaplan, also the founder and owner of Books & Books, is probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, so shop at Books & Books. Naomi Wolf seems to want to be the Oprah of vaginas. Camille Paglia really hates Rachel Maddow and Lady Gaga, but loves Adele; also, thinks the left still has nothing to offer young people. Hanna Rosin‘s strikingly adorable son hates her book’s title, The End of Men. According to Carol Blue, Christopher Hitchens was a cat person. Cary Goldstein passed surreptitiously
whiskey or scotch or some brown liquor a mini bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label to Martin Amis while Blue was talking. (Amis also rolls his own cigarettes and wears a devastatingly cool leather jacket.) David Bukszpan, whom everyone kept referring to as the “Scrabble guy,” spoke to a packed room, probably the nerdiest of the festival, and had some of the best audience participation of any speaker I saw. (“How do you spell the letter H in Scrabble?” “A-i-t-c-h!”) Irvine Welsh, who loves Winter Music Conference by the way, was speaking next door, but no one in the Scrabble room seemed to notice or care. Bukszpan also sells these literary jerseys that we’re totally sweating over here at Salty Eggs, with authors and numbers on the back and literary symbols relevant to said author in the front. For example, Quixote 51 had a windmill in the front. Can you spell badass?
— Erica K. Landau
We missed a lot of good stuff — like Emma Donoghue and the Lives Lived and Onion panels — but here are five of our favorites:
MSNBC host and Nation editor-at-large Chris Hayes is a rock star on the left. Along with Rachel Maddow, he is arguably the new (much happier) face and (less terrifying) voice of liberalism, making our part of the spectrum more palatable to the politically squeamish. He’s young, good-looking (though the picture in his book doesn’t do him any favors), and wears a smile where a lefty stereotypically couches a grimace.
Last Monday night, he dazzled (not an exaggeration; a woman behind me called her friend to say, “Oh my GOD, he was phenomenal!”) a packed house for almost two hours with a presentation on his latest, Twilight of the Elites, a work of post-bailout criticism which urges us to rethink our idea of “merit” and the failure of “meritocracy.”
His speech — I didn’t see him glance at notes once — and interaction with fans only confirmed an impression of him as something akin to an approachable genius. Devastating erudition coupled with a sense of humor as equally snarky as it is inviting (“I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say [Petraeus] isn’t the only Director of the CIA [who has had an affair].”) reeled in an audience that would have listened for another two hours had he obliged.
Adding to his endearing qualities, he copped to moments of schadenfreude after President Obama’s reelection before admitting those feelings weren’t “rightfully earned” and that, in 2004, he suffered from delusions similar to those currently on display by the GOP, including scouring the comment sections of sympathetic websites to find information that squared with his worldview.
He also got caught in awkward moments of having to diminish his smarts. For example, while describing the pitfalls of our social structure, he brought up his high school, Hunter College in New York, an exclusive institution in which someone like Mayor Bloomberg can’t get his kid no matter how much he donates. Hayes condemned the school, which accepts only a small number of mostly white kids each year, as an example of a system that fails to consider equality of outcomes and is a victim of the test-prep industry where wealthy parents can more or less buy their kids a place by paying for tutoring. The school enrolls only “two to three black kids in all of New York City,” he said. Nevertheless, calling out the school didn’t seem to mitigate the discomfort of trying to avoid sounding like a total prick while acknowledging he was one of its chosen few. Though the fact that that makes him uncomfortable is pretty much why we love him. — Erica K. Landau
As Adam Gopnik promised during our interview with him, his appearance at the book fair on Thursday night involved no actual passages from his latest book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Instead, the New Yorker staff writer chose to riff a bit on a couple of the themes, therein. “Everything we eat immediately becomes some kind of value,” he said, before launching into an example from his own life. His wife, he said, prefers her meat well-done, while Gopnik himself was raised to choose it rare. Neither would change, and over time, he came to realize the choice itself springs from a specific moral stance. In a world of rare versus well-done people, he suggested, one compromise is sometimes to pick medium. — Arielle Castillo
On Christopher Hitchens and Mortality
Love him or hate him, almost a year after his death, essayist, journalist, and oratorical bulldozer Christopher Hitchens still commands an audience.
“What do you think he would think of this love fest we’re presenting?” Carol Blue asked good friend and author Martin Amis during the Saturday afternoon panel celebrating her late husband.
“No more than his due,” Amis replied.
So passed the hour on the beloved but controversial writer and thinker. Anecdote after anecdote, insight after insight, the two, along with publisher Cary Goldstein, passed on memories to a house full of admirers, sharing good times and shedding light on some of the rougher times.
There was the story of Hitchens buying Osama Bin Laden T-shirts while in Afghanistan, only to find himself surrounded by “500 furious zealots” who had just exited a mosque. Or the exceptionally hilarious one* that prompted Amis to put Hitchens in his novel The Pregnant Widow. Or how he could write 5,000 words of perfect prose in 30 minutes after a night that would’ve left other men begging for the Stygian shore. That even while he lay in a hospital bed, there was no better place for friends to be: “He was still the life of the party, the fizz in the gin.”
“There is a lot of mythmaking and legend-making with certain kind of writers,” Blue said. “But the problem is that everything you hear [regarding Christopher] is only half as fast and as good as he was.” — Erica K. Landau
Culture Shocks with Lori Andrews, Hanna Rosin, and Joan Walsh
The pitfalls of social media and the politics of gender and race drew a huge crowd Saturday, with Lori Andrews suggesting soldiers avoid posting “where you’re going to bomb” on Facebook, and Joan Walsh telling Hanna Rosin they should “tour together” because of the complementary subject matter/controversial titles of their books: What’s the Matter with White People and The End of Men.
Given the topicality of Andrews’ book I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy, one might guess she stole the show. (Did you know that data aggregators keep your Facebook information for SEVEN years? After you delete it?! Gah!) In spite of her soft-spoken, professorial tone, she’d probably be a hit with a younger college set that wouldn’t give two likes to Rosin and Walsh. But with an audience that skewed older, Rosin and Walsh served up the sort of politics fair goers wanted.
To be clear, Andrews rounded out the panel nicely. It was just that we all knew who the star was — obviously the order of speakers (Andrews, Rosin, Walsh) indicated this much. And Walsh didn’t disappoint. She talked about how Democrats could regain white working-class voters, and how demonizing the other side as “stupid” or “uneducated” is playing into some nasty classism. Going to college, she said, is itself a form of “class privilege.” She also had the line of the night: “I am white … Some of my best friends are white.”
But for people like me, who get enough Walsh on TV, Rosin was a really special treat.
She talked about The End of Men, giving examples of the shifting dynamics between men and women and how women have surpassed men in most quantifiable ways.
“This is not a feminist manifesto,” she clarified. “I look at myself as more of an anthropologist.”
Still, she warned that the work of feminism is hardly finished. “I’m not delusional,” she said, referring to the long road to true gender equality.
She went on to explain some of her research, implicating structures we have to rethink, such as marriage, as well as to offer some funny anecdotes about female graduate students calling men “the new ball and chain.”
So what happens at the end of men?
“I have two sons,” she said. “[What I'd like to see happen is that we] expand our ideas of what’s OK to do to not be considered unfeminine and unmasculine.” — Erica K. Landau
Kurt Vonnegut: Life and Letters with Mark Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield, and Donald Farber
The panel discussing “Kurt Vonnegut: Life and Letters” had a warmth to it that was unique at the festival. Perhaps it was just the intimate setting of the room — an earlier reading about the history of Scrabble had a similar, albeit nerdier, feel. Or perhaps it was because this room, like the one hosting the Scrabble writer, was full of true fans, who wanted, in addition to the usual book fair tradition of Q&A, to share how “Kurt” had affected them and their loved ones.
The panel was moderated by Kurt’s attorney and trustee of his estate, Donald Farber, and rounded out by Life and Letters editor and long-time friend Dan Wakefield as well as Kurt’s son, the memoirist and doctor Mark Vonnegut. They shared thoughts on the counterculture figure’s good humor toward his fans, his lack of gifts as an employee, his true nature as a 19th century German freethinker, his supportive wife without whom he would have never been in the writing business, and, befitting for a Vonnegut forum, briefly addressed his womanizing in a dark and humorous way. Mark’s medical background came in handy when someone asked about Kurt’s use of time travel in his stories. He said his father’s description in Slaughterhouse Five of coming unstuck in time “is the best clinical description of PTSD out there, better than in any medical text.”
In conclusion, Dan Wakefield summed up the message of Kurt’s works by reading a passage from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in which a character is asked to speak at a baptism: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ” — Pat Rothblatt
Honorable mentions: 99 percent panel with John Hedges, Ishmael Reed, and Bryan Mealer; Comics and Social Change panel with Marjorie Liu, Dan Parent, Ellen Forney, and Stephanie McMillan; Martin Amis, Naomi Wolf, Camille Paglia, Irvine Welsh, Gilbert King, and David Bukszpan.
*We strongly suggest watching the video to which we linked above to see Martin Amis deliver the story himself. It’s at the very beginning of the panel discussion. But if you’d rather read it, we’ve transcribed it here:
“I put him in a novel, a novel called The Pregnant Widow. And I put him in on the basis of one thing he said, a witticism of his, and then had to incorporate him into the novel because I couldn’t bear to leave this out. But the basis of the incident is we were having dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, which we always referred to as ‘the restaurant that’s only big enough for one person.’ Tiny place. And we were about to get going, this was in 1975, when two young men came into the restaurant in waisted suits with long hair, but prosperous. They were sort of upper-class hippies, basically. And they began to talk, whisper among themselves, asking the waiter questions. They were obviously going to have a big party come to the restaurant. They were making arrangements for this. And it went on and on, and Christopher and I couldn’t get talking because it was such a distraction. Christopher was saying, ‘Christ’ every now and then. They had the air of young men who didn’t work for a living, who patiently awaited the deaths of elderly relatives. Then one of them came up to us, and it was pretty clear what he was going to do. He was gong to ask us to move tables. He came up and crouched, and after a flirtatious pause he looked up, pouted through his fringe and — he had many successes in this way, of bending others to his will: the pout, the fringe, it had all gone like a dream before — and he pouted up at Christopher and me and said, ‘You’re going to hate us for this.’ And Christopher said, ‘We hate you already.’ “