Wednesday, June 12, 2019

All the Buzz at BookExpo

BookExpo has changed a lot in the years I've been going. There's a significantly heavy focus on young adult "literature" now, and this year many publishers were downright stingy with their giveaways. But one thing that hasn't changed is my enjoyment of the Editors' Buzz Panel.

Each year six editors from different publishing houses talk about the books they're most excited about that will hit bookstores in upcoming months. It's still a mystery to me how these books are selected, but I've found some of my favorite reads this way in the past, including "My Absolute Darling" by Gabriel Tallent and "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel.  Here's a run down of this year's buzz.

--"The Warehouse" by Rob Hart (out in August).  A "completely fictional retailer called Cloud" has morphed into a place to both live and work. Jobs are scarce outside of the Mother Cloud facilities -- one in each state -- so competition is fierce to get employment there. It's the ultimate in the company town. But there is a downside. Your employment comes with a significant loss of personal freedom. The book is being characterized as "Big Brother meets Big Business."

This is the one Buzz book I've read so far. It would never be accused of being literary fiction. But it's a quick read that did make me think about the consequences of the convenience of having those boxes arrive so quickly on my doorstep. And here's an interesting tidbit. Ron Howard has already optioned "The Warehouse" to be made into a movie.

--"Uncanny Valley" by Anna Wiener (out in January).  Anna Wiener's memoir/expose about the tech industry also raises issues about the consequences of giving so much power to Silicon Valley and the extent to which we are becoming a surveillance economy. While I don't read a lot of nonfiction, this one sounds interesting. According to her editor (grain of salt required), Wiener is a lively writer who uses humor in her work. For instance, one boss told her she was "too interested in learning instead of doing." I'm not sure if this is funny or just scary. To get a sense of the book, you can read her article in n+1 that gave birth to the work by clicking here.

--"Such a Fun Age" by Kiley Reid (out in January). Reid's debut novel sounded so realistic that I thought it was a memoir when I came out of the session. Imagine a situation in which Emira, an African-American babysitter, is taking care of a white toddler. The parents come home and are fighting. Although it's 2 a.m., the mother asks Emira to take her child out of the house. But once she's out in the world, people become suspicious of the young black woman with a white kid and get out their camera phones to video her actions. When she's questioned, she has no proof that she hasn't kidnapped the child.

With this set-up, it's easy to see why the editor called "Such a Fun Age" one of the most explosive novels she's ever read. But there's more to the book than its exploration of race, class and privilege. There's also the story of a young person learning how to become a grown-up in today's world. This one is definitely in my queue.

--"How We Fight for Our Lives" by Saeed Jones (out in October). Author Saeed Jones is an accomplished poet and essayist. His debut collection of poetry -- "Prelude to Bruise" -- was a 2014 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. In "How We Fight for Our Lives," Jones forays into the world of the memoir. It's not a big leap given his prior work.

In the book, Jones uses poetry and prose to tell the story of a black gay boy growing up in the South with evangelical grandparents and a less than supportive mother. His emerging identity collides with the world in which he lives. This quote from the book will give you a sense of his writing:  "People don't just happen. We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The 'I' doesn't seem to exist until we are able to say, 'I am no longer yours.'"

--"The Secrets We Kept" by Lara Prescott (out in September). Prescott's novel is based on the true story of the CIA smuggling Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" out of Russia so it could be published. The era, of course, was that of the Cold War. And here's the kicker -- the people enlisted in the endeavor weren't raincoat-wearing agents but secretaries from the typing pool. (In case you're wondering how Prescott learned about the CIA's activities, the story broke in 2014 when some CIA documents concerning the Agency's role in publication of the book became public. Click here to read an article from the Washington Post about what happened.)

Prescott is not alone in being captivated by this slice of history. "The Secrets We Kept" has already become a literary sensation. It is in the process of being published in 30 -- yes, 30 -- countries. This might be in part from a clever marketing plan that includes handwritten notes in invisible ink from Prescott with an enclosed pen to use to make the writing visible. The campaign extended to BookExpo as young women dressed as secretaries from the era roamed the floor of the Javits Center to garner attention for the book.

The editor calls this book a cross between "Hidden Figures" and "Madmen." I cannot wait to read this one. How can you resist a true story about a government's belief in the power of a novel to change the course of history by changing people's hearts?

--"My Dark Vanessa" by Kate Elizabeth Russell (out in January). Last but certainly not least is Russell's novel about a woman in her early 30s who finds out her high school teacher has been accused of sexually abusing some of his students. Vanessa is shocked because she had an affair with him when she was 15; she thought they'd been in love.

This might sound like Russell is just jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon. But "My Dark Vanessa" been in the works for nearly two decades. When she was 16, Prescott wrote a short story featuring these characters. She continued to work on the novel while she was in college. (Her professors gave such supportive advice as "this is too tough an issue for readers to handle" and "you should write from the professor's perspective.")

The story alternates between Vanessa's past and present in a way that is said to make the reader feel complicit with what's happening. The editor made reference to books like "The Girls" and "Room" when talking about Russell's work. And Stephen King's blurb about the book calls it "a well-constructed package of dynamite." I'm in.

With that, the 2019 Editor Buzz Panel came to an end, and we all rushed to the tables to collect our copies. You might expect readers to be orderly and polite, but that all goes to hell when you put them in a crush of people eager to get copies of the books that had just been lauded. It's much worse than the subway.

And now I'm off to do some reading.

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