Up Close and Personal: The 2017 Virginia Festival of The Book

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A conceptual heart formed by folding pages in a book. A conceptual heart formed by folding pages in a book.

By Ken Wilson – 

Up and down Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall on a recent Saturday morning, the literati were looking. At New Dominion Bookshop, the oldest bookstore in town, dating back to 1924, a woman was checking out the Lit Crit section.  At the Blue Whale, where original prints, antiquarian maps, and rare volumes sit alongside 20,000 used books, a man was browsing in the philosophy of science section. At Read It Again, Sam folks were eyeing the racks out front. And just off the Mall at Daedalus Used Bookshop, the oldest used bookstore in town, a couple was navigating three floors with 100,000 books in search of . . . What is it with all these people? Haven’t they heard of the Internet, Kindle downloads, free shipping and next day delivery? Chances are they have. No, the reason there are so many booksellers on the Mall in addition to a great big chain store elsewhere in the city is that around here we like to get up close and personal with books and the good people who write them.

That’s why the annual Virginia Festival of the Book—five days of mostly free talks and panels bringing together writers and readers in celebration of books, reading, literacy, and literary culture—is the largest community-based book event in the Mid-Atlantic region, attracting audiences of more than 20,000 each year. That’s why more than 400 authors will be in town for over 260 programs this March 22-26 as part of the 23rd Festival.

“I love our book-loving community!” says Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, which programs the Festival. “While we’re proud of the audiences we attract from the region and from across the country, Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents have been  remarkable in their support for the Virginia Festival of the Book for twenty-three years. Our local community helps keep the Festival going strong; this support brings national attention to the Festival and to the community for being a ‘book-loving town,’ and it aids our efforts to bring in top-notch authors.”

Asked what she is especially looking forward to this year, Kulow singles out two programs, one hyper-topical, one highly imaginative. “Given the news cycles of the past year, through the Presidential campaign and since, we all have a greater appreciation for the necessity for media literacy,” she says. “Questions, Expertise, and the President: Not Just for News Junkies,” on Saturday March 25 from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers will meet that need with a panel featuring National Security Affairs professor Tom Nichols, former CNN anchor and GWU School of Media and Public Affairs director Frank Sesno, and Washington Post reporters Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish.

“On a lighter note,” Kulow says, “I cannot wait to hear from the authors in “Wild Fiction!! Attacks! Exorcism! Animation!” with Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office is Under Attack!, Grady Hendrix, author of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and Kayla Rae Whitaker, author of The Animators. We’ve passed those books around the office for all to enjoy!”

Economic Inequality
No issue is more central to the national conversation currently than economic inequality, and two Friday programs, presented in collaboration with the interfaith, Central Virginia group, Clergy and Laity United for Justice and Peace, will shed light on the subject. Former CNN Anchor and White House correspondent Frank Sesno will moderate a discussion with Daniel Hatcher (The Poverty Industry), Thomas Shapiro (Toxic Inequality), and Jennifer Silva (Coming Up Short) from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. From 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, author of The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them, will speak on the rise of inequality in the West and a possible solution. Frank Sesno will join Stiglitz for discussion and questions. Tickets for this event are $5.

Religious Satire
In today’s charged political atmosphere, the urge to mock comes quick and often. True satire, argues Virginia Wesleyan College professor Terry Lindvall, is at heart moral outrage expressed in laughter. Lindvall’s 2015 book, God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert, received the 2016 Religious Communication Association Book of the Year Award. Lindvall will speak about his book on Saturday, March 25 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. UVA’s Theological Horizons will host a reception honoring Dr. Lindvall, with book sales and signings, following the discussion.

Local Author Writes for Kids
Ninety of this year’s authors are Virginians, including Priya Mahadevan, who worked as a political reporter in India before moving to Charlottesville 15 years ago, began blogging about vegetarian cooking and the birth of her third child, Shreya, and now works as a caterer specializing in vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free cuisine. Mahadevan calls her first published book, the children’s picture book Princesses Only Wear Putta Puttas, “a labor of love, an embellished version of truthful events that happened during her second trip to India, which Shreya was actually able to remember. It was fascinating to watch her revel and assimilate and embrace so quickly everything she saw and experienced.” 

Bestselling author Kwame Alexander has written twenty-one books for kids and young adults, including The Crossover, winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal. Illustrator Ekua Holmes’s debut book, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (written by Carole Boston Weatherford), won the Caldecott Honor Book and a Sibert Honor Book awards. Alexander and Holmes will appear at UVA’s Culbreth Theatre on Wednesday March 22 at 7:00 p.m. to talk about their careers, the children’s publishing industry, creating books for minority readers, and their new collaborative volume, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets. While Out of Wonder is meant for children, says Assistant Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, Sarah Lawson “as an adult reader it’s fantastic as well. It’s composed of different poems honoring poets over the course of time, from all areas.”

Storyfest
Kids will enjoy their own day-long literary blowout Saturday, with eleven “Storyfest” programs including a “Book Swap” from 10:00 to 12:00 p.m. and a “Storytime Marathon” from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL), and a “Wild About Reading” program with stories and live animals at the Discovery Museum from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

Lawson calls Christiansburg author Tom Angleberger—author of Rocket and Groot: Stranded on Planet Strip Mall, the bestselling Origami Yoda series, and the Fake Mustache, Horton Halfpott, and the Qwikpick Papers series—a “rock star” of children’s literature. Angleberger and Out of Abaton author John Claude Bemis will tell tales of betrayal, fantastical adventures, and other hijinks from their popular novels and illustrated comics at JMRL from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. Angleberger, Mahadevan and Alexander are among the children’s authors who will visit public and private schools in Charlottesville-Albemarle during the Festival to entertain and inspire students in personal encounters.

Crime Wave
Festival Saturdays bring a daylong Crime Wave to the Omni, with seven programs worth of mystery and suspense, spies and private eyes. “The Mysterious Worlds of Abbott, Dahl, Lin, and Tran” from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Ballroom A will feature what Lawson calls the “dark but really immersive” psychological thrillers of Mystery Writers of America winner Megan Abbott and three whodunit “up-and-comers”: Julia Dahl, Ed Lin and Vu Tran.

Two of the three writers in “Private Eyes You’ll Want to Follow,” from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. in Ballroom C, are poets as well as crime novelists. Poets Erica Wright (The Granite Moth) and Greer Macallister (Girl in Disguise) will be joined by Michael Robertson, author of The Baker Street Letter series, featuring a Sherlock Holmesian London solicitor. Moderator Ed Lin’s six acclaimed thrillers are set in New York City’s Chinatown and in Taiwan.

Publishing Day
As always, Saturday at the Omni Hotel is Publishing Day, with a Lit Fair featuring literary magazines, publishers, and writing resources and seven programs designed to aid, instruct and encourage both published and aspiring writers. “Keys to Success in Book Publishing and Promotion,” from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. in the Monroe Room, will bring novelists Ann Garvin and Tom McAllister and young adult novelist Brenda Drake together with moderator Jane Friedman, an internationally known speaker on writing and publishing in the digital age. Conversation will center on working with publishers and using traditional and new-tech publicity techniques to direct readers to an author’s books. Literary agents Lisa Bankoff, Michael Carlisle, and Eric Smith will take part in a roundtable discussion on the publishing business and will answer audience questions from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. in Ballroom A.

Audiobook sales were strong in 2016 and are expected to grow in 2017, according to Publishers Weekly. Love and lust were widely reported as well, and are expected to remain universal phenomena. Romance audiobook narrators and voice actors David Brenin, Will Damron, Luke Daniels, Derek Perkins, and Aiden Snow will discuss the world of audiobook publishing from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Preston Room at the Omni, and divulge—and possibly demonstrate—the vocal techniques that make listeners swoon.

Inspiration
That a great book can change your life is a truism, but do they retain that power in the digital age, and how do you find the right ones anyhow? While the Festival itself might be seen as five days of resounding answers (“yes,” and “here they are!”), “Get Lit: Books That Inspire,” from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. at the Central Branch of the JMRL Library, gets a little more specific, with authors David Denby (Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives) and Bethanne Patrick (The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People). JMRL’s Central Branch manager and assistant director Krista Farrell, a used bookstore owner in a former life, and thus doubly entitled to her own opinions, will moderate.

Middlemarch in Song
Virginia Woolf called George Eliot’s tragic but searching novel Middlemarch, published in 1872 and subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, “one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” “What do I think of Middlemarch?” wrote Emily Dickinson. “What do I think of glory?” On March 23 and 24 at the Paramount Theater Charlottesville Opera (formerly Ash Lawn Opera) will give the East Coast premiere of Middlemarch in Spring, a new chamber opera based on Eliot’s masterpiece by composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens. New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, a memoir of the novel’s instructive role in her own life, will speak before the March 23rd performance, at 6:30 p.m.

Presented each year by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the Virginia Festival of the Book has produced legions of dedicated fans like Sarah Lawson, who go primed for new discoveries. “It’s always been amazing,” says Lawson, who grew up attending with her librarian parents, “to realize how many things I just stumble into. Prior to working for the Festival I would be very open to just wandering into programs and seeing if they struck my fancy, and often they did. I would learn something new, or find a new author that I loved. I think that joy of discovery is such an important part of the Festival, and something that is so crucial and so loved by the local community and the people who attend each year.” That’s for sure.

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