"Freak doesn't always have a negative connotation," MSNBC's Willie Geist assured his audience at Miami Book Fair International Saturday, and - just like every year - South Floridians proved his assessment right.
Miami Dade College was paradise for book freaks Saturday, from readers anxious they wouldn't nab a seat to see their favorite authors to collectors grimly determined to get every purchase signed to the children who screamed with joy at the sight of Clifford the Big Red Dog. There were also reports that legal thriller author Scott Turow was spotted on stage in a wig and a boa, but such behavior is precisely the sort of thing that happens when the Rock Bottom Remainders - Dave Barry's writerly band - are in town.
Hipsters crowded the McSweeney's booth, marveling at the gorgeous books displayed there through their Franzen-style glasses. Pop-up book author-artist Matthew Reinhart delighted a room of kids (and adults, including Zeitoun author and McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers) by cutting sheets of paper into a layered birthday cake, dragon and Jabba the Hut. And readers made hard choices because cloning themselves to attend simultaneous readings is not yet possible.
Flexibility can be the key to having a good day: "I make a schedule of what I intend to see, and then I end up at other things," said Meryl Stratford of Hallandale Beach. "You will always discover something."
Saturday kicked off with Geist, author of American Freak Show, who said he was just the opening act for Dave Barry but drew huge laughs of his own, and ended with prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who spoke about magic as a full moon rose over Miami. The fair ends Sunday with Jonathan Franzen, who appears at 5 p.m.
There were disappointments, as there inevitably are. Gay Talese canceled his appearance. A few in the audience were too slow-witted to turn off their cellphones. Mark Rotella, author of Amore: The Story of Italian American Song, discovered that no copies of his book were available for sale after his reading (fair staff found some later). He shrugged off the glitch and marveled at the fair anyway. "The whole outdoor environment is wonderful," he said. "I'm really impressed and heartened to see all the people here."
Other authors agreed. "Everyone I know who's written a book is here this weekend," Eggers told his audience. His wife, novelist Vendela Vida, was also among the authors present. The fair "is unrivaled in scope, size and quality," Eggers said. "It's not all about the weather down here."
Of course, it's always about the weather down here. During the slightly cloudy early morning, the streets seemed a bit emptier than usual.
"It was a little slow this morning," said Joanne Sinchuck, who was working in the Murder on the Beach booth. "But it's always worth the effort." True enough, by early afternoon the sun was out, and manuevering through the packed streets was about as easy as negotiating Biscayne Boulevard after a Heat game.
Linda Sullivan was part of a group - 95 strong - that traveled to the fair from Naples for the weekend.
"I'm loving it. I haven't been disappointed yet," she said of the fair lineup, citing Sean Kenniff, author of Etre the Cow, as one of her favorites of the day.
Bob Moran, also part of the Naples group, said that journalist Sebastian Junger and novelist Karl Marlantes were "the best'' of the authors he saw. His only quibble? He couldn't get in to see Paul Farmer, author of Partner to the Poor, whose reading was jammed.
"I wish they'd had him in a bigger room," he lamented.