Friday, April 11, 2008

Meeting Masha in person

"We're off to see the wizard,
the wonderful wizard of words."
Okay, maybe I got the song a bit mixed up. Maybe it should be "We're off to see the author, the wonderful author of The Camel Bookmobile." Nope, that doesn't scan. But you get the idea, don't you?

When Masha Hamilton said, "I’m off to Tennessee," I emailed her to ask where in Tennessee because I'm in Chattanooga, on the bottom edge of the state. Kingsport is worse than Nashville or Knoxville, which are closer, but better than Memphis, which is about twice as far from me. The wheels started turning (yes, I know it's a cliche), and I googled and schemed, trying to find a way to get there to say hello. A convention for librarians, huh? I'm not a librarian, and there was no way I had time for several days at a conference. When was Masha on the program? Aha, Wednesday! And for the whole afternoon. Oh, joy! My friend Donna managed to get that day off, so we set out on our journey early on Wednesday morning.

"Will we be allowed in?" Donna asked.

"Don't know," I said with a shrug.

"We're driving three-and-a-half hours each way, and you don't know whether we can even get in?" Donna was incredulous. "What if we can't get in?"

"Then we'll wait until it's over and follow her to supper or something," I said. Donna has known me for years, so she is well aware of my proclivity for doing things in my own inimitable way. She shook her head at my readiness to trust audacity to get me where I'm trying to go, but nevertheless we were off on our adventure. She read The Camel Bookmobile while I drove up the eastern side of Tennessee, going just over the speed limit, but not so fast that I attracted the attention of the radar guns.

I stayed at the Meadowview Conference Center several years ago, so I had an idea of what to expect, but I think they've added on since I was there. Having done my homework, I had a print copy of the layout of the place and knew Masha would be in Salon One from 1:30 to 5:00 pm. So when we arrived a couple of hours early, I approached the first official-looking fellow and asked how to find that meeting room.

"Down that hallway, then turn right and it's at the end," he said.

"And where's the nearest restaurant?" I asked, having observed streams of people exiting the buildings as we drove into the parking lot.

"We have one right here in the Convention Center," he said. "Turn left at the end of the hall, instead of right."

We went the way his finger had pointed and turned left. As we approached, the maître d' said, "Two?"

"May I go in and look around," I asked, "to see if I can find the person we're looking for?"

Given permission, we went inside. I was scanning left and right, table to table, when a woman crossed my path toward the dessert bar.

"There she is," I told Donna, as I moved rapidly toward the woman wearing bold colors, unlike most of the librarians in the room. This beautiful peacock MUST be the wizard herself.


She turned to me with a smile and said, "Yes?"

We did it! I had managed to meet her after all. Yessss!

I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn't quite sure if she knew me, but I pointed to the Book Buddies tee-shirt I had worn while saying, "I'm Bonnie Jacobs of Book Buddies, online."

It was like meeting an old friend for the first time. (What? Is that too hard to understand? I haven't met most of you Book Buddies in person, after all, except for Stephanie, who stopped off in Chattanooga to eat with me one year, and Ellen, whom I met only recently even though she lives on the other side of my town.)

When Masha realized who I was, she reached out and gave me a hug. I asked if she was eating with anyone and sort of invited myself to join her, if that was okay. Before we went to her table, I informed the maître d' we would be eating, after all. We didn't bother getting food before joining Masha and Gail Campbell, Adult Services Librarian at the Johnson City Public Library, the one who had the enviable job of ushering Masha around during her visit. Since we wouldn't be there the following day for the book signing, I asked Masha to sign my copy while we were getting acquainted (read Marsha' inscription here).

Gail asked me to take a photo of her with Masha, then Donna used my cell phone to photograph Masha and me (that's it at the top of this post). When the two of them left to set up the room for Masha's presentation, Donna and I had lunch from the soup-salad-dessert bar. It was afterwards that my chutzpah kicked in big time.
And now a word from our sponsor (well, she isn't exactly a sponsor, but I want to tell you about this): Masha Hamilton teaches a couple of ten-week online novel-writing classes. During an afternoon break, she told me about the work involved and ... guess what? ... I think I'm going to do it! I need to find out the dates for Novel I and Novel II, but I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.
Here's some of what I learned during the afternoon sessions. First, I found out Masha is an excellent speaker. Is "rapt attention of the audience" too much of a cliche? She's a real storyteller who kept our full attention. Easy laughter followed her account of telling her 12-year-old about when she was a girl, writing book reviews for herself, sometimes adding pictures, even though it wasn't homework. Her son said quietly, "Mom, I hate to tell you this, but you are a nerd." I think we book people could relate, being somewhat nerdy ourselves.

You want to hear about her books, though, don't you? Okay, that really was the main part of her talk. She writes about societies in transition. "When we share stories,” she said, “we develop tolerance for each other and for people who are different.”

I really enjoyed hearing her read excerpts from each book: about the midwife who refused the Bedoin's marriage proposal in her first novel, and about the reporter in her second novel who stays in journalism in spite of the violence ("The blood is his and he's gone"). When she read the excerpt from The Camel Bookmobile, Donna turned to me and grinned ... it was the very same passage Donna had singled out to read to me as we were driving to Kingsport. (Donna has borrowed my copy of the book, so I can't type here what Masha read, but it's the part starting on page 49 where the librarian decides Siti, the lead camel, is his own mother reincarnated and ending with "To continue the efforts might even cost him his job" on page 53.)

Masha's very glad she waited until the book was finished before visiting Africa. One reason is that Mr. Farah, the real librarian, is so much like Mr. Abasi, the fictional librarian. "It's funny that you are so much like the librarian in the book," she said to Mr. Farah. "Don't you think that's strange?"

"Strange, yes," he said solemnly. "Funny, no."

The librarians showed their appreciation of that tale by laughing and clapping. The story does indeed show us just how much the real librarian is like Mr. Abasi. I think Masha is dead on with her depictions of the people. I can see them, hear them, sometimes even smell them as they move through their story.

Masha took her then-17-year-old to Africa on that final research trip. Her daughter begged to go and was so persistent that Masha finally allowed it, with the stipulation that she could never be out of her mother's sight "except to use the bathroom." I can understand that; I'd have a hard time myself taking a teenage girl into an area rife with violence. But what an opportunity for her daughter. When they walked into the bush with the camels, Masha and Briana distributed maize and cooking oil to women, who valued the food stuffs more than the books.

Masha's book is fiction, but there really is a camel bookmobile in Kenya. During her presentation, Masha showed us this two-and-a-half minute video of the real thing. Notice how intent the people are, once they have books in their hands. It certainly doesn't look like YOUR library, does it? The anticipation among patrons in your town may not be as palpable, either. As Masha said, "You can see how absorbed the kids are."

I tried to take lots of notes during the question and answer period, as well as during the main part of Masha's talk:
Reading is a generational thing: women over 40 don't pick up the books. Also, the older generation fears loss and encroachment of the outside world.

Reading the books, even if they don't relate directly to the lives of the tribal people, opens the readers to the fact that not everybody is pastoral. Not everyone tends goats.

Houses are built to be taken apart. The tribes move two or three times a year, so they aren't settled in any one spot. As people settle, they will read books more than they do now.

The theme of The Camel Bookmobile is the whole American overseas experience. We really want to help, but we do it with limited knowledge of the people and the situation.

What kinds of books should we send to Kenya? Children's books, first, and then books on childcare. No religious books, please! There's a wish list on Amazon and Powell's, if you want to see specifically what they want and need.
Ah, one of you noticed that I never got back to what I said before the commercial break above: "It was afterwards that my chutzpah kicked in big time." Okay, I'll confess. You do recall that Donna and I, in effect, crashed the party ... uh, the conference? It was actually a pre-conference event with the author, but you know what I mean. Gail Campbell, who was having lunch with Masha when we arrived, led the group in what we could call book discussion designing. She divided us into smaller groups to come up with questions that might work with a book club. When she brought us back together, we shared the best of our questions, which she wrote on a flipchart. And then came the praxis, which basically means it's time to practice and see if this will really work. Using the questions we had come up with ourselves, we would have our very own book discussion right then and there, with the book's author ready and willing to provide feedback and answer our questions.

"Who would like to lead the discussion?" Gail asked. There were no takers. One librarian said she would do it, but she hadn't read the book. I hesitated, though admittedly only a very short time, because I wasn't even supposed to be there, for Pete's sake! But there's that chutzpah, and I volunteered. I don't know if it was the right thing to do or not, but I had lots of fun.

Did you notice the tee-shirt I was wearing? If you can't read the words, click on the photo at the top to enlarge it, and see that it is not exactly an off-the-rack shirt. The librarians closest to me asked about Book Buddies and ... you know me ... I'm not bashful. So I handed out my "business" cards. (I'm retired, except for reading and writing and blogging and occasional teaching and leading book discussions ... and I don't sound very retired at all, do I?) On my cards I have not only the usual information about myself, but URLs to the Bonnie's Books blog and this one. I hope you know I'm proud of the group we have here. Where else would you find people who are willing to play along with the idea of partying on a cyber-island with book characters?

Here are some of the questions used for the One Book, One Conference discussion in Kingsport. They are good questions. which I'll probably ask you later in the month.
What book would you send to the Camel Bookmobile, and why would you pick that one?

Were you surprised by the book's ending?

What do you think happened to Fi when she returned home? What do you think happened to Matani and the others?

What did that strict library fine mean to the people involved?

How did this book change your life or your attitude?
I would have loved to stay to hear what Nancy Pearl had to say on Thursday. You do know who she is, don't you? She's so famous there's a Librarian action figure of her. No, really! Donna bought the blue action figure when it first came out; it's holding a teensy-tiny copy of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust. Many thanks to Masha who sent me this photo, taken yesterday, showing (left to right) Nancy Pearl, Nancy Renfro (a librarian I didn't get to meet at the convention), and Masha herself. Can you tell what they are doing? They are "doing that librarian shushing thing," Masha wrote. Thanks, Masha!

Now, if "they" would only put out an action figure of Masha. Any doll that represents Masha would have to be one that could travel to Afghanistan and Israel and Russia and Kenya. That means it would have to be much more active than Nancy Pearl's ... and I'm absolutely certain it wouldn't be shushing anyone!

One last note ... the convention handout package included two articles about Masha and The Camel Bookmobile, one from the March 2008 issue of Family Circle (p. 76), and the other from the December 2007 issue of Oprah's O Magazine (p. 274). If you don't have those magazines, maybe your library does.


Chain Reader said...

Wow! You two are like the literary paparazzi! What a great experience. I'm frustrated because I haven't been able to get my hands on the book yet--it's on hold at the library. It sounds like an excellent book, and it's so great to have this contact with the author. Hopefully I'll get the book before the end of the month--I love thinking about the discussion questions!

Neco said...

I knew I'd heard of this book somewhere before ya'll mentioned it here. O magazine, of course. LOL I just couldn't remember.

Glad I check the blog again today. Really enjoyed reading about your adventure to see Marsha Hamilton.

Shirley said...

Now that is my kind of adventure story! Fantastic experience and recounting of it. I'm eager to hear how the online class goes. Maybe we'll soon be selecting one of your books to discuss.