Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Expo 2014 -- Editor Buzz Books

Each year, Wendi and I attend the Editor Book Buzz panel as a way to kick off our Book Expo experience.  This year editors from seven different publishing houses spoke passionately about a book they believe the world should read. This year's assortment was heavily weighted towards fiction, and many sounded like books that would make it to my nightstand.  Here's the line-up (in order of my personal interest).

(Not the final jacket)
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (pub date January 15) -- Like many buzz books, My Sunshine Away is a debut novel.  Editor Amy Einhorn talked a blue streak about this book, which she says is about "family, memory, forgiveness."  She read the first and last lines of the first chapter:  "There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson...I should tell you now that I was one of the suspects.  Hear me out.   Let me explain."  The narrator is a 14-year old boy who is swept up in the events of one summer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  In the words of Kathryn Stockett who wrote The Help (another of Einhorn's books), "My Sunshine Away is the story of how the events of our youth profoundly affect us as adults.  The last page is as satisfying as the first."  This book came home on the plane with me, and I am already halfway through.  Walsh's writing is beautiful, and the actions and emotions of his young narrator ring true.  

Neverhome by Laird Hunt (pub date September 9) -- Neverhome, Hunt's sixth novel, is set during the Civil War.  The opening line:  "I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic."  Yes, it's a story of a woman who goes to fight as a Union soldier, leaving her husband behind to tend the farm.  It's an intriguing idea, and one I'd never considered.  Editor Josh Kendall acknowledged an inevitable reference to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. (I neither read the book nor saw the movie.) Yentl was what came to my mind.  The backstory is interesting as well:  Laird got the idea for the book when he came upon some letters in his family's attic that had been written during the Civil War.   Definitely on my "to read" list despite the fact that historical fiction generally isn't my thing.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (pub date September 2) -- It took Thomas ten years to write this debut novel about three generations of an Irish-American family in search of the American dream.  Matriarch Eileen Leary is "every woman" as she tries to make a better life for her family.  Editor Marysue Rucci says that the "arc of the story makes the book resplendent and wise."  Rucci also made a throwaway comment about a study indicating a link between reading literary fiction and being more empathetic, which I assume was an indication of how much you come to care about these characters.  (Click here for info about the study.)   Could be interesting if I'm in the mood for a saga.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (pub date September 9) -- Editor Jennifer Jackson says that the publishing process was turned on its head when it came to this book.  A small press published three earlier books by St. John Mandel, and her readership created a groundswell of support for this author that led Knopf to take on this book.  In its opening, a famous actor dies during a production of King Lear.  From there the story moves back and forth in time, with the near future being different from today's world in a way that is "plausible and terrifying."  The book links the stories of the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friends, and a young actress with something called the Traveling Symphony.   I am confused already, but might give it a try.

The Miniaturist: A Novel by Jessie Burton (pub date August 26) --When 18 year old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to marry merchant Johannes Brandt, his wedding present to her is an 8 foot tall dollhouse.  (Editor Lee Boudreaux noted that the Rijksmuseum's collection contains a dollhouse that was owned by Petronella Oortman that inspired this aspect of the story.)  Nella soon realizes that she is living in a house full of secrets with a husband who isn't particularly interested in her.  She turns to the dollhouse as a diversion, ordering perfectly made to scale pieces. Once they are delivered, items she didn't order keep coming.  What is their meaning?  Do they presage events to come?  Burton's attention to detail caused Boudreaux to draw a parallel in her writing to that of Elizabeth Gilbert in the botanical story Signature of All Things.  Sounds too fussy for me.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace:  A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League and Did Not Survive by Jeff Hobbs (pub date September 23) -- The title of this book more or less tells the story.  Despite the odds (unwed mother, murderer father, impoverished childhood), Peace left Newark to attend Yale where he studied molecular biophysics and biochemistry.  Upon his return to Newark to teach at the Catholic high school he had attended, Peace ended up supplementing his teacher's salary by dealing marijuana.  (If I understood editor Colin Harrison correctly, Peace used his scientific knowledge to make the marijuana he sold more powerful.  Visions of "Breaking Bad" came to mind.) The book, written by Peace's roommate from Yale, talks about the duality of Peace's life as he tried to balance life in the classroom and life on the street.  Harrison says the book is not a pleasurable read, but that he was "staggered" by the time he got to the last page.  I guess I need to spend more time reading literary fiction, because I don't feel enough empathy for Robert Peace to tackle this book.  

On Immunity:  An Innoculation by Eula Bliss (Graywolf Press) --I don't read much non-fiction, and a book about the history of vaccination and its related current-day social issues does not grab me. If the concept sounds interesting to you, though, check it out.  Editor Jeffrey Shotts (how perfect is that?) compares Bliss to Joan Didion.  Shotts also edited The Empathy Exams, a book that has caught my interest.  On Immunity hands down wins the prize for best cover art of the bunch:  a detail from a Rubens painting showing the mythological figure Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the River Styx.  (Interestingly, the Ringling Museum's collection includes a "modello" of Rubens' "The History of Achilles" which includes this image .  While I might not want to read An Innoculation, I will stop by to admire the painting on my next visit to Sarasota.)

As the final editor wrapped, the crowd pressed forward to get their galleys of the books that had just been spoken about.  It was not pretty, with eagerness winning out over politeness in many instances.  But it was a great warm-up for the main event when the doors opened at 9 a.m. on Thursday.  I was ready.

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