The Brooklyn Book Festival

Filed under living in new york is neat, readin' and writin'

Saturday night, my friend Kim casually mentioned that the Brooklyn Book Festival was going on the next day and that she was going to the debut authors reading at 11 a.m. I’m not accustomed to waking up before noon these days and told her I’d consider it, but I think we both thought it’d never happen. But the more I looked through the program online, the more I saw that there was a reading I wanted to go to every hour, and also I hoped to pick up a literate husband there, obviously.

So I went. It was just a few blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Kim didn’t show, but I forged ahead solo to “Who? New!” in the courtroom in Borough Hall, where I heard A.X. Ahmad read from The Caretaker, Caleb Crain read from Necessary Errors, Michele Forbes read from Ghost Moth, Ayana Mathis read from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, and Ursula DeYoung read from Shorecliff. The most interesting reader was A.X. Ahmad, who had a completely American accent when introducing the novel but then did the voice of the Indian protagonist so convincingly. But the book I’m going to read approximately ten seconds after I finish this post and it downloads to my Kindle is Ghost Moth, which had an unforgettable line about fat babies that looked like blackberries fallen from the bush, delicious enough to be baked into a pie. It’s hard to describe what makes language speak to you, but Michele Forbes was talking about baby pies and bees’ wings like lightly caramelized onions and all of these things that were just so perfectly tailored to my taste that I was dying a little bit with every word. In a good way.

Kim showed up after cleaning her FLOODED APARTMENT in time for the second reading, “Lessons Learned”, with Robert Antoni reading from As Flies to Whatless Boys, Christopher Beha reading from What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and Paul Harding reading from Enon. I read Paul Harding’s Tinkers back in 2009 when it won the Pulitzer, but I have to admit that the only thing that stuck with me was the writing style. Yesterday, Harding read just one and a half pages to us, and I felt like I had experienced every emotion there is to have by the time he was finished. The passages from Christopher Beha and Robert Antoni were equally enthralling (Beha wrote the exact sentiment I had as a mid-twentysomething about now being too old for anyone to be impressed by my youth and consider me a prodigy), but it was really the Q&A session that had Kim and me laughing, crying, and generally pinching each other in disbelief of how brilliant these three guys are. Harding made this reference to his character using narcotics to deal with his feelings surrounding the death of his daughter like Perseus uses his shield as a mirror to defeat Medusa. Beha talked about the cost of experience, the expectation that there’s a price to pay for wisdom, and working out the disappointments of life through your characters. It was the sort of singularly profound stuff you later see quoted on the sides of coffee mugs and on motivational posters, and I was hearing it for the first time in some random Brooklyn Law School student lounge with the crosswalk signs chirping outside the windows. It was such a this-is-why-I-moved-to-NYC moment.

Next we went to the Brooklyn Historical Society for “Get a Job!: To Have and Not Have In America Today”. Mark Binelli of Detroit City is the Place to Be, D. W. Gibson of Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy, and Alissa Quart of Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels talked about working and not working in the U.S. today, which was obviously right up my alley. The moderator, Rich Benjamin, asked us all how many “hustles” we have, and it turned out that a whole lotta people in that room were doing from two to four or more different part-time hustles to make ends meet. I didn’t raise my hand for the “unemployed and not looking” group but figured that my photography business made me eligible for the “single hustle” group, thankyouverymuch. Mark Binelli told these amazing stories about being in dying Detroit and, like, watching a single guy answer all of the 911 calls coming in and write them down on a legal pad; there were so few resources that a call about a heart attack had a three- or four-hour wait on the list. D.W. Gibson talked about how having a job tells us what we’re going to do with our days, and I grew sad about how we’re so quick to settle for jobs we’re not happy with even though we’re at work so much of our lives. Alissa Quart called breaking even on Etsy the new “woman’s work”, which is sort of depressing and sort of awesome, because who doesn’t want her work to be woodblock prints of Grumpy Cat?

Finally, we stayed in the Historical Society’s library for “New Works: A Poetry Reading” with poet Frank Bidart reading from Metaphysical Dog, Sharon Olds reading from Stag’s Leap, Vijay Seshadri reading from 3 Sections, and Brenda Shaughnessy reading from Our Andromeda. Poetry for me is a funny thing, because I don’t consider myself a huge fan of it, but it’s actually just that when it hits me just right, it hits me hard, and when it doesn’t hit me just right, it completely falls flat for me. So I either really, really love it or straight-up hate it. The two men at this reading did nothing for me (there was a poem about Heath Ledger that made me want to diiiiie), but the women talked about love and cheating and vaginas, and I found myself holding my breath and getting chills and everything I want from poetry. Sharon Olds read a tribute to her hymen that called it a fleshy pincushion and included the phrase “teensy hymens”, and Kim and I LOLed and then named our band that.

Overall, it was a pretty amazing day, and it’s kind of incredible to think that I wasn’t even planning to go at all. I keep friends with so many readers, but we’re always reading different books from different genres, so it felt so good to be in a room with all of these people who love books, hearing the same passages and feeling feelings together. BOOKS, you guys. Books.


  1. Serial says:

    Wicked jealz. I saw Sharon Olds read back in, like, 2000, and she was wonderful.

  2. Erin says:

    This sounds like my kind of day, although i admit I would have skipped the poetry because … major hate. This may mean I am a fraud in life.

  3. Kelly Powell says:

    See, THIS is the sort of thing that makes me want to move to New York.

    Except the part about feeling feelings with other people around.

  4. Ash says:


  5. Great write up! Makes us sad we skipped it to go to Smorgasburg for like the 30th time this year.