By Bella Stander
Although the fact that Charlottesville hosts the Virginia Festival of the Book was an inducement to my moving here in late 1995, this year was the first time I was able to go. Feeling like a kid in a candy shop, I wallowed through the 176 listings in the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ event schedule, proud of my self-restraint when I picked a mere twenty-three programs to attend over the course of four days. Reality -- and fatigue -- set in and I ultimately went to fourteen; never was there better relief from incessant rain. Herewith are some highlights:
Thursday, 4 pm: The festival began last night, but I start off with a bang by going to a program featuring a writer I’ve been wanting to meet since I read his first book ten years ago: Tony Horwitz, whose latest is Confederates in the Attic. The white-columned Central Library, an archetypal Southern building if ever there was one, is a fitting site for a discussion on “Echoes of the Civil War.” Upstairs in the McIntire Room, Horwitz and Carrie Allen McCray, author of a memoir of her activist mother, Freedom’s Child, sit flanking moderator Henry Wiencek, himself a history writer. They face a quietly attentive audience of about fifty-five, far fewer than I’d expected in a town where, as another transplanted Yankee put it, “people talk as though the Civil War just finished last Tuesday.” In explaining why the first book his Russian Jewish grandfather purchased after he immigrated -- and was still poring over at age 101 -- was a collection of Civil War photographs, Horwitz quotes Robert Penn Warren, “Experiencing the appeal of the Civil War is part of becoming American.”
But the war isn’t equally appealing to all Americans. McCray, whose maternal grandparents were a Confederate general and a former slave, says, “I had to put down my anger in order to write.” Later she tells how seeing the Confederate battle flag fills her with terror. Weincek asks whether the U.S. should apologize for slavery. “Who you going to apologize to?” McCray rejoins. “I can’t blame anyone living for slavery. If we work towards trying to get the two races side by side peacefully, that’s enough.” The last word from the audience underscores just how much the war’s echoes are still reverberating today: A man declares that he’s proud of what the Stars and Bars stands for and doesn’t see why he shouldn’t fly it where he wants. How much work we have yet to do.
8 pm: I really want to hear Stanley Karnow discuss his memoir, Paris in the Fifties, but feel I should go to the main event: readings by poet Nikki Giovanni, and novelists Sheri Reynolds and Russell Banks. I compromise and decide to catch half of each. A handful from the audience of 300-odd walk out of the theatre when it’s announced that Giovanni has cancelled due to illness, then an effervescent Reynolds bounces up to the podium. Explaining that she has a sore throat from pretending to be Janis Joplin the night before, she launches into the opening of A Gracious Plenty, told by a disfigured cemetery caretaker who communicates with the dead. From the first sentence, “I’ve been old all my life,” I’m spellbound—and so is the rest of the audience. After such a magical experience, Russell Bank's dry reading of a chapter from Cloudsplitter, his new novel about John Brown, is a letdown, so I dash out.
9 pm: Having first gotten lost, I arrive at the UVa Bookstore and fly upstairs, only to hear Karnow briefly answer an inaudible question and bid the audience goodnight. I buy his book, and while he signs it I apologize for coming so late and explain why. “I don’t believe in going to readings,” he says. “It’s better to just read the book.” In the parking garage a few minutes later, after telling me what I should read, among other unsolicited -- and very funny -- advice, with a wry grin he counsels me to take a couple of aspirins and my guilt about missing his talk will be gone by morning. As he gets into his car, ever the brash New Yorker, he calls out, “Give me a plug in your article!”
Friday Noon: The ballroom at the Omni is crammed with 320 people for the Annual VABook! Luncheon. Before we eat, we have the usual speeches, including one extolling Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as “leaders and readers” that has me and my tablemates studiously avoiding each other's eyes for fear of bursting into guffaws. Such a banal beginning has me dreading the after-lunch speech and my heart sinks when featured speaker John Casey, two copies of whose latest novel, The Half-Life of Happiness (not coincidentally set in Charlottesville) are the centerpiece of each table, gets to the podium and stutters painfully. Then he reads from his notes and his voice soars out unimpeded in a sonorous, occasionally raspy, baritone as he describes in English and French the joys of a youth spent immersed in literature. I go back out into the wet dazzled by Casey’s intellectual pyrotechnics.
2:10 pm: I arrive at the McIntire Room for “Historical Fiction: Authors’ Perspectives,” where Russell Banks is reading (still?) from Cloudsplitter. The room is packed with almost 150 people, half of them men -- the highest proportion I’ve seen at the festival -- which surprises me, as I’d thought of women as being the primary readers of historical fiction. Mary Lee Settle reads from Know Nothing, Book 3 of the Beulah Quintet, like Cloudsplitter set during the Kansas wars between slavers and abolitionists. I prefer her vision of the past . . .or is it the way she sounds? Maybe Karnow has a point after all, and I should just read the books. Led by one of the VFH’s cadre of erudite and seemingly tireless moderators, Banks and Settle discuss their approach to historical fiction. Settle gets nods of agreement when she observes, “History is too important to be left to historians,” as does Banks when he adds that it “is the door into the world of fiction.” Then he announces, “I have no qualms about changing facts,” and the nodding stops. The audience, ever polite Charlottesvillians, emits nary a peep, but people discuss this bombshell for the rest of the festival.
8 pm: Along with 509 others, I brave yet another torrential downpour to attend “An Evening of Poetry” with past and current U.S. Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky. Hometown favorite Dove, luscious in a shimmering orange silk pantsuit, reads eleven collected and new poems to aahs of delight and much applause. Pinsky, with his cropped hair, deepest eyes and black shirt with tan jacket, looks more Jesuitical than Talmudical, but he cracks up the house when he “denounces” Dove for “almost ruining” his life by making the Poet Laureate a moral force for social change. A striking counterbalance to Dove’s lush, sensual imagery, his five poems, particularly “Impossible to Tell,” amaze me with their crisp wording and deft shuttling between pathos and humor. I make a vow to start reading poetry.
Saturday, 10 am: Back at the McIntire Room, “Books Under Fire: Controversial and Banned Books in Schools” draws a big audience. Panelist Karen Jo Gounaud, president of the Family Friendly Libraries Foundation, says she’d like to read us a passage from Robert Cormier’s frequently censored The Chocolate War, “except it contains the ‘A’ word and the ‘B’ word,” then opines that the Most-Banned Book List (whose nine titles also include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Catcher in the Rye) “is too short” and that libraries should carry more books about Christian recovery from homosexuality. Once again, I am impressed by my neighbors’ gentility when the foregoing elicits nothing more than a few sighs and raised eyebrows. Although other panelists include Robert O’Neil, former University of Virginia president and founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression, and an attorney from the Rutherford Institute, to my disappointment Gounaud garners a disproportionate share of time. The program runs twenty minutes longer than its allotted ninety, but the dialogue between audience and panelists could easily go on for hours. I leave troubled by the great question of the day: What are the “A” and “B” words?
8 pm: Skirting the lake in the parking lot, I join an enthusiastic, poetic-looking (i.e., young and disheveled) crowd of 150 for readings by Pulitzer Prize-winners Henry Taylor and Yusef Komunyakaa in the comfortably creaky sanctuary of the historic First Baptist Church. The moderator tells us that he was warned not to try to be funnier than Taylor and I soon learn why, when he wisecracks and reads short poems that he describes as “haikus with seven syllables omitted” (e.g., “A field of soybeans/Tofu on the hoof.”) Yet amongst the jokes there is much seriousness and impressive scholarship, as in his new translation of Orestes’ chariot race from Sophocles’ Elektra.
Callaloo editor Charles Powell introduces Komunyakaa as having, with Rita Dove, “shifted the direction of African American poetry from the exterior to the interior landscape.” I am taken aback when the poet’s speaking voice sounds like, well, George Plimpton. And then he reads in mellifluous, caressing tones, his body undulating with the satin rhythms of his words. Fourteen poems later, I’m ready to follow Komunyakaa anywhere. The literary life doesn’t get any better than this, I think happily, and from the looks on the faces around me, we are all in complete agreement.