Saturday, July 23, 2005

Books By The Bay

There’s nothing like seeing an author in person to make you want to buy his or her book.

I went to the 10th annual Books By the Bay festival Saturday at Yerba Buena Gardens. It was one of those overly hot, overly sunny days where everyone crowds into the small patches of shade made by trees and overhangs. Even the white tents erected on the lawn provided scant relief from the heat.

There weren’t that many big names at the festival, which may explain why the crowd was much smaller than previous years. But it didn’t matter. Because once any of the dozens of authors started talking about their work, I got intrigued. Hearing why they wrote their novel or memoir, how they struggled to get it published, the world’s reaction, made me want to buy the book. I spent more than $100, and made a long list of books I want to read.

I got to the festival at 10:30 because I wanted to attend “Books in an Unreaderly World,” moderated by Kevin Smokler and featuring some of the contributors to his anthology, Bookmark Now. I really enjoyed this collection of essays about writing in the computer age and wanted to hear more. The panelists, including Michelle Richmond and Karl Soehnlein (Adam Johnson didn’t make it) talked about the myths of the writing life and how the Bay Area created a community that was essential to their work. It was an intelligent discussion of getting the word out about books, either through word of mouth, the Internet, blogging, or book readings.

The next panel I attended is proof that just listening to an author draws you in. It was called “More than Just a Job: Writing About What You Do.” I had heard of only a few of these panelists, but by the end I was intrigued. The biggest name was Dean Karnazes, the author of Ultramarathon Man. How he does it is anyone’s guess. He is president of a natural foods company, runs 100-200 mile marathons, usually runs all night, and just wrote this book, which was featured on 60 Minutes. He is very fit and handsome and one knowledgeable bookseller told me that she heard both men and women bemoan the fact that he is happily married with children.

Blair Tindall is a professional oboist and has written about the secret world of musicians and Broadway productions. Betsy Burton owns a bookstore in Salt Lake City and her book, The King’s English: Adventures of An Independent Bookseller,” tells the truth about authors who have given readings at her store. Phil Done is a teacher who chronicled a year teaching third grade called 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching.

But it was the Life Experiences panel that really intrigued me. There are so many memoirs on the market it is hard to know which ones are worthy. It’s a form I love, but it is hard to do well. I had already read – and enjoyed Caroline Kraus’ Borderlines, a disturbing story about her close, almost pathological relationship with a fellow bookstore clerk after the death of her mother. But I had never heard of Alphonsion Deng, who was kicked out of his family in the Sudan when he was seven and then had to flee for his life, trekking 1,000 miles before escaping to the safety of Kenya. Deng said 2.5 million people have been murdered in the Sudan during the last 20 years and his experience is the experience of thousands of children. His memoir is They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.

This post is getting long but I want to say I now want to read Deborah Santana’s book Space Between the Stars: My Journey to an Open Heart. I read about this book when it came out and dismissed it as a tell-all by the wife of a famous musician. But Deborah explained that she is bi-racial and her parents were not allowed to marry under the then-laws of California. Those feelings of invisibility continued during her relationship with Sly Stone and Carlos Santana, and she vowed to end her insecurity.

“I have loved the journey of telling the truth,” Santana explained. “I really wrote my memoir to become alive. If I didn’t write it I would have expired. Being in Carlos Santana’s shadow for 32 years was a difficult thing. One has to have a very strong character to stand next to a world figure and retain your self-esteem.”

Rebecca Solnit was there. I have never read her work but was intrigued by her intellect. Rose Castillow Guilbault has written a critically acclaimed book called Farmworker’s Daughter: Growing Up Mexican in America. She explained that even though there are Mexicans everywhere in the west, most Anglos don’t have a clue about their lives.

Books by the Bay works because of these panels. By bringing authors together to talk about common issues, readers get to know a bit of their personalities and the way they think. In many ways it is more rewarding than going to a bookstore reading, which can be stilted and awkward. Add dozens of wonderful bookstores selling interesting books, and you’ve got a great day.

I’m hot, sunburned, but satisfied.

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