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L.A. Likes Books: Highlights of The 2012 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

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Literary denizens of Los Angeles are likely still mourning the end of this year’s LA Times Festival of Books. This weekend was a true testament to our city’s incredible passion for literature. As one passerby remarked, “I just can’t believe this many people in L.A. like books.” If you were one of the thousands wandering through USC’s book-peppered campus last weekend, surely you can revel in this naïve utterance.

While we’ve talked at length about the unfair reputation our city still bears as a ‘literary lightweight,’ witnessing the LATFoB is seriously (and pardon the hyperbole) magnificent. Masses—literally—descended on USC’s campus for a weekend of thoughtful literary discourse, intellectual enlightenment, and book-minded pursuits.

The LATFoB is precisely the kind of event that evinces L.A. as a city ruefully defiant of her own stereotypes. From literature and poetry to anarchism, Kabbalah, CPSAN, and Ayn Rand objectivism—The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is an invaluable part of our city’s contradiction-laden lore. And, as many locals can attest, the event itself is something of an exercise in the magic thrumming at our city’s very core.

Throughout the weekend, and under the guise of literature, panels and artists touched on various ideas integral to navigating the L.A. landscape. From identity, vulnerability, race, whimsy, and comedy, this weekend’s festival was ultimately an investigation of what it’s like to live in Los Angeles—a city that is simply obsessed with story telling.

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Here are some of the major highlights from this year’s festival:

How do you talk about race in L.A.? The conversation between Rodney King and Patt Morrison began with a bit of an unsettling start. While waiting for Mr. King to arrive, comments flooded the auditorium from individuals who had been directly affected by the aftermath of the Rodney King beating—including those from a retired journalist who covered the event (“Everything was on fire,” he said. “If there is a hell, that’s what I’d imagine it looks like”), to a community organizer, and a score of individuals who had been within close proximity to the riots. By the time Mr. King arrived, the findings were explicit: race is, emphatically, an issue in our city. Even so, Rodney King had a more optimistic outlook. “I think we have come a little way,” he said. “But there’s a lot more to be done while I’m still here.” Mr. King closed the event with a nod to his legendary saying, “I’ll say it again; Can’t we all just get along yet?”

The Reality of ‘Surreality:’ Blame Hollywood, plastic surgery, or the wonderfully bizarre writing of L.A. native Aimee Bender, but there is something definitively surreal about Los Angeles. So much so, that it seems Sunday’s panel on ‘Whimsical Voices’ could hardly have been staged anywhere else. The panel featured an all-star cast of ‘whimsical’ writers: Etgar Keret, Amelia Gray, Sara Levine, and Ben Loory, and was hosted by LA Times writer Carolyn Kellogg.

Despite their penchant for the bizarre, the authors found truths in their narratives. Short story author Ben Loory said, “My reality is largely rendered from my dreams.” Keret theorized, “If you meet a girl and kiss her, and it feels like you’re floating in air, then why not write about floating in air? That’s a real feeling, and a real experience.” “Realism is a good dish,” said novelist Sara Levine, “but it’s not the only option on the menu.” For these authors, whimsy was a kind of ultimate truth—the manifestation of a subjective lived experience, and one that must be shared.

The Self vs. The Truth: The memoir panel moderated by Amy Wallen was largely a meditation on vulnerability, subjective truth, and the need to tell one’s own story. The panel featured memoirists Cheryl Strayed, Charles Shaw, Emma Forrest, and Dinah Lenney. The authors spoke candidly about the process of writing memoir and baring themselves to the world. Forrest described her process as “trying to name unnameable things.” Lenney expounded on the need for memoir in the world: “If you mean to be truthful and say this mattered and you’re specific about it, you will undoubtedly touch someone.” Advice on memoir writing abounded. Shaw admitted that he had spent half of his career writing fiction before turning the lens back onto himself. “When people say they want to write fiction, I tell them to write nonfiction first,” he said. But perhaps the best advice for budding memoirists came from Strayed, “If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it better be your own.”

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In L.A., Poetry Is Not for the Faint of Heart: Sunday morning’s poetry stage featured larger-than-life poets Holaday Mason and Douglas Kearney. Mason is a startling poet, whose dark themes and beautiful, succinct lines resonate long after she has turned the page. Her poetry evokes a kind of gaping and blustery snow-covered space, with turns of phrases like “tassels of wisteria,” and “wolves drawn to the sound of bells.” Kearney, known for his provocative stage presence and his explosive poetry, was truly a festival highlight. And because words fall away when trying to convey the power of Kearney’s poetry, this video should speak for itself:

Bonus: Michael Ian Black reading about the joys of fatherhood:

What was your favorite part of the 2012 LA Times Festival of Books? Leave us a comment and let us know!