National Book Festival 2010 Guide
- Clockwise from top left: Jonathan Franzen, Suzanne Collins, Spike Mendelsohn, Elizabeth Alexander
Arts festivals tend to save the biggest acts for the end of the day. But the lack of a beer tent has a way of messing with tradition: The Library of Congress’ National Book Festival, now in its 10th year, has scheduled its highest-profile author readings for around brunchtime. So not only will you want to arrive at the National Mall early, you’ll face an important decision once you’ll show up: Your choice of tent — “Pavilion” in Book Fest parlance — for the 10:35 a.m. slot will say something about what kind of reader you are.
Political types will want to catch former First Lady Laura Bush (History and Biography Pavilion), who helped create the fest with the Library of Congress in 2001 and recently published her memoirs, Spoken From the Heart. Fans of literary fiction will want to see Jonathan Franzen (Poetry and Prose Pavilion), whose acclaimed new novel, Freedom, suggests D.C. residents “all seemed to have taken the same dowdiness pills.” (Maybe they’re made by the same Big Pharma conglomerate that ships the condescension pills to Manhattan.) And if you’re the sort of person who dislikes both politics and the idea of middle-aged white guy novelists hogging book reviewers' attention — or if you’re just a 14-year-old girl — you’re heading to see Suzanne Collins (Teens and Children Pavilion) read from Mockingjay, the final volume in her young-adult trilogy about a teen revolutionary in post-apocalyptic America.
About those tents: If you want to see or even just hear any of those three authors, plan to arrive well before 10:35 a.m. to snag a seat. There tends to be very little standing room, and the amplifiers generally don’t have much reach beyond the tent’s confines. As a general rule, if there’s an author you’re particularly eager to see, plan on attending most if not all of the preceding author’s reading. Camping out early for Franzen means you’ll get to see D.C. native Elizabeth Alexander (10 a.m., Poetry and Prose), who read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s inauguration. Poets are an increasingly endangered species at the Fest: Last year it abandoned its standalone poetry pavilion, which seemed to have a hard time attracting an audience. (In 2008 I walked into a half-filled poetry tent where the speaker was Kay Ryan, then the National Poet Laureate and arguably most-publicized poet in the country since Rod McKuen. You could've written a sad poem about it called "The Loneliest Pavilion.")
So poetry fans are underserved, with the gap now filled mostly by fiction writers. But it’s an especially strong year on the fiction front. Make a point of seeing Chang-rae Lee (1:30, Poetry and Prose), whose latest novel is The Surrendered, a fine multigenerational epic centered on the Korean War; Allegra Goodman (4 p.m., Poetry and Prose), who evokes the narcissism, greed, and general douchebaggery of the dot-com boom in her latest novel, The Cookbook Collector; and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk (2:05 p.m., Poetry and Prose), who doodles in the margins of his notebooks just like you do, except you don’t have a Nobel Prize in literature.
As usual, the fest makes plenty of room for locals. This year’s batch includes Good Stuff Eatery chef Spike Mendelsohn (10 a.m., Contemporary Life Pavilion), who’s pushing The Good Stuff Cookbook: Burgers, Fries, Shakes, Wedges and More; George Washington University African American history professor (and Elizabeth Alexander’s mom) Adele Logan Alexander (12:55 History and Biography Pavilion); Evan Thomas (1:30 p.m. History and Biography), who with a little prompting might discuss what it’s like to be roughly the 286th Newsweek editorial staffer to abandon ship in the past two days; and Wil Haygood (12:20 p.m. History & Biography), one of the best guns in the Post’s feature-writing arsenal and author of Sweet Thunder, a new biography of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
The best bet among the local writers is Silver Spring novelist Olga Grushin (1:20 p.m., Fiction and Mystery), a Russian native whose excellent second novel, The Line, follows the lives of a group of people in Soviet Russia endlessly waiting for a ticket kiosk to open. That’s not a bad metaphor for the experience you’ll have if you decide to get your book signed. The lines aren’t sheltered, so bring umbrellas or sunscreen accordingly, especially if you’re waiting for, say, Scott Turow (4:50 p.m., Fiction and Mystery) or Diana Gabaldon (11 a.m., Fiction and Mystery). Need more proof that the lines are painful? Laura Bush isn’t doing a signing at the fest, and she helped launch it.
Plenty of books are available for purchase on-site, conveniently close to the C-SPAN Book TV van, which distributes much-coveted tote bags. The bags this year are bright red, under the apparent logic that if it’s good enough for biohazard, it’s good enough for literature.
If you miss the fest, or like books but hate crowds, a few of the Fest's prominent authors are reading elsewhere in the city this weekend. Richard Rhodes (3:50 p.m., Contemporary Life), who’s probably the country’s leading expert on what’s happening to all those loose nukes, will read at Politics & Prose at 6 p.m. Saturday evening. Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer (11:50 a.m., Children) will discuss their much-anticipated sequel to their classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth, The Odious Ogre, at P&P Sunday morning. And you can avoid the Franzen chaos (or at least the Book Fest’s version of it) by seeing him Friday for free at the GW Lisner auditorium, or at a ticketed event February 18 as part of PEN/Faulkner’s reading series.
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