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California's Many Faces Are Focus of Times Book Festival

Writing: Annual event draws about 100,000 to meet authors and debate expressions of the state's past and present.


Los Angeles and California--their diversity, history and pop culture--took center stage Saturday at the sixth annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one of the nation's largest literary celebrations.

Creating a scene that looked like a cross between a garden party and a street bazaar, about 100,000 visitors strolled bookstands set up under white tents that dotted the UCLA campus.

Thousands of readers packed nearly a dozen panel discussions on the Golden State. Topics ranged from explorations of the state's darkest historical moments to the deeper meaning of kitsch pop culture in the desert. One lecture led to a debate among participants about the identity of Los Angeles.

Around campus, youngsters dragged plastic bags weighted down with cartoon books, librarians hunted for additions to their collections and bookworms jockeyed for autographs from their favorite authors.

Marcia Mooers, 67, of Massachusetts stood in line for an hour and a half for Ray Bradbury's autograph.

Triumphant, the hard-core fan of the science fiction writer said it was the fourth time he had scrawled his name on one of her books. His was one of 30 signatures she collected Saturday.

"You still catch your breath and look and think, 'Oh my God! That's really him!' " she squealed, sounding like a teenager at a rock concert.

Other fans got tickets to lectures by some of the more than 350 writers who attended, including Deepak Chopra, a New Age guru and spiritual author, and Bell Hooks, a feminist social critic. Those without tickets waited in long lines that wrapped around buildings.

Inside the standing-room-only lecture halls, authors explored the state's colorful past and its present identity. During a seminar titled "From Kitsch to Conspiracy," writers talked about the West's desert identity of bikers, cactus and bolo ties. One said velvet art was proof that the North American Free Trade Agreement has merits.

"They're made in Mexico, shipped to the U.S. and sold to Canadians," author Tom Miller quipped.

Other writers explored the state's history. Author James Houston talked about his book "Snow Mountain Passage," on the man who organized the tragic journey of the Donner Party in 1846.

"It is the first famous example of the darker side of the California promise set against the Gold Rush," he said of the starving caravan that resorted to cannibalism to survive.

In another room, author and screenwriter Bernard Gordon talked about his experience of being blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1940s.

"Fifty years of anti-communist hysteria guided our whole policy during the Cold War. . . . Dissent was not possible," he said.

Authors and attendees alike also sparred over the identity of Los Angeles. Janet Fitch, author of "White Oleander," a book about a child in Los Angeles foster homes, said many regard the city as nothing but "freeways, Disneyland, Beverly Hills and a riot."

Fitch said: "We are not handed identity here; we live in such a fragmented society we put ourselves together."

The debate continued outside the lecture hall among audience members. Tracy Baker, 30, who moved to El Segundo from Maryland three years ago, complained that Los Angeles has no center.

"It reassures me of what my grandma said, that maybe I should come home," she said. "There's nothing out here that they don't have there."

Her friend and loyal Angeleno Connie Watkins disagreed.

"I think that it's empowering that there are so many places people can go in L.A. and find what they need," she said. "It would be awful for it to have a center."

Toward the end of the day, as the event and its wide-ranging panel discussions were coming to a close, writer Blake Gumprecht said the one thing he knows is that "the fundamental characteristic of L.A. is that it always changes."

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