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Pat Conroy makes 'em laugh at Miami Book Fair


Pat Conroy may be best known for his emotionally harrowing novels, but Thursday night at Miami Book Fair International he was the king of comedy.

The entertaining Conroy - engaging enough to draw a standing ovation - talked a bit about his new nonfiction book My Reading Life (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25), about the books he has loved and the mentors who instilled in him a passion for books.

But mostly, the storyteller did what he does best: He told stories. About his mother, who taught him to love literature (and wanted Meryl Streep to play the character based on her in the film The Prince of Tides). About his tough Marine Corps pilot father,
immortalized in The Great Santini (‘‘one of the meanest books ever written about a father in English literature''), who was certain a poem by his eldest son in a high school literary magazine "was an obvious admission I was gay." About his sister Carol, a poet, who called his mother's miscarriages "the lucky ones."

"With this family, I will never go hungry," he told the audience.

Conroy, who didn't use notes and admitted before he took the stage that he finds authors reading from their books "deadly," also spoke movingly about his mother's death at age 59.

"I go back to The Great Santini, and there she is behind Blythe Danner at the basketball game."

He credits Miami, where he lived when he wrote parts of The Lords of Discipline, with turning him on to the joys of Latin literature. He said read the first line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and immediately thought - as many had before - "I can't write. I don't know how to write."

Not true, of course: During his introduction of Conroy, Les Standiford, director of the creative writing program at Florida International University, announced that Conroy would return to in Miami in March to accept the 2011 Lawrence Sanders Prize from the university.

Eugene Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who kicked off the evening, drew a slightly smaller crowd but - and where else does this happen? - drew a few calls of "Woo!'' from the audience.

Robinson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2009, talked about Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America (Doubleday, $24.95), in which he dissects the shifting cultural changes in the United States.

He also talked about his "dysfunctional MSNBC family'' (Rachel Maddow is the one you want to have a beer with; Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann are "distinct personalities'').

He also let the audience in on a well-kept secret: that President Barack Obama, who called to congratulate him on the Pulitzer and to take him to task for a column Robinson had written, sounds "much like Fred Armisen on Saturday Night Live."



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