So I spent Thursday, May 30 through Sunday, June 1, 2008 at a big ol' crazy trade show called the Book Expo America. This year, the BEA was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and in the very scant little bits of media attention the show received this year, the running theme has been: "Yawn." The show, which is the largest annual gathering of people who publish and sell books, alternates between cities on the east and west coasts. But the truth is, if it's not held in New York, nobody shows up, and attendance was about the lowest it has ever been. This year, that gang of "nobody" included Slash, Ernest Borgnine, the women who write the Skinny Bitch diet books, Jackie Collins, and a Scientology swing band dressed in pirate costumes. And me.
But if you knew where to look, there were plenty of books to get excited about for the upcoming year, especially if you are someone like me, who has absolutely zero interest in the Next Big Hit. I just want to read something good. I came home with a suitcase that was twice as heavy as when I left home, full of free books. The BEA is to the book-obsessed what an open bar is to the alcoholic. That is: totally awesome until you wake up in a motel the next morning, not remembering where you are, or why waves of pain are radiating from your back, feet, and head. (The fact that the show was followed each night by an assortment of open-bar schmoozefests didn't help either.)
Here's some of what I got. And yes, I've finished all of these books already:
Master Of Reality by John Darnielle, Continuum's 33 1/3 series
You may already know about, and perhaps own, some of the little matching volumes from Continuum Publishing's 33 1/3 series of music books. The premise is simple: in each book, a different writer dissects a seminal rock and roll album. As the years go on, the threshold for what's considered a classic have widened considerably (Celine Dion?!) but I admire their creativity. For example, not every book is a VH1-style frothing fanboy essay on why an album Changed Music Forever. Several of them are actually novels! John Darnielle, best known as the singer-songwriter behind emotive neo-folk act The Mountain Goats, wrote this very short and affecting little novella based on Black Sabbath's "Master Of Reality" album. The story is written as a journal kept by a teenage psychiatric hospital inmate in 1985, trying desperately to get his walkman and Sabbath tapes back from nurses who see them as signs of mental illness. I finished it in two hours, but it has stuck with me.
All About Lulu by Jonathan Evison, Soft Skull Press
A crazy, shaggy beast of a book by debut novelist Jonathan Evison, who was making a personal appearance in the Soft Skull Press booth and signed it for me. ("Dear Suzzane, sorry about the extra z!") Evison is a master of mySpace marketing, so I've been hearing about this book for a while. It's the story of young William Miller Jr., scrawny vegetarian son of a pro bodybuilder named Big Bill Miller. When Big Bill remarries, Will becomes completely, rapturously, romantically and sexually obsessed with his stepsister Lulu. There's also Fatburger, a hot dog stand, lat spreads, a ghost cat, and a guest appearance by future governor Arnold Schwartzenegger as an unbearably cocky Mr. Olympia 1980. Entertaining, digressive, totally nuts.
Nov 22, 1963 by Adam Braver, Tin House Books
Another brief little jewel, this novel follows the events of the Kennedy assassination from a perspective I have never seen before. The butlers and nannies on the white house staff, the funeral home owner in Dallas, the forensic pathologists at Bethesda Naval Hospital, all of them bumble accidentally into a front row center view of history. In the center is Jackie Kennedy, using protocol and etiquette to keep herself from falling to pieces, while wearing a pink suit stained with her husband's blood. Most of the dialogue is taken from testimony, interviews, White House records, and some particularly smarmy recorded phone calls with Lyndon Johnson. No mention is ever made of who the shooter might have been, or why the assassination happened. Since all the action takes place on the day of the killing itself, no one has had time to reflect. I would never have thought there was a new way to view a moment so thoroughly dissected. Turns out there is. Quite an achievement.
Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun, Riverhead books
A debut novel, Nami Mun's take on aimless New York teenagers of the 1980s was featured at both the "Editor's Buzz" panel, and at the "Emerging Voices" reading the following day. The main character is Joon, a Korean-American girl from the Bronx who runs away from home after her father leaves and her mother goes crazy. Joon and a supporting cast of runaways, dealers, and underage prostitutes try to make their way in a cold world as best they can. Fans of Stephen Elliott and JT LeRoy will probably love this. The quiet voice is quite lovely, and I don't think I've ever seen a character in fiction quite like Joon. I couldn't help but think, though: New York, the early 1980s, all that shooting up, all those boys turning tricks, and no mention of AIDS? Not even as a nagging, far-off fear?
That's just a small taste of what will be appearing on bookstore shelves near you between now and the holidays. There's also a hotly-anticipated new novel from Paul Auster, and no less than THREE books about witches. John Updike has written a followup to The Witches of Eastwick called The Widows Of Eastwick. A supernatural witch-related thriller called The Lace Reader by Salem resident Brunonia Barry was a local hit in self-published form, and has been picked up for a major release. There's also The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent, more of a straight-ahead historical fiction take on the life of Martha Carrier, one of the first accused witches hanged in Salem. Kent is Martha Carrier's tenth-generation direct descendant. (How do these fads get started? I will never understand.)
Another common thread is the 1980s. Notice in my capsule reviews above, every single book is set in the eighties except for Adam Braver's. Maybe this is because today's hot debut novelists are at a young enough age that they are mythologizing their own acid-washed, poofy-haired, Reagan administration youth. A prediction for Book Expo 2018: seven debut novels about aimless teenagers of the dot-com boom Clinton years. You heard it here first.
I would love to tell you more, about the extended hand-wringing that followed the panel on the Amazon Kindle, or about the "Charles Bukowski's Los Angeles" Bus Tour, which was one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life, probably. Or that I went to a star studded poolside party at the Hotel Figueroa, where there was an open bar and the bartender was wearing an authentic Shriner's fez. But I can't talk now -- I'm too busy reading.