Writing

National Book Festival Guide – Washington City Paper

We sorted through more than 100 panels and discussions to pick some you shouldn’t miss.

Emma Sarappo

The Library of Congress’ National Book Festival is this Saturday, and as usual, it promises to feature a deluge of fascinating panels featuring authors and books of every genre. How’s a reader supposed to decide which ones to attend? We’ve sorted through the many panels and presentations (not including the signing events) to recommend a few of the best.

Panel: Changemakers
11 a.m. on the Understanding Our World Stage
How does a man make history? Well, being a man helps. So does having a position of power. That’s the formula Winston Churchill used to become a symbol of Western diplomacy—that and a lifelong attention to his trajectory, as detailed in Andrew Roberts’ biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Churchill is the kind of figure who could be the subject of a panel by himself, but Roberts speaks alongside Andrea Barnet, author of Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters Changed Our World, and David W. Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Blight’s subject’s significance is obvious: Douglass was born enslaved, taught himself to read and write, fought for his freedom, and spent his life pushing past the boundaries America circumscribed for his intellect and humanity. Barnet’s book covers four women who pushed their boundaries, too, though each in very different ways. History is complicated and rarely as neat as the narratives we’d prefer to present. But these authors have taken on the task with aplomb, and there’s a lot to ponder about the biographies we might read of today’s leaders and visionaries 50, 100, or 150 years from now.

Conversation: Animal Emotions and Human-Animal Relations
12 p.m. on the Science Stage
Back when humans were domesticating animals for work purposes—creating efficient and specialized vermin-catchers, beasts of burden, transportation methods, tools for hunting, and food sources—we could have really used the research coming out of Alexandra Horowitz’s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard. There are still plenty of applicable uses for better understanding the mind of man’s best friend, but many of us just want answers to this: Does my dog love me? Does he know how much I love him? Horowitz’s new book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond explores that question, among others, in an illuminating look at our symbiotic bond with canines. But our curiosity about animal emotion really reflects our curiosity about our own—that’s the point Horowitz’s panelmate Frans de Waal makes in his book Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, which follows the story of a chimpanzee, our closest genetic relative, and her feelings about Jan Van Hooff, a Dutch biologist. The conversation will be moderated and enriched by Betsy Herrelko, a behavioral scientist at the National Zoo.

Susan Choi
3 p.m. on the Fiction Stage 
Susan Choi’s new novel Trust Exercise is a doozy. It’s not just us saying that. The Atlantic called it “an elaborate trick,” Vulture called it “inventive and polarizing,” and The New Yorker said it “toys with themes of appropriation, and with the reader.” We’ll try to avoid spoilers, but Trust Exercise rolls out a red carpet for its readers in its first act and violently yanks it out from under them in the second. Choi, who’s written novels fictionalizing the life of people like Patty Hearst and the Unabomber, circles back to the impulse writers have to tell other people’s stories for them. Trust Exercise questions notions of truth, accuracy, and ownership in storytelling and asks what, exactly, we owe the people we write about—even in fiction. It’s enough to make your head spin. Choi will be in discussion with Ron Charles, the book critic at the Washington Post, to help dissect the tricky novel. 

Julia Alvarez
3 p.m. on the Poetry & Prose Stage
Julia Alvarez published her groundbreaking novel In the Time of the Butterflies 25 years ago. She had risen to prominence three years before with her novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, which follows four sisters who flee the Dominican Republic during Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship—a story that mimics her own biography. But In the Time of the Butterflies made an even bigger splash. The book depicts the lives of the four Mirabal sisters, called Las Mariposas, “The Butterflies,” who secretly opposed the Trujillo regime until the day three of them were beaten to death and thrown off the side of a cliff. Today, the Mirabals are recognized as martyrs. There’s a Dominican province named for them, they’re featured on the currency, and the anniversary of their deaths is now the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Alvarez’s novel is a major literary achievement, plus a turning point for Latina writers in the U.S. She will discuss the Mirabals, the novel’s legacy, and her life as a Dominican American writer with Peruvian American writer Marie Arana.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
3:20 p.m. on the Children’s Green Stage
Gates, a titan of public intellectualism, isn’t speaking on this year’s festival main stage. That’s not a snub, though; he’s actually on two panels. One is a discussion about race in America with two other authors of comprehensive popular histories. The other addresses the perfect audience for his newest book, Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow, on one of the children’s stages. Americans have long struggled with how to tell our children about the brutality and inequality that has defined our country, and Gates tackles the subject masterfully in Dark Sky Rising, a book recommended for readers 9 to 12 years old. The vocabulary here is appropriately challenging, and the history is handled unflinchingly. But it comes with illustrations and timelines to help students just wrapping their heads around the past situate themselves in the story. Most importantly, it tells the truth about the ways Reconstruction was purposefully undermined after nearly a century of revisionist history. A new generation of readers will learn that Jim Crow wasn’t inevitable—it was a choice we made, and a choice we have to reckon with.

From 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place NW. Free. (202) 249-3000. loc.gov.


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