Reading and roasting at the National Book Festival ’10

It was with no small amount of enthusiasm that I bounded up to this year’s National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., an event I’d been eagerly anticipating since having so much fun last September. But unlike last year, I didn’t go into this year’s events with a carefully-scheduled game plan. As per my recent realignment in thinking, I wanted to just play it by ear. See where the wind took us. And, you know, where we could avoid the blazing sun by ducking into one of the massive tents before the U.S. Capitol.

But because I can’t totally shy away from my OCD-like tendencies, Spencer and I wandered over to an information booth to grab a program and create a semblance of a plan for the day. Every event requires some planning, friends, or you wind up wandering aimlessly. And doing nothing in particular.

Suzanne Collins, esteemed author of The Hunger Games and, most recently, Mockingjay, was the first writer I wanted to catch. We arrived at the Teens & Children tent in time to see author Brad Meltzer finish speaking, and he was totally hilarious. Humble, self-deprecating — and he even had me in tears while recounting the story of sharing his recent children’s read, Heroes For My Son, with the very child in question.

Collins was the main event here, though, and Meltzer acknowledged that with chagrin. When she appeared following his talk, gaggles of kids began to scream as if a rock star was rising from beneath the stage in a haze of smoke and screaming guitars. A little boy and girl a few rows ahead of us cheered while waving copies of Mockingjay in the air.

It was definitely an event.

Though she never seemed visibly ill at ease, Collins didn’t exactly come across as warm and fuzzy. And while I can’t say I’d be completely comfortable, witty and charming while sweating on a stage in front of hundreds of eager faces, she didn’t really seem eager to chat with fans. While taking questions after her talk about writing life and the dangers of being too much of a voyeur — particularly in regard to reality television — she almost came across as flip, though I can’t really cite a specific example of why. As we discussed later at a book blogger dinner, I don’t think anyone walked away feeling like she’d endeared herself to them.

Since I was already sweating like a pig and it wasn’t even noon, Spencer and I decided to duck into the nearby National Gallery of Art, one of my favorite places in D.C., to cool off before seeing the main man of my hour (and day): Jonathan Safran Foer. We fortified ourselves with plenty of fluids, some turkey and soup and wandered around the gallery, taking in the sights and people watching. Lord knows some interesting folks wander those hallowed halls, and I cringed after catching a glimpse of a star-spangled fanny pack.

Not to go off on a tangent here, friends, but what’s with the fanny packs? Scores of people circled me with the ugly bags around their middles on Saturday, and I’d really believed — up until that point — that it was some myth, a total stereotype, about Americans. But not so. And I honestly don’t fancy myself some holier-than-thou fashionista, but fanny packs really make me want to gag.

But I completely digress.

I was anxious to get to the Contemporary Life tent in plenty of time for Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2 p.m. talk, so Spence and I braved the heat again after a solid two hours in blessed air conditioning. And we did — in the third row! Seating at the National Book Festival is always an adventure, especially since there’s rarely enough of it for every audience member who shows up for each author. If you resign yourself early to the fact that you’ll probably be standing most of the day, things seem to go smoother — and if you do get a seat? All the better. And getting a seat for my man Foer? Priceless.

After catching the end of Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, I felt an elbow nudge me. Foer had arrived on a golf cart driven by one of the festival volunteers, and he looked exactly the way I expected: in a collared shirt, casual but still classic; fitted jeans; loafers. His signature glasses and artfully unkempt hair rounded out the look, and I went all stalker/paparazzi on the poor guy by zooming in as close as possible with my point-and-shoot before he even stepped out of the sunshine. Cute, I thought. Definitely cute. Definitely still my literary crush.

But buddy was short.

Your position as Man I Most Love and Want to Smooch is safe, Spencer. In addition to being awesome in a hundred different ways, you’re taller than 5’6″. This works well for me.

I’m a tremendous fan of Foer’s fiction — which includes the stellar Everything Is Illuminated and haunting Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — but I haven’t picked up his latest work, Eating Animals. The latter is non-fiction, see, and I’m used to Foer the Novelist — an adept guy who really pierces you in the heart through prose. Eating Animals is “a characteristically brilliant memoir-investigation, boasting an exhaustively-argued account of one man-child’s decade-long struggle with vegetarianism,” according to Amazon.

And me? Well, I like meat. Chicken, beef, turkey — you name it, I can probably ingest it. Gladly.

I wanted to gaze upon Foer’s gorgeous mug but didn’t want to be lectured like a 2-year-old, told in no uncertain terms that the way I live is immoral, unhealthy or both. I’m open to new ideas, yes, but I was afraid that given the controversial nature of a book dealing with, well, eating animals, I was in for some uncomfortable talk.

But that wasn’t to be, thankfully. Nor did my fears that he’d be aloof, condescending or “above it all” come to pass. I found Foer to be interesting, which I expected — but also approachable, which I did not. Hearing him read passages from the book regarding his grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust, was moving — and, as always, I was sucked right in by his language. With one foot crossed over the other at the podium, Foer seemed remarkably comfortable and happy to engage in “conversation,” as he called it, when the crowd was prompted for questions. He answered each thoughtfully, especially when asked by a woman in the audience for the meat industry’s reaction to Eating Animals. His response? There was no response from the industry, actually, which disappointed him.

And I’m pretty sure Foer could read me the street names from a road atlas and I’d be all ears, panting and embarrassing myself in front of my own boyfriend.

But now, now — I was a good girl. No panties were thrown. It was tough, friends, but I managed to not act like a raving lunatic. And though I probably won’t be converting to vegetarianism anytime soon, Foer stressed that stopping the practice of eating meat is not what he’s advocating; it’s ending the cruelty of animals, limiting our intake of certain foods that could harm us, and so forth. Basically, stuff that pretty much everyone can agree is a good thing — whether you’re carnivore, omnivore; male, female; human, robot.

Or, well, not robot; robots don’t eat. But let’s roll with it.

So basically, Foer was awesome fun — and I even spotted Jamie of The Broke and the Bookish in the crowd after seeing her updates on Twitter! She snagged a great place in line to meet Foer later at his book signing and recapped her experience here. Yeah, that sickly green tint to my skin? It’s jealousy. Pure jealousy. Outshone only by the slight sunburn I got that day.



Spencer and I veered off the beaten path after Foer’s talk, winding our way over to E Street to check out Penn Camera. Back at the festival an hour or so later, we snagged seats in the Poetry & Prose tent for authors Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector, and Jane Smiley, well known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, among others. Goodman was funny and sweet, talking about her writing process and inspiration behind her latest novel, and even copped to being a collector of cookbooks while never actually cooking any dishes. Smiley was interesting, too, though her very long reading from Private Life, her latest novel, began to melt my brain after a while. It was really hot. I was really tired . . . and getting confused. But it was fun all the same.

We wrapped up our day downtown by hoofing it over to the Elephant & Castle, where we met up with some fabulous book bloggers and partook in some “adult beverages,” as Swapna put it! My skin finally cooled while talking books with some lovely ladies and fellow book bloggers, and again I was struck by how immediately comfortable I am with my bookish friends. Conversation flowed easily as we talked about everything under the sun: our own blogs; our “real” jobs; our families; our homes. Audio books. Favorite authors. Modern-day “classics.” It was wonderful seeing Celeste, Cecelia, Candace, Deborah, Heather, Sondra, Swapna and Julie, and I was equally excited to introduce Spencer to the group. Now he knows this whole “blogging” thing is for real! (See photos of all of us at dinner.)

Thanks, ladies, for a great evening — and thanks to the Library of Congress for a great event. By the end of the day I was sweaty, sticky and exhausted, but I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Thanks, too, to my dad for driving us all the way downtown — then picking us back up at the end of the night! He’s a trooper, just like my patient boyfriend. Thanks for spending a humid, book-filled day with me, Spence. I know I still owe you for The Pioneer Woman, but you know I’m good for it.

Many (many!) more of my photos from the event are up on Flickr.