It’s the start of June in an odd-numbered year, which, for the last few years, has meant only one thing: BookExpo is in New York. For book addicts like myself, it’s like drinking straight from the crack hose. Thousands of publishers descend on the Javits Center and set up booths where they do deals and spin the hype machines to full buzz. For a surprisingly low admission fee, you can wander around the exhibition halls, going from booth to booth and trying to score free books.
The tactics and ethics on display would fill a book. There’s a talent to book-sniffing: knowing when the publishers are keeping the good stuff (like pre-signed copies from Famous Authors) hidden in the back. There’s also a talent to book-cadging: some publishers just leave out huge stacks of advance copies, while others try to to suss out which of the attendees are most likely to help build good of mouth. (Name Withheld University Press, I’m thinking of you. It’s not like Famous Name Withheld really needs a mention here to sell his book, but still. Do you want buzz or not?) Distributing the weight of the accumulated books among your bags (convention rules forbid the use of any carrying tools with wheels) is an art in itself. And, of course, timing is a subtle affair: some big-name titles disappear immediately, while others only come out when the author shows up in person for a signing.
This year’s haul of promotional and advance copies, in no particular order:
Alan Lightman, Ghost: His more recent books haven’t lived up to Einstein’s Dreams or to Good Benito, but perhaps this one will be better. “A provocative exploration of the delicate divide between the physical world and the spiritual world” could be great, or it could be dreadful pap. Like all his books, it’s a little wisp of a thing: about 250 pages, but they’re smallish and the print is big.
Freeman J. Dyson, A Many-Colored Glass: More on the line or link between the scientific and the spiritual. Also a slender little volume, it’s based on the 2004 Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia.
Ian Ayres, Super Crunchers. Lawprof Ayres is absurdly prolific; this will be his fourth book in three years. He’s a real inspiration for those of us who value scientific and mathematical rigor as useful inputs to many fields of human endeavor. This ode to heavy-duty data analysis should be fun.
Alafair Burke, Dead Connection (not to be confused with the other Dead Connection or the other other Dead Connection or the other other other Dead Connection): This Hofstra lawprof is also a police thriller novelist. She was signing copies; I’m not quite sure what the other people in line made of it when we dropped into shop talk. I wonder how many of them even know that the daughter of James Lee Burke writes for the academy as well as for the airport.
John R. Stilgoe, Train Time (not to be confused with Time Train): His books, particularly the elegant Outside Lies Magic are imaginative and observant studies of the environment we inhabit and recreate. He argues that “the train is returning,” and I’d like to believe. One of my friends talked her way past three prerequisites and a crowd of other students to take a course with him whose description promises:
Visual constituents of high adventure since the late Victorian era, emphasizing wandering woods, rogues, tomboys, women adventurers, faerie antecedents, halflings, crypto-cartography, Third-Path turning, martial arts, and post-1937 fantasy writing as integrated into contemporary advertising, video, computer-generated simulation, and designed life forms.”
E.L. Konigsberg, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World:
B——: Do you think this would be appropriate for D——? Me: D—— is what, four?
B——: Well, in a few years, maybe?
Me: I thought I read that it was about the Nazi attack on ‘degenerate art.’
Chris Elliott, Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest: Chris Elliott is the son of Bob Elliott from the great radio comedy duo Bob and Ray. I still think the best thing he’s ever done was drinking a bottle of cooking oil on the Letterman show. Still, The Shroud of the Thwacker generated some fun IP news when Elliott accidentally spoofed a spoof by including as a character in his historical travesty the robot Boilerplate. Boilerplate was himself a fictional historical travesty, and hilarity ensued, stopping just short of a lawsuit.
Marie Phillips, Gods Behaving Badly: This story of the twelve Gods of Olympus living together in a London town house and bickering about it could be formulaic patter about the incongruity of actual gods and modern-day city life. But from the first few pages, she has down the droll British narrative voice that Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Tom Holt have all mined to great effect in their own studies of that style of incongruity. (Side note: I’m not sure how much longer you’re allowed to call your blog Struggling Author when you have a book coming out from Little Brown with print advertising in the Times and in the New Yorker.)
Clare Clark, The Nature of Monsters. Another Brit. Her previous book, The Great Stink, was a historical novel about a sewer system in which the dirty deeds and psychological darkness rivaled anything to be found in the physical sludge. She was at the show, autographing with a fountain pen, and was sweetness itself. (What is it with these disarmingly peppy authoresses? Sheri Holman is the same way: a well-adjusted-seeming person who writes novels with wonderfully twisted cores.) The Nature of Monsters looks to be just as entertainingly morbid.
Paula Kamen, Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind: I’m not quite sure about the title here. Iris Chang, the author of The Rape of Nanking, killed herself in 2004. Paula Kamen wrote this book to eulogize her friend and to ask why.
Scott Adams, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: The secret to Dilbert is that the punch line usually comes in the penultimate panel. Like Tom Toles and The Onion’s editorial cartoonist, he knows that good jokes can always be topped. There’s a bump-set-spike rhythm to the typical three-panel Dilbert. Adams is also a funny writer (if sometimes strange); this book is basically a collection of short, non-Dilbertian essays from his blog. Could be amusing.
Andrea Barrett, The Air We Breathe: Barrett writes luminous novels and stories that combine warm and sympathetic characterizations with the old-fashioned pleasures of science. This novel about tubercular patients during World War I is unexpectedly timely, thanks to this week’s drug-resistant tuberculosis quarantine excitement. She was at BookExpo signing copies, looking glamorous, and said several exceedingly understanding things when I asked her to inscribe a copy of The Air We Breathe for my wife, at home studying for her first round of medical board exams.
Alice Sebold, The Almost Moon: Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was a remarkable debut, so expectations are high. This one took some clever book-sniffing skills; the first time we asked, they claimed to have run out. But by circling back later, and asking a different staffer, we got our hands on a copy from the back room.
Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (not, I think, to be confused with The Conscience of a Liberal): Krugman was there, and so was his conscience, but his book wasn’t. The galleys weren’t ready in time. Oops. I was afraid that the line to meet him was hundreds of people long, but that turned out to be the line for James Patterson. (The longest line I saw was for Styx drummer Chuck Panozzo. That one was absurd.) I now have Krugman’s signature on a promotional cardstock flyer with the odd (and hard to transport without bending) dimensions of roughly 7.5” by 15.5”.
Amy Silverstein, The Sick Girl: This memoir by a heart transplant recipient is ideal for a doctor-lawyer couple like my wife and myself. Silverstein was in law school when her symptoms began to appear (me); she underwent major major medical procedures (my wife); and the other centerpiece of the book is the “deliriously romantic bedside courtship with her husband” (us together).
America’s Best Lost Recipes: The folks at America’s Test Kitchen have a new book of heirloom recipes gathered from their readers. Apparently, most family recipe collections focus on cakes and cookies; the ratio of sweets to savories in here is 2:1. They were signing books; Christopher Kimball signed with a bow-tie stamp! They also brought cookies (I suppose that setting up an actual kitchen in the middle of the Javits Center exhibition space would have been a little risky).
Miyuki Miyabe, The Devil’s Whisper and Crossfire. I read Miyabe’s All She Was Worth some years back, I think perhaps for no better reason than that it had been translated by Alfred Birnbaum, whose work on Haruki Murakami’s novels is some of the best translation I’ve ever seen. Like Murakami, Miyabe casts a skeptical eye on Japanese society, asking unsettling questions about what lies beneath and behind its superficial order. She uses the mystery genre to great effect; its trope of the relentless pursuit of unpleasant truths is a natural fit. All She Was Worth is the best novel about credit card debt I have come across; I hope these two rise to that standard. The poor folks at the Kodansha booth were nonplussed when I showed up and started waving my hands about how great Miyabe is; I think I scared them with my reaction of joy when they pointed out that they had not just one but two of her novels to give out.
Saira Rao, Chambermaid: This novel clearly wants to be the Devil Wears Prada or the Nanny Diaries of judicial clerkships: a juicy tell-all that offers the thrill of not knowing which half is made up. (Unlike her predecessors, however, Rao has cast her lot with television instead of the movies.) My own link to this one is that both Rao and I clerked on the Third Circuit, so I’m hoping to pick up on in-jokes and sly references that might be lost even on the average legal reader. In good news for Rao, the folks from her publisher at BookExpo had run out of copies. I’ve already emailed the associate editor I talked to to try and cadge one. (Look! See! I’m already talking it up! How much more buzz do you think I could build with an actual copy in my hands?)
Alex von Tunzelmann (not to be confused with Alexander von Tunzelmann) (and bad Alex, for having an author web site that has “related links” for debt consolidation, skin care, gold vacations, and the like!), Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire: I’ve wanted to know more about Indian history for a while. Independence seems as good a place as any to start. Sure. (I did also feel a bit of a twinge to realize that not just wunderkind novelists but actual serious historians are getting to be younger than I am.)
David Leavitt, The Indian Clerk: Dude, a novel about Ramanujan. And from David Leavitt, no less. I am so there. The coincidence of two books with Indian subjects and titles is just that: a coincidence.
Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts: This one’s been out for a while. I don’t know why they were pushing copies. It’s a bit experimental: strange typography, a narrator with memory problems, you know, that sort of thing. Why not? That sort of thing, I like.
Pseudonymous Bosch, The Name of This Book is Secret: Everything about this book, but especially the archly dire narration, screams “Lemony Snicket rip-off.” Perhaps, but it might be a good rip-off.
Brock Clarke, The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers Homes in New England: Thanks to the great title, this one was gone before I got to the booth. I’m on the list for them to send me a copy by mail.
Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice: “How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?” Good question, but in classic Malcolm style, the answer expands to encompass also the complex relationship between Stein and Toklas and the nature of biographical truth itself. I got this one from the Yale University Press booth, which I was happy to note also featured a large poster for The Wealth of Networks.
Danielle Wood, Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls: Remarkably enough, I think this one is at least in part meant sincerely. Yes, it’s a fairy-tale-ish collection about “thoroughly modern” girls and their travails (sexual travails included), but this is not an ironic take on the fairy tale genre. It may even be a collection of inspiring you-go-girl stories that take real-world worries seriously. Or maybe not. I’ll have to read it to find out.
Lorenz Schröter, The Little Book of the Sea: Thanks to Schott’s Miscellany and Hodgman’s Areas of My Expertise and so forth, small books of random facts are in in in. This one is blue, and it concerns the ocean and all upon and within it.
I’m going to be busy for a while.