Hooked on Books: The National Book Festival, September 29, 2007

September 30, 2007 at 11:06 pm (books)

dscn0500c.JPG So…who is that woman in the distance. the slender one in white, with the fey smile and the ready riposte? It’s..it’s… Yes! It’s Joyce Carol Oates! Seeing and hearing this distinguished woman of letters (who has recently put the frighteners on Yours Truly with the stories “Feral” and “Hi! How Ya Doin!”) was probably the high point of our visit to this year’s National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington D.C.

dscn0492c.JPG We arrived at the festival around 10:15; we had planned to get there earlier but were delayed by the almost inevitable traffic meltdown on area roads and highways. Crowds were manageable at that hour but became less so as people continued to pour onto the Mall. My library buddies Nancy and Cristina (our intrepid driver) and I went our separate ways, having arranged to rendezvous at 2 PM. The first tent was designated “Mysteries & Thrillers” and I stayed put, as Deborah Crombie was scheduled to speak next. (Stephen Hunter was just finishing up.)

dscn0484c.JPG I enjoyed Crombie’s presentation very much. She was very much at ease at the podium. Of course, she had to address the perennial question of why she, a born and bred Texan, sets her books in England. She confessed to being an unabashed Anglophile, so of course there I sat feeling very much her kindred spirit in that respect! (I reviewed her latest novel, Water Like a Stone, several months ago.) [Photo: Deborah Crombie with her presenter, Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post Book World and author of The Triumph of the Thriller.]

dscn0489c.JPG From “Mystery & Thriller” I wandered over to “History & Biography” and was captivated by a small, wiry woman who was regaling the audience with anecdotes about fascinating folks like Salvador Dali, Richard Rogers, Bernard Berenson, and Lord Kenneth Clark. This turned out to be Meryle Secrest, a writer whom I knew by name only. Well, that is certainly going to change! Her latest book, apparently a memoir of her writing life, is called Shoot the Widow. That title might be have something to do with the fact that in the course of her research on famous, and in some ways notorious, subjects, she has received no fewer than three death threats! I looked Secrest up on Gale’s Literature Resource Center database. She was born in 1930 and judging by yesterday’s performance, is still going very strong indeed. [Photo: Meryl Secrest with her presenter Marie Arana of the Post’s Book World and author of the novel Cellophane.]

dscn0495c.JPG The tent next door (Is that a possible book title?) was “Home & Family.” An exceptionally large crowd had formed there and I soon found out why: medical superstar Dr. Sanjay Gupta was up next. Now my husband and I have been saying lately that we both feel “sick of health;” to be more precise, sick of the relentless media coverage of the subject, the shifting positions taken by various experts as to what is or is not good for you, and above all, sick of the sanctimonious pronouncements the “food police.” Well, I have to retrench a tad from that position: I could have listened to Dr. Sanjay all day! He really does have the knack for making complex issues understandable to the lay listener. He is incredibly knowledgeable on a wide range of health-related topics, and he seems also to possess a large fund of common sense where these issues are concerned. On a day filled with engaging speakers, he really was a standout. Naturally I have already placed a reserve at the library on his latest book, Chasing life : new discoveries in the search for immortality to help you age less today. This picture of him was of necessity taken from a considerable distance. This is unfortunate, because among his other virtues, Dr. Sanjay is very easy on the eyes!

dscn0496c.JPG I stuck around “Home & Family” for part of Nancy Pearl’s presentation. Most of us who are devotees of the reading life know and appreciate her recommendations in Book Lust and More Book Lust. Her latest work, Book Crush, is aimed at kids and teens. Pearl talked about what a joy it was to do research for this book, as it gave her many opportunities to talk with young readers about the books they love. She also related an anecdote about getting accidentally locked in the bathroom of a hotel in Portland, Oregon. She said the main fact that nearly caused her to panic was that she had nothing to read!

dscn0498c.JPG At that point, I decided I’d better make my way to “Fiction & Fantasy.” Joyce Carol Oates was scheduled to speak there at 1:20, and I thought if I got there twenty or so minutes early, I might get a seat. Foolish me! The mob of people who had just been listening to Edward P. Jones apparently had no intention of moving on. The best I could do was to stand at the very edge of the tent, just barely out of the sun, a very important consideration in the Washington area even in late September. Luckily the tents were all equipped with excellent public address systems, so I missed none of her talk. So, how was she? Surprisingly relaxed, colloquial, and warm. She praised Washington and said how fun she’d had going to various museums in recent days. She revealed to her listeners that the impulse to write her latest novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter had sprung from the discovery that a grandmother she had been very close to was Jewish. The single biggest surprise for me was that this author of some of the most macabre fiction I have ever read has a great sense of humor, which can at times be self-deprecating. This is somewhat amazing, coming as it did from an author who, in a lifetime of feverish writing, has produced over seventy books! [Photo: Joyce Carol Oates being presented by Michael Dirda of Book World]

dscn0493.JPG Were there problems at the Book Festival? Well. almost inevitably, there were. Books were sold in two tents at either end of the Mall, and both locations were mobbed – at least, by early afternoon. The lines went on forever. So the spirit – and wallet – were willing, but the situation made the actual purchasing of books impossible. And of course, even if you managed to purchase a book (or had the foresight to bring your own copy from home, which is certainly what I’ll do if I attend this function in the future), when it came to getting it signed by the author, you were again faced with very long lines. I’m not sure what the solution is, given the large number of attendees. One change that could be readily made, though, would be to put a sign up giving the name of the current speaker at any given location. I found myself more than once fumbling with my various papers trying to ascertain just who was up there at the podium.

dscn0487.JPG The Mall has two wide gravel paths running from one end to the other. Now we had a beautiful day yesterday, so it seems churlish to complain about the weather, but we’ve had so little rain in this area lately that a prodigious amount of dust was rising from the paths. A little touch of the Wild West there – oh, for a bandanna to tie around one’s face! And as for the facilities, there were numerous portable johns, but the situation was less than optimal. Again, perhaps unavoidable, given the sheer number of people. It was possible to go into one of the museums and use the facilities there, but I just knew that if I did that, I might never come back out to the festival!

My friends and I left after hearing Joyce Carol Oates. We were glad we had made the effort to attend this event. As we headed back to the car, we passed a small but spirited anti-war demonstration. The police were present and vigilant; everything was peaceful. I always feel a little stab of pride whenever I see scenes such as this. So yesterday, we witnessed a gratifying celebration of the greatness of books right next to a demonstration of the freedom to dissent. Altogether, a good day to be in our nation’s capital.

[Addendum, Monday October 1: Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be pleasantly surprised by Joyce Carol Oates!]


  1. BooksPlease said,

    What an interesting day. Do you live near Washington, or did you have to get up very early to be there by 10,15am?

    Joyce Carol Oates looks so frail!

  2. Roberta Rood said,


    We live about 30 miles north of Washington, as the crow flies. Alas, if you must drive rather than fly, the traffic congestion is awful. You can take the bus & then the subway – but then you spend 90 minutes to cover 30 miles!

    Joyce Carol Oates is, I think, a petite person to begin with, but she did look a bit frail Saturday. However, she didn’t sound the least bit frail!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: