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September 7, 2018

Three Longtime Readers Report on the National Book Festival

Posted by carol

Three longtime readers shared their commentary about the National Book Festival with us. Many thanks to Denise Neary from Maryland, Nancy Sharko from New Jersey, and Clair Lamb from Virginia for sharing their thoughts with us. They each brought a special perspective to their reporting!


Denise Neary's Report

The thing about the National Book Festival is that it is overwhelming in the best possible way. A booklover’s dream! The Washington, DC festival, hosted by the Library of Congress and housed in the DC Convention Center, featured more than 100 authors on Saturday, September 1st. I keep thinking that the festival cannot get better; but the day consistently exceeded my high expectations.

I attended with my husband, and our adult son joined us for just the afternoon of the festival. My husband was predictably and very happily all about the amazing slate of history authors; his standouts were Ron Chernow talking about GRANT, and Mark Bowden talking about HUE 1968. We were rarely together during the day, though we both loved hearing Jon Meacham talk about THE SOUL OF AMERICA. (If writing bestselling nonfiction ever sours for him, Mr. Meacham has a future in stand-up.)

It was our son’s first time at the festival, and it was fun to see it through his eyes. He was overwhelmed by how big an undertaking it is, how wonderful the staff and volunteers were, and how much people attending really cared about books. He most enjoyed Lawrence Wright talking about GOD SAVE TEXAS. A favorite takeaway: Wright wanted to write exclusively on a national scale at a certain point in a very successful career, but then was drawn back in to a first love of regional reporting. 

I am a little bit in love, and so grateful, to Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden and Book Festival sponsor David Rubenstein. Have I met either of them? No, but any booklover knows that is no impediment to a great love. 

Which authors did I want to see? ALL of them. But I winnowed down my choices. 

I went through the list of authors with care and trepidation. I was ruthless with my cuts. (Seriously, look at the list of authors and feel my pain.) 

My “winnowing-down” process:

  • Which of “my” book club authors were there?
  • Which authors have I been lucky enough to have seen before? (Thanks to the extraordinary events list of local bookstore and event sponsor Politics and Prose, the answer to that question is: So many!)
  • Which authors always make me cry?

After that careful narrowing process, here is my list of people I wanted to see during the festival:

  • Madeleine Albright
  • Ron Chernow
  • Christopher Paul Curtis (*)
  • Kate DiCamillo
  • Dave Eggers (*)
  • Roxane Gay
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Andrew Sean Greer
  • Jon Meacham (*)
  • Celeste Ng
  • Louise Penny
  • Annie Proulx
  • Jason Reynolds (*)
  • Richard Russo
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Lisa Wingate
  • Jacqueline Woodson (*)

What is wrong with that picture? Time, scheduling, logistics, long lines, inability to teleport, and the total distraction of other wonderful authors and events. The asterisks above reflect those on the list I did see.

What sort of distractions kept me from that fabulous list of speakers? Talking to a little girl who just had “her” copy of TURNING PAGES signed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor; chatting with the incredible Library of Congress staff, and walking away with bookmarks, gavel pencils and more; snagging a C-SPAN bag and book; learning from the Reading is Fundamental staff about their excitement over a Rubenstein literacy award; enjoying illustrator Susan Stockdale regaling a group of young admirers; seeing kids line up for photos in front of the Scholastic Harry Potter exhibit; and enjoying the good work of the countless cheerful volunteers holding prominent “ASK ME” signs all over the convention center.

There were favorite “expected” moments. A favorite sentimental moment of the day was seeing Christopher Paul Curtis with my husband and son. (The three of us didn’t see much together --- we all had our own spectacular experiences.) Reading the last few pages of THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM aloud to my kids used to make me burst into tears; seeing my adult son laughing and learning from an author who inspired him as a boy was really special for me. (And why I LOVE to hear children’s authors: the questions from young fans are the best!) That moment competes with so many!

Which brings me to hearing Jason Reynolds. For smart reasons, the presentations from children and young adult authors are short, so I didn’t understand why Reynolds was talking so much at the start of his presentation about go-go music in DC. Great storyteller he is, he made it all very clear. As a young man, he loved DC go-go concerts, and waited for the front man to ask for people’s names and crews. “JASON,” he would yell out, and the lead would say, “Thanks for being here, little J.” The next day, he’d race to the record store to buy a tape of that concert. Why? So he could listen to the recording, hear his name, and know that he had been there. He could hear HIS name, HIS neighborhood. That is what Reynolds tries to do with his books, he explained: show his readers a mirror, so they would know that they are there. 

(While I have never been lucky enough to read his books aloud, my guess is they would make me cry, too!)

Librarian of Congress Hayden mentioned that she has talked about her favorite “mirror” book as a child, BRIGHT APRIL, so much that the long out-of-print book is being published again. She and LOC National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Jacqueline Woodson fangirled a little bit about Justice Sotomayor’s book, TURNING PAGES.  

Mr. Curtis, Dr. Hayden, Mr. Reynolds and Ms. Woodson are four people I have been lucky enough to hear before. 

That they were great was lovely, and totally expected. But wait, there is more, as there were favorite “unexpected” moments. I was totally aggravated that I was closed out of hearing Justice Sotomayor at the festival; I missed seeing several authors on my list because they had overflowing crowds of fans.

So, as a “consolation prize,” I went to hear Tayari Jones talk about AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE. Not only do I want to read the book (I’m 50th on the wait list at my local library --- odds are good I will buy the book before my number comes up!), I think she is wonderful. It isn’t fair that authors have to be great speakers…but she is amazing. Ms. Jones is very smart, very funny, full of gratitude, and big on shouting out those who have helped her along the way. She talked about her own struggles as a writer, saying that there was a time when only her mother and the NEA read her work, and said Judy Blume was her own literary fairy godmother. I didn’t know anything about the blockbuster that is AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE --- and now I can’t wait to read it. (It felt as if I was the only one in the audience who hadn’t read the book!) From the reports of MANY strangers, it sounds like a fabulous book club read. 

Audience questions revealed great book club discussion conversation about the race of an accuser in the book. Ms. Jones said that she thought she was quite clever omitting that “fact” in the book. In one of those interesting twists of fate, the people now producing the movie based on the book are calling UNCLE. They refuse to take the author’s suggestion to shoot the accuser only in shadow.

My summary: A fabulous day. My feet really hurt!  

My plug for 2019: Next year, the festival will be held on August 31st. This year's event was spectacular. I am going out on a limb here, but I predict next year’s festival will be, too. It is so much fun and provided at no cost to those participating.  

And while the DC area has some great local book festivals, here is one of my favorites. The Gaithersburg Book Festival, coming your way around May 2019, attracts a spectacular lineup of national authors.


Nancy Sharko's Report

I survived the heat and humidity of Washington, DC (the only downside to the event). It was a great day and the fourth one I've attended. It seemed more crowded to me, and I read an article that said there were 200,000 people there! And Politics and Prose sold 17,000 books during the day. Amazing!  

Who did you attend the Fair with?

I went to the Festival with a close friend from high school who lives in Virginia. 

Was there one particular author, or maybe two or three, you most looked forward to seeing? If so, what was that experience like? 

Sonia Sotomayor and Meg Wolitzer, and my friend is a big Louise Penny fan, so she was very much looking forward to seeing her. We wanted to see Sotomayor, because how often do you have the opportunity to hear a Supreme Court Justice speak? She was wonderful, and spent much of the time on the floor answering questions and making her Secret Service staff very nervous. She was unabashed about plugging her books, which I found endearing. We were glad we got to the room early (and listened to half of the session with Dave Eggers) because I read later that 3,000 additional people were turned away from the session. Wolitzer was also wonderful ---- she was open, entertaining and very interesting. Penny was a big hit with my friend and also with many, many other people. It was the last session of the day (from 6:45-7:30), and the room was full. When she came on stage, she received a standing ovation, a first according to the interviewer, Maureen Corrigan.

What panels did you attend?

  • Dave Eggers (half of his program)
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Min Jin Lee
  • Andrew Sean Greer
  • Lisa Wingate
  • Luis Alberto Urrea (last quarter of the program)
  • Meg Wolitzer
  • Louise Penny

Which was your favorite? 

I think we both really liked Sonia Sotomayor, and my friend loved seeing Louise Penny. I also enjoyed Meg Wolitzer.

Were there any authors who surprised you or shared something unexpected?

Yes, Andrew Sean Greer. I really didn't like his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, LESS, but we had a free space so we decided to see him. He's very entertaining and open about his life, writing process, etc. and I may have to give LESS another go. I also loved his interviewer, Roswell Encina.  

Some interesting tidbits from the other authors:

  • Lisa Wingate: It takes her just 3-4 months to write a book.
  • Sonia Sotomayor: Growing up in the projects, she only knew about lawyers from her cousins and friends who got arrested. She watched "Perry Mason," and from him learned that lawyers could help people.
  • Andrew Sean Greer: He went to graduate school at the University of Montana. While there, he found that it wasn't easy to be openly gay (he had to learn how to "butch it up"). It was easier to be himself, and he had a number of really good friends. Overall (despite his car being keyed and other incidents), he viewed it as a positive experience. He wore a red suit to accept his Pulitzer!
  • Meg Wolitzer: I loved her perspective about her books being made into movies and dealing with changes that are made. She said that her books are on the shelves and haven't changed.  
  • Louise Penny: Her character, Ruth, often has poetry in the book, and many of Ruth's poems come from Margaret Atwood.

Were there other panels that you wish you could have attended? 

Always! I would have liked to have seen Celeste Ng, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende (she ended up having a family emergency and did not attend), Richard Russo, and my friend would have liked to have seen Isabel Wilkerson.

Which books did you most look forward to reading after the Festival? 

I'm going to start reading Louise Penny, and am also looking forward to THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS by Luis Alberto Urrea (a new-to-me author; we came into the room towards the end of his session to get a seat for Wolitzer, and he was very interesting).


Clair Lamb's Report

Each person experiences the Fair differently. For me, I chose to spend the day in the Genre Fiction room. 

Who did you attend the Fair with?
I went by myself, but met up with my friend and sometimes-client Joe Finder, who spoke on the Genre Fiction program.

Was there one particular author, or maybe two or three, you most looked forward to seeing? If so, what was that experience like?
This year I wasn't stalking anyone in particular.

What panels did you attend?
I spent most of my time in the Genre Fiction room, where the sessions I saw were all terrific: Brad Meltzer, Hank Phillippi Ryan, David Ignatius and Joseph Finder.

Which was your favorite?
I had never seen Brad Meltzer speak before, and it was a terrific start to the program. His enthusiasm for the power of books and stories is inspiring.

Were there any authors who surprised you or shared something unexpected?
Not surprised, so much, but reminded: I got to spend some time in the authors' break room, and saw how excited they were to meet or see each other. All authors were readers first, and it was great to watch them being fans, too.

Were there other panels that you wish you could have attended?
The crowds at the Festival get a little out of control as the day goes on. I wasn't able to see Luis Alberto Urrea, which I was sorry about, and both Jeffery Deaver and Louise Penny spoke after I had to leave. (I think this year's festival ran a little later than past years.)

Which books did you most look forward to reading after the Festival?
I'm really looking forward to reading Hank Phillippi Ryan's first stand-alone, TRUST ME