Making Book on LA

BookExpo, the annual convention of booksellers and book publishers that
took place in Los Angeles one recent weekend, is the book industry’s
annual get-together, alternating among the publishing hub of New York
and various other cities, such as Miami, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and
Los Angeles.

Perhaps it’s the state of the book industry, the economy or just the
cost of gas, but this year’s convention was not as well attended as in
past years. The last time BookExpo was in Los Angeles, the convention
floor was constantly, overwhelmingly crowded, with so many booths that
the author autographing section had to be relegated to a basement hall.

This time, many editors did not even make the trip, and some publishers
or imprints decided not to pay for a stand. For example, I was
surprised that Bloomsbury USA didn’t have one, given that they
represent several Los Angeles authors with just-published or
forthcoming books, including Seth Greenland (“Shining City”), Rachel
Resnick (“Love Junkie”) and Mark Sarvas (“Harry, Revised”). Still, the
smaller turnout really didn’t put a damper on the excitement, the
conviviality and the parties, which seemed to take over Los Angeles
from downtown to West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Santa

At BookExpo, publishers were not only showcasing current titles, they
also were trying to create excitement for books that will come out this
summer and fall. Translation: Free books were given out.

Among the those I sought while trolling the aisles were the highly
anticipated Salman Rushdie novel, “The Enchantress of Florence” (which
is already receiving decidedly mixed reviews), Oscar Hijuelos’s “Dark
Dude” (Atheneum) and Andre Dubus III’s “The Garden of Last Days,” which
is shaping up to be a novel of major importance.

Among the stacks of desired new books were John LeCarre’s “A Most
Wanted Man” (Knopf), Dennis Lehane’s “The Given Day” (Morrow), Michael
Connolly’s “The Brass Verdict” (Hachette) and Wally Lamb’s “The Hour I
First Believed” (HarperCollins). Harper is also pushing Alafair Burke’s
“Angel’s Tip” — if the name seems familiar, it’s because Burke’s
father, James Lee Burke, writes the Dave Robicheaux series.

Just as from small acorns grow large oak trees, small presses sometimes
deliver great novels. Steerforth Press, which published Karoly Pap’s
“Azarel,” an undiscovered gem of a novel of pre-war Hungary, was at the
convention with Benjamin Taylor’s “The Book of Getting Even,” which
Philip Roth has already hailed as: “Among the most original novels I
have read in recent years.”

This September, Algonquin books will publish Ariel Sabar’s “My Father’s
Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.” Sabar is
a political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor covering this
year’s presidential campaign. His father, Yona Sabar, is a UCLA
professor. The book tells of their father-and-son journey to today’s
postwar Iraq to visit Yona’s birthplace and to reconcile past and

Speaking of fathers and sons, Adam Nimoy, son of you-can-guess-who, has
written “My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life,” which Simon and
Schuster has dubbed a “hilarious anti-memoir” about facing life “as a
newly divorced father, a fortysomething in the L.A. dating scene, a
recovering user and a former lawyer turned director turned substitute
teacher … in search of his true self.”

Among the grand dames signing books were Jackie Collins (I passed) and
Barbara Walters (I waited in a long line to get a signed copy of
“Audition” [Knopf]).

No one likes the expression “chick lit,” but what should we call light
reads targeted at the “Sex and the City” audience? Female-driven
entertainment? Part of the problem is that this grab-bag term
encompasses quasi-literary fiction (“Bridget Jones”), commercial
fiction (“The Starter Wife”) and a sort of gossipy insider’s revenge
book (“The Devil Wears Prada”).

Call them what you like, but buy them you will. Some female-friendly
titles you may spot this summer or in early fall include former E!
hostess Jules Asner’s “Whacked” (Weinstein Books), Julie Buxbaum’s “The
Opposite of Love” (Dial Press), Claire Lazebnik’s “The Smart One and
The Pretty One” (5 Spot), subtitled: “A Novel about Sisters” — (I
happen to know one of the sisters, Nell Scovell, but I’m not saying
which one I think she is) — and Jodi Wing’s “The Art of Social War”
(HarperCollins), which has already been sold to the movies.

Speaking of politics — and who isn’t these days? — Public Affairs, a
division of Perseus Group, is the publisher of Scott McLellan’s book,
and it has had no problems getting publicity for the book. It also has
a book forthcoming about censorship that should generate some debate
called, “Obscene in the Extreme,” an account of the burning and banning
of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s by Rick Wartzman, a senior
Irvine Fellow of the New America Foundation and a former Los Angeles
Times Magazine editor.

Public Affairs was launched in 1997 by Peter Osnos, my former editor at
Times Books, and I was very happy to run into him, looking dapper as
ever, at the Hotel Bel Air, where he was hosting a BookExpo party.

That same night, the New York Review of Books also hosted a party at
the Bel Air, and it’s worth commending it not only for its party-giving
skills, but for its publishing program. Recently, the NYRB Classics
have brought back into print editions of Vassily Grossman’s
masterpiece, “Life and Fate,” and the Yiddish classic, “The Family
Mashber” by Der Nister.

Most recently, it published new editions of Stefan Zweig’s final novel,
“Chess Game,” and his earlier novella, “The Post Office Girl.” Zweig,
who committed suicide in 1940, was one of the most-published authors of
the first half of the 20th century. The NYRB editions are getting rave
reviews and returning Zweig to the popular consciousness.

One of the most interesting and companiable hours I spent at the
BookExpo was speaking to Nicolas Neumann, a Paris-based art house
publisher. Our meeting occurred because, as I was wandering past his
booth, I heard him speaking French.

When I looked up to see the name of his booth, Somogyi, I had to stop.

Eva Somogyi was my mother’s stage name in Budapest, so I turned to
Neumann and asked point blank: Hungarian or French? The answer, not
surprisingly, was both — the original founder, Somogyi, was of
Hungarian parentage, but the publishing house is French. Somogyi turns
out to be one of the largest publishers of museum exhibition catalogs
in France.

Upon learning that my column appears in The Jewish Journal of Greater
Los Angeles, Neumann immediately directed my attention to two of his
English-language books. One of them is “Human Expressionism: The Human
Figure and the Jewish Experience,” the companion book to an exhibition
this spring at the Musee Tavet-Delacour in Pontoise, a suburb of Paris.
The book illustrates a fantastic and very thought-provoking exhibition
featuring works by Soutine, Modigliani, Pissaro, Mane-Katz, Lasar
Segall, Kitaj and Serge Strosberg, with a wonderful essay by Eliane

Neumann also showed me a book of the death camp drawings of Shelomo
Selinger — really remarkable, haunting work that deserves an American
exhibition (Skirball people, are you listening?).

Speaking of art, but on a definitely lighter note, I was happy to run
into the folks from BukAmerica — Gary Kornblau and Lisa Lyons, whose
Hollywood-based publishing house creates $1.49 pamphlets that run the
gamut from reprints to original works, from a translation of
Baudelaire, to the U.S. Constitution, from Ruth Reichl’s “The Queen of
Mold” to Richard Grossman’s “Glossary of Every Humorous Word in the
English Language.” (Example: “agnify: to dress up as a sheep.”)

Also from the local scene was Ammo, an L.A.-based publisher started by
Steve Crist, who does very hip books like “Gonzo,” about Hunter
Thompson, and a series of books by the designer Todd Oldham, including
one about John Waters with an essay by Cindy Sherman.

And if you like local, there’s Angel City Press, where Paddy Calisto
continues to publish fine volumes on Los Angeles’ history and culture.
I even met Gidget herself, Kathy Zuckerman, at the Santa Monica Press
booth, where she and Dominic Priore were signing posters for “Pop Surf
Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom,”
available in September.

Children’s books occupied a fair amount of real estate at BookExpo. One
title that particularly appealed to me was “My Name is Gabito (Me Llamo
Gabito”) an English- and Spanish-language children’s book about the
life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Monica Brown, who asked me, “And how
many Latina Jews do you know?” (More than you think, mi amiga).

And as long as we are taking a walk on the Semitic side of the street,
I was pleased to stumble on Lerner Publishing Group. It recently
acquired Kar-Ben Publishing, “a growing Jewish library for children,”
which includes everything from Yale Strom’s first children’s book, “The
Wedding That Saved a Town,” to biographies, books about Israel, books
about Jewish holidays and books about families and friends that
encompass many religions.

Meanwhile, over at Matzoh Ball Books (that is their name!), Anne-Marie
Baila Asner has just published “Klutzy Boy” (prior titles include
“Kvetchy Boy,” “Schmutzy Girl,” “Noshy Boy” and “Schluffy Girl”). Let
the imagination run wild.

Now, if having your child learn a foreign language grabs you, Slangman
Publishing has a series for ages 3 and up, where familiar fairy tales,
such as “Cinderella,” are retold with foreign words to build up a
child’s vocabulary in a foreign language (there’s an audio CD included,
as well). Languages include Chinese, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian
and Japanese.

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about “Mo’s Nose.” My daughter’s
homework folder has recently been covered with stickers about a dog
named Mo. I now know why.

Turns out one of my daughter’s classmates is the son of Margaret Hyde,
the author of children’s books such as “Dreadilocks and the Three
Slugs” and the “Great Art for Kids” series (“Picasso for Kids,”
“Matisse for Kids”). Hyde has now launched “Mo’s Nose,” a series of
books for children about a dog named Mo and how although he doesn’t see
in color, he can smell colors. The books, illustrated by Amanda
Giacomini, have an innovative, safe, nontoxic scratch-and-sniff

“Mo Smells Red,” the first book in the series, has Mo smelling
strawberries, roses and love itself. Cute in the extreme. A portion of
the proceeds from the books go to help rescue animals find homes. Mo is
going to be a star. Be ready for the appearance of Mo T-shirts in your
children’s lives.

Graphic novels were another big trend at BookExpo. As I learned,
graphic novels are often neither graphic nor novel — they are adult
versions of what we used to call comic books. NBM books was at the
convention, along with local author David Seidman, who told me that Los
Angeles has become fertile ground for the graphic novel, thanks to the
abundance of animators and writers raised on comic books.

These days, comics range from humorous work to art of fantasy and the
imagination, from children’s comics to illustrated renderings of Proust
and Kafka, from political cartooning to subversive alternative lit,
from goth to Japanese manga.

Some of the most interesting books these days are being published by
university presses, such as the university presses of Indiana,
Nebraska, Michigan, Mississippi, Chicago, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and
Yale, which publish everything from the hyperlocal, to the serious
academic, to the just plain fun from all over the country. As just one
example, Yale University is doing a series called American icons with
titles such as Joseph Epstein writing about Fred Astaire.

BookExpo, however, was not just about free books. There were also
speeches and panels (about books). The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman
spoke about how “green is the new red, white and blue,” which not
coincidentally is the title of Friedman’s next book. There were author
breakfasts with Philippa Gregory, Alec Baldwin, Chris Buckley and Magic

There were also panels about film rights, bookselling and climate
change, about Google and digital rights and digital editions, social
networking, graphic novels, libraries, censorship, the Chinese market
and the Chinese audience, the Latino audience and the panel I attended
about — no surprise here — the Jewish audience.

A panel about the reading habits of Jewish Americans featured Stuart
Matlins of Jewish Lights publishing house, Daisy Maryles of Publisher’s
Weekly and Ruth Ellenson of the best-selling anthology, “The Modern
Jewish Girls’ Guide to Guilt.”

Panelists spoke of the importance of the Jewish Book Council run by
Carolyn Starman Hessel, book clubs and synagogue book clubs. Matlins
suggested that in his guesstimation, 70 percent of readers and more
than 70 percent of book club attendees are women.

Ellenson, who has written for The Jewish Journal and whose book
features an essay by Jewish Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein, told
many humorous anecdotes about the pressures she faced to make her book
less “Jewish.” However, what Ellenson discovered was that what perhaps
threatened to keep her from a mainstream audience helped her find a
very loyal niche audience, Jewish readers who have supported her book
in steady numbers since its publication.

No one who was in the room will ever forget when Ellenson told us the
more “edgy title” one editor suggested for her book: “Burning Bushes.”

At one point, Carla Cohen, owner of Politics and Prose bookstore in
Washington, D.C., bemoaned the fact that there is not a contemporary
version of “The Jewish Catalogue.” Several audience members then
volunteered that they were the authors of soon-to-be-published books
hoping to fill the gap, among them “Cool Jew” by Lisa Alcalay Klug
(Andrews McNeil).

There was some question of if, and why, Jews buy a disproportionate number of books. Is it just a matter of education?

In some sense, this begged a question that nagged at the whole BookExpo: Whither books?

Is the book industry going the way of the music industry? Or the
newspaper industry? Is digital the future? What percentage of the
population will read books on their Kindle or other electronic devices
or even on their Blackberry? If most nonfiction titles sell only 6,000
copies, how can such small sales support writers, editors, publishing

The answer is, of course, no one knows, but stay tuned — or more to the point, keep reading.

Matlins had the best precis of the current marketplace: “The people who buy books,” he opined, “are the people who buy books.”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every
other week.

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Copyright 2008 Tommywood