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Los Angeles Times Festival of Books resembles a big block party

Music, art, celebs and health screenings highlight the 20th annual family-friendly event

What do Billy Idol, Joyce Carol Oates and Malcolm Gladwell have in common?

All three recently wrote a book, and all three were at USC this weekend, together with 150,000 Southlanders gathered for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

“Book festival” doesn’t really do justice to the two-day mega-event. It’s more like a block party thrown by the world’s biggest book club. Where else could you meet — really meet — actress Candice Bergen of Murphy Brown fame, Australian action-thriller novelist Matthew Reilly and maverick chef Roy Choi, godfather of the food-truck movement?

For the fifth year in a row, USC was the backdrop to literally thousands of author conversations, public readings, book signings, live performances, exhibitor booths, interactive art installations and hands-on activities to engage readers of all ages and tastes.

Longtime ties

The USC Trojan Marching Band and Song Girls warmed up the morning crowd on April 18 before President C. L. Max Nikias and Los Angeles Times Publisher Austin Beutner officially kicked off the festival from the USC Stage in Hahn Plaza.

Beutner spoke affectionately of his newspaper’s connections with the university.

“We refer to USC as our big sister,” he said. “We’ve been around 134 years now; USC, 135 years. We are the two oldest enduring secular institutions in this community.”

Nikias congratulated Beutner on the festival’s 20th anniversary, noting that a record-breaking 150,000 people were expected over the weekend — “making this the largest and most prestigious literary festival in the nation.”

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The block-party feeling was palpable across the University Park Campus, which hummed with activity from the cooking stage on Archimedes Plaza to the young adult stage in Argue Plaza.

Waves of avid readers navigated a sea of white-tented booths, flipping through books, chatting with friends and strangers.

Wearing a light-green volunteer’s T-shirt and a big smile, Shannon Kelly-Gluckman of Redondo Beach dispensed maps, totes and directions at one of the festival’s eight information booths.

“I stumbled upon this event after I first moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago, before I knew anyone,” said the native Virginian. “I’ve been coming back as a volunteer ever since.”

Be our guests

This year was Nissa Zasar-Khan’s first time working at the festival. A USC junior majoring in economics, she was one of dozens of students deployed by the Office of Cultural Affairs and University Events to help guests find their way around campus.

“I really like how there are people from all different parts of the city who come together to find the authors they like,” Zasar-Khan said, adding that she would be heading over to the Poetry Stage when her shift ended.

A dark-haired woman painting a plein-air watercolor in McCarthy Quad turned out to be USC Trustee Gayle Roski ’64. Her name graces the university’s art school, but on Saturday, Roski was representing the venerable California Art Club.

In the club’s two festival booths, she and a dozen other members sketched and painted alongside USC Roski School of Art and Design student artists.

We’re having a wonderful time.

Gayle Roski

“We’re having a wonderful time,” said the philanthropist, loading her paintbrush. “It’s been really fun to participate with the students and interact.”

One of the California Art Club booths was conveniently close to the exhibitor tent belonging to Roski’s publisher. She has illustrated several children’s books for East-West Discovery Press, and progress on Saturday’s painting was occasionally interrupted by book-signing requests. 

Her grandson Bryce Roski provided another happy distraction.

The computer science major, who had stopped by the booth to say hello, is one of three Roski triplets in their freshman year at USC.

Burton and Boyle

Two of the festival’s biggest headliners were also members of the Trojan Family. Hundreds of enthusiasts lined up to hear from actor and child reading advocate LaVar Burton, recipient of the 2014 Innovator’s Award, one of the LA Times Book Prizes.

Burton, who studied at USC in the 1970s, talked about the wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to revive his long-running PBS show Reading Rainbow as a digital app and website.

Storytelling, I believe, is the way we solve the educational crisis in America.

LeVar Burton

“Storytelling, I believe, is the way we solve the educational crisis in America,” said Burton, speaking to Times columnist Patt Morrison in the packed ballroom of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. “If we put it in the form of storytelling and add some gaming mechanics, we can teach our children anything we want.”

Earlier in the same venue, novelist and longtime USC professor T.C. Boyle delighted hundreds of his admirers with a wickedly funny reading from his latest book, The Harder They Come — a family story with a homicidal maniac at its center.

“You know how parents are,” Boyle said, exchanging playful repartee with Times literary critic David Ulin. “They like bragging about their kids’ achievements … what colleges they get into. Well, what if you’re Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents? Do you brag about how many people he ate?”

Boyle was the recipient of the 2014 Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, another of the LA Times Book Prizes.

Leading thinkers

A standing-room-only panel discussion in Town & Gown brought together three leading thinkers on income inequality, all with newly released books tackling the problem.

Harvard University political scientist and Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam appeared alongside Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone and USC Gould School of Law tax and business expert Edward Kleinbard, whose new book, We Are Better Than This, offers a roadmap for principled government spending.

Other conversations highlighting USC faculty authors filled Wallis Annenberg Hall. Topics ran the gamut from mental health services for veterans to expressing the “ineffable” in science.

From the new building’s tech-enhanced atrium, festival-goers could thumb through the very books being discussed downstairs in the auditorium as the panel was live-streamed to the giant screen above their heads.

Something for everyone

For Spanish speakers, the festival’s Hoy Stage in McCarthy Quad furnished non-stop entertainment while young children tumbled in the grass at the Hoy Deportes area.

Nearby, booksellers specializing in Spanish publications displayed beautifully illustrated children’s books.

A few feet away, people gathered around one of the festival’s three erasable crossword puzzles.

“Speakers of Tolkien’s Noldorin language,” read the clue for 46 down. A young Middle Earth expert marked the answer — “gnomes” — without using his smartphone.

In the USC Civic Engagement booth, Angel Castaneda proudly displayed two boxy contraptions capable of throwing a Frisbee through a 10-foot goal and shooting hoops with nerf basketballs.

A senior at the Foshay Learning Center and captain of his high school robotics team, Castaneda said its 2015 creation, a tote-stacker, is already en route to the FIRST Championship in St. Louis, where the USC neighborhood school will compete against 600 schools from around the world.

At the USC Health Pavilion, Sandy Zhang-Nunes, director of oculofacial plastic surgery at the USC Eye Institute, was overseeing glaucoma screenings. Her team expected to conduct 1,000 eye exams during the festival, providing prescriptions and referrals as needed.

“Sometimes we diagnose diabetes by looking in somebody’s eye,” she said. “You might not even know you have it.”

Pretty Little book-lovers

On the LA Times Stage in Alumni Park, teenage girls flocked to see actor, musician and amateur photographer Keegan Allen. The star of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars spoke about his passion for looking behind the lens. Fans made a beeline to the cashier where their heartthrob signed copies of his new photo book,

Later in the day, an older set of groupies gathered to hear Billy Idol, whose bestselling memoir Dancing With Myself gives a first-person account of the punk rock movement.

His gravelly voice heavy with a British accent, the multiplatinum recording artist and two-time Grammy Award nominee explained how punk rock “changed the playing field, brought music down to our level.”

At the end of his interview with Lorraine Ali of the Times Calendar section, Idol thrilled the crowd by whipping out his guitar and performing an unplugged version of his iconic hit, “Rebel Yell.”

“He’s still got it!” cooed a gray-haired fan, her iPhone trained on the stage.

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