When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, local author Helen Harris was disappointed that the book signing of her novel Visible Means of Support at Books Inc. in Alameda had to be cancelled. At the same time, the Friends of the Alameda Free Library was wrestling with what to do about some of the in-person events they had been sponsoring at the library. The Friends had presented a very popular series of Museum Docent lectures at the library for years, and had recently begun co-sponsoring author talks with the local chapter of AAUW. Through Ms. Harris’ friendship with one of the Friends board members, the idea of conducting an author talk online was hatched. This was soon arranged, and on May 13 the author’s talk was broadcast via Zoom to an audience of 57 people. Concurrently the Friends arranged with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to begin presenting virtual Museum Docent lectures, and the first Zoom docent talk by long-time docent Marsha Holm was broadcast later that month. Both of these programs have been very popular, and a future article will focus on the Museum talks.
The early success of some of the local author talks encouraged the Friends to try to expand the audience. By September the Friends had engaged Carol Wallace, who lives in Connecticut, to discuss her novel, Leaving Van Gogh, set in the French countryside. Over the course of twenty-nine Zoom talks with published authors, topics have ranged from prisons and wildfires to trekking in the Himalayas. Some of the books have been runaway international bestsellers, such as Jung Chang’s Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, and Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones. Some have won national awards, such as Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, winner of the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Novel.
There have been some delightful talks with local authors, such as Robin Sloan, whose quirky books Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough served as jumping off points for his discussion of some oddball history of the Bay Area. Other interesting San Francisco history was covered in Alia Volz’ Home Baked, the story of the author’s mother’s edible cannabis business in the 1970s. Carol Edgarian provided that most important feature of good historical fiction, educating while entertaining, in her excellent novel Vera, about the 1906 earthquake and its aftermath. Joan Ryan’s stories of interacting with local sports heroes such as Tara Vanderveer and Willie Mays were a delight.
But with the signing of Carol Wallace the program managers realized the world could be their stage. Besides the talks with Jung Chang, Georgia Hunter, and Deepa Anappara mentioned above, the series has featured Carolyn Kim’s The Prince of Mournful Thoughts about Korean life, Alan Fleishman’s A Collection of Characters about the Spanish Civil War, Elsa Hart’s award winner The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne set in London, and many others dealing with the wider world.
The next few months will see us continue in our wide focus mode, with Rubén Degollado’s The Family Izquierdo, a story set in South Texas, and Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop, set in 1950s Iran. In November we will be talking with English historian Anthony Sattin about Nomads.
The good news is that all but one of our author talks so far have been recorded, and can be viewed through our website. The recordings have had over five thousand views. Check them out if you missed the live programs.
-David Beall, FAL Board Member