For more than 15 years, I’ve had the honor of introducing many of the author panels at ALA sponsored by ALTAFF (formerly FOLUSA and soon to be United for Libraries). While my colleagues trudge and drudge their way through the conference, I get to talk about books and meet some remarkable authors. Among my favorite moments this year: talking with thoughtful first novelist Elizabeth Percer about our shared alma mater, hearing historical fiction writer Jean Zimmerman reimagine lower Manhattan as New Amsterdam, and being blown away by five remarkable science books on the “Geek Alert” panel. This week’s newsletter includes a summary of the panels, my introductions to each book, and my introduction to Movers and Shakers speaker William Kamkwamba.
Platypuses Eating Pie. Just outrageous enough to have told bedtime stories to a girlfriend’s child featuring Peter Rabbit as an IRA activist and the farmer as a Black and Tan, Howard Anderson (Albert of Adelaide) began with an idea for a story featuring a dissipated platypus. As he explained at the First Author First Book panel, his protagonist eventually turned into a platypus who has escaped the Adelaide Zoo in search of a place without people, but Anderson denied that Albert was on a quest. (Why wouldn’t you look for someplace better, that’s not a quest.)
Beth Howard meant to write a different memoir than Making Piece, one about how she became pie maker to the stars after leaving her dot.com job (Robert Downey, a few blocks away at a rehab, often stopped by the Malibu shop where she worked for her peach pie.) But after her husband’s death, pie making became a source of comfort: Pie has seductive power and healing power.
Though Elizabeth Percer’s An Uncommon Education is set at Wellesley, from which she graduated, and features a protagonist who shares some of her background, she doesn’t see it as autobiographical: It’s a story of where we are today in society, a place where we are still settling this country. Her father emigrated from Israel, her mother converted to Judaism from Catholicism, and she always wondered about her place in society; the loneliness she felt in college is reflected in her protagonist’s experiences. In the end, she said, her novel is a love letter to those not quite fully formed, connecting to her fellow panelists by adding we’re all platypuses eating pie.
Parents’ Warning. Browen Hruska’s Accelerated (First Author, First Book) focuses on a suddenly single father alarmed by pressure from his son’s fancy Manhattan school to put his son medication. It stems from Hruska’s own experience, but her cautionary tale is universal: It’s not just this school, not just Manhattan, and not just New York, but all over the country. My prediction: lots of controversy when the book publishes.
Saving a Generation. Though the hero of Beatriz Williams’s Overseas is a World War I British soldier who materializes in contemporary Manhattan, it was clear from her impassioned discussion of the honor, potential, and idealism of the many young men mowed down during the war that one should think of her book less a time travel and more as a paean to a a more principled era and a generation lost forever. She wrote as she did she said, because” I’m an optimist; I wanted them to be alive. (“First Author, First Book).
You Can Feel the Magic of the Past. That’s what Jean Zimmerman said at Historical Fiction @ your library. Zimmerman often wanders through the streets of lower Manhattan, the setting of her first novel, The Orphanmaster (as 1663 New Amsterdam), and sees where her characters might have stood and conversed. A topnotch nonfiction writer who has often touched on the time and place exhibited in her work, she chose fiction for the first time because I didn’t want to be constrained any more; the story is made up, and I know the difference.
Good for Book Clubs. Lois Leveen’s The Secret of Mary Bowser (Historical Fiction @ your library), about a freed slave who returns to the South to spy for the Union, was published as a trade paperback original to make it more accessible to book clubs‚ and already it’s been picked up by several of the more official ones. Leveen’s story, set partly in urban Richmond, VA, illustrates that not all slaves were on plantations.
The Best Show and Tell. Historical Fiction @ your library had some of the best special effects of any ALTAFF panel in recent memory. Jeri Westerson (the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series) brought a medieval helmet, as well as a knife and sword (I like to play with sharps), and explained that to get a sense of what it was like to stab someone with a broadsword she tied a side of beef to the backyard swing set and hacked away.
Not to be outdone, Regina O’Melveny (The Book of Madness and Cures) read the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno (in the original Italian, then translating), to reveal the music with which she aimed to suffuse her first novel, which opens in 1500s Venice. In contrast, Gail Tsukiyama (A Hundred Flowers) explained that though she bounced between two heritages (her mother’s Chinese and her father’s Japanese), her own language tended toward down-to-earth oh man.
Scariest Prediction. As Lawrence E. Joseph (Geek Alert!: Your Mind on Science and Technology) pointed out in Solar Cataclysm, scientists expect that sometime soon, the sun is expected to belch forth a billion-ton plasma blast that would hit earth and effectively knock out the electrical power grid for months or even years. The good news: the global scientific community is on it, and even the Senate has voted unanimously to install surge suppressors for grid protection. The bad news: It can’t agree on which subcommittee is in charge.
The Most Fun with Science. In The Violinist’s Thumb, said author Sam Kean (Geek Alert!: Your Mind on Science and Technology), he aimed to find the spooky or funny stories buried in our DNA. His example for the audience: retrodiagnosis, which tells us how our favorite historical celebrities have died. Despite Akhnaten distorted appearance in art of the time, which has led to some speculation, DNSA offers no evidence of horrific disease. But no such luck for King Tut: genetic stutters seem to have done him in.
Neuroscience Rules. From Leonard Mlodinow’s discussion of the new tools we are using to probe the black box of the mind (Subliminal) to Mind Wars author Jonathan D. Moreno’s raising of ethical concerns in the application of neuroscience in military and defense (sentry robots that could be made to be autonomous firing weapons?), to Paul J. Zak’s explanation (as seen in The Moral Molecule) that raised levels of oxytocin lead to more caring behavior‚ a universal truth he found even when doing research in Papua New Guinea‚ the Geek Alert!: Your Mind on Science and Technology panel proved Moreno’s assertion that neuroscience is one of the fastest-growing fields in science today.
Bashing stereotypes, crossing lines. At Isn’t It Romantic? Tessa Dare (A Week To Be Wicked) talked about the frustrations of stereotypes that define her two chosen fields, librarianship and romance writer, also pointing out that romance readers get unfairly stereotyped as unhappy souls stuck on fantasy. (Thank you, she said to the audience, for taking care of romance readers.
Susan Mallery said that what she really wants to investigate is female friendship, and in Barefoot Season,she explores a type of character that rarely touched onP the slutty best friend who sleeps with her friend’s fiancé but reasons and a story of her own. Deborah Coonts (So Damn Lucky) allowed that her books were boundary-crashing mix of humor, mystery, and romance; Jillian Hunter (The Duchess Diaries) praised an aunt, still going strong at 92, who was the first librarian to use electronic tracking at the gate; and with five teenaged girls at home (three of them hers) Jill Shalvis (Forever and a Day) defied every stereotype by showing up calm, collected, and glamorous.