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Mon, March 25

Tucson Festival of Books #1


I've already marked - in ink - my 2012 calendar for the second weekend in March as a Do Not Miss event. The Fourth Annual Tucson Festival of Books.

This year featured about 400 authors and 100,000 visitors to the two-day festival on the University of Tucson campus. Children had lots of activities to choose from - the science pavilion with its asteroids, DNA and venomous creatures, several stages with performances all day long, and craft activity booths - and older readers did, too. I focused on selecting just one session from my shortlist of four or five in each time slot.

It was really difficult.

Here are some highlights of Saturday's five finalists.

Session #1: Disappointed the author was a no show. Then delighted to walk into an auditorium with a panel of three wonderful fiction writers talking about What Book Clubs are Reading: Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand), Lisa Genova (Still Alice and Left Neglected), and Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet). My book club recently read Simonson's and Ford's books.

I learned that a writer must always respect his or her characters. All three authors agreed - Do not humiliate your characters.

Genova's book, Still Alice, is the story of a 50-year-old woman's decline into Alzheimer's disease. She wanted to know what her grandmother was feeling during the mental deterioration caused by the disease. "I felt a responsibility to portray that with dignity," she said.

Because of what the book teaches people, there's been an increase in funding for more brain research and for families of Alzheimer's patients. "It has been incredibly rewarding and my Nana would be very proud," Genova said.

Ford said the idea for his book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet came out of concern for his grandfather after the death of his grandmother and the end of the 60-year marriage. The family was shocked by the grandfather's "great third act" when he unexpectedly flew to New York and "shacked up" with a woman he had known long ago.

"He pressed the reset button on his heart," Ford said.

The British author Helen Simonson said she loves writing about the manipulation that goes on in family dynamics, "especially when dividing up family property after a death. It's an endless source of absolute comedy."

Session #2: Luis Alberto Urrea, author of Devil's Highway, The Hummingbird's Daughter, and Into the Beautiful North.

I'd been told last year by my friend not to miss hearing Urrea if he returned to the festival. He gave the first public reading of a section from his soon-to-be-published novel The Queen of America, the sequel to The Hummingbird's Daughter.

The main character, Teresita, was a real person, a distant relative of his, a healer and a saint. Urrea said she used to come to Tucson to do her shopping.

"First, I knew her as my aunt. Then I got older and she's more like a cousin, then a sister. Now I'm older than she was when she died, and she is like a little sister to me," Urrea said of the relationship he feels with his character.

The section he read related to a healing Teresita gave to a young boy dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. He said he was reading this particular section to help Tucson and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords heal from the Jan. 8 shootings. Beautiful images of the conversation Teresita has with the boy about dying.

Urrea said when he is invited to read, he answers the unspoken question first: Why do you look Irish? He is a blue-eyed redhead with a mother from the United States and a father from Mexico.

He told how the guy who picked him up at the airport in Colorado for a recent reading said, "You are documented, aren't you? Because if you're not, we're not paying you."

"We are scared of ethnicity right now," he said. Urrea's message, however, is "There is no 'Other.' There's 'Us.' We are sharing this place. I don't like walls and fences. I like bridges."

He said his book Devil's Highway is required reading for border guards; Niki Caro, the New Zealand director of the movie Whale Rider, has optioned the book Urrea calls "a love letter to the United States." And he said filming begins soon on The Hummingbird's Daughter, starring Antonio Banderas and Ivana Barquero.

I'm out of space here with just the first two of ten sessions. Four authors. I've read the works of three and have added Still Alice to my Must Read List. More to come - don't turn your reading light off just yet.


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