The Best Events at Miami Book Fair International 2014 That You Missed

Book lovers have a complicated relationship with Miami Book Fair International; it’s great having so many authors to choose from but the depth and breadth of choices can be overwhelming (500+ authors in 2014).  The big names are easy – you’ve got to see John Cleese, Walter Isaacson, and Joyce Carol Oates, but who else?  Do you want to catch rising star Emily St. John Mandel before she’s too big to tour?  When Dr. Cornel West talks about black heroes, should you tell him that he’s one of yours?  Maybe you should thank Andy Cohen for making pop-culture obsession seem like a bankable career.

Sorry, I can’t tell you.  Answering those questions is like telling you who you are, and that’s the journey of a lifetime.  What I can do is underline some hidden gems and hope you find a new book to love.

If I could have attended MBFI rather than work it, these are the authors I would have chosen to see.


David “LEBO” le Batard, Inspired by the Beat

lebo inspired by the beat

Miami Artist LEBO designed the latest MBFI poster.  I love this guy’s work, I can’t even tell you.  It’s simple, energetic, vibrant, and looking at it makes me happy.  The rarity of his coffee-table book, coupled with the knowledge that buying it supports a local artist, makes Inspired by the Beat worth its $150-dollar price tag.

Anne Rice, Prince Lestat

vampire lestat

So I’ve killed the “hidden gem” motif after only one entry, but I really dug Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles back in the day.  I’d love to see what Prince Lestat is up to.


Aaron John Curtis, Maureen Daniel Fura, Christina Freedman, Nicholas Garnett, Sarah Klein, Esther Martinez-Kenniff; badass – Lip Service: True Stories, the Double Album (hosted by Andrea Askowitz)

A few months back, Andrea Askowitz told me they were putting out a book in honor of the eight-year anniversary of Lip Service.  A panel of editors selected my piece, We Are More Than These Frail Shells, for inclusion.  During the the editing process, Andrea asked if I would perform at MBFI.  I said “yes.”

I also pointed out that the person saying “yes” had enjoyed a full night’s sleep – several in a row, in fact.  Saying “yes” was easy for that person, but the guy shorting sleep for weeks trying to do two jobs at once, that physically wrung out and mentally drained wraith, he might hit the wall at the fourteenth hour of the fortieth day and not feel up to being in front of a crowd.

Well, I made it.  I splashed some cold water on my face, changed my shirt, and tried my best to let a room full of (mostly) strangers know how special Kelly Cook was.  To sum up the evening:

* Nicholas Garnett endeared us to the Lip Service process by reading the titular story about an ill-advised bar fight with a flamboyant Miamian

* Maureen Daniel Fura’s ode to the child she gave up for adoption surprised us with a kick to the gut

* Christina Freedman’s razor-edged story of heroin addiction ripped our hearts right out

* Esther Martinez-Kenniff made us laugh – and question our spiritual selves – with the story of her full-body Baptism

* Sarah Klein relayed stories of her childhood with the perfect timing and delivery of a veteran stand-up, sending us on our way with a smile

* For my part, I managed to read all the words in the right order

Badass reading

I may have dozed off for a moment,

If you missed the Book Fair event then I have great news: we’re reading again at Books & Books Coral Gables this Saturday, January 24th at 7pm.  The line up of readers will be Aaron John Curtis, M.J. Fievre, Christina Freedman, Sarah Klein, Esther Martinez-Keniff, and Brenda Mezick.


Liniers, Macanudo #1 and Macanudo #2

Macanudo 2 Liniers

At the Buenos Aires book festival, Books & Books’ owner Mitchell Kaplan watched in awe as hundreds of people lined up around the block to meet Argentinian graphic novelist Liniers.  I’d like to see what all the fuss is about.

Robin Black, Life Drawing

Robin Black, author of the mighty short story collection If I Love You I Would Tell You This, talked about her first novel, Life Drawing.  If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is a stunner, and she published it at age forty-seven which makes her my hero.

Edward Hirsch, Gabriel

The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up

I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel

It was just some poor kid
Whose face looked like a room
That had been vacated.

Thus begins poet Edward Hirsch’s 75-page eulogy to his son, Gabriel.  Hirsch made impossible grief into art; that’s something worth witnessing.

Lydia Millet, Mermaids in Paradise

Lydia Millet may be the most bought and least read author on my shelves.  I keep bringing her books home and saving them for later based on the singular experience of reading Oh Pure and Radiant Heart   (you may remember me bitching about how the paperback edition ruined the cover).  Some books vibrate inside you and blow your head open; Oh Pure and Radiant Heart was such a book for me.  Everyone’s Pretty, Ghost Lights and Magnificence (parts two and three in a trilogy of which I’m missing the first installment, How the Dead Dream), and My Happy Life whisper to me, promising riches and ruin, laughter and tears.  Instead of answering, I binge-watch The X-Files on Netflix.

But one day passively watching a screen won’t be enough.  I’ll need to experience entertainment that changes me, that takes me somewhere unexpected and deposits me back to my couch a different person.  On that day, Lydia Millet will be waiting.


Peter Heller, The Painter

peter heller the painter

Peter Heller’s debut novel, The Dog Stars, is one of my favorite titles to hand-sell.  It’s a highlight of the recent spate of post-apocalyptic fiction, second only to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  But if you have to come in second, it’s no shame to do it to a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The Painter explores many of the same themes as Dog Stars, with the pace cranked up to nine.


Sheila E., The Beat of My Own Drum

beat of my own drum

Given leave from my duties as a bookseller, would I have taken my inner fourteen-year-old to meet Sheila E?  If my past behavior is any indication, then I’d have to say “yes.”


Beverly Donofrio, Astonished

astonished donofrio

The author of Riding in Cars with Boys didn’t have the easiest young life, but true horror waited for her in middle-age.  Only Donofrio could use a rape as the catalyst for a spiritual journey, and only Donofrio could make us take that journey with her with such humor, grace, and vulnerability.


Rigg Bragg, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story

jerry lee lewis

There is no better raconteur than Rick Bragg.  If you need proof, check out the devastating one-two punch of All Over But the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man.  In Jerry Lee LewisBragg finds one hell of a muse.


Peter Mehlman, It Won’t Always Be This Great

peter melhman it won't always be this great

You might not know him by name but as a writer and producer of Seinfeld, Peter Mehlman* has provided more than entertainment – he has defined certain intangibles with words and phrases so apropos that they have become absolute.  His writing shaped how we expressed ourselves.  It Won’t Always Be This Great might not give language another “double-dip,” “Yada-yada-yada,” or “shrinkage” but for that you can blame the medium; it’s not Mehlman’s fault that TV watchers outnumber readers approximately fifty-two million to one.


Annabelle Gurwitch, I See You Made an Effort

I See You Made an Effort

Annabelle Gurwitch writes with wit and honesty.  Her acting background just means she can serve the material better than most.  Sure her readings bring down the house but it’s still all on the page, and it’s all gold.


Darcey Steinke, Sister Golden Hair

sister golden hair

From what I remember of reading Darcey Steinke’s Suicide Blonde, it had sex on every other page, but it’s the hollow kind that happens to a desperate character in a literary setting so you don’t feel self-conscious reading it in public.

A minister’s daughter, Steinke draws on her life story for the pastor’s daughter in Sister Golden Hair‘s Jesse.  It’s a small life, granted, but it’s brilliantly drawn.  As a coming-of-age novel, a 1970’s period piece, or a study in adolescent friendships, you could not ask for better.


* Looking through the MBFI program, the only face that jumped out was Peter Melhman’s.  Knowing I’d be tied down to sales, my excitement was short-lived.  Fortunately, Melhman passed by the tent just as we were packing up to leave.  I wish I’d been less exhausted so I could have appreciated the moment more.  Or at least offered something better than yelling, “I.  You.  Seinfeld.” at him in my Sloth voice.

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