- - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

America’s largest bookfest just observed its 20th anniversary, with 500-plus authors and an estimated 150,000 readers attending the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California.

Publishers and bookstores spanning the spectrum — Maoists to Randians — operated a cornucopia of tents to sell books, while musicians and writers appeared at outdoor stages and indoor venues across the sprawling campus during the free weekend event.

“I’ve attended this remarkable book festival many times, [and] it’s just amazing,” said National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates, calling the event “so diverse and well-attended in a very attractive setting.”

Ms. Oates‘ next book will be a memoir titled “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age,” centering on her young life in western New York state, her family and her initial attempts at writing. Regarding the loss of her longtime husband in February 2008 — which became the subject of an essay she wrote for The New Yorker as well as her book “A Widow’s Story” — Ms. Oates said, “Of course it was painful.”

She said that “A Widow’s Story” was culled from journal entries at the time of Ray Smith’s hospitalization and subsequent death.

“It’s not a recollected memoir of the traditional sort written after the fact, but one which focuses upon approximately the first four months of mourning,” she said of her work, which has drawn a heavy response from her readership, “most of whom are widows [and] occasionally widowers.”

Ms. Oates‘ latest novel is “The Sacrifice,” loosely based on the case of Tawana Brawley, a black woman who falsely accused six white men of raping her in 1987.

“I’m drawn to explore events in our history that resonate in mythical, iconic ways that seem to illuminate prevailing themes,” she said. “My characters are not ‘real’ people but representations. The [real] Tawana Brawley case is very different from the situation in ‘The Sacrifice’; the young girl in my novel is actually beaten, sexually abused and frightened of her life — as Tawana Brawley was not.”

When asked about the Rev. Al Sharpton, who played a major role in the Brawley brouhaha, Ms. Oates said that her book’s Rev. Mudrick is “a trickster figure. In life, Rev. Sharpton was similarly endowed with an ability to provoke ‘whitey’ — to be outrageous, self-righteous, provocative, shrewdly political — though he went too far, ultimately.”

“Sharpton remains a polarizing figure. But it must be said that, for all his flaws and questionable behavior, Al Sharpton never shot a fleeing unarmed man in the back, nor did he choke to death an unarmed and helpless citizen on a New York City sidewalk.”

Ms. Oates was referring to Eric Garner, who died in July on Staten Island after a New York police officer put him in a chokehold after accusing him of selling single cigarettes.

Another Los Angeles book festival author is writing a nonfiction book about the case.

Rolling Stone refugee

“A lot of the stuff I worked on in ‘The Divide’ is relevant to what happened to Garner,” said Matt Taibbi. “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” notes that no Wall Street power brokers implicated in the 2008 financial meltdown were criminally prosecuted under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., but minor offenders such as Garner had the book thrown at them. “The Divide” was nominated for the festival’s Current Interest Award.

Mr. Taibbi said that after disagreements with The Intercept over a stillborn satirical magazine, which he called “really upsetting,” he returned to Rolling Stone.

“I write for them online a lot. I haven’t done a big feature pullout because I’m working on the Garner book,” he said.

As for the firestorm regarding Rolling Stone’s discredited campus gang rape feature, Mr. Taibbi said: “It’s been very painful for people at the magazine. It was a really unfortunate thing where the controls got broken down.”

Hollywood scribes

Many wordsmiths at the Los Angeles festival, naturally, are celebrities.

Actor/comedian Patton Oswalt, author of “Silver Screen Fiend,” held forth on cinema for a raucous, laughter-filled hour. Asked by an aspiring 24-year-old comic how long it takes to make it, Mr. Oswalt quipped, “Good news: The world is so [rotten] the future will need comedians.”

Host Patt Morrison introduced “Star Trek: The Next Generation” alumnus LeVar Burton by saying, “You know how old you are by which version of [Mr. Burton] you know: ‘Roots’, ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Reading Rainbow.’”

Mr. Burton touted the children’s program’s transition from a PBS show to an online entity promoting literacy, as well as the children’s book he co-authored, “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm.”

Under a sunny sky, musician Billy Idol took the stage to sing a few tunes before telling mobs of fans about his memoir, “Dancing With Myself,” wherein “I wrote what I could remember” about the Clash, the Sex Pistols and his band, Generation X.

“Punk rock changed the world,” Mr. Idol proclaimed. “It was all very much seat of the pants, but we grabbed the moment.”

Another generational leader, Tom Hayden — a former anti-war activist, a Chicago 7 defendant, Jane Fonda’s ex-husband and a California state legislator — spoke during the panel “The Domino Effect: Changing Political Landscapes” about his book “Listen, Yankee: Why Cuba Matters” and his predictions that the Obama administration would normalize relations with Havana and “Cubans will survive Starbucks.”

Co-panelist and columnist Ronald Brownstein called Washington “polarized and paralyzed,” where “Republicans can’t get enough minorities to win the White House [and] Democrats can’t win enough white votes to take the House. That’s American politics in a nutshell.”

Despite this prognosis, a multitude of literary aficionados enjoyed a splendid weekend.

Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”

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