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Festival of Books' diverse offerings

May 02, 2011
  • Author Greg Boyle speaks at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC.
Author Greg Boyle speaks at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Poets read to rapt audiences, and authors of fiction tried to explain the creative process. Celebrity chefs lured big crowds to sit under a hot sun, and mystery writers answered questions in SRO auditoriums. There was something for almost everyone at the 16th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held this past weekend on the USC campus. What follows is a sampling of reports on the festival from the Jacket Copy blog.

Meeting Ginsberg

Before she read a section from "Just Kids," punk poetess Patti Smith set up the audience to laugh. "It has its beauty," she said of her memoir, and "it has its sorrow." But Smith said she would be reading something funny instead.

And it was, but there was a moment when Smith had to pause, a rush of sorrow greeting her from the page, making her voice waver. She took a breath and then carried on — for herself, for the packed audience in Bovard Auditorium at USC and for her love for the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who asked her to write the story of their friendship the day before he died in 1989.

Smith was not reading a passage about Mapplethorpe, but rather about the first time she met poet Allen Ginsberg in New York City. "Are you a girl?" Ginsberg asked, after spotting her a dime so she could get a sandwich.

The rapt audience, which had gathered Saturday to hear Smith and fellow memoirist Dave Eggers converse, roared with laughter.

Eggers and Smith are both artists who work in a variety of media — music, design, poetry and community-building — and they convey a sense that art is both a lofty ideal and a daily slog.

Smith said she felt blessed to have a calling to be an artist, while Eggers said he felt guilty. Hunched in what he called his "writing position" in his shed/studio, eking out a few hundred words a day, Eggers thinks about people who are "really working for a living."

Where Eggers was often self-deprecating about his artistic gifts, Smith, mother to all the scrappy, anarchist souls, sought to soothe him and by extension everyone in the audience. "The emotional force of art is one of the things that's kept me happy," she said. "I've had hard times, lots of loss ... but I feel a calling to do this. It walks with me every day."

Margaret Wappler

Fact-check fun

Kicking off the Festival of Books' banquet of panels at Bing Theater on Sunday, novelist Jonathan Lethem spoke about the occupational hazards that come with melding contemporary cultural references with richly drawn fiction.

In a reply to a question from moderator and Los Angeles Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg on the Internet's impact on readers' investigation of his work, Lethem described the curious situation that resulted when the notoriously detailed fact-checkers from the New Yorker magazine called him with a concern about an excerpt from his 2009 novel, "Chronic City."

Referencing made-up band Zeroville (which itself is a reference to Steve Erickson's novel of the same name), the piece referred to the band's having never played the iconic New York City punk club CBGB.

The fact-checker, citing a Zeroville record review available online, advised Lethem that Zeroville had in fact played CBGB. Of course, the review was written by Lethem and was just as fictional as the band in this case, but the novelist relished the idea of his fictional worlds colliding.

"In this case I don't mind being wrong," Lethem playfully replied to the fact-checker. "In my book they didn't play CBGB, but I know they did, it's OK."

Chris Barton

Matters of form

"Breaking Boundaries," one of the first panels of the festival Saturday morning, featured four authors who flirt with the boundaries of form. Benjamin Hale, Olga Grushin, L.A. Times Book Prize-fiction finalist Frederick Reiken and Times Book Prize-fiction winner Jennifer Egan have not written traditional novels, if you can even call the books "novels" in the first place.

Tellingly, Hale's book, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," narrated by a chimp "in love with humanity," is probably the most conventional novel in the group. Based on true events, Grushin's "The Line" tells the story of a Soviet family that waits in line for a year for tickets to see conductor Igor Stravinsky. Their alternating perspectives are interwoven with dreams in what Grushin calls a "universal fairy tale."

Both Reiken and Egan describe their books — "Day for Night" and Pulitzer-prize winning "A Visit From the Goon Squad," respectively — as linked story collections rather than novels. Egan didn't even allow the word "novel" to appear on the hardcover edition of the book (though the word has since been added to the paperback).

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