Savannah Morning News column, February 23, 2014
So many books. So little time. Did I plan on spending my entire Saturday at last week’s Savannah Book Festival on the first beautiful day we’ve seen in a long time? No. Did I? Yes. I hadn’t even heard of most of the authors I went to see. And the ones I thought I knew about? Wrong. When someone on the street introduced me to Deborah Solomon, one of the presenters, a bell of recognition went off and I ran with it.
“Oh, I love your column in the Sunday New York Times magazine section,” I gushed. “I never miss it.”
“I haven’t written it in five years,” she answered, deadpan, about a one-page feature called, “Questions For.”
“Maybe it was three,” her husband said, trying to help.
“Well, when I did read it I loved it,” I countered. “Your questions were so snarky.”
“You mean bold?” she said. She clearly preferred bold.
In the 4 p.m. slot, Solomon was among the last authors on the day’s exhaustive line-up, an experience that was exhausting me and all I had to do was sit and listen. I had already revisited that day in November when JFK was killed, told in detail by a polished writer and facile speaker, James Swanson. He wrote, “End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” In his talk, he said over 800,000 people sent condolence letters to the widow Jackie, including the woman next to me. “I sent one,” she whispered.
Next was Daniel James Brown, another stranger to me. I was fascinated by the sound of his book, “The Boys in the Boat, “ about a crew of rowers in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin. He was talking about a sport that 100,000 people used to go and watch. Hard to believe. The book, he said, took six years to write.
Solomon’s new book is about Norman Rockwell. Really? I thought. Who cares about him? I stayed. I listened. I didn’t want her to stop talking.
John Rizzo spoke before Solomon. How could I not see him? He was the CIA’s former chief attorney. Never heard of him. He was talking about, “Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA.” Rizzo did hit the nail on the head about the type of audience he was facing – and that might characterize the average age at the book festival. At one point he looked around the Lutheran Church sanctuary and said, “You look like you might be old enough to remember the 1975 Church committee hearings in Congress that were investigating illegal activities of the CIA in Watergate and Vietnam.” Count me in. Too bad no one in the audience, including me, confronted Rizzo with some tough questions. Maybe it was too late in the day. Then again, he is an attorney.
Alice Hoffman, a writer I have heard of, was the first person I saw. She did not disappoint. When she mentioned Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” which she reread after 9/11, and Toni Morrison’s “Bluest Eye,” two books I have reread recently, I melted. Hearing those titles made me think of old friends, good friends, I haven’t seen for a long time. When she read from her book, the sanctuary at Trinity Methodist, filled to the gills, was silent. No coughing. No rustling. No snoring. It was more than polite behavior from this very polite audience. It was reverential. It was touching, seeing people line up to get into venues, then looking around and seeing how rapt they were – by words, by books. Hoffman talked about secret writers and secret readers. I think they surrounded me, both.
A common theme among the writers? You better like to be alone if you decide to be a writer. (I’m just saying.)
Later that weekend, just by happenstance, some friends hosted an itinerant author from Baltimore in their home. He is traveling around in his car, giving readings, trying to spread the word about his works. He’s a storyteller, nonpareil, not unlike Studs Terkel. I suspect Rafael Alvarez, who worked on “The Wire” before he returned to his hometown, could tell me anything and I would listen. But his tales about Baltimore, a town I know nothing about, were riveting. And that was before I read the high praises of James McBride, a favorite author of mine, on the book’s back cover.
So many books. So little time. As long as we can drag ourselves away from Netflix’ “House of Cards” or the second season of “Orange is the new Black” (or are you still on “Breaking Bad”?).