I See Book People

The LA Times Festival of Books is coming up this weekend (see my upcoming post). In memory of the fun time I had at the first time I went to the accompanying awards ceremony in 2006, I’m reprinting a post I did over on CV that year, in which I reported on it. (Timestamp: April 30th, 2006 3:45 am.)

book awards LA Times Well, I’m recovering from an excellent hike up Mount Wilson with the USC Neurobiologists earlier today, so while I do that, I’ll tell you about last night. Recall that the LA Times Book Festival is happening this weekend.

I came closer to seeing a realization of one of those topsy-turvy scenarios I often fantasize about, where more “academic” pursuits, or at least those more associated with the life of the mind, are celebrated in full Hollywood fashion. (I envision it in the context of science and scientists….imagine an Oscar-Like awards ceremony for the year’s best science papers, watched by millions on TV in prime time… but this will do for a start.)

Yes, I went to my first LA Awards ceremony, the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, and although I joked about Oscar analogies in a previous post, it actually was rather Oscar-like. The setup of UCLA’s Royce Hall for the event was very plush indeed, with a podium each on the left and the right of the stage for smooth transitions, and a giant screen for either relaying of the closeup image of one or other presenter, for the showing of acceptance speeches from those “who could not be with us at this time”, or for the display of graphics accompanying shortlist readings, etc. Just like in the Oscars. And yes, they had (why?!) the usual eye-candy woman bringing on the actual award, and the announcement envelope to hand to the presenter at the appropriate time.

book awards LA TimesThe Master of Ceremonies was Dana Gioia the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (there he is in full sail, at right, click for larger image). I was rather pleased that the first category announced was the Science and Technology section. (Perhaps it was in honour of there being a blogger from Cosmic Variance in the audience?) I found myself very excited by all of the nominees in this section, and was intrigued by the winning one, Diana Preston’s “Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima”, which I’d somehow not heard of before (No, I don’t know how I missed it either). I had the pleasure of chatting with Diana Preston (and her husband Michael) at length at the After Party (see later), and got the chance to hear about how she went about finding a way into a field -atomic physics- about which she had no expertise (no science background, she said) to the extent that she could win a prize for her science writing. It was also interesting to hear her and science writer K. C. Cole bond over the various Manhattan project people they’d managed to talk to over the years in book research. (K. C. is working on a biography of her mentor Frank Oppenheimer at present).

I really want to read Diana Preston’s book, as well as several others on the shortlist in that section, as I mentioned in the previous post. Speaking of others, I finally met Sean Carroll. No, not our Sean M. Carroll, the Biologist Sean B. Carroll. We were together in line to go into the room where the After Party was to be held, which was taking a bit of time, for reasons I only figured out too late. I introduced myself and joked with him about the name-sharing thing, and told him about the blog. His Evo Devo book (”Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom”) is another one high on my list of things to read. There was an excellent review and discussion of it in the New Yorker late last year by the way. You might be able to get it online. I’d meant to blog about it back then but somehow did not get to it.

Here is the list of winners and presenters. I took it from the blog Nimble Books:

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

The director of the Festival is the LA Times columnist and film critic, Kenneth Turan. He’s a favourite of mine, as he very often makes a lot of sense to me in what he’s saying about the films. I also like his NPR radio film commentaries (often abridged versions of his columns), where one finds that his gentle voice matches his writing rather nicely, in being firm, sensible-sounding and entirely reasonable in his analysis. So it was a pleasure to hear his familiar voice as he made some opening remarks at the ceremony, and even more of a pleasure to be introduced to him later in the evening at the After Party.

There were several excellent speeches of acceptance. The highlights were probably those of Per Nilsson (for just being direct, unpretentious, and just plain Swedish -wonderful), and of the son of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who accepted on his behalf. Diana Preston’s urging us as a society to remember take responsibility for what we do and create (scientists take note, of course), were always remarks worth hearing.

There was semi-live blogging about the event at the Elegant Variation again this year. I wonder if I might have spoken to the several other bloggers who were at the event? (e.g., another report was done by Lee Goldberg.) Perhaps I should have told more people about the blog in conversation, but I think I was off my game. Too tired.

Ah. The After Party. Definite must-have if you’re going to do the Hollywood thing at your Awards event. Well, I figured out too late why there was such a congestion to get into the party, down what should have been a hugely wide corridor. They check your ticket into it and then you walk along a bit where it is just you and whoever you’re with so that the photographer can get a shot of you being all splendid and the like. Well, I was deep in conversation with Sean Carroll during all this and so missed it. I was walking along half-turned to look at him when the camera went off. So I won’t be showing up in any Page 6 -type (or Scene in LA -type) photo treatments of the event. Sorry.

book awards LA TImesWell, it was a splendid party on the terrace. I won’t go into the details since I’m very tired and you’re probably not that interested anyway. I met a huge number of interesting people. I was there mostly through LA Times connections (via K. C. Cole and Jonathan Kirsch) and so I met an awful lot of excellent columnists, critics and editors. There were some other USC people there as well such as Annenberg School of Communication people, excellent author and USC professor Aimee Bender (who I met just a week ago at Categorically Not! in Santa Monica), and Barry Glassner, our Executive Vice-Provost, who’s also a noted sociologist and author (see his “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things”, for example). But I also met a lot of authors (some already mentioned), publishers and agents.

book awards LA TImes book awards LA TImesYes, this was indeed a reception to remember, and at the wattage one would expect. Indeed, there were the inevitable ice-sculptures. Tacky, one might be tempted to conclude. But get this…. they had typewriters embedded in them, rather elegantly, I would venture. (I snuck a shot or two for you; click for larger images).

book awards LA Times…And the main example of pure delicious decadence? It hit everyone as soon as they entered the room (having been savvy/smart/alert enough to look elegant for the photographer as they came in -ahem-), as there was a wonderful giddying smell of chocolate immediately upon entering. The source? Two flowing fountains of molten chocolate, surrounded by things to dip into the stream at the bottom and eat. They were hugely popular. There’s a shot of one fountain for you to the right (click for larger image).

It was good to be surrounded by book people again. And at a part of the book-world food chain I’d not encountered before in quite this volume. A tickling from those exciting book projects I’ve had brewing in my mind for years now did stir a bit within me as a result of this event. I’m going to have to give up on sleep if I’m ever to start on those. Or blogging maybe? Or both.

Which reminds me. Sleep. Must then get up and write and give sermon tomorrow.

-cvj

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