Once again challenging the conventional wisdom that people don’t read books — or worse, that people in this golden age of YouTube and Dancing With the Stars don’t have time to read them — the Miami Book Fair International returns this coming week with a celebration of the written word that features more than 350 novelists, poets, nonfiction writers, journalists, graphic novelists, children’s book authors, historians and other people who spend a good chunk of their lives writing books that the rest of us, again, allegedly don’t read. (And if you’re still with me after wading through that em-dashed, 85-word sentence, congratulations. And thank you.) Now, some smart person who’s into statistics and sales figures and market research and other words that are nothing more than numbers in disguise could interrupt my writing of this paragraph to point to, say, the demise of the Borders chain and the shuttering of Barnes and Noble stores across the country as proof that the American reader is fast becoming an endangered species. And though I have a tendency to be less of a Cassandra about such things than others — I still work for a newspaper company, after all — it’s understandable that many authors are concerned that people just aren’t reading books like they used to.
In an interview last month, the novelist and short-story writer Steve Almond spoke to me at length about his views on the state of literature in our country. He worried that it was being pushed “more and more to the margins of the culture” by fans of mixed martial arts, ultimate fighting and TV shows that “suck up all of our cultural oxygen.”
He then added, with a touch of the profane beauty that will prove familiar to anyone who’s read his books: “The thing about good writing and literature is you will never be lonely and you will never be bored. Because you’re in the presence of another great mind and heart. And once you find the kind of stuff that you like to read, it will make you examine your life. You won’t just fucking waste your time on Earth. I’m really a big believer in that. I just want to try to convert people. And not selfishly so that they’ll buy [my books], but so that they’ll have a better life: ‘I know you feel like I’m selling you something, but don’t just fucking be a boring person and just another consumer in this consumer culture. Like, think about your fucking life. You get one go-round. Don’t be boring.’”
Yes — don’t be boring. Go to the Miami Book Fair. It will begin this Sunday, Nov. 13 and will continue through the following weekend, when the 28-year-old event will culminate in a three-day Street Fair, in which vendors representing publishers large and small will hawk their wares, and the always-impressive Festival of Authors, which features readings and signings by hundreds of the world’s top — and by that I mean, most readable — authors.
Following are my recommendations for authors and events not to be missed during the fair, which largely takes place on Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus. For a complete list of attending authors and a schedule of readings, visit Miamibookfair.com.
LITERARY DEATH MATCH
“There’s only so much someone can take, honestly, at a literary reading,” a Literary Death Match producer told me in an interview earlier this year. To be sure, Literary Death Match is like no other reading you’ll encounter at the Miami Book Fair or elsewhere. Created by Opium magazine’s Todd Zuniga in 2006, Literary Death Match has more in common with a game show than a writing event, particularly when the Nerf gun, potato sacks and sheep’s intestines come out. (I’m not saying these props will appear at the Miami Book Fair edition of Literary Death Match, but they have each played significant roles in previous installments, or “episodes,” as the series’ producers call them.) The show works like this: Four writers read from their work in two head-to-head rounds, with the winners of each round advancing to a final that usually has nothing whatsoever to do with literature, unless you consider games of hip-hop musical chairs or “Pass-the-Haggis” to have literary value. This past April, Literary Death Match made its long-awaited South Florida debut as part of the O, Miami poetry festival at the Purdy Lounge, and returned a month later with a show at Churchill’s Pub. The Miami Book Fair episode will take place 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18 at Bardot nightclub and feature contestants Mat Johnson (the novel Pym), Jennifer Hayden (the Web comic Underwire), Sandra Beasley (a poet and nonfiction writer) and T.M. Shine (a former City Link staff writer and author of the award-winning novel Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You). The contestants will be judged by novelists Chuck Palahniuk and Justin Torres and the artist Dean Haspiel. Zuniga will host. Bardot is located at 3456 N. Miami Ave. Admission is $10.
DIANA ABU-JABER AND KAREN RUSSELL
I’m more than halfway through Diana Abu-Jaber’s new novel, Birds of Paradise, and as much as I want to reach the end of the book and discover the fate of its characters (a family separated by physical and emotional distance), I’m reluctant to leave the world the writer has created here. Perhaps created is not the correct word, given that Birds of Paradise takes place in an all-too-recognizable Miami-Dade County, specifically Coral Gables, Miami Beach and downtown Miami. Abu-Jaber (pictured above) captures the area’s elysian beauty and natural charm with vivid, stylistic prose, but she also doesn’t shy away from its inherent nuttiness and disquieting greed, setting her story in 2005, in the prelapsarian months before the arrival of Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma and the implosion of the real-estate market. And as you’ve probably read, Abu-Jaber is one hell of a food writer, perhaps the best in contemporary fiction (and I say this as someone who appreciates food-writing about as much as vegans like McDonald’s). The family’s matriarch, the lovely and tormented Avis Muir, runs a high-end bakery from her home kitchen, and Abu-Jaber’s descriptions of her creative process are as refreshingly free of clichés — the author appears to not even know the word delectable — as the novel itself.
As for Karen Russell and Swamplandia!, what more can I say that I haven’t said in this magazine already? Well, I suppose I can say this: Russell is simply one of the best writers this state has ever produced, and her debut novel is our generation’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and River of Grass both. It’s that good. Plus, as if her writing weren’t musical enough, just wait till you hear her read it.
Abu-Jaber and Russell will discuss “the writer’s voice” along with Elizabeth Stuckey-French (The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady) and Sterling Watson (Fighting in the Shade) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19 in the Building 1 auditorium.
Like Karen Russell, Téa Obreht was included on The New Yorker’s much-debated “20 Under 40” list of fiction writers in 2010. At 25 years old, she was also the youngest writer to appear on the list, a trivial fact unless you’re of the mind that 20-somethings are incapable of producing great works of literature, as Obreht has done with her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which last month was nominated for a National Book Award. After all, being 37 years old hasn’t made Twilight novelist Stephenie Meyer a good writer, so why should Obreht’s youth preclude her from being a brilliant one? And The Tiger’s Wife is terrific, a rich, often fantastical meditation on war, family, cultural mythology, nationalism and belief set in a fictional Balkan country that, despite its recent reconciliation following a civil war, is still divided by geography and race. Talking to The New Yorker about the novel last year, the Yugoslavian-born Obreht said fiction succeeds, “When something inexplicable happens in the transfer from writer to reader, and the piece, despite its imperfections, rattles and moves the reader. The best fiction stays with you and changes you.” She may as well have been talking about her own book.
Obreht will appear noon Sunday, Nov. 20 with Hillary Jordan (When She Woke) and Jaimy Gordon (The Lord of Misrule) in the Building 1 auditorium.
JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
The following passage comes from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” a story that appears in Pulphead, his new collection of essays and profiles originally written for GQ, The Oxford American and other magazines: “When I sat down at the table in the back-patio area of a pub-type place called Sgt. Preston’s, he had sunglasses on. When he pushed them up into his bushy gray hair, he had unnervingly pale mineral-blue eyes that had seen plenty of sunrises. He’d been there. You knew it before he even spoke. He’d done a spectacular amount of crazy shit in his life, and the rest of his life would be spent remembering and reflecting on that shit and focusing on taking it day by day.”