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Festival of Reading authors find inspiration in America

In this season, we are all writing the story of our nation, a story that right now is shaded by fear and shaped by hope.

At the 16th annual St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, many authors will appear to talk about their own American stories.

Some of those stories are filled with drama. The Given Day, the bestselling historical novel by Dennis Lehane (see interview, Page 5), is a riveting story of two young men in Boston in the days after World War I — a time when the country struggled with many issues it faces again today.

Some featured authors draw real-life drama from history, as Brad Matsen does in Titanic's Last Secret, about the catastrophe that killed hundreds of Americans, and as T.J. English does in Havana Nocturne, a rich saga of American mobsters expanding their business interests.

Some authors find their drama in the present, as Kevin Phillips does in his grimly prescient book Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism and Dick Meyer does in his insightful analysis of 21st century culture, Why We Hate Us.

Other American stories are sunnier. In Amarcord: Marcella Remembers, acclaimed cookbook author and teacher Marcella Hazan writes about finding fame and fortune in her adopted American home.

American families are the subject for many of these writers. Dudley Clendinen's A Place Called Canterbury and Rick Bragg's The Prince of Frogtown are very different takes on Southern childhood and old age. Sandra Tsing Loh's Mother on Fire is a hilarious look at the trials of a parent grappling with the educational system.

Bonnie Glover writes about three generations of African-American women in Going Down South, Matt Rothschild about a most unusual New York childhood in Dumbfounded, Kristy Kiernan about a family in crisis in Matters of Faith, and Alexandra Kerry about her father's 2004 presidential campaign in Notes From the Trail.

Other authors focus on individuals who are American originals. John Capouya writes about a flamboyantly famous wrestler in Gorgeous George, William McKeen chronicles the life of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Outlaw Journalist, and NBA referee Bob Delaney recounts his startling past as an undercover cop posing as a mobster in Covert, co-written with Dave Scheiber of the St. Petersburg Times.

Many of the authors base their novels on American history: Jeff Shaara's The Steel Wave vividly recounts the carnage and courage of D-day, while David Liss' The Whiskey Rebels takes an exciting look at the nation's earliest years.

Other authors set novels in recent times, but write about characters who demonstrate the American penchant for reinventing the self, in books as diverse as Richard Paul Evans' inspirational story Grace and Lisa Unger's thriller Black Out, Ridley Pearson's Kingdom Keepers II: Disney at Dawn, a fantastic adventure for young readers, and Daina Chaviano's The Island of Eternal Love, a magical realist tale of exile and romance.

For Jay Allison, the world is a tapestry of compelling stories. His book This I Believe II is the second collection drawn from his long-running series on National Public Radio, a series based on the simple concept of asking individuals to express their most dearly held values.

Hearing another person's story can be the path to understanding; that's demonstrated movingly in This I Believe II by the remarkable story of Kim Phuc, who became a part of American history when, at age 9, she was photographed running naked and screaming down a road in Vietnam after being burned by napalm dropped by U.S. planes.

"Forgiveness made me free from hatred," she writes.

"We wouldn't have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with truth, love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?"

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Festival of Reading authors find inspiration in America 10/22/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 4:30am]

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