Thursday, November 15, 2007

2007 National Book Award Winners

The winners of the 2007 National Book Awards were announced November 14, at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City. The annual awards are given by the National Book Foundation to recognize achievements in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature. The night's ceremonies included the presentation of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to essayist Joan Didion and the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community to Terry Gross, host and executive producer of National Public Radio's Fresh Air.

This year's winners are:

Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (FSG)

Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday)

Robert Hass, Time and Materials (Ecco/HarperCollins)

Young People's Literature
Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown) -- The #1 Fall 2007 Book Sense Children's Pick

Sunday, November 11, 2007


It was my pleasure to attend the Miami Book Fair on Saturday and as always, had a great time. My first surprise of the day occurred as I entered the fair. The first booth, or rather booths (they had several) was Borders. Big deal you say? Well, it is to me. The first time I attended the fair was about 10 years ago when I worked the booth for Borders. In those days all the bookstores had booths, the independents and the chains. But slowly the chains disappeared, probably to the delight of the indies, but as a former Borders employee it saddened me. The street fair became less.

But Borders has a new CEO and he is taking the company in a new direction. That leadership was sorely needed. Doing a book fair is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is telling of a direction that the company seems to moving in – the stores look better, the cafes are now all Seattle’s Best (owned by Starbucks who is apparently taking over the coffee drinking world,) and Borders is taking back their website from But this is supposed to be about the book fair, and I’ve strayed. Forgive me and follow me back to the fair…

At the Borders booth I ran into one of my favorite authors, Joseph Finder. Joe was busy schmoozing and signing books and posters, but he stopped to chat with me and my friend Judy. I was delighted to run into him because I had gotten a really nice email about him. A new author trying to get published found Joe through my MySpace page and contacted him. This author wrote to tell me that Joe was incredibly nice and so helpful, and he thanked me, as if I had anything to do with it! But I was happy to hear it – so many people say they want to help, but rarely do, so it’s wonderful to hear that a successful and very busy author took the time to help out the new guy. And it was my pleasure to share that with Joe.

In turn, Joe shared a bit of news with me. He is working on his next book, which is to be the first book of a series! It will be set in the corporate world, but none of his former characters will be appearing. It’s all new and we won’t get any more info than that for quite a while because he still needs to write it. Details, details.

Strolling through the fair I also bumped into P.J. Parrish, well, half of the award winning sister act, at any rate. They are hard at work on a book that will bring both their series characters together. I also ran into Christine Kling, who has been immersed in researching mysteries set in the high seas, something she has some expertise with herself. She’s also exploring historical maritime fiction as well, and seems to be having a ball.

I stopped by the author’s lounge to see who might be lounging instead of working, and ran into Jim Born, who was on his way to appear on a panel of Florida Book Award winners. I also got to chat with Jeff Lindsey, and I asked him if we were going to have to wait two more years for another Dexter book. He said if he could make enough money on this latest one, he wouldn’t have to do another book for five years. Yes, the man writes for money. I also asked if he was involved with the TV series on Showtime – it’s not something I would watch, but I know several people who really enjoy it. He told me he took Hemingway’s advice about Hollywood: go up to the border, throw your book across, and when they throw money back, take it and run. Sounds like good advice. I ran into Jeff a few minutes later at one of the wonderful booksellers’ booths at the fair and got this fabulous picture - yes, Dexter’s daddy, the serial killer creator himself, was there buying Curious George board books.

I finally made it over to a panel that was supposed to start at noon. Got in line and waited because Wesley Clarke was still speaking in the room. He ran about half an hour late, which meant that for the rest of the day, that room would be a scheduling nightmare. It was worth the wait though, to see Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. They’ve been collaborating on a trilogy of children’s books about Peter Pan’s back story, and it is always a treat to see them.

Dave Barry took a “sabbatical” from writing his weekly column for the Miami Herald, and I really miss him. I fear the sabbatical has turned into retirement because he shows no sign of wanting to return and seems to be keeping busy elsewhere. Barry is the book fair’s version of stand up comedy, and he truly excels at it, but he was asked to cut it short so they could catch up on time. Hmmph! Despite the fact he was there promoting a children’s book, he took great delight in pointing out that the event was being sponsored by AARP. He told some great stories and had everyone laughing. Ridley is also a funny guy, and between the two of them they have quite the tag team match going on. The co-chair of the fair informed us that even though this event wasn’t being filmed for Book TV (as most of the nonfiction events are) it was being filmed in its entirety and would be posted on iTunes U but I couldn’t find it. Keep checking back.

Since they have finished the Peter Pan trilogy, they both have more children’s books in the works. Science Fair is about a middle school science fair that goes terribly, terribly wrong. It’s set in Washington D.C. and the science project at the center of the book is going to destroy the world, unless these kids can stop it. Barry’s suggestion for all teachers in the room is to sit the parents down at the beginning of the school year and say look, we need money, and if you don’t give it to us we are going to have a science fair! The dollars would come pouring in…. Pearson also told us he was approached by Disney (who publishes the Peter Pan books) and asked if he would write a crime book for kids that was set in DisneyWorld. He told them he would, provided he was given unlimited access to the park. He was set loose in the Magic Kingdom at 5:00 a.m. on several occasions and got to see them turning on the rides, and all the backstage stuff. The book that came out of that was called Kingdom Keepers. Next up for Mr. Pearson is a book called Steel Trap, a thriller about a 14 year old boy who has a “perfect memory”.

I headed over to the crime fiction panel of the day, featuring Joe Finder, Power Play; Nick Stone, Mr. Clarinet; Greg Iles, The Third Degree; and Ridley Pearson, Killer Weekend. Except I had just left Ridley at the Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson event, so I was curious how he was going to get to the next panel when his first panel was running so late. Answer solved: they just changed the name of the panel to 'waiting for Ridley', and announced he'd be joining them close to the end of the discussion.

I had met Nick Stone up in the author’s lounge, and was delighted to run into him again waiting for his panel to start. He is from Cambridge, and lives in London and has that wonderful British accent that most Americans just adore. He confided that he was a nervous wreck about speaking in public, but he did a fabulous job - he was charming and well spoken. He also told me that he used to be a boxer, which amazed me. His nose is just perfect, and he has all his own teeth! That’s because, he said, he was really good at it. He’s really good at writing too, judging from all the awards and accolades his Mr. Clarinet has received.

Joe Finder was engaging and charismatic as always. He talked a bit about his background, how he got into writing fiction after his first attempt at a journalistic look at Armand Hammer didn’t work out quite the way he thought it would. He also discovered that while his friends (and former co-workers) at the CIA wouldn’t talk to him at all as a journalist, as a novelist they were happy to open up. So were the CEO’s of some of the biggest and best known businesses in the country, and Joe found his niche as the John Grisham of the corporate world. He also shared a rather startling statistic with his audience: “60% of the CIA payroll is in the private sector.”

I was happy to share a little story with him about his latest, Power Play. I recommended it to a co-worker, a septuagenarian gentleman who told me he started reading it one night and literally couldn’t put it down – he stayed up all night reading, and in the early morning hours when his wife discovered what he was doing and demanded he come to bed, he told her he would – as soon as he finished the last chapter. He told me he couldn’t remember the last time he had stayed up all night reading, quite a kudo to Mr. Finder’s remarkable story.

Greg Iles is a really fine writer of very different books. He says every time he turns in a manuscript, his agent says, can’t you ever do anything the same twice? He sort of did with his first two books, they were both set during WWII but that was where the similarities ended. But he is doing it with his next book; he’s bringing back a character, Penn Cage, to another story. Cage has actually appeared in a few of Iles’ books, but this next one will have him center stage. He also talked about his recently released book, The Third Degree. It is based on a real life incident that he has turned into a novel that takes place in the span of seven hours. I haven’t read it yet, but it is in my to-be-read pile and I can’t wait.

Iles says that “insight is only bought with pain.” He feels that most writers’ books take a downward spiral in quality because they are forced to write a new book every year. For some writers, like Pearson, that’s not a problem. But for Iles it is, he says that really only gives him six months to write and he would really prefer a two year span between books to get it how he wants it. And I'm very sorry to say he talks like a man who is thinking about retirement.

Ridley (real name: Robert) Pearson shared that he is working on a new series that will be set in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he lived for 24 years. He says “there is a lot of insanity because there is so much money” and he’s got a lot of great story ideas already. He also told us that he feels a writers’ job is to suspend the readers’ disbelief, and if they don’t, the reader has every right to chuck the book against the wall. Personally, I’ve never heard of anyone doing that with one of Ridley’s books.

The Atlantic Monthly named Ralph Nader one of the "100 most influential Americans" and he’s an American icon in my opinion. I may not always agree with him, but I certainly wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear him speak, and it was my pleasure to do so at the fair. He has a book out called Seventeen Traditions, and it is a tribute to his parents and the way he was raised. He joked that it’s the first book he’s written that everyone has liked; people said it was a great Mother’s Day gift, then a great Father’s Day gift, and now they’re saying it’s a great holiday gift. He feels our nation has commercialized children to the crisis point, and with this book he hopes to remind people what childhood is really supposed to be about. From the stories he told, it is easy to see how he became the man that he is; whether or not you agree with him or his politics, no one can argue that he is an independent thinker with the courage of his convictions. And we need more like him.

Some of the traditions he spoke about were the importance of listening and why children need to be exposed to nature. Something that really struck me was a story he told about what his father said to him one night at dinner when he was 8 years old, and it stayed with him all these years. His father didn’t just ask him how was school today, instead he said, “What did you learn in school today, how to believe or how to think?” Nader said he often thought about that as he sat in classrooms all through high school and college and law school. He also spoke about the tradition of going to the library, and spoke warmly about his local library, the Beardsley & Memorial Library in Winsted, Connecticut.

Other traditions his parents fostered in him were independent thinking and the importance of charity. He said he parents didn’t preach these things, they lived them, and by his observing how they lived, he learned to live that way as well. He told another story about I think it was his sister seeing a street cleaner, and saying to her mother, I’m so glad I don’t have to do that job. Her mother remarked that’s why it’s important to respect people who do the work you don’t want to do, but want to have done – and that’s why they should be paid well for doing those jobs.

After Nader’s speech, questions were taken from the audience. The first question up was more of an accusation; the man said he felt like it was Nader’s fault that Gore lost the election in 2000 because of his Green Party nomination, and was obviously still very upset about it. His remarks garnered applause from at least half the audience, along with some booing from others. Nader showed the kind of man he is and answered the question head on. He spoke about his disgust with the corruption of our current administration and the two party system. He said that 25% of the Democrats in Florida voted for George Bush, and he pointed out that Bush “stole more votes from Gore” than he did. More questions were asked, but what struck me most was that he actually answered the questions he was asked, no matter how uncomfortable, so unlike any other politician or public figure I’ve ever seen.

The last speaker of the day was Chris Matthews, of MSNBC’s Hardball and NBC’s The Chris Matthews Show, and author of Life's a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success, his latest book. The co-chair of the book fair, Barbara Skigen, came out and tried to clear the room after Nader, asking everyone except the “friends” of the book fair to leave.

“Friends” contribute various sums of money to the book fair, depending on how good a “friend” they want to be, and these donations entitle them to wear a “friends” badge around their neck. It also gets them preferred, reserved seating at the front of the room at most of the events, especially the big name events like Matthews. But people weren’t moving; they had good seats or at least some seat for Nader, and they didn’t want to give it up. Meanwhile, hundreds of people had been queuing up for at least an hour (this room was still running about forty minutes late) out in the hall in two lines; the “friends” line which includes friends, media and author/guests, and another, much much longer line for every one else.

Last year the book fair started charging a modest $5 admission to the fair, but each event has always been on a first come, first serve basis, so if there was an author you were dying to see, you had better make sure you queued up early enough to get in. At fairs past (before I had media credentials) I had waited in line for more than an hour to be allowed in to stand in the way back of the room. Others, behind me in line, had been turned away from some events.

I was in the room so I don’t know exactly what was going on out in the hallway. Miami’s finest police officers were brought in, and about a dozen cops swarmed the room, checking everyone’s credentials to make sure no non-friends were still in the room. But they were, and a couple of them stood up and started shouting at Barbara Skigen that they didn’t want to leave. She suggested they get a bond issue on the ballot to build a bigger auditorium. She finally asked them to move to the back of the bus, I mean the back of the room, so they could let the “friends line” inside. A gentleman 'friend' came in and sat behind me and said that there were “thousands” of people waiting outside. A woman 'friend' sat next to me and I asked her what was going on. She said there “lots and lots” of people waiting for more than an hour. By this time it was about 5:30 or so, and the event was supposed to start at 5. She said no explanation was given as to why they were still waiting. They finally let them in a few at a time, and I don’t know that they ever let anyone in who was on the non-friends line. It’s a fairly large room, but I don’t know how many seats it holds – I would guess at least a few hundred, but obviously that wasn’t enough.

The book fair can’t call itself a free event anymore since they charge admission, but they probably need to note that paying admission does not get you into the big name events – only the “friends” are guaranteed that. Mitch Kaplan, founder and active leader of the fair, needs to take a look at how this is working, or not working, as the case may be. He was there for this brouhaha, I saw him at the front of the room briefly before he headed backstage. Hiding certainly wasn’t helpful in sorting the mess out.

Chris Matthews finally was introduced by a Miami attorney and old friend of his at 5:45. Matthews came out and said he thought he was at one of the old Democratic conventions; the Republicans would make an announcement asking people to clear the aisles and they would, the Dems would have those announcements and nobody would move.

He told some great stories, one in particular about when Reagan was shot. He said he was more severely injured than anyone knew, it was kept very quiet but he had lost about half the blood in his body and was near death. About a week later he was finally stabilized, and they decided they needed to let someone in, a visitor. Matthews noted that administration was familiar with the constitution, unlike our current one, and chose to invite Tip O’Neill, speaker of the house, leader of the opposition party, and in line for the presidency, something that never would have occurred to Cheney. One of the administration members was in the room when O’Neill came in. He recently recorded an oral history of what he saw at the University of Virginia. What he said was that Tip O’Neill was on his knees at Reagan’s bedside, and they were holding hands and praying together, reciting the 23rd psalm.

He also said that the difference between “grownups and bloggers” is that grownups have to pass each other in the hall. The point Matthews was trying to make, and that he tries to make in his book, is something he says he learned from Winston Churchill; to grin when you fight. Enjoy the argument, he says, and get loud (big surprise there!) When it gets quiet, get scared.

Recent college graduates would benefit most from this book. He says that kids go through school and every year they get promoted, they know where they are going. In college they’re asked what they dream about, and are pointed towards programs that can get them to their dream. But once they graduate, they need to learn how to ask for what they want. Matthews says “whatever door is open, squeeze through it.” I purchased a copy for my 22 year old son who recently graduated from college. I’m giving it to him for Chanukah, and I hope he finds it beneficial. I don’t have to worry about him reading about his gift here, he never reads my blog!

Matthews says that we are an attention deficit society; the average viewership for his show is 11 minutes. He also says that he hasn’t figured out the world yet, and he doesn’t have all the answers, “but O’Reilly does, and Keith does.” He also took questions at the end, and said Joe Biden doesn’t have a chance but he thinks he’s a good guy and will probably end up as Secretary of State.

Matthews thinks that Hillary has the best chance of becoming president, but that Bill needs to step back and stop distracting us. He compared her situation to a “really good, a great horror movie – the girl finally saves herself,” while in the bad, B-movie horror flicks, the guy saves her. He says she has the “highest floor and the lowest ceiling in politics.” He talked about how smart women are, and says that Giuliani is a tough guy, but we don’t need bravado, we need smarts. He talked about traditional families, and how it’s the women who are the administrators, they keep the checkbook, juggle all the appointments, know what’s going on with every family member. Men check out noises in the night.

Another interesting question was about how to get kids interested in politics and what’s going on in the world, and how to get them out to vote. Matthews gave a succinct, realistic and rather unfortunate answer: “reinstate the draft.”

I also learned that Matthews was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, and that his first job on Capitol Hill – after “knocking on 200 doors”, was as a “capitol cop.” He had a uniform and a gun, and spent his days putting his life on the line guarding a “room full of papers.” Turns out those were the Pentagon Papers he was guarding. Matthews has spent 36 years covering politics, and it sure seems like he’s loved every minute of it.

I stood in a very long, very fast moving line to have my book signed. Matthews was personable and charming, even though he must have been in a hurry – he’d been invited by University of Miami President Donna Shalala to join her for a historic evening at the Orange Bowl. In the Miami Hurricanes’ final game at their home of 70 years, they lost - Virginia 48, Miami 0.

Now mark your calendar: next year’s Miami Book Fair International is slated for November 9-16, 2008. Hope to see you there!

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