Brooklyn Book Festival - 9/23/12 - Joyce Carol Oates, et al

Brooklyn Book Festival - 9/23/12 - Joyce Carol Oates, et al

Postby NYC_Correspondent-tm » Tue Sep 25, 2012 1:48 am

One of the premier readings/panel events at the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival, consisted of "American Masters" Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates and Colson Whitehead. As expected, the primary draw was the literary star Joyce Carol Oates. The event took place within the cavernous confines of St. Ann's Church, and the audience filled most of the pews, including the balcony and lower sides.

Unfortunately, the logistics of how to project sound to all areas of the church was ill conceived; the two speakers used were tinny, and pointed only directly forward from the event table in front with no projection to the more remote areas. This caused some issues when the live hip-hop from Montague Street kicked in, obscuring and distracting from the already minimal amount of volume. Additionally, the reader table in front was unelevated, and therefore unless one sat in the front, or the partial view balcony, one had to squirm around the fatheads in in the prior rows to catch a glimpse of their literary hero in action.

Venue aside, this reading was mostly a bore, Whitehead's gimmicky portion, described below, being the exception. The Q&A that followed, however, was mostly excellent.

McFadden read first. Her tone and texture was warm and thickly silky. I believe she read a passage from her most recent book, Gathering of Waters. Unfortunately, I quickly drifted into distraction between trying to hear her, and the subtle sounding passage. So much for that.

Whitehead was next. He began with the first line of his new zombie thriller, Zone One - "He always wanted to live in New York" - but immediately digressed into a litany of topics about writing, and writing this book. When he exhausted himself, he exclaimed that now he would really begin to read, from the top, and re-read the opening line before swiftly departing from the text and launching instead into a new rambling discussion about further topics he was thinking related to writing the book, his past books, characters within the book. Finally, slowing down, he began again, and again went elsewhere. But he had the crowd engaged, laughing along with his antics, his candid discussion and stories, even if he ended by saying well, my time is out, and not reading a scrap more than the initial line. Something about this, though irked me. He was seemingly bored by the reading, having given dozens. In that sense, his talk was a bit self-indulgent. However, compared to the pleasant but bland McFadden, and the upcoming soft toned warble of Oates, Whitehead's bit was refreshing. Oates did not seem impressed.

Oates concluded the reading portion. She began by introducing her latest work, a collection of stories entitled Black Dahlia and White Rose, from which she read the title piece. As she explained, Black Dahlia referred to the nickname of Elizabeth Short, a woman whose brutal and unsolved murder in Los Angeles, 1947 captured and continues to capture American imagination, while White Rose referred to Norma Jean Baker - aka Marilyn Monroe - who shot to fame in the 1940s, also capturing the American imagination and later dying in disputed fashion. The passage of the story itself was more focused on Norma Jean with a few other characters. Although seeing Oates in person, slightly hunched, hair pulled back, somewhat greasy, with delicate frame oval head and large glasses fascinated, her reading was warbly, too-soft spoken, contained minimal inflection and tone variation. The passage itself sounded like it could be intriguing if read alone, story in entirety, in a warm den on a couch and left to the mind of the reader - a poor choice for a reading in a large venue, even though she seemed fully engaged. By halfway through, numerous audience members who could leave without creating a scene - mostly in the balcony - were quietly, but swiftly moving towards the exit, and for good reason.

The following short Q&A brought some needed air back to the event. Whitehead revealed upon questioning that indeed he chose not to actually read mostly out of personal need for variation. Oates discussed an attempt to visit the Black Dahlia's grave in Oakland, California but was turned away at the cemetery once she asked for the private location - further accentuating how to this day so many people are still engaged by the mythology. I just wish that the readings at the panel were that engaging.
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