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May 5, 2006

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - Part 1 - Getting There, The Mystery Bookstore and the Book Prizes

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For years I have been hearing that the L.A. Times Book Festival is the quintessential book festival event. Schedule conflicts always kept me from attending in the past, but this year I vowed I would get there. Thus in March I locked down a flight and a reservation at the W Hotel, which was easy walking distance from the UCLA campus where the event is held.

The Festival always takes place the last weekend in April, which typically follows the Mystery Writers of America Edgars Week in New York. This year was no exception and thus I found myself getting home from the Thursday night black tie Edgars Awards ceremony and racing to pack for L.A. as I had an early AM flight.

The plane on the flight out was something like a Greyhound bus with wings. Seriously, it was a 727, but as we were packed in like sardines on a plane with almost no legroom, it felt like a bus. I cannot remember the last flight I took that had a vacant seat. When I talked to the flight attendant about this she told me that these planes also fly to Europe, which made me remember to triple check the aircraft when I book a flight in the future.

Of course, the person in front of me pushed back their seat all the way thus shooting my plan to work on the way out. To open my laptop and see anything I would need to do some funky yoga position with my head and upper body.

Instead I turned on my ipod and picked up the copy of THE KING OF LIES by John Hart that Matt Baldacci from St. Martin's Press had handed me at the Edgars. Great book and somewhere over Pittsburgh I stopped noticing much around me as I turned the pages. As the book opens Jackson Workman Pickens, known as Work learns that his father's body has been found 18 months after he mysteriously disappeared the night his wife died. While he tries to figure out who may have killed him, he becomes the lead suspect. The story moves, but what drew me to love the book is the tone of the writing. Hart does a terrific job of writing emotion. When we touched down I still was engrossed.

Checked in at the W, which is the kind of hotel I love. Boutique-y with an eye on service. I also was test driving a new connection on my laptop with a Verizon Air Card. Instead of using the hotel wired or wireless connection I got online via Verizon. Worked like a dream and since I have a lot of travel scheduled these next months I heaved a sigh of relief. It runs like $60 per month, but when you factor in those annoying $10.95 per day fees at hotels, this is a right nice option!

First thing on my agenda --- was a stop at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, which was a few blocks from the hotel. There, in an annual event, authors gather to quaff some drinks and do some signings the night before the Festival. I met a very interesting man who has collected some 5,000 plus mystery and thriller titles. I plan to interview him for the site in the months to come.

From there it was onward to the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Ceremony at the Royce Hall on campus. I met up with Hinton Dillard who is organizing the Atlanta Book Festival, which should debut in 2008. We had met at the Quill Awards last October in New York. We drove over to campus and Hinton quickly learned that I have the worst navigating skills. Seriously. Turn me around twice and I am lost. Heading toward the dinner I saw something that was going to save me this Festival --- pennants.

Above the streets strung between trees and lightposts were color-coded pennants to follow to get from location to location. Thus red to blue to green meant Carol had a chance to get from point A to point B without circling back. I loved those pennants!

We started out at the pre-award dinner where we met two terrific women who were both avid readers. One was in a book club; the other was an aspiring author. Chatter about books, events and the festival turned strangers into new friends. While I had a press pass for the weekend’s events, Hinton needed to score the tickets that were given out in limited numbers for each of the panels. Our new pals had some extras for some of the more highly coveted events, which was great.

The awards ceremony was brisk, elegant and full of star power with National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia serving as the master of ceremonies.

During the evening, Joan Didion was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. Born in Sacramento and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Didion has written much of her work about her life in California. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING was one of my favorite books of 2005. I had seen Didion accept the National Book Award in New York last November and then speak the following evening at the Miami Book Fair. This time speaking in her native state she touched on her love of the Los Angeles Times and spoke of how she reads it each day no matter where she is in the world. I always view her as a New Yorker, so it was lovely to hear her make this reference to something that clearly mattered to her from another time in her life.

Here is a list of all the award winners and their presenters. By the end of the ceremony, jet lag had me heading back to my hotel post haste!

Here was the lineup for the presentation of the Book Prizes and the winners.

Biography: Hilary Spurling, "Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, the Conquest of Colour," 1909-1954 (Alfred A. Knopf); presented by Blanche Wiesen Cook

Current Interest: Anthony Shadid, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War" (Henry Holt); presented by Ronald Brownstein

Fiction: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" [translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman] (Alfred A. Knopf); presented by Luis J. Rodriguez

Art Seidenbaum Award For First Fiction: Uzodinma Iweala, "Beasts of No Nation: A Novel" (HarperCollins); presented by David L. Ulin

History: Adam Hochschild, "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves" (Houghton Mifflin); presented by Leo Braudy

Mystery/Thriller: Robert Littell, "Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation" (Overlook Press); presented by Mary Higgins Clark

Poetry: Jack Gilbert, "Refusing Heaven: Poems" (Alfred A. Knopf); presented by Dana Goodyear

Science and Technology: Diana Preston, "Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima" (Walker & Company); presented by Robert Lee Hotz

Young Adult Fiction: Per Nilsson, "You & You & You" [translated from the Swedish by Tara Chace] (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press); presented by Adam Gopnik