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Arts and Entertainment

The LA Times Festival of Books, Abridged

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This weekend’s LA Times Festival of Books was jam-packed with all things literary. USC’s campus swelled with book-loving Angelenos. Children enjoyed readings by R.L. Stine and Jamie Lee Curtis, USC students waxed poetic from the USC stage, and laughs ebbed from comedian Patton Oswalt's audience. Publishers met new readers, bookstores found new customers, and literacy nonprofits got due public attention. And this weekend’s panels were pretty entertaining. In case you missed any of the festivities, here are some highlights from the 2011 LA Times Festival of Books:

Fiction: Breaking Boundaries: The panel featured 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan, who read from her book A Visit From the Goon Squad. Egan talked about her insistence in not labeling her work, which has been cited as a book of short stories as well as a novel. She cited the long tradition of experimental structures attributed to the history of the novel. For Egan, ‘story drives form.’ Also on the panel were authors Richard Rayner (Los Angeles Without A Map), Olga Grushin (The Dream Life of Sukhanov), Benjamin Hale (The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore), and Frederick Reiken (Day for Night), who all touched upon the importance of experimentation in order to achieve story-essential effects within their work.

Patti Smith and Dave Eggers in Conversation with David Ulin: Perhaps one of the most anticipated shows at the LATFOB, the Smith/Eggers panel was energetic and lively. Ulin was an excellent moderator. He fielded questions to Patti Smith about her book Just Kids, which chronicles her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and earned her the 2010 National Book Award. When asked why she opted for memoir instead of poetry, Smith said, “The language of poetry is, it’s almost like code sometimes and not always as generous as a memoir or nonfiction because when one writes poetry, one writes for oneself, but when one writes a book, it’s written for the people.” Smith also said she wanted the book to be accessible, otherwise Mapplethorpe wouldn’t “want to read it [cue laughs].” Eggers deliberated on his book A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius. “I had to get the story out of me,” he said. He warned about the perils of ‘book permanence,’—something he insisted he learned the hard way when he decided, with permission, to print the actual telephone numbers of his closest friends in the 1st edition of the book. They’re still there, he assured, but the numbers have since been changed.

Larry Flynt and David Eisenbach in Conversation with Stephen Elliott: While not quite as popular as the Smith/Eggers panel, the discussion with America’s favorite pornographer and free speech advocate, Larry Flynt, was just as intriguing. The discussion of his book One Nation Under Sex, which Flynt co-wrote with Columbia history professor, David Eisenbach, was dynamic in part thanks to the moderation of Stephen Elliott, who is the founder of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries. The premise of Flynt’s new book lies in the hypothesis that the extramarital affairs US presidents have had throughout history has impacted important political policy. The book reveals some controversial findings. Was Buchanan’s gay lover a catalyst for law implementation resulting in the Civil War? Could Woodward’s mistress have brought the US into the League of Nations? Might Harding have been the ‘horniest’ president in our country’s history? And who knew Ben Franklin often wrote sex advice articles, including a thesis on sleeping with older women.

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Patton Oswalt: Even though the comedian was nearly half an hour late to the stage, Oswalt made up for it with a short reading from his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. The first story he read was a hilarious satire on wine reviews: “Freshmen at Thanksgiving Dinner Pinot Noir: A Nietzschean blend of arrogant pinot grapes packed and formed with an amusing smugness...Great when paired with Gang of Four or Fugazi CDs.” As always, he had fun with the audience, specifically at the expense of two punk girls, who bolted from their seats when a bee swarmed. Patton yelled, “Frightened by a bee? How dare you! Did the lead singer of Joy Division hang himself for nothing?” “GG Allin would have punched that bee. Punched it right in the face.” Hilarities ensued.

Demetri Martin: Hipster comedian Demetri Martin took stage on Sunday, before an impressively large audience, in order to promote his book This Is A Book. The crowd was besotted with Martin’s self-deprecating humor and snarky one-liners. He read a few selections from his book. including a funny excerpt entitled, “Frustrating uses of etcetera,”—a modern take on the ‘yadda-yadda’ joke of Seinfeld fame. The jokes weren’t as frequent during Martin’s performance, but it was an informative hour. It was revealed that the notorious law-school dropout got a 166 on his L-SAT and he wanted to be a comedian because it was the career closest to the equivalent of hanging out with his friends. He managed a quick comeback when an audience member off-handedly referred to him as a ‘pseudo intellectual,’ and he was refreshingly honest during the extended Q&A. And when Martin hit the right jokes, the audience reveled.

Some LATFOB-goers did complain about the tight quarters at USC and expressed nostalgia for the UCLA campus, but the majority of attendees seemed enthralled. The USC Stage drew consistent audiences with a variety of performances—including slam poetry, theatrical skits, and the USC marching band. The Hoy stage boasted an extremely talented group of kids in their spelling bee. And poets Douglas Kearney, Carol Muske-Dukes, Percival Everett, and many others formed an impressive collective of local poets. So while the next LATFOB is an entire year away, this past weekend is proof enough that there are plenty of things ‘literary’ to love about LA.

What did you think of this year’s LATFOB? Tell us about it!