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Tucson Festival of Books wows readers for 7th year

Eugene Yelchin
Eugene Yelchin

Who knew seven years ago that the Tucson Festival of Books would rank as one of the top celebrations of authors and reading in the United States? Kudos to its founders, Bill and Brenda Viner, members of the Tucson Jewish community, and Bruce Beach, Frank Farias and John Humenik. The 2015 TFOB took place on the University of Arizona campus March 14 and 15.

Around 130,000 people attended this year’s festival, similar to last year, estimates Bill Viner, who adds that $1,050,000 has been donated to local literacy projects in the festival’s first six years. “We hope our annual contribution to literacy will be $150,000 to $200,000 for the 2015 book festival, but we won’t know till the end of our fiscal year on June 30,” notes Brenda Viner.

The festival, as always, featured numerous Jewish authors, including two sessions that I attended. This year’s TFOB children’s programs included Russian-American author Eugene Yelchin, one of four panelists speaking about “The Decision to Resist: Enough is Enough” on March 14. Yelchin discussed his childhood in the former Soviet Union during the 1960s, which led him to write and illustrate the fictional “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.” The book was a prestigious John Newbery Honor winner for middle-grade/teen readers in 2012.

“Breaking Stalin’s Nose” depicts the false hope of being a good communist in the former Soviet Union, when anti-Semitism and turning on one’s neighbors were the accepted policies. Finkelstein, a Jewish character in the book, is the object of anti-Semitism, which, Yelchin said, in reality was treated as casually “as turning on a light.”

The main character in “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” is a non-Jewish boy whose dream is to belong to the Young Pioneers, until his father is arrested and his dream turns sour. “Putting this character in a dynamic structure where there is no answer requires [that he has] courage,” Yelchin, 58, who immigrated to the United States in 1983, told the audience.

His work reflects the aftermath of Russian Premier Joseph Stalin’s regime of terror from 1928 to 1953, when more than 10 million Russians were executed or imprisoned as enemies of the state in labor camps.

In 2010, Yelchin’s picture book “Rooster Prince of Breslov” received the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book, “Arcady’s Goal,” was published in 2014 and also delves into the author/illustrator’s Russian past. Twelve-year-old Arcady has been sent to live in a children’s home after his parents have been declared enemies of the state, and playing soccer may be the only way of bettering his life.

At a March 15 workshop on political journalism, Rick Perlstein, author of “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” (2014) and “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” (2008), talked about writing history for adults.

“Truth is never done. Get your information from multiple sources,” advised Perlstein, a contributing writer at The Nation whose articles and essays have appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, New Republic, Newsweek and other publications. Politico called Perlstein the “chronicler extraordinaire of American conservatism.”

Perlstein cited “the 1970s trend toward ethnic nostalgia, represented by books like ‘The World of Our Fathers,’” Irving Howe’s 1976 tome, subtitled “The Journey of the European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made,” explaining “that was one way my own upbringing connected with the story I tell” in “The Invisible Bridge.”

As a former history teacher and children’s bookstore owner, I’m always intrigued by how our own stories seep into our work. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And sure, objectivity is a goal in the study of history but who’s ever met a totally objective human being? In my view — encouraged by these two TFOB history writers — awareness is more important than objectivity. Discuss.