Yesterday marked the first “live” Gaithersburg Book Festival since the pre-Covid 2019 event. My sisters Marian, Anna and I had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in this annual book-lovers event after over two years of literary lockdown. They drove down from Buffalo the Friday before, staying the weekend with my spouse Andrea and me in our new digs in a Rockville retirement community. I’d been wary of the oppressive 95F heat predicted for Saturday since it’s primarily an outdoor event. It was also taking place in a new venue – Gaithersburg’s Bohrer Park rather than the cozy grounds of the municipal center in Old Town. Despite my misgivings, this year’s GBF proved to be as full and rich an experience as ever.
As usual, my sisters and I had surveyed the day’s program of author talks and interviews before setting out for the short drive over to the festival. Most of the authors we were interested in hearing weren’t appearing until the late afternoon, but we still wanted to arrive for the 10am start time. We’ve always enjoyed the whole atmosphere of the GBF, including the many community booths, a large variety of foods and beverages, and the various writers’ workshops for children and adults. As the traffic thickened at the entrance to Bohrer Park, Andrea called us to say that the parking lot was full and the police were directing people to a large shopping mall lot a mile away, with free shuttle buses from there. Grateful for this tip, we proceeded directly to the mall, where we parked and quickly boarded a school bus. Without undue delay, we arrived at the festival only a few minutes late for the first round of author talks at 10:15.
Lost and Found
Author presentations at the GBF were given at seven open-air tent-pavilions set up around the 57-acre grounds. Our first stop was the Frederick Douglass pavilion where the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Katherine Schulz, was being interviewed. Ms. Schulz had recently published a well-regarded “extended essay” book called “Lost and Found”, in which she described an 18-month period in her life when she “lost” her beloved father, and “found” a loving life partner. Ms. Schulz was being interviewed by a local book reviewer, Becky Meloan. We were able to find seats at the rear of the tent, but still inside its welcome shade.
Schulz eloquently described the events that inspired the book, starting with her 74-year-old father’s rapid decline and dying from a longstanding heart ailment. Schulz quoted from her book about the difficulty she faced in coming to terms with both the profundity AND the ordinariness of her father’s dying process. She felt uncomfortable with many of the euphemisms we use in talking about death: “passing”, “going home”, “slipping away”, “going to a better place”, etc. But she did feel right about telling others that she had ”lost” her father.
Ms. Schulz did a detailed entomology study of the word “lost”, finding that its original Old English meaning was “cut apart” and “perished” – remarkably close to our present usage of it for “dead”. She discovers meaningful analogies of “lost” when she creates a list of other important “losses” in her life: “losing” a childhood friend who moved away, a beloved cat who disappeared one day, a precious graduation letter from her grandmother “lost” during a move. She writes that “much of the experience of heartbreak falls into this category” of “loss”.
Ms. Schulz described her bleak, bereft world view in the days and weeks following her father’s death. She felt in some way like the whole world was dying, herself included. Everywhere she turned she saw the “evidence of past losses and the immanence of future ones.”
I resonated with her words deeply as I had “lost” a close friend the previous week and my mourning was manifesting as a kind of tragic sense about life in general. And yet, as Ms. Schulz also observed, the feeling of broken heartedness was not constant, even in the immediacy of grief. All around her was the ongoing unfolding of ordinary day-to-day reality. As she began to realize just how “normal” her father’s death was, she was shocked into the realization that “something so sad could be the normal, necessary way of things.”
The second part of Ms. Schulz’s book is about “finding” the love of her life. She had actually met her love partner while her father was still alive and the two had hit it off enthusiastically well. As her love for her future wife deepened in the period after her father died, Ms. Schulz discovers just how close the emotions of profound happiness and profound sadness can be. At the end of her talk, she pointed to a young woman with a baby carriage standing just outside the tent as her wife, and jokingly suggested that we all buy a copy of her book to help with their young one’s college fund.
Perils of Living Under Russian Autocracy
The second authors’ event we attended was a dialog between veteran writers Karin Tanabe and Elena Gorokhova, talking about each of their recent novels. Their commonality was that they were both well respected nonfiction writers prior to turning their hands to fiction. I was most taken with Ms. Gorokhova, a Russian émigré who was most grateful to have escaped the autocratic control of the Russian state under which her family had suffered mightily during the last years of the Stalin era. She had studied English at university in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and had worked as an English teacher and academic prior to fleeing Russia with her American lover and settling in the U.S., eventually publishing her first memoir “A Mountain of Ashes” in 2011. A second memoir in 2015 had exhausted her life-based writing material so she turned to fiction to deepen her exploration of the life she had left behind in Russia.
Gorokhova began by expressing her abhorrence for the Putin regime which had recently unleashed its merciless, unprovoked war against the Ukraine. She knew many Russians who were afraid to express any objections within the current atmosphere of extreme repression. She compared Putin’s ruthless bullying of the opposition to Stalin’s dictatorial poisoning of any hope of achieving a free, open, democratic way of life in her homeland.
Her first novel is called “A Train to Moscow” and it uses actual events from her family’s life in Russia during the decade after WW2. I was inspired to begin reading it subsequently and was immediately drawn in by her rich descriptive tale told by a young Russian girl, Sasha, living in a small town outside of Moscow in the early 1950’s. Sasha is modeled on Ghorokova’s older sister who would go on to become a professional actress in real life. It begins with a riveting account of her visit to a classmate’s home while local henchmen brutally arrest her friend’s father as a suspected slanderer of the almighty Stalin. In her visit to Moscow shortly thereafter, Sasha attends the annual May 1 rally and actually gets a glimpse of Stalin entering an arena packed with thousands of his worshippers who unleash a deafening round of approving shouts.
“Dreams from My Father” Revisited
I wanted to hear our local County Councilman Will Jawando speak about his new book while my sisters had other interests at that point. Jawando was completing his first 4-year term and had made a name for himself as an effective, intelligent public servant who offered a strong voice for the large minority population in Montgomery County. As a young man, he had worked in the Obama White House and was personally mentored by the then President. Like Obama, he had a white mother and an African father who left the family early on.
Jawando’s book is called “My Seven Fathers” and it tells the stories of his relationship with the black men who helped to guide, inspire and support him during his troubled early years after his father left. I had read Senator Barack Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father”, back in 2007 when he had just set his sites on the presidency. I was curious to hear Jawando’s version of a similar life story.
Jawando was admiringly introduced by long-term Gaithersburg mayor and now County Councilman Sidney Katz and was interviewed by the local educator-writer Sean Felix. Jawando himself proudly introduced his wife and three young children who were in the audience. Like Obama, he had a strong, compelling presence and quickly established a warm rapport with his audience with his big smile and his witty, articulate responses to Mr. Felix’s informed questions.
Jawando has a compelling story and he tells it well, beginning with his desperate efforts as a young boy to engage with his emotionally distant father. After his parents separate, he looks to an older boy at his school for inspiration and support. The older boy, Kitanji, dominates the local basketball playground and gives Will an opportunity to establish himself as an athlete there. They become after-school friends and Will learns his street smarts from him. Unfortunately, Kitanji falls victim to street violence leaving the young Will bereft and needing to search again for masculine strength and guidance. He finds it in a middle school math teacher, an African American army veteran who is the first older black man to pay attention to him and his desire to learn. In his mid-twenties, Jawando has the good fortune to land a job at the White House where Obama encounters him and encourages him to develop his own political intelligence.
It felt good to witness Jawando’s political initiative and to know that Obama’s political legacy was being carried forward. I was impressed enough to download the book from Amazon.
My sisters and I decided to break for lunch as the hot temperature and humidity continued to build. There were many outdoor food vendors within the festival site, but we wanted an air-conditioned place to cool down. Guided by Google, we walked across the park to try the Tex-Mex fare at “Ay Jalisco” restaurant in a strip mall across Frederick Avenue. The place was surprisingly uncrowded and we were happy to gather ourselves in the welcome coolness. Refreshed by cold drinks and delicious tacos and empanadas, we were soon ready for the afternoon’s literary fare.
Another Take on the Mexican-American War
Our first post-Mexican-lunch event was, appropriately enough, an intriguing interview of a rising Chicano voice, Reyna Grande, conducted by the better-known novelist Jeanine Cummins, whose 2020 bestseller, “American Dirt”, had stirred controversy owing to the author’s presumed cultural infringement. We had read that novel in our family book group, and we’d all felt that “American Dirt” told a powerful story with a lot of integrity.
It was clear from the start that Cummins and Grande held each other in high esteem, having communicated about their work previously. Cummins was effusive in her praise for Grande’s first novel, “A Ballad of Love and Glory”, based on her extensive research into the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Grande had made a name for herself with three books documenting her life as a Mexican immigrant who had entered the U.S. illegally but who had gone on to get well educated and gain citizenship. This was her first work of fiction and Grande did a lot of research because she wanted to make her story closely follow the actual historical record of the war. While in school in the U.S., Grande had wondered why the Mexican War got so little attention in her American History classes. Her research revealed that the war was an expression of the “manifest destiny” doctrine that guided much of U.S. policy – that we had a God-given right to appropriate all land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Her novel primarily offers a Mexican-eyed-view of the causes of the war and its actual unfoldment.
I had downloaded the book and read enough to know that the two main characters were a Mexican curandera (“healer”), Ximena, who tended to the wounded in General Santa Ana’s Mexican army, and an Irish-born soldier, John Reilly, who had enlisted in the U.S. Army as a way of making a career within a time when Irish immigrants were held in low esteem by most Americans. Due to the wretched treatment that Reilly and his fellow Irish soldiers receive from their arrogant American officers, they decide to abandon the U.S. army and cast their lot with the Mexicans. Ximena and John meet and fall in love as the story unfolds.
I was most impressed with Ms. Grande’s poise and eloquence. Ms. Cummins read some poignant passages from the book, especially praising the accuracy Grande achieved in rendering the Irish brogue of John Reilly, and the herbalist practices of Ximena. It was heart-warming to witness the care and respect that Cummins and Grande had for one another. And I heard enough of the story to know that I wanted to read it to the end.
There were three other political authors that I wanted to hear that afternoon, but I only made it to one of them: Congressman Jaime Raskin talking about his book “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of Democracy”. The other two were retired security analyst Fiona Hill and Congressman Adam Schiff, both of whom were interviewed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reviewer Carlos Lozada. The overflowing crowd for that event prevented me from attending it.
I had read excerpts from Jamie Raskin’s book in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine. Raskin has become one of my political heroes for the way he conducted himself after the tragic suicide of his son last New Year’s eve. In the midst of deep grief for his beloved son, Raskin was able to respond to the call to lead the impeachment against Donald Trump for his nefarious stirring up of the seditious attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Raskin had an overflow crowd as well, but I was able to find some shade outside the tent and listen to most of his presentation. I had heard his message before, but it felt historic to hear it directly from his mouth, with all his powers of eloquence, deep human feeling, and acerbic wit.
Adam Schiff’s book was titled “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost our Democracy and Still Could”. Fiona Hill’s book, “There Is Nothing for You Here”, was more autobiographical, telling of her decision to leave her native England and become a U.S. national security analyst, specializing in the Ukraine.
A Musician Turns Writer
The last author interview I heard was with the violinist Brendan Slocumb talking about his first novel, “The Violin Conspiracy”. The interview was conducted by Torie Clarke, the primary host of the podcast “Chatter on Books”. Mr. Slocumb is an accomplished classical violinist who found himself with time on his hands as his musical appearances were cancelled during Covid. He had an idea for a suspense-thriller and decided to give it a go, completing his first draft within a couple of months. I was intrigued by his presence and demeanor as an African American classical musician. I subsequently downloaded a sample of his book and was immediately drawn in. His excitement about writing and its possibilities for creative expression was contagious!
Gratitude for the GBF’s Return
My sisters and I left Bohrer Park last Saturday happy and satisfied with a day well spent. The Gaithersburg Book Festival is an opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in the culture of The Book. It always takes our love of reading to higher levels of appreciation and enjoyment. Hats off to current Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman who had the idea for a city-sponsored book festival thirteen years ago, and who has succeeded in bringing that idea to such remarkable fruition, surviving even one of the worst pandemics of the last century.
John Bayerl, 5/31/2022