In a packed room at the Javits Center Monday afternoon during Book Expo America, booksellers, editors, publicists, and journalists got together for what show director Steve Rosato rightly called one of the fair’s “marquee events.” It’s the annual Editor’s Buzz Panel, which invites a handful of editors to sing the praises of promising books.
Kicking off the panel with the only nonfiction title featured, Millicent Bennett at Free Press talked up Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire (Nov.). Bennett, who’s edited a number of high-profile authors, including the recent National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin, began by admitting Cahalan’s book was one “I would have loved to acquire, but didn’t.” She inherited the book from Hilary Redmon, after she left Free Press for Ecco. The book follows Cahalan’s strange and frightening descent into madness after a rare autoimmune disorder quickly ravaged her body and her mind. After landing a job as a junior reporter for the New York Post, Cahalan began having unsettling health problems, which she initially dismissed as stress: hallucinations and paranoid thinking. Then, a severe seizure landed her in the hospital. The book, Bennett said, is partially an “inquiry into identity and memory” as well as a powerful family saga” and a compelling medical mystery. Bennett also grabbed the crowd by revealing that Cahalan, who miraculously (and luckily) recovered, is thought to have been infected by someone sneezing on her on the subway.
Kendra Harpster at Random House led the fiction selections with Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was published by Doubleday in the U.K. in March. In the novel Joyce, a British actress who quit the stage after having children and launched a career writing radio plays (as well as teleplays for the BBC), explores the bizarre decision of the titular retiree to walk across England after heading out of the house one morning to mail a letter. The book has already gotten off to a strong start in Europe, and Harpster described the book as disarming, heartwarming, and unforgettable. She said the book, which chronicles Harold’s journey as well as its effect on his relationship with his wife, Maureen, is “a love story in reverse” as “the farther Harold gets from Maureen, the more their thoughts match up.”
The lone male editor on the panel, Eli Horowitz at McSweeney’s, was touting John Brandon’s third novel, A Million Heavens. Calling the work “funny, sad, strange, gritty, real, and bizarre,” Horowitz laid out a novel with multiple story lines that, he said, surprisingly coalesce. The novel begins with a young piano prodigy in New Mexico inexplicably falling into a coma during a performance. The other characters drawn into the plot include a lonely mayor; a possible angel; an angry orphan on the run; a gas station owner who wants to be on the run; and a supernatural wolf that may be presiding over it all. Horowitz said the novel “winds up being a supernatural love story.”
Tackling much weightier subject matter, Trish Todd at Simon & Schuster, was pushing Vaddey Ratner’s debut, In the Shadow of the Banyan. Ratner survived the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—she was a child when the regime took over in the 1970s and instigated the genocide there—and the book is a fictionalized account of a young girl growing up in what became known as “the killing fields.” Likening the book to titles like Little Bee, The Kite Runner, and The Diary of Anne Frank, Todd said the novel is about our ability to transcend unspeakable horror through storytelling.
Trotting out another debut author, this one a mere 25 years old (who sold her book before finishing her senior year at Harvard), Alexis Washam at Hogarth touted Shani Boianjiu’s People of the Forever Are Not Afraid. The title follows three teenage girls, all seniors in high school, living in a small Israeli town. The girls, engaged in the typical behavior and obsessions that come with that age—obsessions about boys, popularity, the success of a particular party—are also growing up surrounded by violence, and all three are set to fulfill their obligatory two-year stint in the Israeli army. Washam said the book, one of the first acquired by the recently launched Hogarth imprint at Crown, offers a brilliant fusion of pop culture with unsettling violence. She said the novel “truly grabbed me by throat... and my heart.”
The last novel of the panel, was Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City. Lauren Wein, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, talked about the novel’s narrator, a manchild, named Oppen Porter, who grew up in a bizarre and sheltering California family. Likening the narrator to such characters as Holden Caulfield, Wein said Oppen believes he is on his deathbed, though he is not, and begins recording his life story, for the benefit of his unborn son. The novel is ultimately about growing up, but it unravels around the journey Oppen takes—he leaves home and has a misadventure in which he encounters an array of characters; Wein described it as a “strip mall version of the Odyssey.”