What's most compelling about this year's landmark 25th incarnation of Miami's literary hoedown?
Maybe the reading by renowned theoretical physicist Brian Greene from his book Icarus at the Edge of Time, which describes the winged punk's dicey approach to a black hole. "It's going to be a sleeper," suggests Mitchell Kaplan, the tall, wiry owner of literary mecca Books & Books and the event's co-creator. "But it will be amazing."
He's also looking forward to Tavis Smiley and Cornel West's evening — as well as a gathering of poet laureates Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Mark Strand.
Miami Book Fair International 2008
Oh yeah. How about Salman Rushdie? Or former Miami Herald reporter and Iraq war correspondent Dexter Filkins? Or the legendary Derek Walcott? When Kaplan declares that the nation's largest, most prestigious, most consistently amazing literary festival, which begins this weekend, will have "an incredible year," he isn't blowing smoke.
One theme for the 2008 edition is an oft-overlooked art form — comic books with both literal and figurative spines. "The graphic novel is something that got so much growth in the marketplace," Kaplan says. "So many different things are happening in that genre. It was time for us to celebrate it."
So he and his co-conspirators created Comix Galaxy, the fair's extensive graphic novel program. It will make up a large part of the street fair November 15 and 16, and will include programs and appearances by genre superstars such as Travis Nichols (who illustrated this week's New Times cover), Chip Kidd, Jessica Abel, Frank Beddor, and David Hajdu, whose new work, The Ten-Cent Plague, chronicles the controversial early rise of comic books in the Fifties.
To us, the LeBron James of the graphic novel is David Heatley, the 33-year old artist whose debut book, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, takes a, shall we say, creative approach to the concept of memoir. This book's first section is "Sex History," in which Heatley draws in painstaking detail every carnal encounter before marriage. In the next section, "Black History," the white author describes every significant encounter he's had with a black person, not shying away from his stubborn subconscious racism. It doesn't get much more original, or honest, than this.
If Heatley is LeBron, then Michael Jordan is also coming to the fair. Art Spiegelman, one of the founding fathers of the literary comic, will tout two new releases. The author of the Maus series, special Pulitzer winner, and former New Yorker top gun has re-released Breakdowns, a comic collection he first published in 1978. He has added a comic introduction that rivals the original work in length, plus a new subtitle: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!.
We caught Spiegelman last week at a hotel in Boston between university talks. "Whenever I have a new book out, I feel like Willy Loman, packing all my wares into a leather suitcase and going out on the road," he jives. "But I should be grateful: When Breakdowns first came out, I couldn't get a wino to read it if I bribed him with a bottle of brandy."
That volume's cover is branded with the disclaimer "Adults Only," and the often-surreal collection includes carefully sketched re-creations of two-guys-on-one-girl porno. Spiegelman's other new comic book, Jack and the Box, is directed at another demographic: three-year-olds. "It's trying to resurrect a literary category that's been totally neglected — the early-reader books," says Spiegelman. "It's meant to rescue kids from 'See Dick run. Run, Dick, run' and bad retellings of Cinderella."
Jack and the Box doesn't demean its toddling demographic — its main character is initially terrified (but irresistibly intrigued) by a new, strangely creepy toy his parents give him. "I don't think this is one of those robbing-a-kid-of-childhood books," Spiegelman maintains. "This, to me, is what childhood is — waking up in the middle of the night curious and excited to find out what this world is."
Like Spiegelman, Pulitzer winner and Miami Herald cartoonist Jim Morin tackles timely issues with courage and humor. When he first began drawing George W. Bush as a cowboy more than eight years ago, he had no idea how accurate his depiction would become. Now, as Dubya's presidency comes to a close, Morin has documented his legacy in Ambushed!: A Cartoon History of the Bush Administration. In a departure from his past collections, Morin enlisted Harvard political scientist Walter C. Clemens Jr. to write fact-based accounts to run alongside the cartoons.
"I went through a long period where I think I was trying to put too much into the [cartoons,]" Morin says. "I was trying to convince people, which is fine, but there was a power missing." Playing against Clemens's prose, Morin simplifies the cartoons, returning the focus to the images. The result tracks Bush's transformation from a moderate to "dividing this country way worse than I've ever seen it since the Sixties," Morin says. His work poignantly makes that point: "What makes [political cartooning] special is the marriage between art and communication," he says. "You see that image and it sticks with you."
Another Herald alumna to read is the signature queen of the thriller, Edna Buchanan. "To me the Miami Book Fair is like Christmas, my birthday, and New Year's Eve all in one," Buchanan says after pulling off a bathing cap and postponing a morning swim with her dog. "It's a very lonely business, writing novels. I write at home alone with my dog every day, so it's incredibly exciting to be plunged in with so many fantastic authors at once," she says. "It's the biggest event of my year."
Virtually every member of Florida International University's writing faculty will be at the biggest event. Les Standiford, director of the creative writing program, presents his newest nonfiction work, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Professors Jim Hall (Hell's Bay), John Dufresne (Requiem, Mass.), Denise Duhamel (Afortunada de mí/Lucky Me), and Campbell McGrath (Seven Notebooks) will also speak.
Their former students, too, will make appearances. Anjanette Delgado, an Emmy-award-winning TV writer, will read from her first novel, The Heartbreak Pill, while Preston L. Allen takes to the podium with All or Nothing, a fictional work about the rise and fall of a famous gambler. Their star pupil, Mystic River author Dennis Lehane, will be here as well, rekindling his own South Florida connection — he now spends part of the year living in St. Petersburg and teaching at Eckerd College. "I've known Mitchell [Kaplan] from Books & Books forever," Lehane recalls. "He got me on a panel at the book fair when my first book came out. I think, like, four people showed up, but it meant a lot to me."
It's a safe bet the crowd will be larger this time around. Critics have lauded his newest novel, The Given Day, a departure from his grimy Patrick Kenzie thrillers in its re-creation of a riotous 1919 Boston police strike. And Lehane's audience has exploded since movies made from his novels Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, directed by Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood, respectively, garnered several Oscar nods and a win for Best Actor. "I keep saying this, but there's no connection whatsoever between the films and my writing. I never give it a thought, not even a fleeting thought," Lehane says. "When I'm writing, it's between me and one reader. My job is to connect with this imaginary reader, seduce them almost into listening to what I'm trying to tell them."
The writer can't quite believe how well Hollywood has treated his work. Martin Scorsese is now directing another of Lehane's books, Shutter Island, and is said to have Leonardo DiCaprio lined up for the starring role. "I didn't tell anyone about Scorsese," he says. "When the announcement came out, one of the first e-mails I got was from a good buddy of mine, another writer who's going through the whole Hollywood thing. I opened it and all it said was 'Fuck you.' I mean, what else do you say when the reality is this amazing?"
Gus Garcia-Roberts, P. Scott Cunningham, and Tim Elfrink contributed to this report.
Miami Book Fair International takes place November 9 through 16. It kicks off November 8 at the Arsht Center with performances by Florida Grand Opera, the Unity on the Bay Choir, the New World School of the Arts symphony orchestra, Ballet Gamonet, Momentum Dance Company, Actors Playhouse, and GableStage. The ever-popular street fair ends the event and closes downtown to all but the literate. For complimentary tickets to the inaugural ceremony, call 305-949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org. Free tickets to all the Evenings with ... presentations, held at the downtown campus of Miami Dade College, are required. Check out www.miamibookfair.com to reserve yours.
All book fair readings will take place at Miami Dade Colleges Wolfson Campus (300 NE Second Ave., Miami). The biggest events will happen at Chapman (Building 3, 2nd Floor). Among them:
Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, Sunday, November 9, 7 p.m.
Brian Greene, Tuesday, November 11, 8 p.m.
Russell Banks and Derek Walcott, Friday, November 14, 6 p.m.
Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Mark Strand, Friday, November 14, 8 p.m.
Dexter Filkins, Sunday, November 16, 4 p.m.
Salman Rushdie, Sunday, November 16, 6 p.m.
Other programs at MDC include:
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Dennis Lehane, Saturday, November 15, 10 a.m., in the auditorium.
Art Spiegelman, Saturday, November 15, 11:45 a.m. at Chapman and 2:45 p.m. at PEN; Sunday, November 16, 1 p.m., on the Target Childrens Stage.
Jim Morin, Sunday, November 16, 2 p.m., Room 7128.
Edna Buchanan, Sunday, November 16, 4 p.m., Room 3208-09.