Montage from Bay Area Book Festival

The Struggle for Literacy, the Need for Booze, the Bay Area Book Festival

As the Bay Area Rapid Transit escalator carried me upward, toward the first annual Bay Area Book Festival (6th and 7th, June), I repeated my new mantra. I would buy no books.

I would buy no books.

As the Bay Area Rapid Transit escalator carried me upward, toward the first annual Bay Area Book Festival (6th and 7th, June), I repeated my new mantra. I would buy no books.

I would wander the streets lined with booksellers and listen to author panels.I would eavesdrop in ladies’ rooms and eat mediocre street truck fare. I would see An Evening With Judy Blume.

But I would buy no books. Our small home is awash in books, any semblance of order long forgotten. The bookshelves need bookshelves.

Steeling myself, I began walking.

Five city streets were given over to booksellers and publishers, who were grouped by topic: Literary Lane, Radical Row, Writer’s Row, Eco Alley, and Mind and Body Blvd. At Civic Center Park, the Lacuna, a circular installation of 50,000 free books, gradually came down as people made their selections.

The Festival offered free author panels and readings in venues around the city. As the San Francisco Bay Area is filled with writers, the difficulty lay in narrowing down who to see. Too often wonderful writers were scheduled simultaneously, forcing tough decisions. Michelle Tea or Maxine Hong Kingston? Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon or Jane Hirschfield? This speaks not to poor scheduling, but the wealth of Bay Area talent.

After some dithering, I spent Saturday seeing Mark Trautwein, editor at local NPR affiliate KQED, an adult literacy panel, and Wendy Lesser. Capped it off with An Evening with Judy Blume.

On Sunday I saw Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon in conversation, then Amy Stewart and Adam Rogers speaking about booze. Exhausted and exhilarated, I staggered home. Here, a bit about each.

Trautwein, who spoke with San Francisco State Journalism professor Jon Funabiki, set the tone for all the speakers: witty, engaging, strikingly articulate. Editor of the reader-driven on air feature “Perspectives”, Trautwein’s read thousands of essays and offered helpful instruction on the form to a roomful of writing professionals and worshipful students,

Next, the Bay Area Literacy Panel. There, six adults described the hurdles each had only recently overcome to attain literacy. An East African woman held up a biography of Michael Jackson. Like the singer, she had abusive father who interfered with her education. Her voice breaking, she described being beaten, forced to work, and running away from home—at age seven. Now a mother herself, she told the audience her children’s lives would be better than hers. “I put them in school. I make them play.”

Next, Wendy Lesser in conversation with Eric Tarloff. The discussion largely centered around Lesser’s Why I Read, a book conceived while Lesser was writing Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets. Lesser and Tarloff’s friendship leavened the interview with humor. After Lesser gave an impassioned list of objections to Ulysses, Tarloff turned to the audience and said, “She’s nuts!”

Lesser isn’t nuts. When she says of reading: “I lower myself in the novel and then there I am,” the audience agreed.

The day concluded with the Festival’s flagship event, An Evening With Judy Blume. This $45 per ticket event was, alas, the Festival’s sole low point. As a crowd of mostly middle-aged women waited to enter the theatre, we were subjected to a seemingly nervous staff woman who behaved as if a riot were imminent. (A group of middle-aged Judy Blume fans is evidently a terrifying sight.) Blume would be answering questions only if we submitted them in advance. A few brave souls turned their queries in. Finally we were allowed inside.

Interviewer Walter Mayes appeared first, informing the audience he’d read all the queries and chosen which to ask Blume. Why? He was the interviewer. He had deciding power.

I began wishing for drink.

Mayes, a former book publicist who has been friendly with Blume for decades, introduced the writer who, at 77 doesn’t look a moment over 60. He then launched into a lengthy personal reminiscence that went nowhere. The next 50 minutes were a wash, with Mayes repeatedly interrupting Blume to offer fulsome praise and profanity-laden anecdotes. Blume, ever the seasoned professional, was gracious throughout. Suddenly it was over, the evening concluding at 7:50, well short of the 9pm printed on our tickets.

What a disappointment!

Things improved the next morning, when Kelly Corrigan interviewed Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Actually, this was more like watching a tennis game conducted at breakneck speed. In Yiddish. The audience was unfazed.

In conversation the couple is laugh-out-loud funny. Recounting their courtship after love at first sight, and engaged 21 days after meeting—Waldman imitated her mother: “A job? Jewish? Excellent!”

The couple described sharing an office and the sometimes tense negotiations that led to Waldman’s move to a room of her own. The room in question is a freshly painted space beneath the stairs.

“It’s really annoying to have your husband quoting Virginia Woolf at you,” Chabon laughed. “You need a room of your own! “

The couple edit one another’s work closely, a process they admit can get dicey, with arguing and tears before admission that the critiques, however harsh, are accurate. Interviewer Kelly Corrigan asked each for four words of concluding wisdom. Waldman’s, directed at on of their children: “Don’t get another tattoo. “

Chabon’s were more general: “Don’t take the bait. “

By the time Adam Rogers and Amy Stewart gave their presentation on the Science of Booze, I was ready for a drink myself. Usually cool, foggy Berkeley was sweltering, but we were kindly provided cardboard fans as Rogers and Stewart challenged the packed room to a game of stump the bartender. Their collective expertise regarding all things alcoholic made stumping unlikely. Instead, a wide-ranging discussion ensued. Did you know that opened Vermouth should be refrigerated? That good rum is one of the best values around? That Campari really does settle the stomach?

Until now I’d held fast. Thus far, I had bought no books. Money’d gone to a cheap burger, a gyro, and an oily disc masquerading as a potato knish. (Potato, yes. Knish, no. Heartburn, incredible.) But I’d been strong. Until I met Amy Stewart who, with her husband, owns one of my favorite bookstores, Eureka Books. Who also loves Jennifer McLagan’s Bitter. Who described Vermouth as having a “bitter wonderfulness”. I bought The Drunken Botanist, which I am enjoying immensely… and then spent even more because of course I just had to try some of the nifty liquors Stewart describes in the book. Irish Mist. Apero. Dolin Vermouth. “This was a terrible idea,” my husband said, taking another sip of Irish Mist.

Blame the Bay Area Book Festival.

I can’t think of a weekend better spent.