Friday, October 24, 2014

Wisconsin Book Festival Recap

I love the book festival because I love all things bookish, and I love when people pay attention to books and writers. Here's my recap of the festival, which took place (mostly) this past weekend, October 16-19, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Susanna Daniel, Michelle Wildgen, and Mary Kay Zuravleff

“What topics do you find difficult or uncomfortable to write about?” That was the question posed to these four writers, and the topic of their panel discussion.

Sittenfeld is the popular author of several novels, including Prep, American Wife and Sisterland, all of which I've written about on this blog. I've yet to read books by the other three authors, but plan to do so soon (and have just checked Wildgen's novel Bread and Butter out of the library).

So what is the most difficult topic to write about? The obvious answer is sex, though none of these women seemed to express much discomfort with the subject, and Mary Kay Zuravleff read a very funny, sexy excerpt from her novel Man Alive. Apparently Curtis Sittenfeld gives her parents redacted versions of her novels, with the sex scenes excised, and only after it’s too late for them to offer editorial suggestions. The real answer seemed to be injury to or death of a child; all four writers expressed extreme reluctance to investigate that topic. As a reader, I generally avoid books about injured or dead children, so it just seems like a good marketing decision as well. Glad we got that settled.

Rachal Pastan

Pastan is the author of Alena, a modern retelling of the Daphne Du Maurier classic novel Rebecca. She is also a former Madisonian who used to write for Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper for which I also write, though we didn’t overlap there. I didn’t know this when I read the book (blog post coming soon). She read from Alena, and told a funny story about the origins of her idea to write this novel: A few years ago she took a new job where she replaced an employee who was extremely competent and much beloved by her staff. Pastan reported that every time she attempted something new, her coworkers would wistfully reminisce about how her predecessor had so expertly handled a similar situation. Readers of Rebecca will understand this reference, and Pastan exploits it beautifully in Alena.

Mary Gordon

I’ve loved Mary Gordon’s books since I first started reading them in the 1980’s. Her 1998 novel Spending remains one of my favorite books of all time. (Here’s a link to a New York Times review of Spending by another of my favorite writers, Hilary Mantel.) In preparation for her talk at the book festival I read her newest book, The Liar’s Wife, which is a collection of four novellas (blog post also coming soon). Gordon chose to read a selection from the novella I liked least in the collection, and the questions after her reading centered around that, which disappointed me. I also felt like the crowd wasn’t as familiar with her work (especially her early work) as I was, and I was frustrated by the lack of depth in the questions. Gordon, too, seemed a little bored, and hurried, though she gave me a nice smile when she signed my book. Maybe book festivals aren’t really her thing.

Jordan Ellenberg

He went on about math. So does his book; here’s my review/profile at Isthmus. Ellenberg participated in a popular event called Nerd Nite Madison, where nerds get together in a bar and talk nerd stuff while drinking. This month's Nerd Nite was tied in to both the book festival and the Wisconsin Science Festival and was held not in a bar but at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus (though drinking still featured heavily; I might have had a beer).

Ann Garvin

I reviewed Garvin’s book The Dog Year for Isthmus back in July. It’s a delightful book, and she’s a delightful person: funny and entertaining. The Dog Year is kind of like that, too, a good comfort read, about someone who has some trouble but gets back up on her feet. Garvin’s message is, no one is perfect, but everyone can benefit from some perspective and the help of good friends. Garvin read from The Dog Year, and talked about her experiences as a nurse and health educator, and how they influenced the plot and tone of The Dog Year. Interestingly, she revealed that she used to do stand-up comedy, and her delivery at the book festival reflected this: well-paced, and sprinkled with one-liners. Not all writers are ideal book festival speakers (see above, Mary Gordon), but does that matter? Of all the speakers I heard this weekend, Garvin’s talk was the most fun, though her book is probably the least well known.

Stuff I Missed…

I'm sorry to have missed Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See) who apparently got a huge crowd, and Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes); she is quite the thing right now. I also wish I could have seen Deborah Crombie, whose mystery series I used to read but haven’t kept up with. The Central Library was hopping all weekend with great choices, and there was something for everyone, including poetry, memoir, children's literature, and art books. I had a quick chat with festival organizer Conor Moran, who told me that this year’s festival far outstripped previous years in both attendance and book sales, which is great news for the festival and for the Madison Public Library Foundation.

All photos courtesy Shanna Wolf/S. Photography. Used with permission.


Sam said...

I fell in love with Mary Gordon's writing when I stumbled upon her "Final Payments" years ago. I am particularly enthralled by her memoirs about her mother and her father. They were certainly an "interesting couple."

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