BookExpo in 3-Part Harmony: Day 0.5


mini-riffington.jpgEven though I just got my first car ever, the idea of driving from Boston to New York wasn’t high on my list. It’s hard to consider that option when a day of NYC parking costs more than a week’s supply of sweatshop-produced fake-me-out Prada on Canal St.

It’s harder still to consider in light of the fact that Wednesday night June 1, the night before my departure, I got to bed around 3am. Add to this my 2002 experience of falling asleep behind the wheel on the Massachusetts Turnpike and crashing into the median at 65 mph, and you’ll understand why this year was gonna be my first BookExpo via public transportation.

Usually, I like to get in to town Wednesday night. The exhibit floor doesn’t open until Friday, and official BEA events don’t really get going till Thursday evening, but daytime Thursday is devoted to African American booksellers and publishers. There’s a morning program, keynote, lunch and evening reception. But with my 3am bedtime I just wasn’t down for the super early bus to “The City.”

By the way, the bus I’m referring to is the Chinatown bus operated by FungWah (www.fungwahbus.com). As their hand-drawn Canal Street sign says: “No Washington. No Philadelphia. Only Go Boston.” The joint costs $15 one-way, and is a steal. Many people assume there are chickens or bags of cocaine being smuggled on the buses to explain the low prices. I do not even care. They could have a stash of illegal immigrant terrorists in the cargo area… with SARS. As long as I can get to New York for less than the cost of a cab from Boston to Cambridge, it’s all good people.

Almost as soon as I entered the Javits Center, I ran into the familiar and friendly face of an editor of a highly regarded black magazine. I couldn’t have asked for a better first encounter. We exchanged the pleasantries, and she asked what I was up to – a perfect opening to explain the new book project I’m working on. I’ll share it with you right here. Essentially, it goes like this:
When you get off the plane in Johannesburg, the first billboard you see is for the American TV show, Survivor. The second billboard you see is for The Apprentice.

University educated students in Ghana think that African Americans are all filthy rich because we’re all drug dealers and gang bangers and rappers with Saudi-Royal-family-supporting SUVs and Nigerian regime-backing bling-bling.

A young kid in the Bronx grows up in the shadow of his ghetto superstar father and escapes, not by running away, but by painting pictures on subways – graffiti.

Meanwhile, there’s a new generation of black people comin up – born in Kenya, educated in New York, practicing law in London.

For too long the story of Africa has focused on disease, corruption, war and famine. The related stories of her extended family across the Diaspora have done the same and are almost always written by some professor, by some think tank, by some “expert.” This book tells a new story of Africa by a new generation of Africans across the globe, and hip hop is a central part of the story – sometimes for better, other times for much, much worse. This is the story of music, of youth and of the new Pan-African renaissance.

Just look at you. You are sooo wanting to read this book! I can see it on your face, because I’ve hacked into your computer and installed microscopic camera equipment in it. We’re calling it the Sweet Mother Tour project, and you can find out more over at www.sweetmother.org

After laying down the verbal proposal (and a little four page PowerPoint), she promised to help. It was an auspicious start to the weekend.

One flight of stairs later I met Ron Kavanaugh, publisher of Mosaic Literary Magazine out of the Bronx. I managed to get a cool podcast interview with him discussing the magazine and how the Bronx Museum is using Hip Hop programming to attract younger visitors.

Next stop: buzz.

The editor and publisher buzz forum is the one absolutely essential part of BEA. I would find it ridiculous to go to the tradeshow and skip this session. In it, editors and publishers sit on a panel and get 10 minutes to talk up one or two books they think are absolute winners, with the added context that these books aren’t necessarily first up for major promotion and marketing.

It was on previous buzz panels that I was introduced to such phenomenal books as The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Fortress of Solitude, How to be Lost, and We Are All the Same. It was on this panel last year that I first encountered the amazing young editor, Anika Streifeld, of MacAdam/Cage Publishing (who, BTW, promised me a joint podcast interview with The Jungle Law author Victoria Vinton but managed to escape – we’re apparently going to set up something via phone).

In the pre-panel seat-shuffling, I met and interviewed Jennifer Kitchen. She works at a Borders in Bridgewater, NJ, and this was her first BEA. She wasn’t there representing Borders though. She was just a book fan who’d heard great things about BookExpo and saved up vacation time to see for herself. She was a sort of ambassador for all the Borders employees, who shifted their schedules around so she could make it. In the full podcast interview, you can hear more about Jennifer and the book she’s buzzed about called The Traveler, by John Twelve Hawks.

Jennifer and I wrapped up our interview as the panel got underway. The panelists this year represented such publishers as Harper Collins, Viking, Scribner and Warner Books. Let me just cut right to it. Here are the books that got me excited:

  • HarperCollins will be releasing “F.U.B.A.R” by Air America’s Sam Seder. Editor David Hershey shared some hilarious excerpts about the bestseller list in the year 2020 and had this to say about the book: “I’m sure there are millions of people out there who won't find the jokes in this book funny. They are called Republicans.”

  • Hyperion buzzed The Tender Bar, a memoir by J. R. Moehringer. This is the memoir of a boy whose father abandoned him as an infant, and his mom, fearing that he didn’t have male influences, encouraged him to hang out at the local bar. There the drunks decide to become his collective father, taking him to ball games and the beach, teaching him what it means to be a man. According to VP Will Schwalbe, “I love bars, and this is a love letter to a bar. Plus, it has the single funniest sex scene I've ever read.”

  • Viking repped The Trudeau Vector by Juris Jurjevics, an international epidemic thriller set in the arctic against the backdrop of major geopolitical instability.

  • Random House pushed Maybe a Miracle, a first novel by Brian Strause. This story is told from the perspective of a teenage boy named Monroe Andersen of Columbus, OH, described as “the kind of guy who would total a car in driver’s ed.” Monroe finds his sister face down in a pool and saves her, but she’s stuck in a coma, and this does some interesting things to the family. Mom turns to religion and dad to work and beer. Meanwhile a religious spectacle develops around the comatose sister, with strangers making pilgrimages and the media eating it all up. Random House’s Johnathan Carp promises, “This is the most satisfying book you’ll ever read about a girl in a coma.”


The end of the buzz forum posed a bit of a conflict for me. In one room, there was a reception to close out the day of African American programs. In the main hall, comedian Billy Crystal was giving the keynote to officially open BEA. I had this same conflict last year between the Af-Am reception and Bill Clinton, but that was easier – Clinton, being the closest thing to a black president, was the clear choice. This year, I dissed Billy Crystal and went to the Af-Am reception.

It was a good choice. I got to catch up with BEA-buddy and author Lynette Khalfani, met the owner of a Lithonia, GA bookstore, and basically enjoyed food, folks and fun.

Not bad for the first half day, and I left in time to keep my power yoga regimen going by hitting up Hot Yoga People in Brooklyn.

That’s the end of the first dispatch. Stay tuned for the next edition in the blog series on Day 1 where I’ll tell you about how Orson Scott Card ended up recording a promo for my podcast and what happens when nice people from Ohio give me a pile of free drink tickets at an industry party.

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You are reading BookExpo in 3-Part Harmony, Blog Edition – part of a multimedia one-man coverage of the publishing industry’s’ largest get together during June in New York City. Check out the other parts of the series in The Front Porch Podcast, flickr photo set and complete blog coverage.

Baratunde is a comedian, author and vigilante pundit. His book, Better Than Crying: Poking Fun at Politics, the Press & Pop Culture, has been read by several people outside of his family, and he performs standup comedy regularly in Boston and NYC but will go anywhere people will listen. He currently resides in Somerville, Mass. but keeps a mailbox in Cambridge since that’s the largest real estate he can afford in the hip 02139 zip code.