Books are sexy. Left: Donna Rae Brown knows her Dewey Decimals Right: William Faulkner catching some rays in 1942 (GettyImages)
When we heard that The Standard Spa, Miami Beach would be hosting the National Book Award winners and nominees for the Miami Book Fair International, our first reaction was, “Well, of course we are!” Our next question was, “Wait, what’s a book fair?”
Turns out, MBFI has been around for over 30 years, and it’s the largest and most important event of its kind in the country, featuring talks, readings, and discussions with a stellar list of authors and book people. New York Magazine is calling it the Book World's Basel. This year’s line up includes big names like Joyce Carol Oates, Cornel West, Questlove, John Waters, and John Cleese, to name just a few of the 450-something authors in town.
This means we'll be sipping cocktails with literary lions! Rubbing elbows with the literati! Pal-ing around with poets! We're thrilled to see what writers and bookish types get up to when they’re down in a tropical paradise.
What's Happening at The Standard?
The fair will also fulfill another dream: a book store of our very own. Our pop-up book store in The Shop will be stocked with copies from each and every National Book Award winner and nominee, with signed copies available over the weekend.
On Saturday night stop by for the two-part (10pm and 11pm) "Poetry Takeover at The Standard,” featuring readings from some of the best and brightest young poets from around the country. Now this is really starting to sound like our kind of scene.
In between stalking the hammam for authors and taking bids on our tell-all book, we’ll be reporting back from on the ground at the fair. Check back to see who we met, what you need to read, and where we found ourselves in this sea of books. We're ready for a good booking.
Like other kinds of festivals, Miami Book Fair International ramps up over the course of the week with the bigger name events happening over the weekend. Comfortably installed at The Standard Spa, and far from the chill of New York City, we eased into the swing of things on Thursday night with a book release party at the Ball and Chain in Little Havana from Miami-based press Jai-Alai Books and the free books distributor Bookleggers.
If we were going to get a bead on the local books scene in Miami, this seemed like the place, and indeed it was. From the outdoor stage surrounded by waving palm fronds, two young poets, Frank Báez and Dave Landsberger, read from their new bi-lingual books to a remarkably attentive cross-section of young, literary Miamians.
If the crowd was any indication, maybe Miami really does have what it takes to be a top-tier town for books. The poets moved seamlessly between English and Spanish, and while we may have missed a bit of the nuance, it was an stirring first night on the town — a bit of poetry, a nice cool breeze, super fresh mojitos, and a late-night stroll down Calle Ocho. Very nice indeed.
One last observation: Did you know that poets still smoke during their readings?
One of life's great pleasures is staying up late into the night reading in an exceedingly comfortable bed. Which is exactly what Standard Culture did on Thursday night — catching up on the National Book Awards, naturally. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction — it’s a heady bunch this year (not that we know what went on in other years). Anyway, we stayed up far too late. By the time we were conscious again, it was morning, and it was pouring.
No matter. Tropical depression or not — we came for a good booking, and a good booking we intended to get. Downtown, the scene was sopping, but no one seemed to mind. Everywhere you go in Miami people talk about the renaissance of this city — specifically, everyone asks about the impending maelstrom that is Art Basel. “Are you ready?” they ask. "Never heard of it. We’re here for the book fair,” we said, shaking our umbrella.
Nathaniel Sandler, founder of Bookleggers, Amanda Keeley, founder Exile Books
The Miami-based Jai Alai Books crew
There were gems to be found all along the thoroughfares of book tents. Books for every taste and fancy — classics, obscurities, serious books, comic books, new age books, art books. Exile Books, the pop-up artist's bookstore founded by Printed Matter alum Amanda Keeley (thankfully installed indoors), had books that made us wish we had a larger suitcase. The Miami renaissance has brought back many a Floridian — ones who got fed up with winters elsewhere, and brought their expertise back home to flourish.
By the time we’d spent all our book money, it was cocktail hour at The Standard, and the National Book Award winners and nominees were rolling in, returning from their group reading, clearly ready for a cocktail.
Anand Gopal explained what it’s like to fly into Afghanistan. Phil Klay, whose debut collection Redeployment was this year’s winner in fiction, shared his love of the British writer Graham Green. Rabih Alameddine told of splitting his time between Iran and San Francisco. Everyone made themselves at home, happy to have escaped colder climes for the moment.
Tomorrow the fair swings into high gear. Luckily the hammam was open until midnight.
“If you could figure out a way for people to make out and drink beer while reading, you’d be in business.” –Kurt Cobain on how to save the book industry (as told to author Darcey Steinke)
Come Saturday afternoon, the fair was a whole new beast. Where Friday one could stroll leisurely, ping-ponging from tent to tent, Saturday brought out droves of book-curious Miamians. Pundits predicting the public’s declining interest books will need to rethink that assertion.
With the legions out for a good booking, a relaxed approach worked best — gliding from panel to panel, checking out the wares, catching glimpses of big name authors everywhere you looked. Agent, teacher, and beloved literary gentleman Ira Silverberg (and his dachshund Zoloft) took a rest in the shade. The literary heavyweight Richard Ford greeted fans and signed books. The National Book Award nominees in fiction read from their work to a rapturous crowd. Asked where the future of fiction lies, the ever-sharp Rabih Alameddine replied, “Oh, I don’t know — the top left shelf, I suppose.” Touché.
The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the inimitable genius of John Waters. In town to tout his latest book about hitchhiking around the country, Waters shocked and awed as only he can. Apparently a good portion of the audience had simply stayed in their seats after the previous reading, thoroughly unprepared for what would follow. The collective gasp when Waters said "anal-lingus” definitely will make the highlight reel.
Before we knew it, it was time to head back to The Standard for our big literary fête: the author’s party. Out on the dock, under the swaying lights, some of the best and brightest literary minds around mingled — poets, fiction writers, journos, agents, booksellers, Questlove(!) — all schmoozing joyfully.
Many cocktails hence, the crowd made its way inside for The Poetry Takeover at The Standard with The Poetry Foundation. If the author’s party was the literary establishment par excellence, this was the cutting-edge voices' chance to be heard. They did not disappoint.
All in all, the day was a good booking if ever there was one.
After our night of revelry with the writers, poets, and book people, a bit of recovery was very much in order. The sun had finally broken through, a picture postcard Miami day, and fish tacos, a Bloody Mary, and some poolside reading before one last trip to the Fair seemed like just the thing.
And what a final trip it was - namely, George Clinton and Questlove in conversation with New Yorker writer Ben Greenman, who worked with both musicians’ on their books. Clinton, dressed in a natty double-breasted suit, snakeskin boots, and yellow shades, brought the funk — recounting jaw-dropping stories from a wild life lived.
There was one about a highly intelligent pet pig named Officer Dibbles that Clinton brought on tour in the 70s. Then there was the one about the fan who climbed onto the stage at a show, took off her clothes, lit a joint, and blew three smoke rings from her nether regions. Clinton and Questlove were a great match - natural storytellers, charming, funny, and insightful about what it means to make a life in music.
And while we swore we wouldn’t buy anymore books, we knew we were going to have to make space for just one more.