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Given its focus on all things verbal, it's appropriate that the second annual Burlington Book Festival opened with a politician confused by a pun. Last Friday evening, in the newly opened Presentation Hall in the Lake & College building, Mayor Bob Kiss welcomed about 30 attendees to the weekend of author readings and other literary events. "'Three days of authorized activity,'" Kiss said, quoting the festival's promotional tagline. He proceeded to speculate about what the event's "unauthorized" activities might be.

The mayor should be forgiven for not realizing that "author-ized activity" was mere wordplay, courtesy of festival director Rick Kisonak. After all, so much of what authors do is, in a sense, "unauthorized" - unscheduled, unsalaried and unrewarded. Rare is the non-best-selling scribbler who can call writing a day job. Traditionally, writers have escaped to various "underground" environments - the 19th-century garret, the locked study, the smoky club that hosts poetry slams - in order to "author-ize" in peace.

That's the sort of unauthorized activity without which books and book festivals wouldn't exist. Still, it's good to see writers resting on their laurels and meeting their public, and that's what the festival offered last weekend.

While the preceding weekend's South End Art Hop had crowds and a carnival atmosphere, the Book Festival was more staid. Gray heads outnumbered younger ones in the audience, and the events were often reminiscent of sitting in a college classroom. Burlington novelist Chris Bohjalian summed up the festival when he welcomed the audience to his reading by saying, "You are the medieval monks of the digital age." To appreciate the weekend's events, you needed an old-fashioned attention span - but that doesn't mean they were boring. Here's a diary of highlights from Friday and Saturday.

Friday, 7 p.m.

The festival's opening and in-absentia dedication to Senator Jim Jeffords are long-winded, but one speaker bears happy news. Williston's Stern Center for Language and Learning, one of the festival partners, has just received a grant from the Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust that will bring thousands of dollars to Burlington literacy efforts.

Designed as a cinema, Lake & College's Presentation Hall features a massive fan-window that frames the last glow of sunset over Lake Champlain. By 7:30, the light has faded, and equally massive black shades slide soundlessly into place as Ellen Bryant Voigt takes the podium.

Much-published Voigt was the fourth to hold the title of Vermont state poet. Compact and matronly, with round glasses and a no-nonsense aura, she looks like a well-respected high school principal. Then she opens her mouth and reads a brutally unsentimental poem about rounding up cows for slaughter, featuring lines that evoke streams of bovine piss and a farmer falling on the shit-slick ground.

Originally from North Carolina, Voigt has an accent that rounds her words and chops their final consonants. Together with her strong sense of rhythm, this gives her lines a tangible quality, a bite, whether she's describing a ray swimming in the Baltimore Aquarium or a childhood memory of her dad disemboweling a turtle and attempting to serve it for dinner. Voigt's approach to her subjects is sometimes abstract, sometimes mercilessly concrete, and always compelling. At one point, she stops to give the audience a quick lecture on rhythm in free verse, without appearing to lose its attention. Poetry slams are great, but it's nice to be reminded that an old-fashioned reading can - and should - kick ass.

Saturday, 1 p.m.

In the Fletcher Room at the Fletcher Free Library, South Burlington cartoonist Harry Bliss is reading his hate mail aloud. Clearly not everybody cottons to the low-key black humor of Bliss's single-panel cartoons, which have appeared in The New Yorker, Playboy, Seven Days and many other publications.

Next up is a slide show. Bliss shows works by other members of his artistic Rochester, New York, family to an audience of about two dozen. There's also a photo of himself as a very young artist, looking like Harry Potter in a long-haired phase. ("The '70s were good to me," he says.) Next come examples of Bliss's cartoons and New Yorker covers. They range from the macabre-funny - the lion statue outside the New York Public Library licks pigeon blood from its lips - to the macabre-serious: a take-off on Picasso's "Guernica" to mark the start of the Iraq War. Most of the images provoke giggles from the audience, but Bliss doesn't seem perturbed when jokes fall flat. "You don't think that's funny? I thought that was funny," he says.

Meanwhile, over at Borders Books & Music, Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis is chatting about his new collection of interviews with celebrity creators, In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work. The reading is over, and DeCurtis is taking questions about how he "seduced" people like Eminem, Trey Anastasio and novelist Don DeLillo into baring their souls. One man asks how it's possible to get people to open up when you carry a tape recorder. "I don't hide anything," DeCurtis says. "The goal is to get them 'in the zone.' They're not thinking about me, they're speaking from their passion."

2:30 p.m.

Speaking from passion is something Marc Estrin knows about. The acclaimed Burlington novelist, bearish with a full beard, is giving an "interactive presentation" on his upcoming third novel, Golem Song. "Does anyone know what a golem is?" he asks the audience, which is packed into two long tables in the incongruous setting of Lake & College's Board Room. "It's not Gollum from Lord of the Rings."

Two well-read attendees immediately come up with the answer. According to legend, a 16th-century rabbi in Prague created a monstrous "golem" of clay to defend the Jewish ghetto from pogroms. The golem went rogue and committed random acts of violence, and the rabbi was forced to destroy it.

Estrin's novel is about a modern-day New Yorker who comes up with a violent plan for delivering Jews from the threat of anti-Semitism. Estrin says he wrote without the golem in mind, but the novel ended up being about "golemism." And what is golemism? "It's the myth of our time," says Estrin. "We've turned stuff on that we can't turn off."

Created out of fear, golems are monsters that threaten their creators along with everyone else. Estrin's topical examples of golems range from the atomic bomb to the Neoconservative agenda to the overuse of antibiotics to Israel's bombing of Lebanon.

The last example touches off debate in the audience. At 3:45, a small knot of participants are still arguing over whether Hezbollah and Hamas have created their own golems, demonizing the West. "It cuts both ways," a woman says passionately.

4:30 p.m.

If Estrin resembles a leftist college prof with a Joycean gift of gab, Chris Bohjalian is the consummate showman. Dressed in black and oozing bonhomie, he greets his audience in Lake & College's Black Box Theater by saying that he prefers readings like this to plugging his novels on tour, or, as he puts it, "being a slimedog of literary capitalism."

A series of well-told anecdotes follows. We learn that being an Oprah's Book Club pick isn't just about soaring sales: Bohjalian recalls being approached by a self-published author who wondered where he could get a batch of those handy Oprah stickers. Then there was the time he appeared on a talk show and got upstaged by a raptor.

Banter over, Bohjalian reads from his new work, The Double Bind, to appear in five months. His first novel set in Burlington, it's partially based on the true story of a worker from the Committee on Temporary Shelter who discovered a celebrated photographer living homeless. You can see the work of late photographer Bob Campbell on the author's website, Chrisbohjalian.com.

When Bohjalian takes questions, many of them involve his earlier novels. One woman asks for an explanation of a crucial event at the end of Midwives. Another wants to know whether a chapter in Before You Know Kindness was meant to be funny. "I thought it was, but my family says I'm sick!" she says, sounding worried.

Unlike some authors, Bohjalian doesn't pretend to be above explaining his own work. He confirms that the chapter was supposed to be dark humor and thanks his reader for getting the joke.

At this point, the festival is far from over. More author appearances and a whole day of events for kids are still to come, not to mention the closing reading by poet Robert Bly. But the exchange between Bohjalian and his fan encapsulates what's refreshing about the Book Fest. In roomy venues, with none of the pressures of a signing-and-selling session, readers can talk back to authors and get answers - "authorized" or not.

If you missed the Burlington Book Festival, trek south for the Brattleboro Literary Festival, running October 6-8. Check out http://www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org. Among the guests are Madison Smartt Bell and a trio of acclaimed female novelists: Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill and Jamaica Kincaid.

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Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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