Monday, September 1, 2014

National Book Festival 2014, Part 2

I first read a book by E. L. Doctorow back in the '70's when I belonged to the Book of the Month Club. Remember that? I have no recollection of which book it was, but I've been a fan ever since. Last year I led a book discussion of his classic "Ragtime," but I think that "Homer and Langley" is my favorite so far.

Image of E. L. Doctorow

So there was no way that I wasn't going to break my retirement rule of sleeping until my body clock wakes me, to get down to the DC convention center by 10:00 a.m. in time to see the rather frail eighty-three-year-old receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. According to his interviewer, Marie Arana, former editor of the Book World for "The Washington Post," Mr. Doctorow is still writing at the top of his game. Simply remarkable! His latest novel, "Andrew's Brain," is now on my lengthier by the day "to read" list, along with an old one that I missed but which peaked my interest as he spoke, "The Book of Daniel."

My sister and I stayed in the ballroom, patiently waiting for Doctorow's fans to file out, so that we could move to the very front of the room to bask in the glorious aura that emanates from Ishmael Beah. This man fascinates me. When I used to ruminate on the seemingly unfathomable resilience of the human spirit, Anne Frank usually came to mind. Now it's Ishmael Beah.

I had the great privilege of reviewing Mr. Beah's first novel, "The Radiance of Tomorrow," for "Library Journal." I knew of his history as a child soldier forced to take up arms against his own people during the civil war in Sierra Leone. I had heard him interviewed on the Diane Rehm show and felt, for certain, that I could not read his memoir, "A Long Way Gone." Yet I also knew that, in order to pronounce on his novel, I would need to immerse myself in the full context of his life, no matter how painful that would be.
My verdict on the novel, one sentence, was definitive:
"Beah, who broke our hearts with the haunting memoir of his life as a boy soldier (Long Way Gone), will render readers speechless with the radiance of his storytelling in this novel of grace, forgiveness, and a vision of a tomorrow without conflict."

Mr. Beah is a beautiful speaker. He talks of language with overt reverence, of his family's long tradition of storytelling with love and longing in his body. He will, he says, return to Sierra Leone to live and to raise his children when the time comes. We understand. The opportunities that have been afforded him by his life in the United States, though life-changing, cannot compete with the love of his homeland.

This is a man who will never forget the past. He uses his renown and money to work for his foundation, which helps children whose lives are decimated by war, rebuild, find solace, and generate hope for a more radiant tomorrow.

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