April is the coolest month. And not just because the weather is perfect for baseball and hot pants. We also think April is the coolest because April equals: the annual Arkansas Literary Festival. And we love us some Arkansas Literary Festival!!!!
Most of the Festival takes place this Saturday, April 8, and Sunday, April 9, in or around the Main Library in the downtown River Market Area of Little Rock, Arkansas.
(For precise details, you'll want to go to the ARKANSAS LITERARY FESTIVAL website where you can even download and print out the Fest schedule.)
The OA is not an impartial observer. In fact, we've been either deeply or tangentially involved in the Festival since year one of its existence. But we don't care whether we are impartial or not. We love the Festival for numerous reasons. We'll give you three right off the bat:
1. The author lineups tend to be very wide-ranging in genre and scope: graphic artists next to children's writers next to sports writers next to music writers next to food writers next to historians next to vampire specialists next to zombie specialists next to hip-hop experts and so on and so on.
2. At its best, which means bathed in perfect weather and in support of a cool and worthy happening (like a literary festival), the River Market Area in downtown Little Rock can be one of the more pleasurable spots on earth to hang out. We kid you not. (Think: subtle breezes, intellectual stimulation, family fun, simmering barbecue, easy walking, people in costume—or at least we think they are in costume—ice-cream stands, etc.).
3. At the Arkansas Literary Festival, you can have once-in-a-lifetime encounters. We've met many of our heroes and heroines in person there, among them: Garrison Keillor, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., Roy Blount, Jr., Kaye Gibbons, Joe Klein, Charles Portis (who doesn't participate in any sessions but who you can sometimes spot and even talk to), Jon Lee Anderson, Cristina Henriquez, and so many others.
This year's FESTIVAL boasts more than eighty authors. In fact, there will be so many intriguing writers within touching distance over the weekend that we can't talk about them all-there are just too many. But here is a quick, prejudiced guide to some of the authors we at THE OA are especially keen to hear and meet:
SATURDAY, APRIL 9
MICHAEL TAKIFF. His oral history of William Jefferson Clinton of Hope, Arkansas, is called A COMPLICATED MAN, but Takiff himself is a complicated man. How else to describe a person who began his career as an actor and "classic singer" before becoming a stand-up comedian only then, finally, to turn to writing about politics for the NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, THE NATION, and THE HUFFINGTON POST?
THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS. His heartbreakingly brilliant book, LOSING MY COOL, is about growing up a black male amidst the expectations, if not clichés and dangers, of hip-hop culture. Williams also writes for n+1, one of our favorite journals. Additionally, after meeting him at the Savannah Book Festival a few months ago (another great event, FYI), we learned that Williams suffers from a glut of charisma.
SI KAHN. A great singer/songwriter AND political activist. His profoundly stirring song, "SPINNING MILLS OF HOME," appeared on OA CD #11
"Spinning Wheels of Home" by Si Kahn from our 2009 Music Issue
ROSIE & JUSTIN. We cannot properly convey how excited we are by the opportunity to meet these two. Let's just say we are VERY, VERY excited. The last time we saw ROSIE, she was a guest on THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW, and she was gorgeous and funny and musical. No doubt, ROSIE & JUSTIN's handler and spokesperson, ALYSE EADY (also known as MISS ARKANSAS 2011), will be nearby, trying to take away attention from her little charges, but we'll try not to hold that against her because we kind of like MISS EADY, too.
JOSH NEUFELD. Graphic artist extraordinaire. Dave Eggers said of Neufeld's A.D. NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE: "An essential addition to the ongoing conversation about what Katrina means, and what New Orleans means."
ELIZABETH HEISKELL. Editor Smirnoff was once roomies with Mrs. Heiskell's wisecracking husband. But that's not why we like her-hell, it may even be a strike against her. We like her because she is hilarious and shares a contagious enthusiasm about food and cooking that is impossible not to catch. Plus, she's paired with LEE RICHARDSON, who runs Ashley's at The Capital Hotel. He is Arkansas' best chef. There. We said it.
ISABEL WILKERSON. She is a former national correspondent and bureau chief at the NEW YORK TIMES. She is the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize. If that isn't impressive enough, her book THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS takes on no less than the history of the Great Migration, when some six million black Americans left the American South for the Great Unknown North.
SUNDAY, APRIL 10
PAUL REYES. Since leaving THE OA, Paul Reyes has written for HARPER'S MAGAZINE and THE VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW, and published his first book, an utterly fascinating account of the mortgage crisis (as seen from the vantage point of what happened in Florida) called EXILES IN EDEN. He also got married and learned how to tap-dance. THE NEW YORKER's George Packer calls EXILES IN EDEN "a powerful book. Everything feels transient, dreamy, and thinly rooted in the sandy soil, amid the palmettos and shotgun shacks, with hard times bearing down like a tropical hurricane." We wish we could think of something snarky or negative to say about Paul-merely to demonstrate that we don't play favorites-but in addition to being an inventive stylist and a penetrating thinker, Paul is also very funny-sometimes even on purpose!-so we know his panel will be good.
DAVID FRIZZELL. David, brother of LEFTY FRICKIN' FRIZZELL!, is an amazing talent in his own right. His newest album, for example, features David duetting with: MERLE HAGGARD, JEANNIE SEELY, JOHNNY RODRIGUEZ, and BOBBY BARE, to mention just a few. His new book, I LOVE YOU A THOUSAND WAYS, is about his relationship with his brother, LEFTY FRICKIN' FRIZZELL!
MR. MARK SPITZER & MS. ROBIN BECKER. They are the Mr. and Ms. of Writing on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas. In his latest, Mr. Mark, who is married to Ms. Robin, writes about monstrous fish; in her latest, Ms. Robin, who is married to Mr. Mark, writes about zombies. Besides that, they seem perfectly normal-for writers, we mean. And very talented!
So those are just SOME of the authors we're genuinely excited about seeing and hearing and meeting at this weekend's ARKANSAS LITERARY FESTIVAL. In addition to our own views, which you've just read, we asked a few friends about who they are excited about. Their responses follow:
KEVIN BROCKMEIER (who will also be presenting at the Festival and whose books we fervently recommend) wrote the following for the ARKANSAS TIMES about Festival Author PETER S. BEAGLE whom BROCKMEIER will introduce:
"You should read him. His first novel, A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, is a mainstay on my personal list of favorite books, but nearly all of his fiction is extraordinary: THE LAST UNICORN, THE INNKEEPER'S SONG, TAMSIN, or any of his story collections, culminating in SLEIGHT OF HAND, which was released only a few weeks ago.
"I was just working on my introduction for his session, actually, where among other things I say this: 'He is, in my estimation, the finest living fantasy writer in America-and one of the finest writers, period. Take his five best books and set them alongside the five best books by Philip Roth or Toni Morrison or any other writer you care to name and you'll discover an author who is every bit their equal.'
"What it boils down to is that he's a writer of tremendous vision and great craft and a complex and absorbing sense of what it means to be alive, and I find myself returning to his books again and again for replenishment."
NOTE: For more than one thousand days, BROCKMEIER has been egging us to read BEAGLE and this week we finally caved in and began A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE. We hate to be pushovers but the truth is: so far BROCKMEIER is right. BEAGLE is a magical writer.
JAY JENNINGS, who helps run the Fest and who will this weekend be talking about his own terrific book, CARRY THE ROCK, which looked at race in Arkansas through the prism of the Central High football, sent us this recommendation:
"I am most eager to hear ELIZA GRISWOLD talk about her book THE TENTH PARALLEL, which details her sometimes terrifying, sometimes surreal investigations of life on that ring of latitude where Islam and Christianity face off, intersect and do battle. Ranging through Africa and Asia, she documents the efforts of Franklin Graham (Billy's son) to evangelize where he's clearly not wanted and introduces us to people like Mohammed Jibril, a twentysomething in Jakarta with low-riding jeans and hair moussed into spikes who edits a kind of hip-hop mag for jihadists called JihadMagz."
TYRONE JAEGER, who is a writer himself and who teaches at Hendrix College in Conway, said this:
"In a cultural landscape where we gawk at vice, cowardice, and thievery like numb spectators, JOHN BRANDON's novels CITRUS COUNTRY and ARKANSAS feel like a welcome slap in the face. Brandon's characters exhibit all those things we Americans love to sensationalize-violence, greed, a general criminality-but he shines a light on our ugliness to reveal the dark emotions that motivate our transgressions. And while redemption might be impossible, a certain tenderness is possible. With a prose style that manages to be both lean and lyrical, John Brandon is the writer at this year's Arkansas Literary Festival who most excites the reader in me. The folks at McSWEENEY's published both of Brandon's novels in artful editions that remind me why a book is such a wonderful thing to hold in my hands. Imagine an orange where you peel back the rind to reveal a hand grenade."
NOTE: A spellbinding original story by John Brandon will appear in the next issue of THE OXFORD AMERICAN. Last week, right before getting his recommendation, we accepted another spellbinding story by young Jaeger himself. Jaeger's will be appearing in THE OA in the next year or so.
SUMMARY: We are thrilled about the lineup for this weekend's ARKANSAS LITERARY FESTIVAL-so thrilled that we couldn't mention everyone we are thrilled by. The above represents a mere sampling. To see even more options-i.e. great writers who will be in town-we strongly advise that you visit www.arkansasliteraryfestival.org. Just make sure to get off the computer in time to take in all the weekend sunshine and banter and stimulation that await you right outside your door.
P.S. We like to kick off the Fest weekend with Friday's fab author party. Here are those details:
Time: Fri., April 8, 7:00 p.m.
Location: Concordia Hall, Arkansas Studies Institute
Toast the Festival authors at this fete featuring hors d'oeuvres and libations. Books will be available for purchase during this party geared for adults. Tickets are $25 in advance and $40 at the door. Purchase tickets by phone at 501-918-3009 or at any CALS branch.