AMERICAN book festivals are often dominated by a theme or a high-profile author, but good luck finding the hook at this weekend's 12th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA. Beyond a love for literature and good writing, it's hard to find the common thread in an event featuring authors such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julie Andrews, Dr. Phil McGraw, James Ellroy, Lee Iacocca, Ray Bradbury, Frank McCourt, Amy Goodman, William Kittredge, Lawrence Wright, Jim Lehrer and Joseph Wambaugh.
"The lineup is overwhelming," said Debby Applegate, a Connecticut-based historian who won a Pulitzer Prize last week for "The Most Famous Man in America," a biography of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. "But it's not surprising. Los Angeles is a city of storytellers, and this weekend they're all in one place."
Applegate will be appearing on a panel with other biographers, including Rodney Bolt, Laura Tyson Li and Alicia Drake -- moderated by author Charles Solomon -- discussing the evolving state of modern biography. It's just one of about 100 such panels featuring nearly 400 authors, spread out across the UCLA campus and mixed in amid bookseller booths, outdoor stages and more.
Though Applegate said she does not know exactly what will happen in her panel discussion, she offered an intriguing possibility: "I rely a lot on memoirs for research, but there's a big debate over how useful they are, how reliable they are, in writing biographies. I hope we'll be able to get into these kinds of issues, because they fascinate me."
Other authors are determined to steer the conversation away from certain topics -- such as novelist Jane Smiley, whose "Ten Days in the Hills" features characters who "indulge in a roundelay of lasciviously detailed sexual encounters," as Publishers Weekly put it. She joked that in her one-on-one interview session with Los Angeles Times Book Review Editor David Ulin, "they're going to try to get me to talk about sex. But I'm going to try and raise the conversation to a much higher level and talk about art. We'll see how realistic that goal turns out to be."
Authors can often do unpredictable things at the festival. Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for "A Thousand Acres," said: "I remember one year, when I was doing appearances for another novel, I wound up singing an abolitionist hymn for the crowd. I look forward to the fun and spontaneity, and I also love the setting ... the campus is so beautiful."
IF there's a problem for visitors, it's that they can't possibly attend every event at what has become one of America's largest literary gatherings. This weekend, as in previous years, guests are advised to consult the packed schedule before making plans and to pace themselves accordingly.
For mystery fans alone the festival is a gold mine, with multiple panel options both Saturday and Sunday: "Perps and Vics," "Blurring the Lines: Fiction and Mystery," "Conspiracy Theories," "Death Becomes You," "True Crime: When It Happens to You," "Southern California's Mean Streets" and "From One Murder to the Next."
But there are topics to suit almost every literary taste, with special attention paid to California cultural life and a larger-than-usual selection of events for kids: At the Reading by 9 Storytelling Stage you will find performances and readings by Tina Louise (yes, \o7that \f7Tina Louise) and a Shakespeare performance by Rafe Esquith, author of "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire." Target Children's Stage will feature appearances by Julie Andrews, Henry Winkler and "Nicki (American Girl Today)" author Ann Howard Creel.
"I'm excited about coming out to Los Angeles because I'm not that familiar with the city," said Applegate, as she made last-minute preparations for her trip. "This is a pretty amazing way to experience it."
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By the numbers, not by the books
\o7The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is expected to draw 130,000 people Saturday and Sunday, with about 100 panel discussions and more than 400 authors. But there are many other events:
4 ways to avoid panel overload
* Had enough of the books? There's the movie "Away From Her," adapted by writer-director Sarah Polley from the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," which screens to close the festival. The film, starring Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis and Gordon Pinsent, revolves around a couple dealing with Alzheimer's. Polley will hold a Q&A afterward. 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Royce Hall.
* Are you smarter than a newspaper publisher? The Define-a-Thon vocabulary bee pits volunteers from the audience against Times Publisher David Hiller. 1 p.m. Saturday, Etc. Stage.
* Four giant crossword puzzles, each containing 100 to 300 clues, will be spread throughout the festival. Participants can fill them in until all the clues are solved.
* Various book appraisers will be on hand to see whether those old, dusty books you inherited are worth anything.
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