From A World of New Titles: Editor’s Picks | BEA 2013, Barbara Hoffert’s picks from this year’s Book Expo America.
Four hot small-press novels
Past doors glazed with emerald advertisements for Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, under enormous banners proclaiming publication of the latest from million-copy best-selling authors, BookExpo America offered hundreds of smaller titles with big ambitions. Some were standouts, and some nicely capture the literary zeitgeist.
Take Pamela Erens’s The Virgins (Tin House, Aug.). Like two recent titles, Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea and Ron Irwin’s Flat Water Tuesday (and harking back to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and, inevitably, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), Erens’s second novel uses a heightened prep school environment to examine the consequences of our sometimes painful discovery of self and sexuality. Erens’s outsiders among the posh at 1979 Auburn Academy are Jewish American Aviva Rossner and Korean American Seung Jung, and the trajectory of their passionate relationship—reported by classmate Bruce Bennett-Jones, shocked in the end by the shadow-puppet difference between perception and reality—is delivered in especially polished, urgent language.
A close associate of the late, great Chinua Achebe, Okey Ndibe adds his voice to a new generation of writers (think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu, and the recently debuting NoViolet Bulawayo) who portray the African American immigrant experience. Foreign Gods, Inc. (Soho, Jan. 2014; see also Molly McArdle’s picks, p. 23) features New York–based Nigerian Ike, a cab driver despite his American college degree, who hopes to acquire some much-needed cash by stealing the statue of a war deity from his village and selling it to a New York art gallery. His picaresque journey, gently but incisively told, shows us the vagaries of both American and African culture.
Fiction can reimagine flesh-and-blood folks to stunning effect, as evidenced by works like Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Ballantine, Jan. 2014), about Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, and Vivien Shotwell’s Vienna Nocturne (Ballantine, Feb. 2014), about a real-life English soprano’s affair with Mozart. (Both titles were featured at LJ’s Day of Dialog, see p. 24ff.) What a pleasure, then, to discover Melissa Pritchard’s Palmerino (Bellevue Literary Pr., Jan. 2014), which envisions the life of Vernon Lee, the pen name and male persona of Englishwoman Violet Paget. Opening with the contemporary story of Sylvia, who discovers Lee while working at Villa il Palmerino in the Italian countryside and becomes her biographer, this work is related in sun-on-raindrops prose that draws in readers.
Classic tales are often retold, much to the delight of readers who just cannot get enough, but it was still a surprise to see Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel (Other, Nov.), which imaginatively sets Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan. (Interestingly, award-winning Japanese author Mizumura did both undergraduate and graduate work at Yale, studying not English but French literature.) We actually meet Taro Azuma in 1960s New York but are then flashbacked to his upbringing as a poor orphan obsessed with a rich girl at a time when Japan was rapidly westernizing. In translation, the narrative is colloquial, loose-limbed, and finely detailed; it’s anything but a slavish imitation of the original.—Barbara Hoffert