Getting a read on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books


What do Sugar Ray Leonard, Judy Blume, Betty White, T.C. Boyle, Rodney King, Joseph Wambaugh and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have in common? They’re just a few of the high-profile personalities appearing this weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Now in its second year at USC, the 17th annual festival offers another robust two-day program of writers and celebrity authors unmatched by any other literary event across the country. More than 400 authors are scheduled to appear in panel sessions and on eight stages set up across USC’s University Park Campus.

This year’s festival blends familiar features with newer events reflecting what’s hot today in the literary marketplace. While festival goers can stroll once again with their families in the Target children’s area or listen to novelist Anne Rice discuss her latest supernatural fiction (Sunday) and Ben Fong-Torres’ memories of his Rolling Stone days (Saturday), actor John Cusack will discuss not a book but his latest book-related project, the film “The Raven,” in which he portrays Edgar Allan Poe, on Saturday.

TheU.S. Postal Servicewill conduct its opening ceremony for the stamp series “Twentieth-Century poets” Saturday at the Poetry stage; though graphic novels receive their fair share of panel attention, thanks to USC’s School for Cinematic Arts there will also be screenings of a director’s cut of the movie”Watchmen”and the documentary “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.”

The year has already been a busy one for the nation and the world, and the festival again demonstrates why it offers an ideal public forum for political and intellectual discussion.

Saturday panels devoted to current interest include two on the race for the U.S. presidency, the legacy of 9/11 and another on the drug trade and turmoil along the U.S.-Mexico border). Twenty years have passed since the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots, but the memories are still vivid for King, who also takes the stage Saturday to discuss his memoir “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption” with Times columnist Patt Morrison.

On Sunday KCRW’s Warren Olney interviews Gil Garcetti, Jim Newton and Connie Rice for “Los Angeles 20 Years After the Rodney King Verdict”; another panel celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (Tom Hayden will be there).

The craft of writing — fiction and nonfiction — is the subject of numerous events on both days. On Saturday KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt hones in on how Susan Orlean brought Rin Tin Tin and others to life in her bestselling books while, on Sunday, Times Book Critic David Ulin interviews novelists Steve Erickson, Hari Kunzru and Dana Spiotta about their Golden State visions in “Fiction: California Dreamin.’”

Events taking place in theaters and lecture halls require a free ticket for admission (a $1 service is charged for acquiring them online; some tickets should also be available during the festival).

The stages, however, offer plenty of non-ticketed, easily accessible events. The cooking stage sizzles with the gastronomic art of Michael Voltaggio, Nancy Silverton, Josiah Citrin, Debbie Lee and others; the USC Stage presents musical performances throughout the weekend while music of another kind can be found at the Poetry stage. Visit the Target Children’s Stage and you’ll find “Wimpy Kid’s” Jeff Kinney along with “Saturday Night Live” veteran-turned-children’s author Molly Shannon on Saturday; Sunday’s highlights include appearances by Laura Numeroff and Julie Andrews.

For those eager for the weekend to begin, Friday night’s Los Angeles Book Prizes ceremony at Bovard Auditorium is still open to the public (tickets can be purchased online until midnight Thursday at the festival website). Contenders for the prizes, which cover 10 categories and look at the best books of 2011, include novelists Michael Ondaatje and Stephen King, poet Linda Norton, scientist Daniel Kahneman, first-time novelist Chad Harbach and young adult authors Maggie Stiefvater and Libba Bray.

Most winners will be announced Friday night, except for two award recipients who have already been identified. Praised as the “godfather and guru of Chicano literature,” Rudolfo Anaya is the Robert Kirsch Award-winner, which honors the body of work of a Western writer; and the online writers’ community Figment will be recognized with the Innovator’s award.

As the festival continues to grow and evolve, some things never change. Consider just two: parking and the weather. With such a large crowd of attendees expected, organizers advise festival goers to arrive early (the festival starts at 10 a.m. on both days) to take advantage of parking locations provided by USC (cost is $10 per day) as well as the Bullseye shuttle service running between USC and Union Station in downtown L.A.

Check your driving plans and where to eat (the food court, trucks and other dining options), or download an app for your iPhone or Android (for updates throughout the weekend), by visiting the festival website

Though lecture halls are shady and cool, attendees would be wise to bring plenty of sunscreen and hats for events at the outdoor venues and stages — hot, sunny weather is expected.