Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

A Book Festival Grows Fast in Brooklyn

Once again the cultural expansion in Brooklyn was on full display this weekend, this time at the Brooklyn Book Festival. There had been a surprising number of side events at bookstores

BBF at Brooklyn Borough Hall

and beer gardens throughout the borough in the three days leading up, (for instance, the Vin Fiz readings posted about below) but I was still unprepared for the extent and scope of the main event itself on Sunday. It was enormous, with vendor booths and stands stretching throughout the lanes of Cadman Plaza in front of Borough Hall. At each hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. there were readings and panel discussions going on at eight different halls, including the courtroom in Borough Hall, the main hall of the Brooklyn Historical Society and the auditorium at St. Francis College. There were a couple of outdoor stages and even the expanses of the beautiful St. Ann’s Church were pressed into service.

There at St. Ann hundreds of people filled the pews under the gothic ceiling to hear an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. It was an astounding sight.

Sheri Holman, Terry McMillan, Nina Revoyr and Bernice McFadden

Star power was certainly on display elsewhere at the festival. Diva power is not one of my favorite spectacles, so I decided to skip Paul Auster, but I did manage to get my nose full of egomania anyway, from some more satisfying providers. Terry McMillan, the author of Waiting to Exhale, was the quintessential diva hamming it up for her adoring fans during her panel, making faces as her fellow panelists read, ostensibly in support of the text, but in the end just making sure that all eyes remained on her. I don’t know much about stagecraft, but I am sure that this is a cardinal sin of ensemble acting. When McMillan read, however, all was forgiven, as her writing is spot-on and her presentation skills were enthralling. She brought the text, from a work in progress, to life with the first syllable. And what a text: the inner voice of a housewife struggling to come to terms with a flawed marriage was powerful and haunting. Another divo who was not above antics to draw attention was Arthur Phillips, who whooped it up at the intro for another writer, again to make sure all eyes were on his chiseled good looks and stubble whiskers which had been perfectly aged to outline his dimples and square, manly jaw. He was the author a few years back, of the gimmicky titled Prague (the novel was about Budapest). And again, it was a case of drop-dead fantastic writing and championship presentation – in this case an autobiographical passage about a young woman throwing herself at his sexy bad self. The writing was tour-de-force brilliant and could even whet the appetite to read more

Kevin Wilson, Jessica Hagedorn and Arthur Phillips

about him in The Tragedy of Arthur. This was a great panel, with Kevin Wilson reading from The Family Fang about a flim-flam family in Atlanta. I instantly liked him when I saw that he was wearing a tie that I own (owned?) that I must have bought for a  dollar about thirty years ago. His reading voice was mellifluous proving how beautifully fitting a Southern voice can be for a thoughtful text. Jessica Hagedorn read from Toxicology about a quirky, aging couple in the West Village. All three were worthy of far more attention than the short hour they had to share.

There were other big draws with some of them, like Edmund White and Bernice McFadden, in the capacity of moderators as well as panelists. There were writers to meet, too. 290 different writers were listed in the program as signing books during the day at various locations! They ranged from the sublime (Joyce Carol Oates at St. Francis) to the slime (Senator Joe Lieberman at Borough Hall).

Amintava Kumar

There were ideas that inspired. I attended the discussion about time travel with Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else, historical fiction centering on Nikola Tesla, and with Diana Galbadon. Galbadon, another big draw at the festival, is the author of the NY Times #1 bestselling series of Outlander novels. With her insight and ironic sense of humor she showed why people are willing to plod through thousands of pages of romance and then beg for more. Unfortunately,  her reading from her latest work showed just how she arrives at thousands of pages – in the excerpt, which consisted of a couple of thousand words, her hero does nothing but look around in one spot of a dark tunnel he finds himself stuck in. I also attended a panel about unreliable subjects in non-fiction writing with a very charming Amintava Kumar (A Foreigner Carries in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb) and a confused discussion about the guidance that religious traditions can give to a spiritual writer, with Michael Mohommad Knight, a follower of the Nation of Islam (the “Black Muslims”), who tried, I think quite unsuccessfully, to explain why he (who is white) believes that the white man is the devil. Other, only slightly less perplexing apologias were given by Darcy Steinke and Peter Bebergal who spoke about the dilemmas that they faced, tapping into traditions for inspiration, but at the same time attempting to maintain their conceptual autonomy.

The festival was ample proof of how much the cultural life of New York City needed to expand beyond the confines of Manhattan island where the concentration of power and wealth leads each culture event to eventually wall up into a rarefied exercise in elitism. Just compare this totally free festival with the New Yorker Festival where audience tickets range from $30 to $75 and well beyond. The open, free wheeling atmosphere of Brooklyn provides a home where a more daringly innovative approach to the arts can thrive. Marty Markowitz, the indefatigable borough president, who usually hits the mark with his unabashed boosterism (usually – I hate the fuhgeddaboutit sign on the Belt Parkway) says in his short welcoming lines in the official program that this festival is “the most hip, smart and diverse book festival in the Northeast – not to mention the biggest!” You got it, Marty!

The ceiling at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church

September 19, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , , , , | Leave a comment