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JewliciousReads – Highlights from the Miami Book Fest

Some people go to Miami for Art Basel, others for the beaches. I go for the books.

For over three decades, the Miami Book Fair has invited authors and readers to a casual confab to celebrate books. This year, the top readings were televised live on the C-Span network and recorded by PBS. There were more than 600 authors present for books and media published in English, Espanol, Creole, Portuguese, and other languages. Plus at least two panels of authors were dedicated and titled to Jewish themes.

The Fair kicked off with an appearance by punk poet Patti Smith, Professor Ilan “Don Quixote” Stavans, David Axelrod, and Robert B. Reich; and closed with readings by Attorney Alan Dershowitz and Rosie Perez and John Leguizamo.

Actors Paul Giamatti and David Strathairn read LOUDLY from Sophocles. Ted Koppel frightened attendees with his likelihoods of cyber warfare against America’s electrical grid. Jon Meacham discussed former U.S. President, VP, CIA Director and Congressman George H.W. Bush, Rabbi Harold Kushner discussed his concept of the non Santa Claus-like God, and actor/author a Don Knotts-like Jesse Eisenberg frenetically read stories of a middle school aged restaurant reviewer.

Held on the downtown Miami campus of Miami Dade College the highlights (for me) included:

Friday night: An Evening With The National Book Awards Winners and Finalists. WOW. Nearly all the winners and finalists of the National Book Awards, announced just days earlier, came to Miami to read from their works for just two minutes each. I overheard the head of partner National Book Foundation mention that they would sponsor a variety of winners at talks on college campuses around the country in 2016 (Hey Jewish Book Council… how about a college road tour of Jewish Book Award finalists or authors at Hillels across the USA in 2016/2017?) With the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the presenters included Ilyasah Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X’s daughter, who authored a YA/young adult memoir of her father X: A Novel; Steve Sheinkin, the author of a YA book on the Pentagon Papers – Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War; Nell Zink, the author of Mislaid: A Novel about a mother, sex, race, and hiding; Jesse Ball; Karen E. Bender; Angela Flournoy; poet Jane Hirshfield; and poet Lawrence Raab, whose poems in Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts capture aging in place in Florida and other themes. Ali Benjamin shared that she started writing a science book about Jellyfish, but turned it into the award winning novel, The Thing About Jellyfish; Neal Shusterman, who attended with his son – the co-author – told how he used his son’s illness (with permission) to write Challenger Deep about a young man who is describing his mental illness and telling the story of a trip to the deepest part of the ocean; Martha Hodes, with her book on Mourning Lincoln exposed how many people, as well as the antebellum South were quite happy with the death of Lincoln; and Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches: Salem, 1692 shared how the dark blackness of Lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy helped her understand the fear that enveloped Salem in the 17th Century.

Saturday morning opened with a chat with cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey. Ms. Jaffrey is a seven-time James Beard Award–winning cookbook author and her newest book is Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking. In conversation with chef Ayesha D’Mello, Jafrey explained how she would visit home cooks to find the best recipes and techniques, away from the artificiality of restaurants that are designed for ingredient expense-savings and speed. Jaffrey shared that she did not cook until age 20. As a child and teen in New Delhi, she would read Life and Time magazines and wish for the exotic food of Coke and canned fruit cocktail. She fell for Marlon Brando is the cinema and wanted to be an actor (her first husband was the late actor, Javed Jaffrey). Actually, as a young woman in London in the late 1950’s, Madhur lived with a young Jewish family, the Golds (Blanche Gold), who allowed her to use their kitchen to cook her own food. Jaffrey did not become an author until, as an actress in NYC, The New York Times profiled her as an actress who liked to cook. The next thing she knew, an editor from Knopf called and asked her to write.

I then ran out to hear Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, who led a panel of top authors including Sloane Crosley, Margo Jefferson, Brad Meltzer, Rick Moody, and T.J. Stiles. One panelist mentioned that they enjoy reading “bad reviews” and famous books on Amazon.com. For example, the person who criticizes the lack of the whale in Moby Dick til later in the novel. Her first question was what book the authors were reading on their way to the Fair. Meltzer read a Neil Gaiman comic book while driving in Miami (his mother read the National Enquirer and Star growing up; there were no books in his home as a child); Sloane read H is for Hawk; Margo Jefferson is reading student papers and starting HHHH for the second time; TJ was reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain; and Rick Moody was reading four books at the same time, including Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello. Paul’s advice. Read Tolstoy to understand Afghanistan.

After listening to Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman on his history of Psychiatry and the stigma of mental illness(Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry), The Miami Book Fair presented “Jewish Stories, World Histories” which featured Dan Ephron and Rita Gabis. Dan Ephron, a reporter who spent decades in Israel covering the Middle East, is the author of Killing A King: the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Ephron was actually at the rally where Rabin was murdered. In 2012, after seeing a grainy, short Youtube video on 20 seconds of the interrogaton of Yigal Amir, Ephron decided to research the murder deeper, interview the interrogators, Amir’s family, and craft a portrait of the events surrounding the killing. Gabis, who lost her notes in a taxicab, still presented a great review of her book, A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet: My Grandfather’s SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth. Gabis’ father was Jewish, and her maternal grandfather was a well known Lithuanian American. Haunted by her grandfather once telling her, as a child, to not be “like her father,” and that “Jews no good,” she decided as an adult to research her grandfather’s role in the slaughter of Jews in Lithuania during WWII. Her book reveals more than she ever expected, and tells not only over her grandfather’s role in murders but his actual primary leadership of them.

On Sunday morning, Gail Sheehy (Passages) read with Rabbi Harold Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People; Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life). Kuchner, 80, appearing fragile at first, expounded on his belief or enduring truth to him that God sends if not a cure, then the strength to people to cope with problems, and his realization as a rabbi many decades ago that people do not want a theological discourse when they are in pain, but they want a hug and an understanding that they have not been rejected by god and the community; and that god will make them brave (and it is the job of the doctors and healthcare professionals to make them well). Kushner also shared a personal story of the time he was asked to visit Camp Ramah after a camper drowned. His advice; It is okay to be mad with god and vent anger, because if you can;t get angry, then you can’t love with all your heart.

In a session with Paul Goldberger on Goldberg (Frank Gehry) and his book: Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, the discussion was fascinating, since the discussion was led by Paul Holdengraber of the NYPL. Gehry, 86, actually changed his name at 25 before the birth of his child in Los Angeles. He did not come to this decision easily; it was the idea of his wife. The name Gehry was taken from the street name in San Francisco. Gehry especially liked that Goldberg/Gehry allowed him to keep his “G” initial, and had the same shape of a rise in the middle (db/h) and a drop at the end (g/y). For years afterward, at parties, Gehry would introduce himself as Frank Gehry formerly Goldberg.

Gillian Laub's relatives in fur. (Photo: Gillian Laub)

Gillian Laub’s relatives in fur. (Photo: Gillian Laub)

Tablet Magazine hosted a panel on “Tragedy, Comedy, Versace: A Look at Jews, Identity, and the Creation of American Materialism.” Moderated by Alana Newhouse, a founder and editor in chief of Tablet and past Forward writer, the panel included her husband and author David Samuels, as well as authors Joshua Cohen, Bob Morris, and Gillian Laub. The theme was about how Jews created and promoted many aspects of American material culture. Although I don’t think the panel – fresh from a lunch at the Four Seasons – stayed on topic, I found the discussion fascinating and entertaining. At one point I believe that the NYC based panelists were in conflict with the many South Florida members of the audience. The discussion ranged from the influence of the Wiener Secession to that of the garment industry, cutters, the mob, Miami Beach, and Hollywood editors and producers. Joshua Cohen, who has a character named Joshua Cohen in his latest novel (The Book of Numbers) seemed to restrain himself. I had the feeling that he could have delivered a dissertation on the topic from the podium. (By the way, one of the best lines from his novel is that seagulls are goyim). And Bob Morris was so funny that I bought his book, Bobby Wonderful, about the recents deaths of his parents (the last word of one parent was Bobby; the other’s was Wonderful). The photos of Gillian Laub of her family members were priceless and more beautiful than Lapisud architecture.
Gillian Laub's relatives in Naples Florida. (Photo: Gillian Laub)

Gillian Laub’s relatives in Naples Florida. (Photo: Gillian Laub)

Other authors who I did not get to see or hear included disgraced journalist Judith Miller (The Story: A Reporters’s Journey); Congressman John Lewis (March; Book Two); Bob Morris (Bobby Wonderful); Scott Simon (Unforgettable: A Son, A Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime); Marvin and Ruth Sackner (The Art of Typewriting); Jose Refael Lovera (Retablo Gastronomica de Venezuela); Lorena Garcia (New Taco Classics); Paul Levine (Solomon & Lord); Congressman Steve Israel (The Global War on Morris); Susan Abulhawa (The Blue Between Sky and Water); Greg Grandin (In Kissinger’s Shadow); Harry Lembeck (Taking on Theodore Roosevelt); Hallie Ephron (Me, My Hair, and I); Thane Rosenbaum (How Sweet It Is); Joshua Cohen (Book of Numbers: A Novel); Suki Kim (Without You There is No Us); and Toni Tipton-Martin (The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks)

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