Saturday, September 19, 2009

West Meets East in Brooklyn

The Fourth Annual Brooklyn Book Festival was held on September 13, at downtown’s Borough Hall. It brought thousands of readers and more than 220 writers together for a sunshine-filled day of bookish devotion. Catering to mainly mainstream tastes, the festival nonetheless provided some bright spots for genre enthusiasts, including panels on science fiction and fantasy, graphic novels and anime. New York ComicCon had a tent there this year, as well. Included was a Marvel Comics panel featuring writer Tom DeFalco (Fantastic Four, Spiderman), artist Phil Jimenez (Spiderman, The X-Men), and writer Dennis O’Neil (The X-Men, Daredevil), and moderated by Marvel marketing executive and now writer Jim McCann (New Avengers). Mickey Mouse was nowhere in sight. From the multitude of how-to questions posed to the Marvel panelists, many participants this year were interested in breaking into the vastly popular comics genre.

Looking for my crime-fiction fix, I turned to points west. Los Angeles was happy to export some of its own noir leanings to Kings County with the panel “The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books Presents.” Moderated by L.A. Times book editor David Ulin, it featured authors Nina Revoyr (The Age of Dreaming), Judith Freeman (The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved), and Richard Rayner (A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age). The sparkling daylight suffusing the conference room at St. Francis College, just across Court Street from the main festival, seemed apropos for a SoCal panel discussion. As did the fact that the crowd came dressed mainly in black--perfect for the hard-boiled topics at hand.

Revoyr started things off by reading a selection from her 2008 novel, Southland. It was a passage in which her protagonist, Jackie Ishida, describes the Crenshaw District, part of L.A. that isn’t often used by writers as a storytelling backdrop. Focusing on that African-American and Japanese-American area, Ishida tries to figure out whether her grandfather is guilty of homicide.

Rayner’s recently released book, A Bright and Guilty Place, is a brilliant work of non-fiction set during the 1920s that shows how L.A. turned from a haven of sunshine and endless possibilities into the noirish metropolis that pulp writers fell in love with. Rayner read only briefly from his book, but then regaled his audience with a fascinating discourse on the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which in 1928 flooded California’s Ventura County and killed 400 to 800 people, many of them illegal immigrants, according to Rayner. That dam was developed by William Mulholland, the head of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, as part of an effort to provide more drinking water for the residents of growing but parched Los Angeles. Its collapse disgraced Mulholland, who went into forced isolation for the rest of his life. (By the way, the often rancorous campaign to expand L.A.’s access to water was the inspiration for Roman Polanski’s famous 1974 film, Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson.)

Staying with the dark shadows that co-mingle with sunshine in the City of Angels, Freeman read a passage from The Long Embrace, her 2007 non-fiction work about Raymond Chandler and his older wife, Cissy. OK, does anyone need to be reminded that Chandler was less than angelic? In Freeman’s portrayal, he was certainly bigger on talent than he was on morals. The author noted, during her presentation, that detective Philip Marlowe’s “father” moved 36 times while living in the L.A. area, which made me feel better about having relocated 14 times in New York City. Freeman also read a passage about one of Chandler’s residences that still exists. As she did so, she echoed the style of the master about whom she’d written. You could almost feel historical Los Angeles blooming from the center of that crowded room.

It was an enlightening and entertaining panel presentation, made all the more interesting because of Ulin’s insightful questions.

On my way home from the festival, I passed the fictional offices of private eye Moe Prager, the creation of Brooklyn author Reed Farrel Coleman. I made sure to give Moe an appreciative nod of acknowledgment. It would be great if the Brooklyn Book Festival could find a way next year to offer a Brooklyn noir panel, much like L.A’s. We’ve got plenty of darkness here too. And more rain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to mention that I had the pleasure of attending the festival with Margery Flax, the MWA National Office Manager, and her husband Steve.