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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Cover to cover, book fest rarely ‘tranquil’

"Domestic tranquility — that seemed like that kind of vague phrase we wanted. Something very specific but not narrow." — Alison Jones Chaim, festival director

Jane Hirschfield eased the thematically clueless into the Wisconsin Book Festival. She began by noting the festival's engagement with a theme — domestic tranquility — that could have "soporific" intentions if it had been more careless. Despite this acknowledgment, she seemed to tailor her reading to be as heavy as possible, with many of the same themes continually recurring: habits, washing, hearts and horses (she noted afterward she wanted to grow up to be either a writer or a horse). At least she joked that she often falls asleep in readings with her favorite authors.

Hirschfield's is a poetry of calm gravity and domesticity, of ritual and common objects, and though the author remarks upon the apparent "insolubility of we humans coming to an agreement without violence," she seemed to studiously create a space of shelter from tragedy — a space where a poet is afforded "A Room of One's Own."


However, this tranquility is penetrated in one of her small, tanka-like poems, where global warming is a symbolic boat so vast that none of us can see it for what it is. As she noted in one particularly potent line, a bell "Can mean great joy/ Or the city is burning/ Please come."

Susan Faludi

This ended being a much more coolheaded, thoughtful discussion than I anticipated, which I have to say was something of a letdown. Faludi is a firebrand with a meek, soft voice, who hunches over the microphone and pauses for just the right word to use. She spoke of the "essential insecurity" of human experience, and how the United States reverted to a gendered "mono myth," as Joseph Campbell once put it, in the wake of Sept. 11. She noted how Camillie Paglia urged a "return of the manly man," and how American consumer culture reverted toward a "cult of domesticity." The London bombings, she observed, were not filled with worry about what it meant for the pasty, skinny London male. Instead, it was seen on the BBC and in Sweden as a criminal matter that had to be dealt with. Analyzing American gender myths with the "myth-making" of the consumer engine, her new book "The Terror Dream" came across as one of the most vital of the festival.

"We’re definitely aware of times when voices are saying more similar things than different things." — Chaim

Zakes Mda and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"To understand a country, read its fiction" quoted UW African languages and literature professor Daniel Kunene, who read an excerpt from his upcoming manuscript before introducing Zakes Mda. He read from "Cion," a book split between the present day and the middle of the 19th century in the United States. In the past, the setting is a "breeding farm" plantation, where the cash crop is people. "Slave children were a more profitable crop than tobacco or cotton," Mda read, a place where "no one knew anything anymore." The characters in the book eventually run away to an area of Ohio where there is "tri-racial isolates of White, Indian and Negro" descent, where the other half of the book takes place in the present day.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie read excerpts from "Half of a Yellow Sun" where "people struggle to maintain even the domestic." Set in Nigeria around the Biafran war, the book follows three people — one of whom is Ugwu, a charming, awkward boy who "learns fast" as a houseboy for a university professor.

"Remember whatever he asks you, you will answer ‘yes sir,'" Ugwu's father told him. "Yes sir," he responded. The professor educates the boy about how there is both "the real answer and the answer you need to pass in school." Later, during the war, Ugwu saves a child from his trauma-stricken mother in a bombing. The child's name "almost sounded like a joke now — Chidie Bere — “God is Merciful.”

Both authors were sensitive to the way oral history and myth shape our present and past: "We all create our past as we go on," Mda said. "Looking back on it to validate the present."

Found magazine

Taking place at the Orpheum side door, the audience for this event was definitely the most eccentric and spirited of the event (One couple insisted the guy manning the merch table sign their purchases) — perhaps because it was the only venue that served alcohol. Found magazine, ahem, founder Davy Rothbart read off the greatest hits of his vast collection of random scrabbling, memos and files found on the street.

One man's sagacious advice to his friend on the subject of courtship: "Don't rush things. Take her out to lunch. Ask her, ‘Do you want to go out to lunch?'" A particularly ridiculous denial letter for a man requesting unemployment benefits in Saginaw, Mich. stated the man had "engaged in horseplay" and hit a customer in the head with a broom. Other gems included someone "rebuking" his girlfriend for cheating on him while he had mono and a strip club owner comparing the dancing of strippers to "the movement of the stars."

Border Crossings

Luis Alberto Urrea and Ana Castillo weighed in on (or waded into) the divisive political waters of immigration in contemporary America. Urrea's book "Devil's Highway" (inexplicably soon to be a major motion picture) followed the case of 26 Mexicans who tried to cross into the United States and how their smuggler (or coyote) was charged with 14 counts of manslaughter when more than half of them died in transit across the hot desert. Urrea and Castillo note how politically loaded the phrase "illegal immigrants" is, especially when it's "not a felony, or even a misdemeanor. It's a civil infraction."

"If those people died that way," Urrea said, "the least we can do is be a witness to them." His book uncovered surprising insights into people who try to cross the border illegally, the compulsorily coyotes who help (or harm) them, and the people hired to stop them, exposing the humanity in each. One border patrol agent told Urrea, "I'm a rancher. My father was a rancher. I come here and chase my own people." Urrea is a writer with a rare sensitivity, with a sharp attention for details and images. In one comment, Urrea noted the dichotomy of fiction and non-fiction: "It'd be a sin" to not tell the story of the border crossing accurately, though fiction has a way of "penetrating your dreams more profoundly."

"Michael Cunningham is the sort of person you try to get early on to leverage credibility for the festival." — Chaim

Michael Cunningham was one of the first names added to the Wisconsin Book Festival, so it's fitting that he should be the one to officially wrap things up. There's nothing really worth reviewing here: When Cunningham reads from his Pulitzer prize-winning, Nicole Kidman film version-starring "The Hours," you already know if you think his style is impossibly descriptive and overwrought or lyrical and emotionally insightful.

Well, you either know, or you don't care. What you may care about, though, is how Cunningham drops into each character's voice, squealing in a falsetto for Kitty's voice and letting loose deep belly laughs for her husband. Cunningham is definitely a fan of the dislocation of authorial authority in literature (take that whining high school kids reading "White Angel"), as he likes the possibility of writing a novel "a little smarter than I am." He also described his conversion into the realm of literature — a girl made fun of him when he was 15 and told him to read Virginia Woolf. So he did (not understanding any of it), and thus, he said, "The Hours" was born. The crowd clapped rapturously. I left my final festival event tired and a little sad the wild ride was finally over.

“There’s 103 events. We can't tell them all in one paragraph." — Chaim.

Nor in a very long article, I'd like to add.

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