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Literary stars shine at Brooklyn Book Festival 2016

Long Live Book-lyn

September 19, 2016 By Mary Frost and Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Here's an aerial view of the action at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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Long live Book-lyn, the borough of writers.

Literary stars shone brightly at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival.

Saturday, Sept. 17 was Children’s Day. Writers and illustrators gave readings under tents and signed books for youngsters at MetroTech Commons in Downtown Brooklyn.

Sunday, Sept. 18 was the big day, with 300-plus authors appearing on more than a dozen stages at Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza plus numerous Brooklyn Heights venues.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The extravaganza presented by Brooklyn Book Festival Inc. and the Brooklyn Literary Council had heavy hitters in fiction and non-fiction on its roster, including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Ralph Nader and Joyce Carol Oates. New voices with debut books were well-represented, too.

Jacqueline Woodson, author of more than two dozen books including “Brown Girl Dreaming,” her memoir, was awarded the festival’s Best of Brooklyn (BoBi) Award.

Vendors such as the London Review of Books and Greenlight Bookstore from Fort Greene set up shop under white tents.

This is New York City’s largest free literary event, proudly put together in B’klyn.

Bookend Events that were ancillary to the festival took place from Sept. 12 through 18.

Here’s a sampling from the smorgasbord of thought-provoking panel discussions and readings, which drew thousands of people.

‘Let Me Show You My World’

A Sunday, Sept. 18 Brooklyn Book Festival panel discussion “Let Me Show You My World” featured three authors who craft their stories using both words and pictures — Faith Erin Hicks, creator of  “The Nameless City;” graphic novelist Laurent Linn, author of “Draw the Line;” and Ethan Young, creator of the comic  novel “Bridget Lee.”

The reader can put himself or herself into a graphic novel more easily than in other mediums, Linn said.

“You can pore over every image at your own pace,” he said.

Linn spoke of giving young readers the tools to deal with their struggles.

“Whatever you’re mocked for, it’s actually a strength,” he said.

Linn also gave advice to the many aspiring writers who packed the audience. When writing and illustrating, “Everything in a book has to have a purpose,” he said.

He also spoke about the “unconscious influences” that go into creating.

“This book wrote me more than I wrote this book,” he said.

“Sci-fi is the one genre where you can throw the rules out,” Young said. For example, “When something happens so far in the future that no one even remembers it, it’s a clean slate.”

Young said that because he had to learn both English and Cantonese simultaneously, he found it easier to express himself through comics.
“With comics, you absorb and participate at your own pace,” he said.

He added, “Comics are my medium because I suck at other things.”

Hicks spoke about the need for “lots of background research” to give the story a foundation, and

explained her take on comics.

“Comics are the control-freak medium,” she said. “It’s the closest you can get to having a projector in your brain.”

She extolled publishing on the Internet because it’s “free and easy.”

Compared to web comics, “book comics are less free. The mediums are very different,” she said.

Bookend Events

A full menu of Bookend events — readings, screenings and all manner of artistic performances — took place in bars, book shops and outdoor settings in the buildup to Sunday’s event.

Bestselling children’s author R.L. Stine (“Goosebumps”) held a reading for kids in Brooklyn Bridge Park; Ann Patchett read from her seventh novel “Commonwealth” at Greenlight Bookstore. The Bushwick Book Club presented music and performances inspired by Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude” in the Archway under the Manhattan Bridge; the Liars’ League NYC created a selection of short stories performed by actors, with musical accompaniment, at the 68 Jay Street Bar.

(From left) Moderator Courtney Hodell and authors Lynn Crosbie, Mark de Silva and Alexandra Kleeman combine literary fiction and fun fiction in their writing, and discuss it at the panel "High Brow, Low Brow." Photo by Lisa Frost

‘Unsung Heroines’

Somebody described Desiree Cooper’s short-story collection, “Know the Mother,” as “glum.”Cooper’s got an answer for that.

“Happy mothers are for Hallmark. There’s plenty of that around here,” she said during a Sunday, Sept. 18 Brooklyn Book Festival panel on the North Stage on Cadman Plaza East.  

Cooper is a poet and fiction writer, and former lawyer, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and Detroit community activist.

The stories in her book, which was published this past March, address “the issue of what happens when gender asserts itself when you least expect it,” she said.

“Women live a lot of dimensions of their lives in secret.”

Cooper read an excerpt from “Know the Mother” about a pregnant lawyer who has a miscarriage during a conference call at work and doesn’t say a word to anyone there about what has happened.

“We don’t talk about the super-vulnerability of women in their navigation of normal life in American society,” Cooper told the audience.

Later, she added, “I would love the stories just to be touch points for women to start talking to each other.”

Novelists Alexander Chee and Irina Reyn also took part in the panel discussion, titled “Unsung Heroines.”

Chee has something in common with the protagonist of  his novel “The Queen of the Night,” 19th-Century opera star Lilliet Berne. She is a Falcon soprano — which means she has an extremely rare voice of exceptional quality, but it’s fragile and could fail her.

“I was a boy soprano,” Chee said. “When you’re a boy soprano, you know your voice will leave. It’s a given.”

Women back then, especially in France, had so few freedoms, he said.

“In order to have any at all, they had to be celebrities. So in a sense, they had to become these kind of supernatural beings, just to have anything like most of the rights that men had. [Berne’s] voice is her protection from being treated as an ordinary woman.”

In that era, women couldn’t have bank accounts or own land.

“If a wife ran away from her husband, she was returned to him by the police like she was property,” he explained.

“The Queen of the Night” was published this past February.  

‘Remember All That? A Look Back at New York City’

The AIDS activists of yesteryear were really something.

They lay down in traffic in the middle of the street. They took over government buildings.

Their years-long protests ultimately brought about change, and the development of medical treatments for the killer disease.

“It’s just such an incredible story, what activists did in this city starting in the late 1980s,” Tim Murphy said at a Sunday, Sept. 18 Brooklyn Book Festival panel at Brooklyn Historical Society Library.

“It just felt so epic to me.”

His novel “Christodora,” which was published this past August, weaves their story into a complex narrative that bounces back and forth in time, covering four decades in all.

Murphy is a journalist who has covered the AIDS epidemic for two decades.

Novelists Sari Wilson and Pia Padukone also took part in the panel discussion, titled “Remember All That? A Look Back at New York City.”

Wilson, who grew up in Brooklyn Heights and trained to be a ballerina in Manhattan, has written a debut novel called “Girl Through Glass.” It was published this past January.

It’s about the dance world of 1970s New York.

“I tried to write a memoir and failed disastrously. I’ve learned that I’m a fiction writer,” she said.

‘American Angst and Anxiety’

Helen Ellis has a magic weapon for dealing with nosy people at parties.

It’s the word “housewife.”

When they ask, “What do you do?” that’s her answer.

“It really does shut a conversation down,” Ellis said at a Sunday, Sept. 18 Brooklyn Book Festival panel at Brooklyn Law School’s Student Lounge.

Her hilarious and sinister book “American Housewife” is a collection of short stories about what goes on at home when husbands are at work. “Every story in the book is, in my opinion, a turf war,” she said. “Every lady is the queen of her castle.”  

The book was published this past January.

Her debut novel, “Eating the Cheshire Cat,” came out in 2000. She wrote books after that which didn’t get published.

“I was allowed to fail many, many times because the one thing that was there for 20 years was my marriage,” she said.

Novelists Tracy O’Neill and Emma Straub also took part in the panel discussion, titled “American Angst and Anxiety.”

O’Neill’s debut novel, “The Hopeful,” about a young woman who wants to be an Olympic figure skater, was published in June 2015.

O’Neill figure-skated as a child. While researching the novel, she found a book for aspiring skaters with a tip on how to keep slender that sounds like it was written by an anorexic: “Sometimes you’ll be hungry. Don’t capitulate.”
Straub, whose latest novel, “Modern Lovers,” was published this past May, talked about what causes her agita in real life.

“I have very small children. So my biggest angst-producer at the moment is time — like where does time exist for me to use my brain?

“But there’s this really amazing invention called school that my big one is now big enough for. That is thrilling.”

‘We the People’

Immigrant authors had some choice words for Donald Trump, who has famously said a wall should be built along the Mexican border to keep immigrants from coming north to America — and Mexico should pay for it.

But the Republican presidential candidate wasn’t the only target for criticism.

At a Sunday, Sept. 18 Brooklyn Book Festival panel at Brooklyn Law School’s Moot Courtroom,  José Orduña called Trumpism “incredibly frightening” as a political ethos and added, “Across the political spectrum, immigrants don’t have a lot of strong allies that really do much beyond offer rhetorical acknowledgment.”  

Mexican-born Orduña is the author of “The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration & Displacement,” which was published in paperback this past April.

Another author on the panel, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, said of President Obama, “The nickname ‘Deporter-in-Chief’ is given with cause. Obama has overseen more deportations during his presidency than the past 19 U.S. presidencies combined.”

Padilla Peralta’s memoir, “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League,” was published in July 2015. He is now an assistant classics professor at Princeton.

Kao Kalia Yang was also a participant in the panel, which was titled “We the People.”

The author, the daughter of Hmong refugees, lives in Minneapolis, where she is a writer, teacher, and public speaker. She graduated from Carleton College and Columbia.

Her most recent book, “The Song Poet,” which is about her father, was published this past May.


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