John Green and the power of reading generously

John Green’s the sort of guy you expect to be profound.

When my boyfriend and I went to see him at the National Book Festival last Saturday, I knew we’d stumbled into something. At 20 minutes to his scheduled speaking time, the giant tent we were all sweating under was rapidly filling. We couldn’t get any closer than the hinterlands to the right of the stage, but that was all right; there was palpable energy before Green, a popular young adult author, took the stage. I was just glad we’d made it.

Spencer laughed, looking around at the crowd of female teens and 20- to 60-somethings alike. When Green appeared, the tent exploded in cheers and screams — and I turned to grin at my boyfriend. I’d told him little about Green beforehand; just that he was the one author I absolutely had to see this year. “I forgot to mention he’s good-looking,” I added.

In person, Green — the author of books like Looking For Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines — is as effortlessly funny, cool and nerdy chic as you’d imagine. He spoke about writing, life and love — all topics the audience savored. One of his best moments came as an audience member asked him about a quote from one of his works: “Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” Green explained he couldn’t take credit for it . . . that his now-wife was the mastermind behind that philosophical gem.

Definitely endeared him to me.

Talking about the gifts readers and writers exchange, Green joked, “You give me two gifts. One is money,” he laughed, “and my family appreciates that.” And the other? The gift of our generous reading. That’s what struck me most about that morning — this idea of approaching a work with an open mind. That’s what he most hoped his readers would bring to the table: this generous spirit, especially with The Fault In Our Stars; the willingness to give a book a chance.

Ignoring the hype. Ignoring negative reviews. Coming into a novel with a desire to take it for what it is — and to enjoy it simply on its own merits. If we’re biased from the start, we open a new book and think, “‘I’m going to hate this,’” said Green. “And when we’re finished, we say, ‘Well, I did it! I hated it.’”

I’m guilty of this. After a book generates buzz, either positive or negative, I’ll occasionally pick it up to see what the fuss is all about. I expect it will be terrible and, surprise! It’s terrible. I’ve wasted my time, annoyed myself and often warn others away from it.

But other times? I surprise myself. I pick up something outside the realm of my “traditional” reading and am shocked to find . . . I like it. Like graphic novels. I recently guest-posted at The Estella Society about this very topic: trying something for the first time with the expectation I’ll hate it, and then shocking myself. Having to admit I actually loved it. That’s sort of how I was with audio books, too — hesitant or even disdainful, but now a complete convert.

And I want to be more generous with my reading. I often find myself dissolving so completely in my book snobbery that I’m not capable of expanding into anything new, and I don’t like that about myself — especially when I get on my high horse with others. How often have I recommended Green’s books themselves, especially to those who think they’re “too old” for young adult fiction?

So that’s my goal for the rest of 2012 — and beyond: reading generously. Giving things a chance. Getting out of my little bookish hole to expand, expand! Trying something new without expecting to hate it. That might mean I’ll be selecting books outside my “normal” scope of literary of women’s fiction, but that will make it all the sweeter.

Because as we speak, I’m halfway through three books: The Worst Hard Time (non-fiction about the Great American Dust Bowl); Paper Towns (John Green, young adult!); and The Paris Wife, my current audio, which is historical fiction based on Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage.

See, I’m diversifying. I can feel it!

Wordless Wednesday: National Book Festival and the White House

On Saturday and Sunday, readers and other bookish types flocked downtown for the National Book Festival. Though I didn’t spend as much time there as in the past, we dodged some raindrops and heard a few authors speak in between playing tourist at other famous sites — like the White House.

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.


National Book Festival promises to be a good ol’ bookish time

Taking a short break from all the BBAW festivities today to mention an event I’m incredibly excited about: the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.!

After last year’s rainy day, I’m hoping for some decent early fall weather — because we have an all-star literary cast coming to town. With the likes of Isabel Allende, Diana Gabaldon, Julia Glass, Ken Follett, Jonathan Franzen (oh, the controversy!), Allegra Goodman, Suzanne Collins and my crush to end all crushes, Jonathan Safran Foer, it’s sure to be a fun time. (Check out the full list of featured authors for more.)

Held from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, rain or shine, the National Book Festival is a great way to see authors you’ve admired for years, listen to plenty of literary talk and meet other book-loving folks in the nation’s capital. The festivities are happening between 3rd and 7th Streets downtown.

I’m about 45 minutes outside the city and taking the Metro in, where I’ll spend the day dragging Spencer to a seat where I can ogle Foer and try to snap non-blurry photos while he talks about how it’s bad to eat animals. That might be awkward for me, but we’ll roll with it.

Like last year, Swapna of S. Krishna’s Books is organizing a post-event dinner for book bloggers in attendance — and I hope you can make it! Spence and I will be at Elephant & Castle, a nearby British-style pub with awesome soft pretzels, and you can get all those details here. Submit the form to Swapna by Sept. 19 so we have a way to reach one another, if desired, and hopefully grab some grub after the festival winds down.

I’ll be live tweeting from the event using the hashtag #nbf; follow me @writemeg! Twitter can be a great way to reach me on event day, too, if you’d like to track me down. Unlike the Book Blogger Convention, I haven’t yet decided what I’ll be wearing . . . that will depend on whether or not we get a nice, sunny day. Not the Power Dress, that I know, but I’ll keep you posted.

And I’ll have an epic recap. I mean, that’s what I do.

Jonathan Safran Foer might be a jerk, but I kind of still love him

An interesting discussion broke out on Twitter yesterday — as interesting discussions are wont to do — between the wonderful Andi of Estella’s Revenge and yours truly. After I noticed the list of attendees for this year’s National Book Festival had been posted, I gleefully announced my excitement over the prospect of seeing Jonathan Safran Foer, an author I’ve respected and admired for years.

Er, well, that’s basically what I said.

(If you want a history of the whole #pantyworthy thing, stop by The Book Lady’s Blog
Rebecca’s the originator. And it was too apt to not include.)

Anywho, friends, I sent out my gleeful tweet and started pondering the ways in which I would get close enough to touch Jonathan Safran Foer’s little writing fingers (is that creepy? Am I weird?) when Andi hit me back.

And this got me thinking. What do I see in Foer? I know many folks share Andi’s thoughts and I’ve certainly read enough interviews/reviews to know many think he’s pedantic, irreverent, conceited. Arrogant. Haughty. And so on.

Usually when someone is generally accepted to be a pretentious jerk, I run so far and fast from their work, you’d think I was headed to a Starbucks offering unlimited pumpkin spice lattes. But Foer? No. Not my Foer.

. . .  And why?

In the summer of 2006, I read Foer’s two novels to date: Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I might not have read them both that summer, but I read them in a very short time period while I was commuting to Washington, D.C., where I had an internship with a city newspaper.

My typing fingers were very busy that summer as I researched articles, made phone calls, interviewed locals and wrote, wrote, wrote. It was exhilarating. It was terrifying. At 20 years old, I felt like I was doing something. Going somewhere. Each morning as I left the commuter bus from Southern Maryland and stepped foot on K Street, I felt like a real, serious member of the world. I didn’t think journalism was for me — ironic, considering I’m now an editor and columnist at a newspaper — but I loved it all the same. In between the times I was so nervous about screwing things up, I feared I was having a panic attack.

As I made my daily trek from the suburbs to downtown D.C., I had plenty of time on the bus to do as I pleased — which, when I wasn’t napping, meant reading. It’s hard for me to now remember a world in which I didn’t blog about books, but for a while? Well, I read like a maniac — but never recorded a thing. The details of so many books I read during that time — four or five books a week — have softened, faded and dulled. I can’t tell you the plots, characters or settings. And I can barely recall what I read unless someone asks me about a specific book.

Foer’s novels, though, have remained whole, intact in my memory: souvenirs from my summer adventure. Everything Is Illuminated was a book I devoured over two days. It drew me in from page one, depositing me in a foreign world with a foreign narrator and enveloping me in this whacky, difficult quest. The flashbacks were disorienting; the language could be confusing. Sometimes? Well, honestly, I wasn’t sure what was going on.

But I fell in love. With the book. With the author.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, told from the perspective of a young New Yorker whose father died on Sept. 11, was in a completely different vein — but I loved it just the same. Some of the passages and images included, especially of the “Falling Man,” have haunted me. They hover just behind my eyelids before I fall asleep. It was such an emotional read, a book that has stuck with me. It was also the first novel I’d read that addressed Sept. 11, a subject which was still rough and raw — especially for people I knew, people who lived and worked and played in D.C. It seemed like every local community and town lost people in the Pentagon attacks; several of those we lost attended my high school.

It was hard.

So I did love the books. And, you know, I think he’s cute. (And I know he’s married and I’m all kinds of in love, too, so don’t worry about me waving Foer’s novels around and tryin’ to be a homewrecker.) But what is it that keeps me coming back to them, that makes me remember them with a sense of awe — and even reverence?

Well, it had to be the time period.

When I think of Everything Is Illuminated — actually think about the book — I picture myself propped up in a comfy seat, bent slightly over the creased novel I’d just taken from my work bag. I’m sweaty from walking down the street to catch the bus, the stickiness and nastiness of summer in Washington clinging to my dewy skin. I’m young, relieved to be done with the work day; I’m struggling to move forward, still nursing a broken heart. I reach deep into the novel to take me away, and it’s not long before I’m crying. The first novel to make me cry in public.

Remembering Foer’s books makes me remember that time in my life — a difficult time, but an exciting one. Young, still in college, with a whole lifetime before me — well, it makes me nostalgic. There’s no other way to put it.

Now, I’m not exactly washed up. At nearly 25, I have a job I enjoy, a great family, a handsome and ridiculously awesome boyfriend. I get to write and read for a living. I run this blog, my pretty baby, which has brought so many wonderful people into my life.

But looking back to that summer, well . . . it just makes me feel whimsical. For what was and what I knew would eventually be. I made new friends, new contacts — I worked in a real office. I had my own work number. I was in the city and worked near the White House. It was the year I came of age, if you will. And Foer’s books were a definitive part of that.

Now, whether the guy is actually a pretentious twit? Well, I’ll let you know come September. Don’t let me down, Jonathan. Please don’t let me down.

National Book Festival — soggy, but still good

nbf_signI made no secret about my excitement regarding this year’s National Book Festival, and I’m happy to say that not only did it live up to all my brain-generated hype — it exceeded it!

Not even the ominous-looking storm clouds could keep Dad and me from schlepping through Washington, D.C. in search of prominent authors. Being the incredibly organized, borderline obsessive-compulsive that I am, I’d created a schedule of where we should be to see which author — and even scheduled in some breaks! Each author spoke for thirty minutes at a clip, mostly discussing the research that had gone into their most recent book — like Jodi Picoult’s Handle With Care — or their process of writing.

Among the talented folks we heard speak were James L. Swanson (Manhunt: The Search For Lincoln’s Killer), famed Southern cook and Food Network personality Paula Deen, W. Ralph Eubanks (Ever Is A Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past), novelist Shannon Hale, poet Patricia Smith, Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita In Tehran: A Memoir In Books), novelist Judy Blume and famed historian Ken Burns.

capitol_crosswalkI really enjoyed hearing each of them speak — especially Eubanks, who chatted about his family’s history in the South, losing his Southern accent and then read from his memoir (which sounds amazing)! Paula Deen was as delightful and adorable as she is on TV, and definitely had the most audience participation! People were cheering for her like she was a rock star. And, in a way, I guess she is!

Dad made it to a few other talks while I popped over to the Library of Congress’s TweetUp where I met Jen of Biblio File, who was crazy nice and interesting! I’m pretty sure I acted like a fangirl, because I absolutely love her blog and didn’t expect to meet her! Not even the mud, my frizzing hair or lack of jacket could dampen my mood!

A definite highlight of the day was our book blogger dinner at Elephant & Castle that evening! It’s so funny to sit down at a table with a group of “strangers” you actually know. Any feeling of uneasiness or discomfort melted away the second we all started talking — because it was like we’d known each other for years! I guess in many cases, folks have known each for a while. I had such a great time chatting with the likes of Jill from Rhapsodyinbooks, Teresa from Shelf Love, My Friend Amy, Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog, Michelle from Galleysmith, Nicole of Linus’s Blanket, Deborah of Books, Movies & Chinese Food and Trish from Hey Lady, Whatcha Readin’?, as well as many other excellent ladies (and a gentleman!). I don’t think I could have spent an evening with a finer group of people, and I’m only sorry I had to leave as soon as I did. And that I didn’t get more pictures, but — you know.

I did snap a few . . . and I’m hoping more will surface! Because I realized I don’t have a single one of me from the entire day. I would have done my quintessential THUMBS UP! picture, but I was distracted all day. All glorious, bookish and fabulous day!

Want another take? Check out my dad’s tale.
And are you ready for photo overload? ‘Cause I am!


Tents on the mall


It's Paula Deen! WOO!

Shannon Hale speaks about her many fine books for middle-grade readers -- and the older crowd, too!

Shannon Hale speaks about her many fine books for middle-grade readers -- and the older crowd, too!


Sea of umbrellas in the book signing line

More waiting...

More waiting...

Trish tells us how it is!

Trish tells us how it is!

Book bloggers chatting it up!

Book bloggers chatting it up!

National Book Festival . . . or lack thereof

The wonderful Marisa de los Santos

I’m so bummed I have to work on Saturday and can’t make it to the National Book Festival downtown. On Saturday, Sept. 27, more than 70 authors are gathering on the Mall to read, sign their books and talk with readers through the afternoon.

I was super excited to see both Geraldine Brooks and Marisa de los Santos will be there, though I’ll be spending all day in an air-conditioned bookstore . . . and not out in the sunshine, talking about some of my favorite books with their authors! I just finished Brooks’ Year of Wonders and can’t stop raving about De los Santos’ Love Walked In and Belong To Me. I can’t praise her books highly enough — Belong To Me is definitely the sort of book that changes your perspectives on family, on relationships, on unconditional love and friendship. I know that’s a grand generalization gone horribly wrong, but I don’t know how to describe it other than to say . . . It’s amazing. Pick up one or both, but definitely give De Los Santos a chance.

And she’s going to be at the book festival! Get thee to D.C.! Too bad I can’t convince my employer that attendance at the festival should be mandatory . . . Hey, it’s research! And it’s only forty minutes or so away . . . I’ll see what sort of magic I can conjure up . . .