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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tucson Festival of Books

This was the weekend I had been looking forward to since the last festival a year ago, even though there weren't the name-catching authors from last year. I took my time packing and worse of all, I took my time getting ready this morning, so that I made it to the first event 20 minutes late. This festival has something for everyone, young and old, romance and science-fiction and literature and history lovers like myself, but organizing it on paper wasn't easy due to last-minute changes.

And what a nice conversation that first event offered. Four authors, including a former governor of Arizona, 95-year-old Raúl Castro, was there. The first panel discussion was about immigration. Four immigrants sat up front describing their immigrant experiences, and the most touching was Ismeiah Beah from Sierra Leone who wrote "Boy Soldier." I quickly regretted being late to this first event. I spent the entire weekend running from one event to to next to make sure I had a good seat, and didn't take much time to relax and enjoy the vendors.

The first surprise was the first panel of authors. The second surprise was the 11:30am event with Douglas Brinkley, who has written more history books than I care to recall. I have his "Wilderness Warrior" copy about TR, a book so thick and detailed I never made it past the first 100 pages. I sat up front (right next to him) and was able to get good portrait shots of him. Next to him sat Andrei Cherny, a young Democratic representative. Brinkley spoke passionately about US conservationism, so much so that I will have to check out his last book.

I spoke to him briefly after the hour, but let him go since he had to get ready for a book signing session and I had to get ready for the third event: Michael Hiltzik, author of last summer's "Colossus" and the making of Hoover Dam. I read part of the book but never bought it, but intended to finishing reading it.

After Hiltzik's presentation I had no one in particular to see for an hour, and mingled among the many vendor tents for a half hour. I listened for 30 minutes to Jonathon Eig, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune who also wrote a book on Lou Gehrig. He spoke about his work on that book, and his great passion for baseball, before I drifted off. Although Eig was interesting, since I didn't read the book I couldn't connect.

I came across a Gabriel Giffords poster leaning up against a fest tent. But other than her image on that poster, there was no written mention of Giffords at this festival.

I also noticed many palm trees dead or near dead from that last deadly freeze in early February. The few healthy ones are growing near tall buildings and reflecting heat.

I walked around a little bit among the vendors but my time always seemed crunched. However, I met the same dog owner and the same dog as last year: 4-year-old Pepin the Corgie! Pepin posed for me this time. The owner seems to enjoy just walking up and down the mall looking at stuff.

The final event for Saturday was another panel hosted by Scott Simon of NPR. I got to the ballroom 20 minutes before it was to start and seats were already filling up fast. A guard stood outside the door ready to close it on any late showers; no standing room was allowed due to fire safety codes. Simon was at this festival last year and drew a crowd, and he did so again this year. Luis Urrea was again in the audience, as T Jefferson Parker. Both Urrea and Parker write fictional accounts along the border and both took questions from Simon. The topic was basically civility in political debate, especially the debate here in Arizona. Urrea, whose own nephew was burned to death by a narco in Tijuana, knows of the violence on the other side, and of the absolute horror the narcos can affect in a neighborhood.

And then the event was over. Just like that. I walked back to the van, drove it to Euclid on the campus' west side and sat at the Fat Greek restaurant for a gyro meal. For $8.80 it was mostly pita bread and tsasiki sauce. There were many people in nearby bars watching and cheering a UA basketball game, but the shops didn't seem too crowded. I didn't walk around too much this time on campus, either. Everything was too familiar to me. An outdoor showing of "3:10 to Yuma" was showing but that didn't keep me glued for long.

I spent the night at Davis-Monthan AFB's FamCamp site, a large RV area along its perimeter fence that is accessible only from the base's Craycroft entrance on the north side of the base. It was full and perhaps not the most ideal place to stay for the night, but once I bedded down, the area was peaceful. The next morning I was up and out by 7am.

I needn't have rushed much as the events I had slated for Sunday were not nearly as crowded as Saturday's schedule. I came early to sit down in the front row, read a bit of my Kindle until people started coming in at 9:20am. The first panel once again offered three people, all repeats from yesterday: Brinkely, Hiltzik and Castro and again the topic was civility in political discourse. Michael Kerrigan was also supposed to be here, but because of last-minute changes by the festival personnel, he didn't show up. I noticed other blank areas in the daily schedule that I don't remember seeing last year, when ever event was packed. There were also several last-minute cancellations by authors this year that even changed my schedule in the end.

And of course my biggest regret was rushing from home too fast and not taking the books with me I wanted signed. This kept me from talking any further with authors since I had nothing for them to sign.

The rest of Sunday's events fell into place, though. At 11:30 in the student union's Gallagher Theatre another three-man panel was held, "Authors and the Making of the West" in which starred Jeffrey Guinn (who was here last year), Michael Hiltzik and Stephen Fried, author of the very enjoyable social history "Appetite for America" and the Fred Harvey empire of the late 19th century. These three men, all dressed in black, had good chemistry, with Guinn being his happy self again and Fried playing along. I should read Guinn's latest book on Tombstone, although he says his book will debunk a lot of myths that have made Tombstone the Town too Tough to Die.

But again, after the one hour talk, I moved on to the next event, the UA tent hosting Prof Annette Gooden-Reed, author of "The Hemingses of Monticello" and her more recent work on Andrew Johnson. She was my first solo female author during this event, and unfortunately the Arizona Daily Star managing editor who introduced her not only called her "Annette Benning" but also referred to her book as a biography on Thomas Jefferson. How embarrassing! And then later an elderly gentleman asked her at the end how did she become so successful and I could feel the shock from the audience. Gooden-Reed is a Black, educated woman and that apparently still strikes many of the really old generation still. She looked offended, too.

a one-on-one discussion hosted by Paul Hutton and TJ Stiles, Pulitzer Prize winner for his "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt." Stiles had a lot of respect for Vanderbilt, but he was a man "with a lot of practicality but short on sophistication." It's a book that's on my must-read list, a list that keeps getting longer.

The final event was a last-minute change for me, as I opted to listen to three authors jammed into one full hour: Ben Clevenger, Deni Seymour (an archeology professor I met a few years ago digging near the San Pedro River) and Jacqueline Soule. The topic was Father Kino's influence in this area. (Kino's 300-year-death anniversary will be March 15th). This last hour was jammed packed in a small room and overran its schedule, but with three authors that is likely to happen.

And that is how this year's events went. Perhaps the familiarity of it all lessened the enthusiasm, perhaps the many last-minute changes by the festival staff did it in, too. The staff says this was a record-breaking crowd; I didn't quite feel it was this time. I felt it was a bit less than last year's. And even though the focus is on literacy, authors and books, some of the vendor's missions didn't seem to connect to that theme. What does the group "Muslims for Peace" or "America's love for violence" have to do with literacy, authors and books?

Some of the sponsors for this event were big-dollar corporations: Wells Fargo, Cox Cable, Tucson Medical Center. Some of the hosts had to make sure they mentioned their sponsor at the start of each event. The Vice President for Cox, Laura Lavallo, was dressed as if she was ready for a beach party, while the authors were suited up in their best casual attire.

I ate dinner off Euclid again, this time choosing a Mexican diner, before tanking up for $3.23 (!) on Speedway and driving home. It was a very anti climatic drive back.

I will be back again next year, though. I still enjoyed this event and got to meet some wonderful authors all in their prime, but what I wish
there was more time for was really getting to talk one-on-one with the authors.

Weather again this weekend was beautiful, hitting the 80s during the day and mid 50s during the night.

I got back home around 9pm to three very happy dogs. I didn't walk them, though and stayed in, reading the news of the massive 9. earth quake that rocked Japan Thursday. Three nuclear plants have been damaged by this quake, and three reactors from one plant off Fusimaka have now exploded, releasing radiation. I'm expecting the death toll from this horrific disaster to top the 10,000 mark. Bodies keep coming ashore from the tides and the official death rate is now 2400.

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