Once again I made sure I was in town for Labor Day Weekend so I could attend the annual Decatur Book Festival. And, once again, I was glad I did.
This now ten-year-old free, pedestrian-friendly celebration for All Things Bookish begins each year with a difficult-to-snag-tickets-for keynote address by a celebrity author (this year, Erica Jong). No Erica this year for Cal (no tickee).
The next two days of the Festival, however, I spent immersed in a congenial mixture of intellectual stimulation, lots of laughter, and the reassuring pleasure of mingling with throngs of people (of all ages) living in the Atlanta metro-area who obviously still care about books! (As a person who’s evangelized for many years now about The Joy of Reading at The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog, I sometimes despair over the relatively minute size of the current book-reading public.)
At any rate, it is always refreshing to be in a crowded public place where most people aren’t spending most of their time staring at their respective electronic mobile devices. There was some of that at the Festival, of course, but it wasn’t The Main Noticeable Thing, and that was a Festival-related highlight all by itself!
Day 1: Saturday, September 5th
I started DBF 2015 as I always do, frantically rummaging through the books on sale on the lawn of the Decatur Public Library. The Book Festival book sale is one of an annual series of book-sale fund-raisers for the Decatur Friends of the Library, and one where I consistently find plenty of bargains. This year I bought so many books (ten of them!) I could barely fit them into the storage compartment on the back of my motor scooter.
After the gratifying book sale I undertook the first of my repeated-throughout-the-day attempts to find a good seat for the upcoming author talk. This first event happened to be an interview in the auditorium of the public library with Barton Swaim, author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. Swaim regaled his audience with a deadpan retelling of several hilarious anecdotes, plus some thoughtful comments about the ethical binds faced by speechwriters working for virtually any U.S. politician (with the possible exception of John Lewis).
The next book festival event I chose to attend of the dozen or so on offer for the next time slot took place inside the handsomely-appointed former courtroom of Dekalb County’s old courthouse. On my way in, I first ducked into one of the three current exhibits at the old courthouse that are sponsored by the Dekalb History Center. The Center’s exhibit I saw Saturday was a salute to, of all things, the ranch style homes of the 1950s. This surprisingly informative exhibit included a meticulously re-created living room/den (complete with interior wrought-iron room dividers, console tv, and shag carpet!) plus a frightenly-Bismol-pink-tiled bathroom. Like so many of my generation, I grew up in just such a ranch-style house in an Atlanta (albeit Fulton County) suburb, so browsing this excellently-done exhibit triggered a lot of memories – good, bad, and ugly (how could so many of our parents willingly embraced that hideous Danish modern furniture and those super-prominent carports?).
The book talk upstairs highlighted several chapters in a book by Kenneth Davis entitled The Hidden History of America at War, turned out to be completely different than what I had expected. Rather than some semi-predictable anti-war (or glorification-of-war) rant, Davis devoted his talk to briefly retelling severl incidents from several U.S. wars that starkly illustrate the fact that Americans are taught an unfortunately simplistic, sanitized, self-congratulatory version of the history of our government’s wars. Besides being an articulate and engaging storyteller and speaker, the author’s knowledge, objectivity, and insistence on the complexities of wars in U.S. history were impressive. (Among the astonishing facts Davis mentioned in passing: 1 out of every 5 soldiers who fought in the American Revolution was an African-American. Who knew? And why, one wonders, were we not told this in our U.S. history classes?)
Next up, after a brisk walk through several blocks worth of the Festival’s vendor tents, was a brilliantly concise – and hilarious – romp (complete with a Power Point presentation) through the fascinating story of how black holes were originally conceptualized by physicists, and what we’ve subsequently learned about them. This program featured Marcia Bartusiak, author of Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved.
This program was followed, after another walk through the vendor area back to the public library’s auditorium, by a staged reading of a short play, Tommorrow Is Another Day by Atlanta History Center director of theater Addae Moon. The setting: the apartment of Atlanta novelist Margaret Mitchell and her husband John Marsh, on a morning in December 1939, two days before the movie version of Mitchell’s famous book premiers in Atlanta’s Lowe’s Theater. Jessie, Mitchell’s African-American housekeeper of many years, has almost finished reading Mitchell’s book, and Mitchell asks Jessie for her opinion of it. What Jessie tells Mitchell and her husband makes for compelling theater!
After the thought-provoking staged reading, I had just enough time – and found just enough shade – before the next book event to snarf down a quick (if expensive) lunch from one of the food trucks servicing the festival. Then I raced over to the next festival event: an excellently-moderated panel discussion featuring four of the many authors who contributed wildly different memoirs to the recently-published anthology Crooked-Letter I: Coming Out in the South. Every single person on this panel was exceptionally articulate, intelligent, and engaging. Their stories and perspectives as well as their obvious integrity and humility made me proud to be part of the GLBTQ tribe.
My final festival event of Day 1: Jamie Brickhouse, the author of Life, Me, and Mom, was interviewed by popular local public radio station personality John Lemley. Brickhouse’s memoir is a sort of love letter by the recovered alcoholic author to his (now-deceased) mom, a self-made, dyed-in-the-wool Southern dynamo from Beaumont, Texas. Brickhouse’s career as (among other things) a standup comic was evident in his hilarious responses to Lemley’s questions; as Brickhouse narrates the audio version of the book, I might want to listen to his book instead of reading it!
Day 2: Sunday, September 6th
The final day of the Festival was, for me, a shorter one. I spent my morning helping others staff the library book sale at the local Quaker meetinghouse, so I was unable to listen to science fiction author Samuel Delaney’s talk at the Festival. Instead, I stopped for lunch at The Thinking Man’s Tavern, an eatery I’d never tried before that’s located between the Meetinghouse and Decatur.
My first of only three of Sunday’s Festival events was a panel in the recently-refurbished Decatur Recreation Center that featured an interview with two authors who’ve written books about about the heyday of gay life (well, a particular subset of it, anyway) in New York City in the late 1970s: Robert Goolrick (author, most recently, of the novel The Fall of Princes) and Brad Gooch (author, most recently, of the memoir Smash Cut. I hadn’t heard ofGoolrick before, but I had seen Gooch at a previous Festival, just after he’d come out with his biography of Flannery O’Connor.
One of the many pleasures of attending the Decatur Book Festival is crossing paths unexpectedly with other Festival-goers. Sometimes I’ll be lucky enough to actually chat with these friends or acquaintances for a bit. This happened three times for me at this year’s Festival. One friend, local writing coach Wayne Smith, had rented a tent at the Festival, so we were able to spend a few minutes talking when I was on my way to or from an event on the street where his tent was located. At one of the Saturday Festival programs, I got to sit beside and visit awhile with my former co-worker and fellow conspirator with the Georgia LGBTQ Archives Project, Ann Edmonds. On Sunday, I ran into Lewis Fuller, one of several fellow attendees of the local Quaker congregation who were also attending this year’s Festival. We were able to sit together at one of Sunday’s programs and, much to our mutual surprise, Lewis and I discovered that we’d both been undergraduates – in different but not-too-remote-from-each-other eras – at Mercer University. It was fun for us to figure out which Mercer faculty members we both remembered, etc.
(Incidentally, I discovered mid-way through the weekend that also attending this year’s Festival was one of my favorite bookloving fellow bloggers, D.C.-based Thomas Otto. After enjoying reading Thomas’s excellent blog for so many years, it would’ve been fun to have actually met Thomas,. Had I spotted him amongst the throng, I’d’ve introduced myself and thanked him for a book Thomas mailed to me a few months ago as a prize in a book giveaway contest Thomas had conducted at his blog.)
After the Goolrick/Gooch program, I traversed a definitely-more-sweltering-than-Saturday downtown Decatur toward the next program I’d chosen to attend, pausing midway for a welcome air conditioning break inside the old courthouse, where I had plenty of time between Festival events to study another Dekalb History Center exhibit there, “Tears and Curses,” about the county’s history during the U.S. Civil War. Very sobering, of course, especially the excerpts of the first-hand reports of some of the Decatur-area civilians caught in the nightmare that was the Battle of Atlanta.
Sauntering on down from the old courthouse to the Mariott’s conference center, I scored a second-row seat for my second of two science-related Festival presentations this year, a talk by the married couple Jeff Kanipe and Alexandra Witze, co-authors of Island on Fire:The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World. Everything these two personable geologists had to say about volcanoes, and about the particular volcanic eruption in 1793 that their book focuses on, was news to me, and extremely interesting.
My final Festival event took place in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, the spacious venue for many a local literary event that I’ve attended over the years. The aforementioned John Lemley introduced the speaker, Christopher Moore, whose latest novel, Secondhand Souls, is one of over a dozen he’s written (the most notorious of which is probably Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. I knew of Moore’s books only because of my work as a former librarian, and have never read any of them. If Moore’s books are anywhere near as hilarious as Moore is in person, I may need to track one down.
Sitting next to me at the Christopher Moore talk was my bookloving (especially cookbook-loving) friend Kris Kane. After comparing Festival-going notes, we decided to have dinner together at one of our usual dining-out restaurants, Athens Pizza. Then I scootered home to examine the ten coffee-table books I’d bought at the previous day’s library book sale: a relaxing conclusion to a stimulating weekend!
Photos in this blogpost obtained from ye Internet
My blogpost about the 2013 Decatur Book Festival is here