For the past several years, I’ve been deliberately staying in town over the Labor Day weekend so I can attend the annual Decatur Book Festival. A few years back, the DBF morphed into one of the largest literary festivals in the United States, and sampling the hundreds of author appearances and panel discussions each year has become a much-anticipated treat.
Having missed Friday evening’s Festival keynote speech by Congressman John Lewis, co-author of the recently-published graphic novel March, I plunged into the Festival’s festivities by scootering over to the Decatur library’s early Saturday morning Friends’ book sale, held outdoors in front of the main library. Snagging my usual half-dozen bargain books – including, to my amazement and delight, a hardback copy of the best book I’ve read so far this year – I stashed them in the storage tank of my scooter and threaded my way through the gradually-burgeoning crowds of festival-goers to the far edge of the Festival, where I listened to Justin Lee talk about his book Torn: Recovering the Gospels from the Gay-vs.-Christians Debate. Expecting an earnest, rather predictable diatribe, Justin charmed me with his thoughtful, often humorous, humble, and quite unusual take on this issue. I also was impressed by David Helminiak’s generous and thoughtful introduction of Justin’s talk.
Rushing back to the other side of downtown Decatur, I joined the already full house poised to hear poet Richard Blanco, the gay Latino poet selected by President Obama to read at Obama’s second inauguration ceremony. Blanco’s stories about his Cuban parents’ and grandparents’ heritage and his journey as a writer and first-generation American was quite moving, and I was glad to hear him recite several excellent – and also moving – poems, including the poem he wrote for the inaugural, which I had heard about, but never actually heard or read. Blanco certainly deserved the standing ovation he received and I could’ve listened to a lot more of his poems had he been allotted more time to speak.
Having sat with friends to listen to Blanco, I followed them back across downtown Decatur to listen to India-born Manil Suri talk about his newest novel, The City of Devi, aided by a clever, special effects-laden PowerPoint presentation. Afterwards, a group of seven of us Festival-goers joined Manil for lunch before he had to leave to catch a plane back to Maryland where he teaches mathematics, the subject of Manil’s next book.
After lunch, most of us headed over to listen to a live interview of gay critic and writer Wayne Koestenbaum. My friend Franklin, in his own emailed re-cap of the Festival events that he attended, describes Koestenbaum perfectly as “the lovechild of John Waters and Woody Allen (or maybe PeeWee Herman), smart, funny, cute, peculiar” – certainly completely different than I’d imagined him from what little I’d read about him. Koestenbaum’s newest book is My 1980’s and Other Essays.
My next treat was a talk by Linda Hershman, author of Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. Delightful in every respect, Hershman seems the quintessential Jewish/Marxist Grandmother, and her remarks on what she believes are the three essential ingredients of a successful social revolution were intriguing, and delivered with erudition and humor. I especially appreciated her overview of some not-well-known Supreme Court decisions related to gay rights and her interpretation – even more cynical than my own – of why President Obama (finally) lent his support to the cause of legalizing gay marriages in this country.
My final session for the first day of the Festival involved another trek across Decatur to hear Georgia State University professor Jonathan Herman talk about his book Taoism for Dummies. Although Herman’s presentation style betrayed his classroom-presiding habits, he is obviously a humane and humorous guy, and he certainly did a good job of correcting the mostly-misinformation I’d picked up over the years about Taoism.
Today’s first event was the only disappointing one of the entire Festival, and only mildly so. What was billed as a panel called “Do Book Reviews Matter?” was actually a vivid description of the selection and ethical dilemmas facing the five professional book reviewers who made up the panel. Hardly any time or attention was given to the new world of bloggers who review books, which is what I was hoping to hear more about. Still, each of the panelists (including novelist and critic Lev Grossman) were articulate and informative.
The next session I attended was, for me, probably the highlight of this year’s festival. It featured Alysia Abbott, author of the riveting memoir Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, which I read with pleasure shortly after it was published earlier this year. Having assumed that Abbott would be merely reading selections from her excellent book, I was amazed and very impressed that Abbott instead narrated a slide show about her father – and former Atlanta resident – Steve Abbott ‘s career, with special attention to his activities in high school and to his time as a student at Emory as a gay activist. Since Alysia’s book – and an NPR radio interview with her – includes descriptions of her various personal struggles as Steve’s daughter, I’d expected her Festival talk to be mostly about how his life had affected hers. I was so wrong: her entire talk was a well-researched and moving tribute to her dad and his contributions to gay liberation. Once again, as so often happens at this festival, I came away more impressed by an author than I had been before I’d seen and listened to him/her speak from a podium.
After Alysia’s presentation, I left the Festival to make a pit stop at the annual sale at Books Again, a used book store located across from Decatur High School. Usually I find books to buy there, but not this year: the only temptation – even on sale, beyond my price range – was a coffee-table book about the canals of France. At next year’s sale, perhaps it would behoove me to take along with me to the bookstore my recently-begun list of Books Cal Wants to Read?
My final session for the day, and of the festival, was another wonderful experience: Clyde Edgerton’s reading from his hysterically funny Pappadaddy’s Book for New Fathers: Advice to Dads of All Ages. It’s been a long time since I laughed out loud so many times during such a short talk. Edgerton preceded and followed his reading and his extemporised remarks by singing a few songs he’d recently written, accompanying himself on guitar. One song was something about mamas not letting their children play with chickens; another was entitled “How Does a Glass Eye Work?” Hilarious.
Later on Saturday, I joined several of Franklin Abbott’s friends for dinner at Franklin’s house to talk about our respective Festival experiences. It was certainly interesting to hear about the sessions others had attended that I had missed, and to compare notes about our reactions to the sessions we’d all enjoyed together. The Festival sessions are so stimulating that being able to “de-brief” with other Festival-goers – especially such congenial ones – was an extra Festival-related treat this year.
Why I Love The DBF
Atlanta hosts numerous festivals each year, most of which have become so crowded with human festival-goers and so stroller- and/or pet-infested that I avoid them. There are several reasons I make sure I’m around every year to attend the Decatur Book Festival:
- The authors and panelists are always excellent, and often surprisingly entertaining and creative and surprising.
- Authors from the South are often featured, and bring with them that “Southren” sensibility that’s fun to revel in from time to time.
- The sheer amount and variety of talent assembled: over 300 (!) authors of every kind of book you can imagine – detective novels, romance novels, literary fiction, children’s picture books, biography, religion, self-help, all manner of nonfiction, literary criticism, poetry. There’s so much to choose from, and so much of personal interest that I always end up being exposed to a mere fraction of the people I’d’ve liked to have heard.
- The sheer festiveness of the Festival – the vendors’ tents, the food on offer, and the diversity – ethnicity-wise, age-wise, gender-wise – and high spirits of the attendees. This year, there were more performance arts (dance and theatre) events mixed in with the literary sessions than in previous festivals – although, inexplicably, there were no street musicians (like the Celtic harpists, for example, who I had thoroughly enjoyed in previous years).
- Seeing – all during a single weekend – people from disparate arenas in my life – all of us simulaneously enjoying the same festive Festival.
- Realizing how many people there are in this town who apparently still value books and who still apparently read the damn things! (Maybe the effort I invest in maintaining my Atlanta Booklover’s Blog isn’t a total waste of time?)
- The festival’s convenient and pleasant environment. All DBF events take place within a single (if somewhat sprawling) pedestrian-friendly area with plenty of shade; one can park one’s vehicle once (or take MARTA); and despite the crowds, it’s possible to find a restaurant (or a food truck) to have lunch at without leaving the Festival area.
- How well-organized the Festival is. The legions of volunteers responsible for getting the Festival events started (and ended) on time are obviously well-trained, and the Festival’s website is comprehensive and reliable.
It was great fun attending the DBF this year, I’ve enjoyed it in years past, and I hope the Festival has a long run in years to come.