Sunday, June 06, 2004

This weekend BookExpo came to town, followed by Chicago's annual Printers Row Book Fair, which naturally got a boost having all those extra authors in town. This being my first time to BookExpo, I found it to be exciting, but the emphasis is squarely on the business of books, and though there are ample opportunities to get books signed by authors, there's not much room for the true business of books: ideas. Authors don't give talks or readings, and the autographing lines are set up like cattle lines. You get a few seconds with the author, who may or may not be in a good mood. There's no time for real conversation. On the other hand, the Fair, a huge collection of bookstore tents and stages featuring authors and performers, gives plenty of opportunities to hear authors speak. Perhaps too much. It's a strange idea, to gather all these authors in one locale and then have them read at competing times. It's like a huge buffet--it sounds great in theory. It stimulates your appetite, but then you overdo it. You try a little of this and that, you mix things you really shouldn't, you end up with a tummy ache.

The highlights of the Expo for me were getting to meet writers whose work I have followed: Jim DeRogatis, rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and the co-host of a more-or-less Ebert-style radio show (and now TV show), and William Upski Wimsatt, a young local writer who's got a fresh approach to lefty politics. DeRogatis was articulate, personable and energetic, a delight to talk to in spite of the autographing format. Wimsatt was perhaps even more delightful. Signing a book he co-edited entited How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (at the table next to Julie Andrews!--such are the bizarre, random juxtapositions of BEA), the almost Mobyesque-looking writer exclaimed, This is no ordinary signing! All of you, come on up, gather around! Introduce yourselves! Let's talk about how we can get out the vote and create change. His line was small, but made up of some of the most youthful attendees in the hall, and he quickly brought out their smiles. He talked about using to post about our local politicians, to get the word out on what they're doing, that it's what they most fear. His friendliness, sincerity and enthusiasm completely charmed me. Ironically, he was the author I most wanted to compliment on his previous writing, and he was the least receptive to it, because he wanted to take the opportunity to engage us rather than have us fawn. (Still, I made him listen to a couple compliments and surprised him by quoting a piece he wrote years ago in the Chicago Reader).

At BEA I also learned some momentous news: Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, finally, after 24 years, has a new novel, Gilead, which will be published soon. (I'd given up and decided she would be another Harper Lee.) I attended a reading she gave the following day at the fair to a shamefully small audience. How much bigger it would have been if this were a few months from now, when word about the new novel gets out! The new book is concerned with the descendants of abolitionists in Iowa, where she now teaches. She read a section from near the back of the book, and I couldn't tell if I would respond to it as strongly as the first book. Frankly, the characters seemed a bit too religious and conventional for me (not that the writing was), but that was just a sliver, and I'm still eager to learn more, and to read the beginning for myself.

I also visited the Poetry Tent where I heard a reading by poet Jason Sommer. The beginning struck me as a bit academic or rambly, but he may have just been warming up, or it may have been his introducer, who though sweet had too little sensitivity to the non-academic setting (Toto, I don't think we're in the Ivory Tower anymore--smell the hot dogs burning!), or more likely my concentration was to blame because of the Fair's hustle & bustle and the fact that eminence grise Lisel Mueller was signing books on just the other side of a billowing, transparent plastic tent wall. Anyway, once we all adjusted, he read a series of remarkable poems that reminded me all over again why I make time for poetry (and just why do I need to be reminded so often?). He ended with an excellent medium-length poem called "The Man Who Sleeps in My Office," which every office worker would enjoy. (Ooh, I'm daring myself to post it up at work. Hmm.) It's a doppleganger piece about sharing your daytime workspace with a nighttime cleaning person. What an interesting relationship to make a poem of--we who are strangers and intimates at once. Sommer was likewise clever in his other inspirations, forging a profound poem out of a road rage moment, for example. He was a funny and self-deprecating reader, and I look forward to reading his latest book. I don't find much on the web, but there is a strong poem inspired by September 11th (bottom of the page).



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