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Readers Feast at Festival of Books

Tens of thousands visit UCLA for The Times' 11th annual weekend event, which celebrates the written word and its devotees.

April 30, 2006|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Louise Johnson scrutinized the giant crossword puzzle outside Haines Hall on the UCLA campus. She set her mind to finding the answer to 68 Across. The clue: Overdoes.

"Let someone else do it," she said finally, wheeling her sleek walker away from the cluster of marker-wielding puzzle solvers.

She had other sights to take in and freebies to ferret out at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which opened Saturday on the grassy expanse of UCLA's campus and is scheduled to run through today.

Despite the walker and her age, 93, she was unfazed by the growing crowds. "I push them aside," Johnson said.

In some ways, the Festival of Books is like an outsized crossword puzzle, a sprawling grid of ideas and images, intersecting at some points, completely unrelated at others, that manages to fit together without chaos and with parking.

In one lecture hall on the north end of the campus, a quartet of authors talked of their passion about writing for teens and tried to define what young-adult fiction really is.

A few hours later, on the south end of the campus, a boisterous group of authors who write about hip-hop music jousted with each other and the audience over how to define hip-hop music -- and even whether one could.

And in between, in a packed Royce Hall auditorium as big and elegant as an opera house, author Joan Didion spoke before a rapt audience.

Saturday marked the opening day of the 11th annual weekend festival, attracting an estimated 67,500 visitors. Many meandered through the grounds of the event, attending panel discussions by authors working in virtually every genre, browsing book booths for new purchases and listening to writers read on outdoor stages.

Youngsters ran shrieking through the meadow by the reading stages for children. Adults queued up to hear high-profile writers, including Frank McCourt and Gore Vidal, and chatted with newly made friends as they waited.

"I don't find anything else like this in L.A. that has a sense of community, curiosity, diversity -- with tolerance," said festival regular Paul Wuebben, an official of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

One of the biggest draws was Didion. The author talked of her surprise at finding such an intense and wide audience for her book "The Year of Magical Thinking," a prize-winning account of the year following the death of her husband, well-respected author John Gregory Dunne.

People, she said, were approaching her in airports, not something that ordinarily happens to her.

"What surprised me was a lot of them were younger than I expected," she said. "I realized they were reading it not for the death but for the marriage."

Didion told the group that "one of the things I decided after John's death was I didn't want to hide anything.

"My whole style is based on withholding information.... I decided I wanted to be a little more direct with people."

She said she was writing a play based on the memoir. "It's a one-woman monologue.... It's the first stage play I've ever done. I hardly even go to the theater."

The discussion turned toward the past. Didion's onstage interviewer asked whether she would read a few lines from her piece on the San Bernardino area in the classic essay collection "Slouching Towards Bethlehem."

"October is the bad month for the wind," Didion read in a voice that always sounds deadpan whether she intends it to or not, "the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows."

She stopped, and the audience broke into applause.

Later, people filed out of the auditorium talking about Didion.

"Think about the courage she has to talk about her inner feelings," mused Steve Bosworth, a consultant from San Diego. Each year, Bosworth and his family make the trek to the book fair.

"It's our mecca," said Wendy Weisel-Bosworth, his wife and a sixth-grade teacher. "There are a lot of thoughtful people walking around here. Nerds, like us."

Some of these "nerds" are just beginning their literary pursuits.

"The fact of the matter is 16-year-olds like really good books," said John Green, author of "Looking for Alaska," during the young-adult panel. "I think sometimes publishers underestimate teenagers."

Panelists grappled with the distinction between books for teens and adults.

"It's so difficult to say 'adult books,' " chuckled Markus Zusak, author of "I Am the Messenger."

"It sounds so dirty," quipped Green.

"I call them 'grown-up books,' " said Sonja Bolle, a children's book reviewer and the moderator of the panel.

At the hip-hop music panel, there was little consensus about anything except that hip-hop, whatever it signified, was cool.

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