Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Louisiana Book festival

There has been an annual free book festival in Baton Rouge
on the grounds of the State Capitol every year since
2001 except for 2005 due to Hurrican Katrina the month before. It is just for one day in the fall, sometimes the first Saturday in November unless there is an election scheduled. This year was the 7th annaul event on October 17. There are workshops with a reasonable fee as well held the day before in diverse topics such as screenwriting, how to self publish, writing and illustrating children's books, freelance journalism for profit.

The first thing I would like to say is that I am not mentioning authors in any particular order, just trying to get all the ones in that I can think of over the years who I have enjoyed hearing what they had to say.

Toni McGee Causey is one of the authors who conducted
workshops the day before, on screenwriting this year.
She has a series on a female detective named Bobbie Faye and firmly believes that if your character should carry a gun
in his line of work he ought to have one. One little tidbit I did pick up is that one minute of film = 1 page of screenplay manuscript.

Louisiana authors or writers of interest to people in Louisiana
give a talk for an hour or participate in panel discussions in
two floors of the capitol building as well as in the state library
next door and in the state museum across from that. Normally
there is an admission charge to the museum but it waived on
the day of the book festival.

Last year we attended a panel
discussion in the museum featuring a cajun fiddle player
Amanda Shaw, star of the Disney channel and two men who write music. Dave Eagen composes blues and Jim Mccormick works with country
artists. Amanda's latest hit "Pretty Runs Out" is a
collaboration with Mr. Jim. They concluded with this song
writing advice:"Don't bore us, get to the chorus" and
'Never write nor burn a bridge unless necessary".

The museum is excellent and has been there 6 years.
Since there were panel discussions that day and admission
was free more people went there who hadn't been before.
The third floor has a great folk exhibit. There is a display
of decorated lawnmowers from a lawnmower parade
and much of the floor is dedicated to either Mardi
Gras or Louisiana musicians. In an alcove there is a platform
in front of a screen with a film shot from a big night parade
like Bachus or Endymion Uptown so it looks gives the viewer
some idea what it is like to ride in a Carnival parade.

My mother is a volunteer worker with the children's division of her parish library and she was the one who told me about it. She did attend the first year and says that the organizer modeled our festival after one in Texas. When we attend a talk in the House of Representatives or the Senate in the state capitol building we like to sit at the desk of legislators who were elected under their nickname.

There are tables for authors selling books lining the sidewalk
up to the capitol building and several tents for exhibitor booths,
a Barnes & Nobles temporary book store, food booths,
a tent where cooking demonstrations are conducted
and a music tent. There are also arts and crafts
vendors. There are storybook characters such as
Clifford the Big Red Dog strolling the grounds and
activities for children as well. This year was blessed with the mob
from Where the Wild Things Are.

In 2003 just as we were leaving for home a classmate of my kids, a young man named Bryce Turgeon purchased a book, The Fat White Vampire Blues, from a new writer, Andrew J. Fox off a table that was in a group of tables along the sidewalk between the book tent and the capitol building. Andrew wasn't there when Bryce bought the book and we found out later it was because Andrew had to leave because his wife was delivering their first child.

I started reading it aloud on the drive home and we never laughed so much. Andrew Fox worked with the poverty nutrition program in New Orleans for the public health department and had seen figures stating that people in New Orleans were the fatest in America. The premise of the novel was what if there was a vampire in New Orleans and all he had to drink was the blood of New Orleaneans who were fat people. Wouldn't that make him fat too? The protagonist of this novel was therefore a taxi driver weighing over 400 pounds. The next year we enjoyed his sequal, Bride of the Fat White Vampire.

If you get there early enough there is a farmer's market
next to the parking garage in downtown Baton Rouge a
couple of blocks from the state capitol grounds. It is free to
park at the garage on this day. An alternative route is to take the Capitol Access exit off I-10 going toward downtown Baton Rouge. This will put you on an majestic oak tree lined drive passing by the govenor's mansion and up a drive with parking next to the capitol building.

At the end of the day the symphony conducts a concert
on the steps of the capitol building. All this is free
of charge! It worries me that ever since 2005 attendance
is down. I wonder if it is because not as many people are
living here any more. I don't think enough is done to promote
this excellent event. The website is:

This year the festival mailed a program ahead of time to anyone who attended previously as well as contacted them by email. On the internet there was a full agenda posted so you could see all the events for the two days. Some libraries posted the program on the front door but not all that I visited in the weeks before the festival. There was the occaisional feature in local newspapers but nothing on National Public Radio or public television. Country Roads magazine did a good job promoting it ahead of time. This publication is free and available in coffee shops and also via internet.

Music lovers and their pets at the sunset concert Saturday evening.

Zachary Richard was the last musician of the afternoon this year in the tent by the food booths. Earlier this year I attended a talk by the Lt. Govenor who said he brought Zachary up to Canada to meet with the prime minister in an effort to develop tourism in Louisiana. The Lt. Govenor sponsored a golf trail and a history trail and now a bird watching trail and Zachary loves birds. Since he is like the Elvis Presley to all of French speaking Canada it was an instant entree when the Lt. Govenor requested an interview with the prime minister, telling them Zachary was with him. The man in front of me in line to greet Zachary after his set was a tourist from Ottowa.

It is possible to find an opportunity to chat with your
favorite author here. The dilemma is having to chose
between favorites scheduled at the same time.

Hans Sternberg has a book, We Were Retailers out about his years with Goudchaux's Department Store headquartered in Baton Rouge. He was my boss when I worked there for a time after graduating from LSU before moving to New Orleans. I think I remember his mother still working at the store as well. He and his brother Josef were always on the sales floor and they were the nicest people. The store, founded in 1936 was a marvel and featured in Guiness book of records as the world's largest building built and intended for a department store. It was between the cemetery and railroad tracks downtown at the end of 3 dead end streets. Innovations pioneered by the Sternberg family were interest free charge accounts and the concept of the gold card . They extended credit to newly divorced women and others trying to establish credit who were having trouble getting started financially. It was a step up from the regular charge card. Members paid $30 a year to have it and got free parking and other discounts and priveleges. American Express bought the idea from the Sternberg's. Hans told of the mayor of Baton Rouge going to New York and seeing that the Birmingham orchestra was playing Carnegie Hall. Not to be outdone by the smaller city of Alabama he campaigned and won a date for the Baton Rouge symphony to play Carnegie Hall. Goudhcaux's Department store and Eric Sternberg, Hans's father underwrote the event, not only supporting the orchestra but also supplying audience members from Baton Rouge and the state of Louisiana. Afterwards they found out the other orchestra from Birmingham was professionals from Birmingham, England, not Birmingham, Alabama. Hans told of his father sponsoring over 150 people escaping from Nazi Germany in the late 1930's due to his position of having a retail business that could employ these imigrants. He said his father was very glad that they did not in fact see most of them after they escaped Hitler because he wouldn't have known what to do with them all. I would recommend this book to anyone who would care to read about the good old days of the big name quality department stores. The Sternbergs were master retailers and very brilliant about it. I also appreciate them for giving me a position even though from the start I told them I was moving to New Orleans within 6 months.

80% of the authors featured this year were first time guests.

Louis Maistros debuted The Sound of Building Coffins in March 2009. He played guitar and sang an original tune during his talk about the book. If you look him up on You Tune you can see a video of that very song. His wife was initiated into voodoo in Haiti and together they have a business venture called Louie's Juke Joint and Botanica on the internet. For a year they operated a shop selling records and esoteric voodoo paraphanelia at 1128 Decater Street in the French Quarter in the location of the former Record Ron's. Besides being a skilled novelist Louis is also a marvelous artist and photographer. You can purchase his book, the photography and some great Dr. Bob art from http://www.louiesjukejoint.com/. If you have never heard of Dr. Bob I will discuss him when we get to Roy Blount.

Angus Woodward and Dixon Hearne did a joint presentation.
Although they had never met before this event they were a good match and an interesting contrast. Both their work is good but it was more interesting hearing them together.

Angus moved to Louisiana from Minnesota and writes about the contemporary Gulf South in contrast to Dixon who has moved to California and writes about about the days of his childhood when he used to accompany his father , a traveling salesman during summer vacation. Both of them have a collection of short stories. Angus's is titled Down at the End of the River; Dixon's is Plantatia. They proceeded to read the lead sentence from each chapter of their excellent respective books.

In other years authors we have enjoyed and what they talked about include: Julie Smith, a former reporter with the
Times Picayune writes stories set in New Orleans starring
a debutante detective. She explained the elements of this
genre and what it takes to get published during her 45 minutes.

John Ed Bradley quarterbacked at LSU and was featured
in Sports Illustrated, writing about what it was like playing
football for coach Charlie McLeandon. He talked about
investing in southern WPA artists and research on a love
triangle between famed Mexican Diego Rivera, his wife
Norma and an alcoholic but prolific free lance Yankee
photographer who was doing a series on decaying antebellum
homes at the time Diego was painting the murals in the
Fairmont hotel Sazarec lounge. Mr. Bradley's first novel,
Smoke, was very funny and was about a fictionalized
South Louisiana town and the affect on local business
when a mass merchandiser caled 'Monster Mart' comes to town.
His book last year was another narrative about playing college
football, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.

Sue Eakin was my college history teacher and was still writing books at age 91. Last year she talked about her lifelong research into
the life of Solomon Northup who was subject of the 1853 book
12 Years A Slave. She says in 1968 a colleague at LSU wrote an
updated version using her research and put her name on the cover
along with his but it was a poor effort so now she has published
the definitive book on the subject of Solomon Northup.
Mrs.Eakin was the epitome of the phrase "mind as sharp as a tack". She was working on 11 unpublished manuscripts at the time of her death last summer. I don't know if any of these will see the light of day since a close relative went through those manuscripts and expurgated family infomation which was deemed sensitive by this relative.

John Burnett is the NPR reporter from Austin, Texas
who broke the story about the weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq when he was imbedded with the troops, explaining
that he didn't check his sources before going on the air.

Dr. Nick Spitzer broadcasts an excellent weekly radio program,
American Routes from New Orleans and talked about
Louisiana music and musicians. His radio show is two hours long.
Each week he showcases two musicians for an hour apiece.
After Hurricane Katrina he brought a tape recorder when he
returned to his Uptown residence for the first time after
evacuating to inspect the property and pick up a few things for
his family and Ira Glass ran this tape on This American Life in
a segment titled This is Not My Beautiful House. It was great!
You can listen to this on the archives for the show from
September 2005 at http://www.thislife.org/

Michael Lewis is from here as well and is famous for writing
about the stock market both here and in Europe and characters
we have all heard about in the news. He also wrote about Jim
Smith who started the internet and was working on a book,
Money Ball about the Oakland A's baseball team. He did a book
on the team because they have the lowest payroll and the highest
rate of wins. He said the reason is that they hire by stastistics and
not appearence.

Roy Blount,Jr., a great American and the closest thing we have to
Mark Twain read selections from his great book about
New Orleans, Feet on the Street last year. It is a collection of character sketches and stories about his time here when he was a reporter for the States Item newspaper. That man really got around when he lived here. I really enjoyed his discussion of Dr Bob, king of the Bywater folk artists. Dr. Bob makes or decorates
found signs with an embellishment of strips of corrugated tin
and Barq's soft drink bottle caps. A favorite of those who love
his work is the admonishment to "Be Nice or Leave".

This year Roy has a book about the meaning of words. He quipped ' I prefer my oysters fried for then I know my oysters have died' and explained the derrivation of a new phrase he has coined, 'antipentultimatum' which means when your mama is hollering at you and you know you have two more times of her hollering at you before she comes over there with the belt. Something else he said was when meeting new readers of his work they frequently comment " I didn't think you would look like that'. He says his response is "That is what I think too when I look in the mirror sometimes these days'.

Dr. Christine Vella was a repeat speaker this year. I had heard her give a presentation on Intimate Enemies, a study of Madam Micaela Almonaster Pontalba several years back and read the book afterwards. It read like a novel and I couldn't put it down. Dr. Vella did a wonderful job on this book because there was very little about Madam Pontalba to go on. Most of what there was consisted of court cases. Madam Pontalba built the apartments on Jackson Square and also a home in Paris that is now the American Embassy. I will say no more about that here but encourage everyone to read it.

This year Dr. Vella discussed Dorothy Dix the newspaper columnist who died at age 90 in 1961. Most people didn't know that she wrote her columns in New Orleans and thought she was from their home town. She got her start at age 32 when she was recuperating from a nervous breakdown living in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi next to the editor of the Times Picayune who hired her to write obituaries. From there she was hired by the New York Journal to be their crime reporter. After 17 years she moved back to New Orleans in hopes of reuniting with her husband and wrote advice columns for another 22 years from here. She worked 18 hour days for nearly 60 years and at the height of her popularity in the 1920's and 1930's she was getting over 2,000 letters a week and answered them all with the help of one secretary. She coined a term, 'the perjury of courtship' about lies men tell women in order to have their way with them and did say that when you enter a restaurant and see couples engaged in scintillating conversation just enjoying themselves, having a delightful time, those couples are married but to other people.
Her 10 Steps to Happiness still holds true today: Make up your mind to be happy and be happy now, not in the future; smile; make the best of any situation you are in; don't take yourself or anyone else seriously; don't hold a grudge; don't worry about what might happen because most of that stuff never happens; have as many interests as you can find the time for; don't brood over past mistakes; do something for the less fortunate and keep busy.

When she died she left an estate of $2.5 million.

This is Dorothy Dix's family tomb in Metairie Cemetery, plot 167. It is not unusual to have the name of the person interred there because it is a family crypt, also remember that Dix was her penname. Her maiden name was not even Dorothy, it was Elizabeth Meriwether. She had married her step mother's step brother, George Gilmer when she was 21.

Several times a year it is the custom in New Orleans to have a florist deliver an arrangement to the cemetery, for example All Saints Day November 1 and Mother's Day in May. Some people don't go to the cemetery but just pay to have it done. I have worked for several florists in the past and had the chore of locating one of these tombs where the person's name the flowers was for was not on the tomb at all so had to do research in the cemetery office that could be quite time consuming.

Wally Lamb spoke in the House of Representatives chambers in the morning and was also on a panel that afternoon. He was one of the first selections of the Oprah Book Club when it started in 1996.

In contrast for the last couple of years former Times Picayune columnist Chris Rose gave a talk about his self published book One Dead in The Attic that was illustrated by British photographer Charley Varley and later picked up by Random House. This book was a compilation of his newspaper columns for 6 months after Katrina. I really liked it but part of the charm was the Charley Varley photographs. I was disappointed that Chris dropped Charley from the book when Random House picked it up and did not insist on taking the work as a package deal. Random House wanted a contract just with Chris Rose.

Chris regaled us with a story of how he was on Oprah's tv show but wouldn't sign the waiver about not discussing Oprah the after taping so the show didn't run. He was irritated because Oprah wanted to slant the show to the topic of depression in post Katrina New Orleans and would not let him mention his book or even have it on the set. He could tell at the time that the show would be biased because he said the promos showed him standing on a balcony staring vacantly off into space. It was true that he had been depressed after the hurricane but he had sought treatment and was in fact recovered. Because he wouldn't sign the waiver they didn't run the show but what he did do is write a column about Oprah and the non-show which immediately made its way around the internet gaining alot more audience than the show ever would have.

Post Hurricane Katrina we heard Dr. Ivor von Heerdon, director
of the LSU Hurricane studies center, the Rutledge brothers who published a book of stories one month after Katrina called Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans? and Phyllis Montanna who starred in Spike Lee's movie When the Levee Broke and now has a book
of her own out, Not Just the Levee Broke. Phyllis gave a fascinating heartfelt account of her first hand experience of staying in New Orleans during the storm and surviving during its aftermath but she is the first author I have ever heard say that when her book was published she did not know what was in it.
What's up with that?

I really loved Do You Know What It Means. It had stories from a variety of contributors about the New Orleans of the good old days as well as what it is like now and featured some wonderful maps of the 19th century French Quarter. There was an account of what it was like to be a Boy Scout working on a carnival float with his friends in Junior High school, and a recipe plus the account of one of the editors of this book having to steal a car to leave New Orleans after the storm.

At the end of the day last year as I mentioned earlier the
symphony played movie themes, including several by
composer John Williams. Lieutenant Govenor Mitch Landrieu
was master of ceremonies. He noticed a young man in a
wheelchair on the front row, Calvin Constant who was there with us.
Calvin had never been to a symphony concert before and was
fascinated to watch the interplay of the instruments and to learn
the names of each during the concert.

After the program Lt. Govenor Landieu was very kind to
take a minute to kneel down on one knee and talk with
Calvin before we left. Calvin is 20 years old. He was so
inspired by the opportunity to chat with Mitch that he
registered to vote after that and did vote for the first time in
the election this year, hopefully for the Lt. Govenor's sister
Mary but I am not sure how it turned out as I did not
bring him to vote.

This year the Lt. Govenor opted for the more casual route and after introducing the program he enjoyed it with his daughter along with the rest of us on the steps of the capitol.

1 comment:

Jane Feehan said...


Jane here; I met you at Rouse's...love your blog. I'm going to subscribe.

I'm at http://janesbits.blogspot.com