At Miami Book Fair International, Naomi Wolf, Irvine Welsh, and Mark Helprin Bring Literary Heat
Asked why he decided to turn his lens on Miami, New Journalism pioneer and white-suit aficionado Tom Wolfe said it all came down to that steamy Magic City libido.
"New York is the city of money; Washington, D.C., is the city of power; and Miami is the city of sex," Wolfe told NPR, crediting the line to former Miami police Chief John Timoney.
Wolfe might be right — and his massive new tome, Back to Blood, certainly has its share of orgies — but this week is the one time a year Miami-Dade trades its stereotypical skimpy swimsuits for studious bifocals as the Miami Book Fair International rolls into town.
"The beauty of the fair is we've never done it thematically, because we just wait to see who has books coming out," says Mitchell Kaplan, Books & Books owner and the fair's organizer. "Fortunately, postelection, we do have a number of people who can speak to the effects of this campaign, from Bill O'Reilly to Jeffrey Toobin to Chris Hayes... to Wolfe, who's never shied away from a political opinion."
Two of the biggest names at the fair — Wolfe and Junot Díaz — kicked off the week with appearances last Sunday and Monday, and hundreds of other authors will descend on Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus (NE Second Avenue and Fourth Street) for this weekend's Street Fair. Unless noted otherwise, each author will appear at the Chapman Conference Center, Building 3, Second Floor, Room 3210.
While Tom Wolfe's novel is obsessed with the idea of Miami as an untamed American jungle, Scott Wallace's The Unconquered is about the real thing: wilderness in all its sublime, terrifying splendor.
The book's subtitle, In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes, says it all. Wallace, a journalist who covered Central America's civil wars in the '80s, spent three months shadowing a scientific expedition through the remotest regions of the Brazilian Amazon. The group's paradoxical goal: to chart the territory of the fleicheros — or "People of the Arrow" — without actually making contact, lest their germs decimate the tribe.
There was also plenty of danger during the expedition. "What made this experience so intense was the fact that we weren't necessarily at the top of the food chain," Wallace says. There were anacondas and jaguars lurking in the dense rainforest, but the fleicheros themselves could be equally deadly with their curare-tipped arrows. "We were intruding on their land," he says. "They would have no reason to see us as anything other than hostile intruders bent on their extermination."
That threat is sadly all too real. Many of the expedition's guides came from indigenous tribes that were wiped out after contact with outsiders. The thin line between discovery and destruction runs through Unconquered like a narrow jungle trail. Wallace's reporting revolves around Sydney Possuelo, a hirsute, wild-eyed Brazilian explorer and ethnographer who has taken it upon himself to learn as much as possible about remote tribes without killing them.
This remarkable book evokes other famous expeditions, not least of them Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Land That Time Forgot. Wallace is the first to admit he lived out "every boy's dream" by exploring the Amazon. "I love the notion that at the dawn of the third millennium, there are still groups wandering the forest and the names of their tribes are unknown to us," he says. "These are the last holdouts to the global village. They are not participating in our journey. They don't know what America is or Christopher Columbus or Jesus Christ. None of our history has any bearing on their lives — and that's amazing." (Sunday, November 18, 4 p.m., free) — Michael E. Miller
Naomi Wolf has spent her career defending women from their destructive culture — from 1991's The Beauty Myth, an assault on women's poisonous physical expectations, to Misconceptions, a feminist examination of pregnancy and childbirth. Her latest work fights for the very thing that defines femininity: the vagina.
Borne from Wolf's medical quest to regain her sexual vitality, Vagina is a look at the science of ladyparts — and how that science affects society at large. Crazy-awesome, mind-blowing orgasms have physical and mental effects that reach far beyond the bedroom, she argues.
"A lot of women have talked to me about... the connection between [orgasms] and other kinds of energy — creativity and positive feelings," she explains.
Vagina is filled with stories about women who overcome depression, perform better at their jobs, and even discover new talents when their sex lives are particularly frisky. And an absence of orgasms can have the opposite effect too, Wolf says.
"We deride and degrade the vagina in this culture, but if it's a medium [to release] all of these powerful, positive neurotransmitters, maybe we shouldn't dismiss it so quickly."
The trouble is, the conditions for great sex are tough to come by for women (no pun intended). Earlier generations of well-meaning feminists insisted on sexual equality, leading to what Wolf describes as a harmful expectation that "women should fuck like men."
Vagina presents statistics indicating that women physically need romance, respect, and relaxation to get off. These days, those things are "dismissed as foreplay — 'oh, that's not important, that's what you have to do to get to the real thing,'" Wolf laments.
Though some feminists have taken issue with her newest work, Wolf says she receives regular letters from readers sharing their own stories. And she's still delighting in her subject matter. Take her favorite euphemism for vagina:
"I have to say it's 'the Force,'" she giggles. "It's so hilarious, it's so funny, and it's one of the very few words... that isn't infantilizing or, you know, gross. May 'the Force' be with you!" (Saturday, November 17, 11:30 a.m., free) — Ciara LaVelle
Starting with his classic urban horror story Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh has explored with more verve than many other writers the societal circumstances that drive people to do really, really bad things.
His seventh novel, Skag Boys, reunites readers with the self-absorbed, conniving scalawags from his famed debut before they became heroin-addled schemers, and chronicles their descent into addiction — all while skewering the Margaret Thatcher-led '80s government that hastened their downward spiral.
Welsh's antihero protagonist, Mark Renton (the character played by actor Ewan McGregor in Danny Boyle's 1996 film) joins his father and thousands of union workers at a protest just outside a coal factory in Edinburgh, Scotland, the author's hometown. Renton, his dad, and the union men are corralled and savagely beaten by cops in riot gear, setting the tone for Skag Boys' thesis: Thatcher destroyed the working class by stamping out the power of trade unions and driving up unemployment.
The result was a new generation of immoral, jobless losers like Renton and his band of misfits — Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie.
"You see these guys going from happy-go-lucky to falling into the defeatism of the heroin culture," Welsh says. "This is all happening around the same time of mass unemployment and a breakdown in British society."
Welsh, who lives in a South Beach condo three months a year, isn't shy about connecting the greed-is-good philosophy of the '80s with the ever-growing political power of corporate barons in the United States.
"The whole idea of progress has been reduced to how much more money you have in your bank account at the end of the month," he says. "The characters' addiction to heroin feeds off the despair caused by unemployment and lack of social mobility. There is nothing else for them to turn to." (Saturday, November 17, 3:30 p.m., Building 8, Third Floor, Room 8303, free) — Francisco Alvarado
Mark Helprin has been called the Woody Allen of literary fiction, and for good reason: Few authors have written so lasting and moving a love letter to New York than his classic Winter's Tale. And his latest work, In Sunlight and in Shadow, just might be Helprin's Annie Hall.
His new tale is set against a manic backdrop of a golden-age NYC in the late '40s, as the city emerges from World War II victorious and exploding with energy. It chronicles a passionate love story between Harry, a recently returned paratrooper, and Catherine, a blue-blooded singer.
The work is an homage to Helprin's parents — an actress and a WWII spy — and to an era the author briefly experienced after being born in Manhattan in 1947.
"My father had a perfect photo memory," Helprin says. "I inherited that as a child, though I later lost it. When I was that age, I took in everything around me. That era in many ways is still more real to me than the present."
As Helprin wove Harry's tale of wooing Catherine from an evil fiancé and saving his father's leather business from the mob, he spun scenes of New York life in the late '40s without doing any research but by drawing from his own vivid memories.
By centering the work around a returning war vet trying to find his way after battle, Helprin also had a vehicle to re-create a seminal moment in American history.
"Just for a moment, we were hanging in this impossibly wonderful postwar position. We'd conquered the world," Helprin says. "We had a monopoly and wealth. We'd done something great, and... then we had to look forward." (Sunday, November 18, 3:30 p.m., auditorium, Building 1, Second Floor, Room 1261, free) — Tim Elfrink
What makes a great meal? Check any foodie blog and you'll find loads of praise for the newest chef in town whipping up the most expensive ingredients. But what about the simple pleasures of eating a good home-cooked meal with family and friends?
That's the subject of cultural observer Adam Gopnik's new book about how the French have never forgotten that distinction. The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food is woven with historical accounts of the Gallic influence on food and philosophical questions of the true meaning of cuisine.
"I had difficulty with this book. I wanted to balance a love for food with what people really think about it," Gopnik says.
He pokes fun at the fact that his wife is a terrible cook whose feminist mother insisted she not waste her time slaving over a hot stove. Consequently, Gopnik finds himself barefoot and in the kitchen, preparing meals for his family most nights, and when he can't, he receives predictable recipe questions from his wife, like "How long do I brown the salmon?" (Thursday, November 15, 8 p.m., $10) — Alex Rodriguez
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