From A World of New Titles: Editor’s Picks | BEA 2013, my picks from this year’s Book Expo America.
This year was my second ever BEA, and I already felt like a veteran. (I’d show you my war wounds, but they are all paper cuts.) Firmly declining the galleys that could otherwise be mailed to me, storing my day’s haul underneath a certain snack table at LJ’s Librarians’ Lounge, bringing my lunch with me, and, of course (most important), wearing comfortable shoes: I felt far less frazzled than last year. Unfortunately, I have not figured out anything to make the walk from the 34th Street C train to the Javits Center any more pleasant, but there’s always next year.
I found a lot to get excited about on the show floor. Two of my favorite writers, Jesmyn Ward (whose Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award in 2011) and Hilton Als (theater critic, The New Yorker) have books coming out this fall, respectively, Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury, Sept.) and White Girls (McSweeney’s, Nov.). In the former, Ward examines the visceral costs of institutional racism and remembers five men she lost in four years. In the latter, Als collects 13 essays (12 previously published) that touch on Flannery O’Conner, André Leon Talley, Richard Pryor, and Malcolm X with a signature lyricism and personal bent that I’ve come to love.
Another book of essays I found, by O. Henry Award winner Thomas Glave, is Among the Bloodpeople (Akashic, Jul.). This collection is wide-ranging, moving from the Caribbean (Jamaica in particular) to Cambridge, England, and from poetry to sex to discrimination. I love this passage from “The Bloodpeople in the Language”:
Once upon a realm, in a far-off kingdom by the sea, there lived a small boy who believed that his elder sister knew everything. He believed that she knew the names and historical categories of snails (which she did), and the infinite personalities of trees (patient, impatient, skulking, among them), and how mustard leaves crept and crawled—crawled, and even walked—until taller plants could no longer ignore them, had to engage with them; and exactly what the ancient order of rainbows—rainbows well-known and those more elusive, that sometimes nourished secretive, determined sea creatures—have to do with words like homunculus, with words like crepuscular and even adamantine; with notions like space,consume, and unrendered.
The rest of the books that grabbed my attention are all fiction, a category I don’t often deal with at LJ (where I assign only nonfiction) but devour in my personal time. I found five novels and one short story collection to add to my pile, three of which seem to have an ocean theme. The lovely watercolor cover of Abby Geni’s The Last Animal (Counterpoint, Oct.)—part octopus, part jellyfish, part fish fin—immediately drew me in, and I’m staying to read “Captivity,” a story about an aquarium worker haunted by her brother’s disappearance.
Kathryn Davis’s Duplex, a surreal novel of 1950s suburbia, has another great sea passage about a group of girls—who call themselves the Aquanauts—who decide to live undersea, to “explore the parts of the ocean where human beings had never been before.” They imagined the whole world submerged, so “they could swim through the top floors of skyscrapers and into places like maximum security prisons and movie stars’ mansions and the lion cage at the zoo, places that had always been off-limits to ordinary people.”
My third ocean book is Janice Clark’s The Rathbones (Random, Aug.; see review p. 70), which was described to me as The Odyssey meets Moby-Dick meets The Addams Family, to which I say: give me that book. It also features a lovely family tree, illustrated by Clark herself. (I am a sucker for family trees.) I have a feeling that this one is going to be a lot of fun.
My last three novels fall into the nonoceanic category, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy. Karen Shepard’s The Celestials (Tin House, Jun.), about a group of Chinese workers in 1870s North Adams, MA, piqued my interest owing to a recent visit to MASS MoCA, a mill–turned–contemporary art museum, located there. Shepard, who lives in nearby Williamstown, drew from real historical events. After a strike by white workers, a North Adams factory owner invited Chinese workers to replace them, spurring nationwide protest and eventually the United States’ first major anti-immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. (Soho, Jan. 2014; see also Barbara Hoffert’s picks, p. 20), follows Nigerian-born, Amherst-educated, and money-pressed Ike as he plots the theft of a religious statue from his home village so he can sell it to a high-end art gallery in New York City. Ndibe’s portrait of the art world, and indeed of Western fascination with “exotic” objects, sears: “African gods are no longer in vogue,” one collector says blithely. “Three, four years ago, they were all the rage.… Then things—tastes—changed.… It just happens that African gods don’t excite collectors as they once did.”
Haunted by the conflict of the 1990s, Gost, a tiny mountain village in Croatia, has a terrible, and unspoken, history. When a middle-class British family (a mother and her two children) move into a long-empty house, the community rankles at their naiveté and unthinking efforts at reconstruction and restoration. British novelist Aminatta Forna tells the story of the stoic local handyman who helps them with their repairs and struggles with his own memories in The Hired Man (Grove/Atlantic, Oct.), a book that looks (in the best ways) spooky, menacing, and deceptive.—Molly McArdle