From Pulitzer Winners To Comic Strip Artists
By Raanan Geberer and Samuel Newhouse
DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A group of authors as diverse as Larry McMurtry, John Sayles, Jules Pfeiffer, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Pete Hamill highlighted the sixth-annual Brooklyn Book Festival in Downtown Brooklyn on Sunday.
Thousands of visitors came to the book fest, which featured 260 top national and international authors, literary organizations and booksellers. Lines were larger than ever before, and the events were spread out between Borough Hall, Columbus Park, St. Francis College, St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
In between panels, festival goers passed through rows and rows of exhibitors, mainly small-press publishers and representatives of literary magazines.
“Now in its sixth amazing year, the Brooklyn Book Festival is, without question, one of the premier literary destinations in the world,” said Johnny Temple, chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council. “From our award-winning authors to our publishers big and small, from musicians and comedians to humorists and graphic novelists, the Brooklyn Book Festival represents our growing literary universe.”
At a panel at St. Ann’s, satirist Fran Leibowitz (Metropolitan Life, Social Studies) blasted Republicans, President Obama and yuppies.
“The only achievement of the left in the last 35 years has been that you can’t smoke in bars any more,” said Leibowitz, who is also known for playing a judge on “Law & Order.” As for Obama, she said, “The only campaign promise he kept was to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.”
And in the meantime, she continued, “the same 12 people or so own the country. That’s not a country — that’s a country club.”
On another topic, she added, “If you’re sending your kid to a $40,000 kindergarten and you complain about the public schools, you’re part of the problem. Because if you sent your kid to a public school, the principal would listen to you in a way he wouldn’t listen to an immigrant mother who doesn’t speak English.”
On a panel on urban writing, there were two standouts: Pete Hamill and Persia Walker. Hamill, reading from his new novel, Tabloid City, described his protagonist, a Brownsville-born artist who went to Paris on the G.I. Bill after World War II.
“He wanted to turn his back on Saratoga and Livonia avenues in Brownsville, on the sour smells coming from the basement, on his father silently leaving every day to work cutting up furs, on his mother walking through the house and cursing Hitler, on the wiseguys on the corner waiting for their next job, on his brother studying, studying, studying to get into Brooklyn Tech,” Hamill read.
Describing a fictional character from 1920s Harlem, Persia Walker (Black Orchid Blues) talked about Queenie, a 6-foot-3 “bad-ass chanteuse” who called herself the Black Orchid and mesmerized the crowds with her singing. She was extremely beautiful, and many people chose to overlook one thing — “that Queenie wasn’t even a woman. She was a man in drag.”
On another panel, well-known author Joyce Carol Oates read from her latest short story about the underside of Atlantic City. The protagonist, a 15-year-old girl who is already drinking beer and breaking into cars with friends, is the daughter of a female blackjack dealer who is constantly disappearing with men she’s just met, leaving the girl alone in the house. Her father, another former casino employee, left the household after a violent incident and hasn’t been back since he went AWOL from Iraq.
In a panel about apocalyptic visions in fiction, Colin Whitehead (Zone) got a few laughs when he recalled, “When I was 15, I was taken to see Dawn of the Dead on a family outing. After that, everyone else was scared of, say, getting in front of a room and speaking in public, but I was constantly scared of zombies.”
American author and critic Edmund White deftly moderated a reading by writers focused on experiences walking in various cities. Geoff Nicholson (The Lost Art of Walking) read about running into actress Christina Ricci looking for her dog in Los Angeles; Nigerian author Teju Cole read a scene from his novel, Open City, about walking in Morningside Heights; and Argentine Sergio Chejfec spoke and had his translator Margaret B. Carson read thoughts about walking from his book, My Two Worlds.
Three of Brooklyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists were in conversation in the library of Brooklyn Historical Library.
Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger from ProPublica, who won a Pulitzer for reporting on the financial crisis, shared some of their experiences and difficulties reporting on deeply complicated financial affairs for the public. They were joined by Clifford Levy of The New York Times, formerly a resident of Park Slope, who won a Pulitzer for reporting on the Russian government, and who discussed some of his experiences moving his entire family from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg.
Brooklynite and cartoonist Adrian Tomine, creator of the Optic Nerve series, was on two panels. In one, he spoke with authors Sigred Nunez (Sempre Susan, about her experience dating Susan Sontag’s son and living with the famed writer) and David Rakoff (Half Empty).
Tomine, who recently released Optic Nerve #12 and Scenes from an Impending Marriage: A Pre-Nuptial Memoir, about planning his wedding in Brooklyn, spoke about his artistic process at the second panel, joined by two other cartoonists in the St. Francis College auditorium on Remsen Street for a talk that drew a young, artistic audience.
Also in attendance was Craig Thompson, well known as the author of Blankets, discussing his newest work, the 700-page Habibi, a tale in the spirit of The Arabian Nights, and how he keeps in touch with his readers on his blog in between publishing books. Anders Nissen, author of Big Questions, a tale about a group of birds that try to discover the meaning of a plane crash in their field, explained that the work started as a doodling exercise to keep himself amused and unexpectedly grew into a 650-page book.
Each year, the Brooklyn Book Festival “BoBi” Award is given to an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn and has had a broad impact on the field of literature. This year’s recipient is Jhumpa Lahiri, who was celebrated at the Brooklyn Book Festival Gala Mingle on Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Green Building in Carroll Gardens.
“Reading matters in Brooklyn-and writers thrive,” said Lahiri, who calls Brooklyn home. “The Brooklyn Book Festival embraces and celebrates this unique cultural energy.”
Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. Her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Her novel The Namesake was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications.
Lahiri’s most recent book of short stories, entitled Unaccustomed Earth, received the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (the world’s largest prize for a short story collection) and was a finalist for the Story Prize.