Sunday, June 07, 2009

Joe Scarborough's new book & other sad tales from the NYC Book Expo

(Photos are of Gail Collins and Peter Drexler at the Authors' Breakfast and the hot new Espresso Book Machine)

After touring New York City by subway Saturday night, I was ready to go back to the 2009 Book Expo and enjoy another one of their coolness Authors' Breakfasts. "Who will be giving me free books this time?" I wondered, getting so excited I could hardly wait for the doors to open Sunday morning.

"And today's speaker will be...Joe Scarborough!" Nooooo! This is the man that former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called "stunningly superficial". And I was going to have to listen to him at eight o'clock in the morning? What did I ever do to deserve this!

"I am very excited to be here," said Scarborough. "I've heard that you were a very conservative group." All the booksellers and librarians in the room laughed loudly at that one. "I was first elected to the House of Representatives in an area called the Redneck Riviera. And when I was in Congress, I was fascinated by the fact that Democrats and Republicans never crossed the aisle. But when I first ran for office, the Republican party hadn't supported me so I felt free to vote any way I wanted. Newt Gingrich would say, 'Vote our way or else!' Or else what? They already tried to defeat me."

Why did Scarborough even want to speak at the Expo, given most librarians' and booksellers' liberal leanings? My guess is that he sees the handwriting on the wall, knows that only 22% of American voters will actually admit that they are registered Republicans and wants to jump off Limbaugh's sinking ship while he still has the chance.

"At MSNBC," Scarborough continued, "there is a Balkanization forming there like the one in Congress. But when people come on my show they aren't yelled at and accused of being a Marxist or a fascist. And now conservatives come up to me and say, 'Joe, you were right'. Conservatives need to re-evaluate their brand of conservatism." Yeah. They do need a new brand-imaging these days. "Greedy blood-thirsty loser" hasn't been selling too well.

"In the last quarter-century, conservatives have not been restrained by reality. 'End tyranny across the globe' is not a conservative concept. This is a radical ideal. We conservatives need to look in the mirror. We can't run around writing radical prescriptions for everything. We need to get back to Edmund Burke."

Then Scarborough dragged out Ronald Reagan, just in case anyone in the audience possibly cared. Hey, this is an auditorium full of people who can read! "Reagan never took his Democrat-bashing personally. At the end of the day, he and Tip O'Neill would sit around the Oval Office and chat. The screaming and yelling was just a sidebar. The core was to get his policies passed. Obama has also found the temperamental center of politics."

If there had been a question and answer period, I would have asked Scarborough to talk about his 28-year-old aide that was found dead in his congressional office back in July of 2001 or if the tabloids are right and he is having an affair with Zbigniew Brzezinski's daughter Mika. But there was no Q&A and we may never know -- so I went back to eating my breakfast, consisting of bagels, cream cheese and marmalade. I love marmalade.

Our next speaker was Richard Russo, author of the best-seller, "The Bridge of Sighs". He gave a nice talk on how his book evolved, which is always of interest to those of us who are aspiring writers.

"My latest book, entitled 'That Old Cape Magic,' was only meant to be a short story. The despair that I felt after 'The Bridge of Sighs" had pretty much drained me. By the time I had finished writing and touring for a book that was very depressive, my creative gas tank was pretty much on empty. I didn't think that I had another book in me." And so he decided to write a short story instead.

"Writers are always trying to find their rhythm -- or at least not to lose it. Writing is hard. However, NOT writing is even harder. I wanted to write something that would be like a slow bike ride down literature's pathway. I was tired. My mother had just died and my daughter was about to get married. I figured that I'd write 20 pages -- in and out. Batteries recharged. Easy. But then my protagonist, Jack Griffin, got [pooped] on by a seagull, literally, and the short story started becoming a novella. Another 50 pages should do it. But for some reason, I wasn't feeling so exhausted any more. Griffin's mother died, his wife is about to leave him and he's facing two weddings. The protagonist started feeling worse -- but I was feeling much better. Another 100 pages and I may just even have something that might be a novel."

And he did. And I have three copies of the publisher's draft to prove it. "By page 300, I started sprinting. I had lost control of a short story but instead of crashing and burning, I actually came out with a novel!"

Then Russo reflected some more on the craft of writing. "Novelists are like poker players, card-cutters, professional liars. They are good at lying -- so who better to lie to than oneself. Like women who forget the pain of childbirth and go on to have other babies, the novelist lies to himself and writes on. Also, writers have time, experience and talent -- but they always need luck too. And luck is famous for running out. Self-deception. It gives us the courage to begin an odious task. By kidding myself, it gave me the courage to begin another novel. This novel helped me deal with the death of my mother and the fact that my children were growing up."

Hey, at least Russo knew that he was lying.

This breakfast was lasting forever. I was already on my third cup of de-caf (yes, I'm a wimp). But you still want to hear more, right? Our next speaker was Gail Collins, NYT columnist and author of "When Everything Changed". You GOTTA hear about Gail Collins, right?

"In a historic campaign like the 2008 presidential election," said Collins, "a woman was running to make history against an African-American who was also running to make history. And despite all this, we were told that the election would all come down to what white males thought." Collins indicated that this wasn't true. White males don't decide national elections any more. Those days are gone.

"This book began in 1999, when the Times was beginning its extensive millennium coverage. I had written a book about the millennium but hadn't written about women specifically, so the Times asked me to write about women over the last millennium. Women's position in civilization has been the same at its core not just over the past millennium but for thousands and thousands of years before that. So I got interested in that and also about American women -- colonial women, suffragettes, Rosie the Riveter etc., but also about the day-to-day life of American women. In my first book on American women -- which was fun to do and I loved -- I only got up to World War II. But I wanted to write about how the role of women suddenly changed dramatically after thousands of years." The whole paradigm of the role of women changed, bucking a trend of almost 100,000 years. That's huge.

"One woman in the post-World War II era caused a judge to go crazy because she wore slacks to court. And one woman couldn't sign a lease for an apartment but was required to have her husband sign it even though they had to go to a mental hospital to do it. And then things changed. Women went to court. Ken and Barbie went under a wash cloth to have sex. There were many great moments in women's liberation that appeared to be just small things. Bicycles gave them freedom. Pantyhose. The story of Luke and Laura on General Hospital dealing with rape -- Luke raped Laura, bringing rape-consciousness to the surface." I remember Luke and Laura. I used to watch General Hospital when I was home with baby Ruby back in 1972.

"These are the stories of women in this period. I loved gathering these stories. I loved writing this book."

Next author: Peter Drexler. An old dude with a comb-over, he absolutely stole the show. He's hard as hell to quote, was very stream-of-consciousness. You had to have been there to appreciate it. But he was funny as hell and his comedic timing was perfect. I was all green with envy and, I bet, so was Joe Scarborough. "My favorite book that I've written so far? 'Straightman'. The best thing that a novel can do is to entertain -- and that one entertained me. Did I tell you the story about Maureen Dowd? I wrote that she was the best columnist there is. So the Seattle Post-Intelligencer fired me and hired her."

Then Drexler told a story about someone collecting dried earthworms in a scrapbook and calling them nature's string beans. "Nature ALREADY has string beans!" Then he talked about cattle prods and burials as sea that didn't go so well. "My book is the study of innocence and evil. I've got dogs in my book. Editors are strange. Of course they are evil but the higher up you go, the nicer they seem to be -- the opposite of most corporations. There's a fence in my novel. A polar bear eats some guy's finger at a zoo. Yodeling. My wife gives the best shampoos."

Then Drexler said something about a kindergarten teacher and glue. And Margaret Truman. "A father makes his outcast son go out for football. And the kid would go over and hide behind the blocking dummies." Dexter is definitely an outcast too. "It's a little hard to explain my protagonist. He'd break into people's houses just to piss in their shoes. The newspapers wrote about it. Of course the kid can't read because he's only nine. But he gets really good at it -- breaking into houses. I'm telling too much of the story, no reason to buy the book." The book's name is "Spooner," BTW. I have three copies.

"There's septic tanks in this story. Septic tanks are like children. You bring them up the same and one turns out good and one turns out lousy. There's a Ukrainian body-builder. X-rays -- which are always bad news. Zoos. The father-in-law is finally arrested because the protagonist has driven him clean out of his head."

After the breakfast, I wandered around the Expo some more, got some more free books autographed and stood in awe in front of OnDemand Books' new Espresso Book Machine -- wherein you can choose from thousands of titles and the machine will just print out your book right before your very eyes. It was amazing, the hit of the show. Then I went back to my youth hostel, watched a ukulele band playing John Lennon songs in the lobby, ate left-over Hawaiian food, got invited to go to a tango nightclub down by the docks and discussed physics with one of my bunkmates. "I just love particle theory...." Fine.