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Festival of Books has Los Angeles at its core

The event, held at USC for the first time, features many panels that touch on the mythology of the city.

May 02, 2011|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Alyssa Camacho, 8, and sister Kaitlyn, 12, read their newly autographed "Judy Moody" books by Megan McDonald at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the USC campus.
Alyssa Camacho, 8, and sister Kaitlyn, 12, read their newly autographed… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

A cannabis grower who courts trouble, a fictional Chinese detective who inevitably solves the puzzle and an actress whose navel stoked nationwide controversy — noir and Hollywood hold a special place in the Los Angeles mythos and were among the myriad subjects explored Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

The weekend event drew throngs of booklovers young and old and provided plenty of conundrums: Could one drop in on the panel discussing Hollywood icons at 2:30 p.m. and still catch an interview with author Maxine Hong Kingston at 3 p.m.? How to negotiate a truce between kids entranced with a book reading on the children's stage and parents intent on hearing chef and author Thomas Keller on the cooking stage?

In the end, thousands managed to find their favorites, lining up under brilliant skies at scores of exhibitor tents and for book signings by the likes of Patton Oswalt, R.L. Stine and Michael Connelly.

In the book nook, children snuggled with moms, dads and grandparents, sharing the joy of reading. Kendra Caesar held a copy of Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and read one of her favorite poems from childhood to daughters Phoenix, 6 and Kennedy, 3.

"They both already love to read, but this is an opportunity to expose them to new books," said Caesar, an Inglewood resident who, with husband Andre, was attending her first Festival of Books.

The 16th annual event was held on the USC campus for the first time, rather than at UCLA. And although there was no theme, many panels touched on the mythology of the city, peeking under the hems of show business and dissecting the psyches of those who flock to Los Angeles in search of a better life.

The Los Angeles vibe "inspires extreme characters," said Mark Haskell Smith, speaking on the "Mystery: Notes From the Underground" panel. His novel "Baked" is about a young Los Angeles botanist who wins a cannabis-growing competition in Amsterdam and gets drawn into the underworld.

Los Angeles represents "the last shot, the last chance," said panelist Gary Phillips, whose book "The Underbelly" is set on the seamy streets of L.A.'s skid row, where a down-and-out Vietnam veteran sets out to solve the mystery of a friend's disappearance.

Phillips spoke of growing up in a mostly black South-Central Los Angeles that is now heavily Latino. "There are antagonisms at the edges.... That heartbeat is what I'm trying to capture on the pages of my book."

The theme resonated with spectator Michael Fretwell, 54, a Mid-Wilshire resident who said he has attended every Festival of Books.

"As a Los Angeles resident, there are so many things I take for granted, but for people coming out here — they think there's some sort of pot of gold at the end of it," Fretwell said. "Some come here and realize a dream, and some get in trouble."

Across campus on another panel, "Larger Than Life: Behind the Icon," author Yunte Huang spoke of connecting the threads of race, immigration, class and Hollywood stereotyping in his book "Charlie Chan," about the sagacious protagonist in more then 40 films.

The Chinese-Hawaiian detective was portrayed by many actors, but one of the most popular, the Swede Warner Oland, had an unlikely source of success as the character, according to Huang.

"Oland was an alcoholic, and the director liked that fact," Huang told an amused crowd, "because it helped to slow and slur his speech when he was trying to imitate the singsong Chinese dialect."

In the Hollywood of Barbara Eden's memoir "Jeannie Out of the Bottle," the controversy was over the limits of exposing the female body, specifically the belly button that could not be shown on the popular television series "I Dream of Jeannie."

Eden drew a large crowd to hear of her encounters with such other Hollywood icons as the "well-bred" Elvis Presley; Marilyn Monroe, whom Eden met only a few weeks before her death; and Desi Arnaz, who was so enamored of Eden that she took to hiding behind sets.

Eden said she loved her genie costume when she first saw it, although she was pregnant for the first 13 episodes of the series. But even after that, "I couldn't show the belly button," she said.

After her talk, fans lined up to get Eden to autograph copies of her book. Cameron Guthrie of Santa Clarita had bought three to give as gifts to his sisters. Watching the show was an after-school ritual for all of them, he said.

"In those days, there weren't as many channels and you didn't have as many choices," Guthrie said. "It was all about silly humor, a fun comedy. Shows today are using the same ideas. It doesn't really change."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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