The National Book Festival was last September 26, and the conscientious bloggers (I won't name names) who were there put their posts up the next day. In the "better late than never" vein, here's my post. Last year was my first National Book Festival trip thanks to older son who wanted to hear and have a book signed by Neil Gaiman. This year's trip was with a friend who lives in Northern Virginia, the delightful young lady who walked across the stage at high school graduation immediately in front of older son. There were a number of authors there this year that sounded interesting: David Baldacci, Judy Blume, Ken Burns, Annette Gordon-Reed, John Grisham, Gwen Ifill, John Irving, Steven Kellogg, Sue Monk Kidd, Mark Kurlansky, Lois Lowry, George Pelecanos, Jon Scieszka, and Daniel Silva. As it turns out, I heard only one of the people listed above speak, but discovered several other authors whose books are winging their way to me even as I type or from whose presentation I garnered an idea worth remembering.
After arriving at the festival, we looked in at several tents. John Grisham was standing room only at the Fiction & Fantasy tent. We didn't stop to hear him. Besides the crowd, he lives here in Charlottesville, so it didn't seem all that much of a novelty to hear him speak. We ended up in the Teens & Children tent, listening to Liz Kessler, the author of the middle-grades Emily Windsnap series. Emily is a girl while she is on land but, in the water, turns into a mermaid. The fourth Emily Windsnap book has already come out in Britain (Kessler is English) and will be out here in the States in March. I thought it nice that all the people who asked Kessler questions after her talk were young girls who had read her books. One asked whether Kessler had patterned the Emily character at all after herself. Kessler answered by saying not intentionally but went on to say that Margaret Atwood once noted that "there's always a drop of blood in the cooking." What an interesting way to express that we, without intending to, reflect something of ourselves in everything we write.
We checked out the Borders booktent (if a bookstore is a store that sells book, then a booktent is a tent that does the same), but the line to pay for the book(s) selected was overwhelmingly long. Last year, the booktent was the only place to buy an advance copy of The Graveyard Book (which has now been on the New York Times bestseller list for 52 weeks, which means pie!) The books we would have purchased were already on the market. It honestly looked as though we could have used my friend's iPhone to locate a nearby bookstore, walk there, any buy the books before we could have made it through the line at the booktent. In my case, Borders's loss was Amazon.com's gain.
As you might imagine, the Festival catered to all ages. Here are a couple of examples. This was one of the many activities inside or around one of the children's tents, though it wasn't just children who were contributing to this mural. There were various costumed characters circulating. I would have gotten my photo taken with Curious George if the line had been shorter. There was a free-range penguin, though.
After a quick lunch from the vegetarian food booth, we found ourselves in the Fiction & Fantasy tent listening to Jeanette Walls, another author with whom I was totally unfamiliar. She spoke about her difficulty in writing pure fiction but her ease in writing memoirs that read like novels. I've ordered Walls's The Glass Castle, her memoir of her painful childhood. During the question period, a librarian related the story of how a teacher at his school had, for three years, read The Glass Castle out loud to her classes over the course of the year, commenting how it had touched the lives of the students, most of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds similar to that of Walls. Walls was teary as she thanked the man for relating the story. We had actually come to hear Walls only because of the speaker who followed in Fiction & Fantasy, but I was very glad that we heard her.
The speaker we had come to Fiction & Fantasy to hear was Sabiha Al Khemir, a Tunisian-born author. According to the Festival program, "her second novel, The Blue Manuscript (2008), focuses on the interaction of Western and Islamic cultures." My friend is a dual US-Saudi citizen but had never heard of this author. In fact, the book we both put back on the table after seeing the line in the booktent was The Blue Manuscript; I've now got it on order from Amazon.com. Al Khemir talked about how her work as an Islamic art historian had influenced her writing. She also touched on the difficulties inherent in translating fiction into another language while retaining the subtleties of the original work. My friend is looking forward to reading The Blue Manuscript in both languages; I'm looking forward to hearing what she has to say about it.
There was no one we really wanted to hear immediately after Al Khemir, and it was raining, so we went across the street to the National Museum of American History for coffee and a bit of indoor sightseeing. In an exhibit case right outside the coffee shop was this interesting item. It's a Torah ark decoration from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Of course, my friend and I, both being a bit geeky, immediately turned to one another, flashed the Vulcan hand sign, and said, "Live long and prosper." Older son did a bit of research after I called him with the news and reported that Leonard Nimoy created the Vulcan hand salute based on a Orthodox Jewish blessing he had seen as a child. You learn something new every day!
We returned to the Festival wanting to hear Ken Burns speak in the History & Biography tent. We arrived in time for the speakers right before Burns, Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, thinking that we might grab seats in between the speakers. Unfortunately, all the people there to hear Balz and Johnson also wanted to hear Burns and his co-author Dayton Duncan. It didn't matter, though, because even though we could barely see Burns and Duncan, we could hear them just fine. They spoke on their new PBS series on the National Parks. The sound bite I took away from their talk to throw out at cocktail parties or as the need arises concerns their use of music in their documentaries. Burns noted that most films are "locked" or visually finished before any music is recorded for them. For their documentaries, though, Burns and Duncan have all sorts of potentially relevant music recorded ahead of time and often in multiple versions. Later, as they are putting together the visual record, they actively work with the music. If there is a musical piece that merits longer play, then they tailor the visuals around the longer play. Definitely high on the list of neat things to know.
After Burns and Duncan, the Festival was over, so we returned to the car for a rather eventful drive back to the Fairfax area in which my friend lives. By this time, it was raining fairly heavily, making it just the right time for the passenger-side windshield wiper to break free from the arm and dangle, useless, against the windshield. We stopped three times so I could hop out and reset it, after which it held for just a while before it popped loose again. We did make it to Moby Dick's House of Kabob safely, where we had a wonderful chicken dish. (Older son was, I think, a bit disappointed to hear that there was no Call Me Fish Meal at Moby's.) After dinner, and a cup of tea at my friend's apartment, I made the drive home in the dark and rain. It was worth it, though, because it was another wonderful day at the National Book Festival. And now to wait for next year's!