Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In which I read a crime novel in traffic, attend the NC Book Festival, get lost in an area with which I’m familiar and break a New Year’s resolution.

A couple friends of mine run the annual North Carolina Book Festival, and I can’t think of a better excuse to visit Raleigh. Because snow was expected there Thursday evening, I left Charleston at 11:30AM to beat the weather. But I ended up driving through slush around 6:30 anyway because of a five-tow-truck wreck which left me in park around mile 38 for well over an hour. When these things happen, I’m always torn between irritation at the delay and the understanding that someone else is having one of the worst days of their lives and I need to chill the hell out. My better angels mostly won out in this instance and I passed the time reading a George Pelecanos paperback. I managed to get to my other friends’ house in Cary around 7:20 or so. The roads were slushy enough by then that I had to ignore how lovely the trees looked to avoid crashing myself. Fortunately, the roads had cleared by lunchtime the next day.

Kim Stanley Robinson kicked off the Festival Friday evening with a reading from Red Moon. Around a decade ago I read his Mars Trilogy with great enjoyment, especially the first two volumes. Red Moon is not the first of a moon trilogy, though; it’s about a Chinese settlement on the moon. The excerpt he read was very funny. The next day I attended a panel consisting of him, Mur Lafferty and John Kessel. Kessel’s short stories are excellent. I have several of his books on the shelf and this has prompted me to finally move a couple into the read very soon queue. A friend bought a copy of the Lafferty book they had there, a closed room mystery in space, and read two thirds or so of it while I was at the rest of the festival events. He spoke highly enough of it, that I will either get it from the library or buy a copy next year after my book buying hiatus ends. Over this panel and his talk the night before, Robinson made quite an impression. One of the things I think about way too much is the place of ideology. Robinson, quoting someone, said that ideology is a necessary part of cognition, and that we have to embrace it, because we are incapable of processing the world in its entirety. I know that my skepticism toward ideology is itself an ideology, so I’ve on some level confirmed his statement. I’m still leery, though. This panel had the only instance that I saw of the obnoxious audience member who, rather than asking a question talks at length, making the event about him. Don’t ever be that guy, and if you catch me doing it, please slap me.

I’m not buying books this year; I’ve read 65% of my books and I’m trying to play a little catch up. My goal is 110 books, 75 of which have to be books that I owned at the beginning of January. The other 35 can be library books, rereads, or one of the exceptions I built in. The first exception was to buy two books at the festival. The next will be this summer when I buy Gene Wolfe’s final posthumous novel. And once I hit that 75 mark, I’ll reward myself by buying the new Susanna Clarke novel out this fall. I broke that book buying ban slightly by buying three books at the festival rather than two, but I’m not too mad at myself about it. I’m going to try to stick to the other two as the only other exceptions.

I was bummed that I missed most of the conversation between (and maybe readings by) Tupelo Hassman and Belle Boggs. The books they discussed both deal with Evangelical culture, and as an ex-evangelical that is a conversation in which I’m very interested. The first book I bought was Boggs’ The Gulf as the premise is too perfectly in my wheelhouse. It’s apparently a comic novel about a low residency writing school for evangelicals that is at least partly a scam. I am hoping to read it in the next week or so, and will report back. During the part of the Q and A someone asked about the reaction to their books from evangelicals and they said that it had been largely more positive than they expected. I don’t like it when books condescend to believers, even though I’m no longer one myself. I found Tom Perrota’s The Abstinence Teacher unbearable in this regard. Based on what I heard of the conversation, though, I suspect that won’t be a problem.

After a break in which I got my copy of The Gulf signed, Andre Perry did a reading and had a conversation with Darell Stover, jazz expert and NCSU professor. The essay Perry read from his book was powerful; describing his experience attending a Kendrick Lamar concert in Iowa. He was one of the only African American men in the crowd and the almost completely white audience was cheerfully singing along and seemingly unblinkingly using the n-word in the process. It was a great essay, as was the subsequent conversation. They talked about Perry’s life growing up in DC, his time in San Francisco and in Iowa where he currently lives. I did not buy the book, but I will be InterLibrary Loaning it soon. In their discussion of Perry’s time in arty bohemian San Francisco (in the brief post-dotcom bubble burst when it was relatively affordable to live in the downtown), Stover mentioned Samuel Delany’s memoir about his similar time in New York. I got a chance to talk briefly with Stover afterwards about Delany and how Dhalgren has really stuck with me over the couple weeks since I finished it.

After another break, Katya Apekina and Jeff Jackson took the stage to discuss (primarily) Apekina’s book, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish. I had listened to an interview with Apekina on my friend Jason’s Bookin’ podcast, and this was one of the books I planned to buy coming into the Festival. Jason described it as Nabokovian, which immediately made me pay attention. The book is told in multiple voices and unreliable narrators. After her reading and Jackson’s assertion that the ending really worked for him, along with Jason’s recommendation, I am looking forward to reading the book soon. I also want to read Jackson’s Kill all Monsters, but that may be a little further down the road.

I skipped the final Friday session to spend time with friends, and came back the next day for the sendoff event, which consisted of readings without a Q and A. Daniel Wallace (whose Big Fish I really loved) read an excerpt from a nonfiction book he’s writing about a friend who is dead. In the section he read, he recreates, from notes his friend made, the way his friend discovered another friend’s murderer. JP Gritton came next. I bought his book Wyoming, which Jason described as resembling both No Country For Old Men and East of Eden. He read a personal essay that was very moving and funny. Next, Randall O’Wain read an excerpt about his late brother from his collection of interrelated memoir essays that was incredible. I ordered it through my library today. Then Mesha Maron read a very good selection about musicians from her novel Sugar Run, which I fully intend to read. Finally, Jake Xerxes Fussell, a folklorist and blues singer/guitarist performed a handful of songs to bring the Festival to a close.

I’m glad that I gave myself the limit of two books. Even though I broke that by getting three, were the limit not in place, I would have likely gotten six or seven. I focused on the fiction room and missed the poetry readings. I do love poetry, but I love fiction more. Still I would have liked to work a session or two of the readings in. Hopefully next year. The event was really a lot of fun, and more importantly gave me an excuse to spend some quality time with some friends I’ve really missed since moving to Charleston. And I even managed to get lost as I was trying to leave Raleigh, circling the entire beltline before I realized my mistake. And so my trip back was also a little longer than it should have been, though it was thankfully free of standstill traffic. And when I got back to Charleston I slept for nine hours.

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