A book nerd goes a little gaga

I got a chance to attend the annual awards event at the Academy of Arts and Letters in NYC this week (someone I know was being honored). I also had the chance to be a little like a kid at a Lady Gaga concert, because there were quite a number of arts and letters luminaries. Tony Kushner! Edward Albee!  Suzan Lori-Parks! Lorrie Moore! Cy Twombly’s son! Also, Garrison Keillor in red socks!

But the best part was that my luncheon table was full of writers and editors.

The guy to my left was a fellow named Brando Skyhorse, and the woman to my right was his publisher, Martha Levin of  Free Press. Brando’s wonderful book, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, which goes to the best work of first fiction (novel or short stories) published in 2010.  Brando, who now lives in Jersey City, is a charming man with an interesting story. Growing up in LA he assumed he was Native American, because that’s what his mom told him. He later learned he was Mexican.

Of course I couldn’t help myself but ask Martha, What upcoming books are you excited about? Which is a little like asking my Uncle Bill his favorite bad joke — I knew I’d get an earful, but I was ready to. She told me about two in particular I am going to watch for. It’s interesting to me that both authors deal with race, otherness, and ethnic identity.

The first is by Julia Scheeres, the author of “Jesus Land.” Like Bando, Julia has a fascinating back story. She was raised in rural Indiana in a fundamentalist-religious family with an adopted brother. She’s white, her brother’s black. At one point, the two were shipped off to a reform school in the Dominican Republic. The memoir recounts her story. I haven’t read it but I’m putting it on my list. Julia’s next book, due out this fall, is titled “A Thousand Lives.” Martha tells me that Julia wanted to write a piece of fiction about a charismatic religious leader, so she started researching Jim Jones for inspiration. In doing so, Julia discovered scores of records from the Jonestown massacre investigation that hadn’t been written about. She also realized that there were survivors (which I didn’t recall). She switched course and decided to write a piece of nonfiction about Jones. Her fundamentalist upbringing was her secret handshake. One survivor, a teen-ager at the time, didn’t want to talk to her until he read “Jesus Land.” After reading Julia’s account of growing up in a zealously religious community he realized: she’d get it.

As we talked, Martha pointed out that nearly all the Jonestown followers were African American — another detail I didn’t recall. I’m looking forward to reading about a chilling piece of American lore with fresh eyes, through fresh eyes.

Brando and Julia are flip-flopping. His next book is a memoir called “Things My Fathers Taught Me.” He laughed when I asked him, “Tell me about it” as his publisher was listening, because he had to have his pitch down. Among the  urgent need-to-read phrases he delivered was “just in time for father’s day,” “best memoir ever,” and “I had five step-fathers.”

At about that time a squall arrived, fluttering the sides of the tent and sending streams of water under our luncheon tables, requiring me to pick up my soaking purse and compelling several other tables to evacuate. The talk turned to a John Ashbery poem about a squall. The award recipients were called away to assemble on the stage, and we tip-toed around the puddles to the auditorium. I knew I shouldn’t have worn open-toed shoes.

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