Previewing this year's Wisconsin Book Festival schedule makes me think of that legendary interview advice. When asked to describe your biggest weakness, tell them it's probably your need to do everything right. By which I mean that the amazing depth and breadth of this year's festival (Oct. 19-23) is undeniably its greatest strength - a person of broad interests should be delighted. Unfortunately, that same person might be forced to make a few painful choices, faced with so thorough a variety of readings, workshops and presentations.
In an ambitious undertaking, the festival has organized a daylong series of readings, sessions and interactive events called High School Friday at Overture Center. Geared toward teens but open to the public, the event (Oct. 21, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.) begins with WPR's Veronica Rueckert hosting her radio show on site. She'll interview spoken-word artists Mayda de Valle and Black Ice, and in the second half, celebrated cartoonist, illustrator, playwright and editor Lynda Barry, who is at the festival to teach her workshop Writing the Unthinkable (MATC-Downtown, Saturday, Oct. 22, 9 a.m.). Among the day's many offerings will be readings from young-adult authors Ilsa Bick and Lisa Rondinelli Albert, a session with author and founding Wisconsin Book Festival director Dean Bakopoulos, and a hands-on printmaking workshop with Amos Kennedy.
For a truly off-the-beaten-path event, the Madison Area Urban Ministry is offering a unique workshop. Returning Prisoner Simulation on Saturday (Union South's Varsity 2, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m.) is an interactive experience of the hurdles faced by newly released prisoners returning to the community. Participants will have a chance to experience the struggle of putting a life back together after incarceration, and end the day hearing from a panel of formerly incarcerated people telling their stories.
Ultimately, great fiction is at the heart of this festival, as demonstrated by the strong lineup for the Friday Night Festival of Fiction, once again at the Orpheum Theatre. Myla Goldberg (Bee Season, The False Friend) and John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road, Northwest Corner) start reading at 8 p.m., followed at 9:30 by Dean Bakopoulos, reading from My American Unhappiness, his crabby, big-hearted, spot-on and often hilarious commentary of modern life, set here in Madison. Wrapping up will be Bonnie Jo Campbell, who reads from her widely acclaimed Once Upon a River, a coming-of-age story with an unforgettable 16-year-old heroine whose life model is Annie Oakley.
The Saturday fiction lineup includes Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides at 5:30 p.m. (Overture Center's Capitol Theater). He'll read from The Marriage Plot, just out this month and already garnering rave reviews as an absorbing modern love story with underpinnings in the Victorian novel, semiotics and Christian mysticism. Eugenides only publishes about a novel per decade (Virgin Suicides, 1993; Middlesex, 2002) and rarely makes personal appearances, so this would be one not to miss.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 19 and 20, evenings offer highlights for fiction lovers. On Wednesday (Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 7:30 p.m.), three novelists who write with great grace and gentle wit will read: Mary Gordon from her new novel, The Love of My Youth; Madison writer Dwight Allen from a new story that updates his novel-in-stories The Green Suit; and Larry Watson from his long-awaited novel American Boy. Thursday (MMoCA, 7:30 p.m.) brings us Wisconsin's dearly loved Jacquelyn Mitchard, reading from her new novel, Second Nature: A Love Story, along with award-winning novelist Diana Abu-Jaber, reading from Birds of Paradise.
Many of this year's events are themed, featuring writers of various genres. At 8 p.m. Saturday (Memorial Union's Play Circle) we have "Voices of Motherhood," with a novel reading from former Madisonian Rae Meadows (Mothers and Daughters), along with poets Stacey Lynn Brown (Cradle Song) and Erin Trondson (Nesting). Likewise, "Coming of Age: Novels of Two Wisconsin Childhoods" (A Room of One's Own, Thursday, 5:30 p.m.) features Lesley Kagen, reading from her Milwaukee-based Good Graces (a follow-up to her popular Whistling in the Dark) and Nina Revoyr, reading from Wingshooters, which is set in Deerhorn, Wis.
A book lover cannot live by fiction alone. A few of the highlights for poets include a Wednesday night reading (Overture's Rotunda Studio, 8 p.m.) by Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi, in an international poetry event entitled "Call and Response: Urban and Global Poetics." The poets will follow their readings with discussion and Q&A.
On Sunday, Oct. 23, at 2 p.m. (MMoCA), four Wisconsin poet laureates - Ellen Kort, Denise Sweet, Marilyn Taylor and Bruce Dethlefsen - will come together to read some of their work and talk about their experiences as ambassadors of poetry in our state. And Ronnie Hess, John Lehman and Margot Peters will offer an interactive presentation on Saturday (Rotunda Studio, 5:30 p.m.), "Bragging Writes: 10 Great Wisconsin Writers."
If you crave the excitement and energy of spoken word, check out First Wave and HBO Def Poetry stars Mayda del Valle and Black Ice, hosting a spoken word/hip-hop open mike, with performances by the Midwest Youth Slam All-Stars (Play Circle, Thursday, 9 p.m. - open mike sign-up at 8:45). On Saturday, experience a tribute to renowned African American artists Sonia Sanchez and Danny Simmons (Capitol Theater, 8 p.m.). They'll read from their own work and then pass the mike to poets from First Wave Hip Hop Theater of UW-Madison and the Midwest Youth Poetry All-Stars.
Ex Fabula from Milwaukee offers the thrill of a live story slam in its interactive first-person storytelling event Thursday night (Brink Lounge, 9 p.m.). After a slate of featured storytellers, a few slots will be available for audience volunteers to share five-minute-long stories related to the theme of "Finding Voice."
Also on the theme of finding voice, you won't want to miss country music scholar Bill C. Malone (MMoCA, Sunday, noon) talking about his book Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger's Life and Musical Journey. Pete Seeger's half-brother devoted much of his life to documenting the voices of marginalized rural musicians. Appearing with him will be Madison author P.C. Love, who will share his work and talk about his own journey into literacy.
History, politics and the conduct of the media have certainly taken on a more urgent tone in Wisconsin, and those of us thinking our way through the sticky wickets of modern democracy will not want to miss Parker Palmer discussing his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday (Overture's Wisconsin Studio). Joining him in the discussion will be Kaleem Caire of Madison's Urban League and Kristen Joiner of Sustain Dane.
On Friday at 7:30 p.m. (Grainger Hall), the Madison Institute has brought author and journalist William Greider to speak on "Re-Imagining Capitalism: Can Democratic Principles Survive in Our Capitalist Economy?" And at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday (Wisconsin Studio), Robert McChesney, renowned media analyst, scholar and editor of Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights, will discuss the current state of journalism and the media.
For a probing look at the history of our foreign policy, check out recently departed UW-Madison history professor Jeremi Suri, reading from and discussing his book Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama at 7 p.m. Wednesday (Wisconsin Studio).
It really wouldn't be a festival without food - or, in this case, food writing. The co-authors of Farmstead Chef, John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist, will be joined by three Wisconsin farm families featured in the book on Saturday (First Unitarian Society of Madison, noon). Expect stories and sampling of some of the recipes from the book.
On Sunday at noon, find Ed Janus (Rotunda Studio), author of Creating Dairyland, discussing the history of dairy farming and sharing anecdotes along with several of the dairy farmers who were featured in his book.
Also on Sunday, at 2 p.m., catch a presentation (First Unitarian Society of Madison) on the sustainable foods movement and green travel in Wisconsin, featuring local food writers Terese Allen and Joan Peterson, along with green travel guide writers Pat Dillon, Lynn Diebel and Mary Bergin. Alternatively on Sunday at 2 p.m., you could join the Cheesemakers of Iowa County (Wisconsin Historical Museum), including Tony Hook of Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point and Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville. They will discuss the history of cheesemaking and share collected stories about the cheese factories in Iowa County.
With so voluminous a schedule of events, it's hard to do justice to all the potential delights of the festival, but I want to mention at least in passing a few other things that caught my eye. On Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. (Rotunda Studio), "Animal Voices: Art and Stories about Cows, Chickens and Dogs" sounds like a hoot, particularly if you follow it with an 8 p.m. screening (Union South's Marquee Theater) of the 2008 documentary Mad City Chickens.
On Thursday at 5:30 p.m., Wisconsin Center for the Book will host a lively panel discussion on "The Future of the Book" (MMoCA). The Aldo Leopold Center is the host on Friday night (MMoCA, 7 p.m.) for "Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World," a discussion panel featuring contributors from the essay collection of that title.
Finally, once I've made all my hard choices and figured out where I'll be when, I hope I'm in the audience when Dean Bakopoulos delivers the first annual Mark Gates Memorial Lecture (Wisconsin Studio, Saturday, 3 p.m.), named for an early friend of the festival. According to the promotional material, Bakopoulos plans to reflect "on topics ranging from mentorship to memory, from bonbons to Bon Iver, exploring the uses of the writer's voice in a cultural and political landscape that seems antithetical to the literary temperament." Which, I think, pretty well sums up what an event like the Wisconsin Book Festival is all about.