Friday, November 02, 2007

The Vegas Valley Book Festival

I spent almost the entire afternoon at the Vegas Valley Book Festival. I would have completely missed this poorly advertised event if I hadn’t been watching for it – I think it was last week before I saw any local press on it. I decided to go at the last minute when my husband wound up with the day off. Today’s author panels were at the El Coretz and were in conjunction with downtown’s First Friday.

Last year the panels were aimed at writers, and they were wonderful. A full day’s worth of presentations by the Henderson Writer’s Group covered everything from publishing to proofreading. The last presentations were aimed at the general public, and they were wonderful. One was on Howard Hughes and one was on the mob. Speakers included George Knapp, Bob Maheu, and John L. Smith. The sessions were standing room only. Media crowded the room. Francis McCabe of the RJ (he's now their new Road Warrior Columnist) sat next to me – I knew him, but naturally he had no idea who I was. A host of old-timers and suits assembled in the back of the little art gallery to hear about eccentric, innovative Howard Hughes and the days of the Mafia. Local attorney Tom Pitaro opened the session on the mob with, “You’re all here because of the myth.” The speakers from the Howard Hughes panel stayed for the mob talk and chipped in periodically. I loved Bob Maheu’s story about his encounter with the mobster Johnny Roselli when Roselli tried to muscle in on Huges at the DI. "I told him to drop dead," Maheu told the room. Today I expected something as electric and interesting, and except for the first presentation I heard, I was sorely disappointed.

Matt O’Brien and Kurt Borchard gave the 11:45 presentation, “Down and Out in Las Vegas: The Struggle to Survive in Sin City.” This was by far the winning panel of the day, addressing an important local topic in an articulate and well-presented manner. O’Brien was the day’s best speaker, and I would have gladly listened to him all day. His stories about the men and women living in our city’s storm tunnels were absorbing and sobering. Borchard’s reasoned academic take and his stories about talking to the homeless made him the perfect co-panelist. I plan on getting a copy of O’Brien’s book, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, as soon as possible.

The day’s next speaker, Tom Miller, is an accomplished travel writer. I wanted to hear him speak because I’ve just spent the last year doing a monthly travel article for a local magazine. I found his talk helpful, from a writer’s standpoint, but nothing outstanding. My husband, David, said that Tom seemed like he would be a great guy to sit down and talk to, considering the places Tom has traveled. During the last 30 minutes of Tom’s talk, however, David became deeply interested in shredding his paper napkin into confetti.

The last panel of the day, the one I was eager to hear, was “Old Vegas, New Vegas: Everything Old is New Again.” Norm Clark, Heidi Knapp Rinella, and Mike Weatherford filled out the panel, which was supposed to be about celebrities and Las Vegas. If I could have thought of way to gracefully escape from the second row, I would have been out of there shortly after they started.

Mike Weatherford brought a copy of a 1955 travel book on Las Vegas that he dug up – how quaint – and used it as the basis for the “Old Vegas” portion of the talk. Here’s a clue: If you’ve only been here eight years, you don’t have a clue about Old Vegas. Did anyone think to actually find a journalist who was here during the Old Vegas years?

Journalistically speaking, this is a fully qualified panel. But if they were prepared for the talk in any way, beyond their odd little book, it didn’t show. Clark stammered and stuttered his way through almost everything he said (although, as I pointed out to David, he is a writer, not a speaker). Rinella looked bored to death, and even yawned once. Weatherford must have asked five times if time was up, which I assume was because he was absorbing the general boredom of the room. (Although I must say that the boredom in the room might simply have been post-lunch sleepiness since three-quarters of the room was over 75. Did they truck in seniors from a near-by home to increase the pitiful audience size?)

Listening to this last panel go on about the idiots who pay $1,000 to get into our nightclubs, or $360 for a 16-course meal, or $300 per bottle of booze for “bottle service,” you have to wonder if the contrast between the day’s earlier panel on homelessness and this one was intentional. The last panel’s discussion on celebrity chefs, rowdy sports enthusiasts, and underage celebrities in nightclubs struck me as stupefyingly boring.

The New Vegas these people were talking about is a place I’ve never known. They talked about “Old Vegas” with little laughs and nods to each other, like it was just a bad, tacky joke that only they understood. I’m not interested in the New Vegas that I heard about, in its over-priced shows and snobbish, faux hip attitude. If you’re going to talk to me about Old Vegas, then find someone who lived here prior to Steve Wynn building the Mirage. Don’t talk to me about Old Vegas if you didn’t see at least one of the Rat Pack perform.

The book festival runs through tomorrow, with more author sessions scheduled for tomorrow morning. The Children’s Book Festival is scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. at the Lewis Avenue/Centennial Plaza. Author Sarah Vowell is the featured speaker tomorrow night at the Las Vegas High School Auditorium, 7-8 p.m.

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