Shelf Awareness for Monday, June 2, 2014
#BEA14: BookCon Overwhelms/Energizes BEA
BookExpo America ended with a bang: the first BookCon show drew 10,000 excited book fans who swarmed over the parts of the Javits Center on Saturday. "They're scary and inspiring at the same time," said one BEA attendee, echoing the mixed feelings of many industry people. Still, quite a few BEA fairgoers pointed happily to the low average age of the BookCon crowd and its diversity--teenaged girls seemed to be the single-largest group--all of whom were enthusiastic about books and authors. "What's not to like about kids who think reading is cool?" said a publisher.
The bubbling crowds and long lines snaking through the BookCon areas were a striking contrast to the part of the trade show floor that was limited to trade visitors. "DeathCon," said one wag about the shortened, third day of BEA, which had been much more active on Thursday and Friday.
|Eager crowd waiting for BookCon to open.|
There were some BookCon problems, mostly because of the sheer number of attendees, capped at 10,000 (children aged 6-12 paid $5, older fans paid $35). Tearful attendees were turned away from some full events, and the lines and crowds made many areas nearly impassable, including the UPubU area in the basement. Noting that there had been "kerfuffles," BEA show director Steve Rosato said, "I wouldn't want the alternative."
The announcement that next year's show will consist of a two-day BookExpo, followed by two days of BookCon, caused several BEA attendees to feel that this is a turning point for the show. After years of some people questioning BEA's future, suddenly a more attractive version--one focused on BookCon--had become very appealing to show organizer Reed. "I never paid much attention to the negative talk," said one attendee. "Until BookCon." Perhaps our April Fool's story about the founding of BookCon, "Last Day of BookCon to Feature BEA, Trade-Oriented Show," will become a reality.
Still, BEA remains a great industry meeting place, where people from throughout the book industry around the world meet, catch up, do business, learn about books and authors and make serendipitous connections. May there always be a BEA. --John Mutter
#BEA14: Pictures from an Exhibition
BEA continued into the weekend with more events, appearances, signings and parties. For a sampling, see below. Our in-depth coverage of BEA/BookCon will continue over the next week.
At the Middle Grade Editors' Buzz panel Friday morning, Jordan Brown (photo left, center), editor of The Zoo at the End of the World by Eric Kahn Gale (Balzer+Bray), cited a common theme in middle-grade books: characters coming to "the realization that their parents, previously infallible, have flaws." The other editors (l.- r.): Jenn Besser, editor of Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson (Putnam); Elise Howard, editor of The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin); Alvina Ling, editor of The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh (Little, Brown); Kate Harrison, editor of Life of Zarf by Rob Harrell (Dial); moderated by the Red Balloon Bookshop's Holly Weinkauf.
At right: the Shelf's own Jennifer Brown introduces the Middle Grade Buzz authors on Friday afternoon (l.-r.): Kelly Barnhill, Rob Harrell, Mitch Larson, Eric Kahn Gale and Kat Yeh.
|Booksellers at the Random House party at Stone Rose: Emma Nichols, WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J.; Joe Hickman, Lemuria Books, Jackson, Miss.; Jenn Northington, WORD; Jeremy Ellis, Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex; Michele Filgate, Community Bookstore, Brooklyn.
What's BEA without cute animals on the show floor? (l.) Ruby Red, service dog for Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing; and one of the stars of The Life of Corgnelius and Stumphrey, coming from Harlequin in August.
Meeting Mr. Evans: John Evans of Lemuria Books; Valerie Walley of Random House; and, from Diesel Books in California, Alison Reid and her husband, John Evans.
|BookCon crowd at the Special Events Hall on Saturday.|
#BEA14: Saturday's Book & Author Breakfast
"The Javits Center is actually my favorite building in New York City.... This building shows you that modern architecture can be warm and inviting, and not the austere stereotypes that we tend to give it," quipped Alan Cumming, drawing appreciative laughter as he opened Saturday's Book & Author Breakfast featuring guest speakers Martin Short, Lena Dunham and Colm Tóibín.
Cumming adopted a more serious demeanor to discuss his upcoming memoir, Not My Father's Son (Morrow, October). "I think it's quite interesting and scary to say to the world, 'Here's a me that you might never have guessed,' " he said. Ultimately, however, he called the book "a hopeful story. It's about a family that does become closer in the end."
The laugh meter ticked up again with Short, who described I Must Say: My Life as Humble Comedy Legend (Harper, November) as a "sincere memoir, if I do say so myself, of a fascinating life, but of course that will be determined by those who read it." Short rattled off a string of comic lines, including: "My first love has always been the theater, followed by the movies, and then television and then my family."
Of her book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" (Random House, September), Dunham said she had "wanted to write this book now and reflect on the moment I'm in now, as a woman in my mid-20s in this very, very specific cultural moment." Reading a passage, she reflected on the unexpected inspiration she found in a 65-cent used copy of Helen Gurley Brown's 1982 bestseller Having It All: "There's nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman."
Tóibín contributed a few quips of his own, but was at his best recounting the gradual development of his upcoming novel, Nora Webster (Scribner, October), from the tiny seed of a four-sentence passage in an early draft. "A novelist is a great listener and rememberer," said Tóibín, expressing his fascination with "a silence that lingers, of something that's between the words, that matters more than the words. I think this is very good training for a novelist."
It should be noted that one traditional aspect of the adult book and author breakfasts seemed to be oddly absent from the menu this year. There was generally little direct acknowledgment by the speakers (Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Dunham being notable exceptions) of the booksellers and librarians who comprised their audience. --Robert Gray
#WeNeedDiverseBooks: 'A Call to Arms!'
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, spearheaded by YA author Ellen Oh, arose in late April to protest the initial announcement of the BookCon event lineup, which at that point consisted overwhelmingly of white authors. After the hashtag trended on Twitter over the next five days--in what YA author Aisha Saeed called "a viral sensation" (more than 162 million impressions from six continents)--BookCon offered the WNDB team a panel event and a table in the Javits Center.
|Front row (l.-r.): Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Matt de la Peña, Grace Lin, Jacqueline Woodson Back Row (l.-r.): Ellen Oh, Marieke Nijkamp, Aisha Saeed, I.W. Gregorio.
More than 250 people crowded into a Saturday panel hosted by the WNDB team. (Due to an oversight, the event did not appear in the official BEA program.)
BEA also created its own panel, titled "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?"--scheduled at the same time, on the Uptown Stage at Javits, which prevented attendees from attending both sessions.
I.W. Gregorio, YA author, surgeon and member of the WNDB team, moderated the event, which consisted of brief talks by WNDB team members, followed by a q&a with authors Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Matt de la Peña, Grace Lin and Jacqueline Woodson.
Saeed opened with the long history of the lack of diversity in children's books, citing the Cooperative Children's Book Center's diversity study. The study reveals not only the dismally low proportion of books featuring characters of color (10%), but also that that proportion has been stagnant over the past 18 years. Marieke Nijkamp, founder of Diversify YA, cited some more statistics: in 2014, more than half of children born in the U.S. will be non-white; 10% of teens identify as LGBTQ; and one in five are disabled in some capacity. "Yet, the vast majority of books ignore diverse identities," Saeed said.
Ellen Oh offered some good news: publisher Lee and Low announced the 15th Annual New Voices Award (a cash prize and publishing contract), given to a children's picture book manuscript by a writer of color; #WeNeedDiverseBooks will be partnering with the National Education Association's Read Across America program to showcase the movement on its website; and First Book, which provides books to children in need, has pledged to purchase 10,000 copies of selected diverse titles. Plus, Diversity in the Classroom, a new initiative from #WeNeedDiverseBooks, will bring authors of color into classrooms; and a Diversity Festival is planned for 2016 in Washington, D.C. At this festival, Oh noted, "every panel and event will celebrate diversity."
"I have never been in a room like this," Woodson noted during the q&a, referring to the huge--and hugely diverse--audience. "This is an author's dream come true."
Mike Jung spoke of his personal reasons in supporting the need for diverse books: "As a kid, I don't recall reading a book that reflected [my life]. Ever. I can only speculate on what such a book would have meant to me."
The panelists agreed that a primary goal must be to eliminate the perception that diverse books are "other," and white is the "default." Grace Lin provided a "cheat sheet" of diverse titles for booktalking, available on her blog. "We need to sell these diverse books to people who don't know they need them," Lin said. Woodson agreed, adding "My biggest vision is that we don't need to have this panel anymore."
Matt de la Peña passionately thanked the people behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, as well as "educators, [who are] so ahead of the consumer in understanding the need for diverse books. I owe my career to librarians and to teachers." Overall, the event was decidedly upbeat and motivational. Lamar Giles noted, "There are people who hate us... but I don't think we lose much by losing their ear." And Ellen Oh added, "This is not a 'hot trend'--it's our life. And this is a call to arms!" --Allie Bruce
Correction: The original version of this article referred to "16 million Tweets"; the correct total is 16 million impressions.
#BEA14: Horn Book Winners
|The Horn Book's Roger Sutton (r.) congratulates Peter Brown, winner in the picture book category for Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.|
For the third year, Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the Horn Book, presented the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards in front of a live audience at BEA.
The award was established in 1967 by Paul and Ethel Heins, former editors of the Horn Book, and it's given in three categories: picture books, fiction and nonfiction. Each category has one winner and up to two honor books. The winning titles must be published in the U.S., but they may be written or illustrated by citizens of any country.
The awards will be presented at the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards Ceremony on October 10, 2014, at Simmons College in Boston, followed the next day by the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, "Mind the Gaps: Books for ALL Young Readers."
The honored and winning books are:
Winner: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown (Little, Brown)
Honor Books: Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic); and Knock Knock: My Dad's Dream for Me, by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Little, Brown)
Winner: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Dutton)
Honor Books: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion); and Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (First Second/Roaring Brook)
Winner: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Book/Macmillan)
Honor Books: The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest--and Most Surprising--Animals on Earth by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin); and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Chronicle)
Amazon vs. Hachette: Pietsch, Gladwell, Monopsonies and More
Today's New York Times business section has a long profile of Little, Brown CEO Michael Pietsch, who, the paper said, wrote the Hachette statement issued last week in response to Amazon's Kindle forum note.
The key paragraph of the story: "It is unusual for a lifelong editor to become CEO of his own publishing company, but over the years, Mr. Pietsch had developed a reputation as both a man of letters and a shrewd deal maker. The combination could serve him well in his dispute with Amazon."
At the same time, he is likely a reluctant leader in this battle. Literary agent Bonnie Nadell commented: "He doesn't want to be seen as the warrior against Amazon. I think that makes him incredibly uncomfortable."
(The profile prominently includes comments from Larry Kirshbaum, who infamously did some time at Amazon trying to beat publishers at their game and earlier was Pietsch's boss. Kirshbaum compared Pietsch with Horatius at the Bridge, saying that Pietsch is "carrying the rest of the industry on his back.")
Also today David Carr has a summary of the situation in the Times business section, stating that while "Amazon may own the publishing industry... it doesn't own the debate... Curiously, the guy who owns the newspaper [the Washington Post] is letting the publishers of big, printed tomes define the debate."
Noting some antitrust risks for Amazon, Carr wrote: "The government usually takes an interest when monopolies result in higher, not lower, prices, so the real risk for Amazon may be the dent in its vaunted reputation."
More authors weighed in on the dispute. In a q&a with the New York Times over the weekend, Malcolm Gladwell, who is published by Little, Brown, said, "It's sort of heartbreaking when your partner turns on you. Over the past 15 years, I have sold millions of dollars' worth of books on Amazon, which means I have made millions of dollars for Amazon. I would have thought I was one of their best assets. I thought we were partners in a business that has done well. This seems an odd way to treat someone who has made you millions of dollars."
Gladwell called Amazon's apparent strategy of trying to drive a wedge between Hachette and its authors "too counterintuitive even for me. I don't think human beings reward those who hurt them. If Amazon wanted me to do something in their interest, I imagine they would do something in my interest. This isn't."
He called the dispute surprising, saying, "It's a partnership. My publishers, Amazon and I have been in business together, an extremely successful business. We should all be celebrating together instead of fighting."
Asked how he might respond to the battle, Gladwell said, "If this keeps going, the authors are going to have to get together. It's Hachette now, but I don't think anyone is under any illusions it stops with Hachette."
In a New York Times op-ed piece on Friday, lawyer Bob Kohn suggested that while Amazon has the "nuclear option" of delisting all of a publisher's titles, publishers have their own nuclear option: "pull all their books from Amazon and throw their weight behind a law-abiding alternative."
We thank Kohn for bringing up the word monopsony, which we explored in 2012, a concept that unlike "monopoly," best describes Amazon's situation. As Kohn put it: "Unlike a monopoly, which occurs when a seller of goods has the power to unlawfully raise prices of what it sells, a monopsony occurs when a buyer of goods has the power to unlawfully lower the prices of what it buys. Each violates antitrust laws: As the Supreme Court has long recognized, they both result in a misallocation of resources that harms consumers and distorts markets."
Many indie booksellers have been touting Hachette books with special displays and discussions of the dispute. Late last week, Books-A-Million did something similar, launching a shop on its website dedicated to Hachette titles with a discount of "up to 30% off a wide selection of Hachette Book Group pre-order titles, and 40% off select current Hachette titles." The company said this was its way of thanking customers for their continued support of Hachette and its many authors.
Books-A-Million v-p of marketing Jeff Skipper commented: "Readers should be able to receive the books they want in a timely manner, without hassle and at a great price. Consistently having the most sought-after titles in stock has always been of the utmost importance to our company."
Wal-Mart said on Friday that the sale of printed Hachette books on its website has grown 70%, without specifying a time period, Bloomberg reported.
Wal-Mart stated: "We're committed to making it easy for our customers to have access to a broad assortment of the products they want, at the low prices they want--including copies of their favorite books that they might not be able to get elsewhere."
Our favorite headline from the spat (only for the word play, not the sentiment): "Amazon Tries to Bury Hachette," in the Drudge Retort.
BAM First Quarter: Sales Up, Net Loss Increases
During the first quarter ended May 3, revenues at Books-A-Million rose 0.2%, to $103.8 million, and the net loss increased 51.4%, to $5.6 million. Sales at stores open at least a year fell 2.1%.
CEO and president Terrance G. Finley commented: "Sales in the first half of the quarter were strong driven by the momentum of the fourth quarter book lineup. We saw traffic slow later in the quarter, but we were pleased that we achieved our plan in our core book business, as well as in the bargain book, media, and general merchandise categories. Teen books, especially John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Veronica Roth's Divergent series, were standouts in the quarter."
Indie Bookstores: Opening, Closing
On Friday, Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz., opened its Phoenix branch, Changing Hands Phoenix, which includes the First Draft bar, the store's first coffee, wine and beer bar. In a message to customers, Changing Hands wrote, "There may be some kinks with our systems to work out, but we're ready to open and welcome you to a fresh, new independent bookstore in the heart of central Phoenix."
The new store is in the Newton, a 17,227-square-foot, mixed-use multi-tenant space at the former location of the longtime Beef Eaters restaurant, Phoenix New Times noted. "The new space has an industrial feel with exposed duct work, concrete floors, slate gray walls, dark shelving, and a few remnants from the building's days as Beef Eaters, including a pair of chandeliers and two large fireplaces. Changing Hands co-owner Cindy Dach describes the color scheme as reminiscent of the Oregon coastline."
The Phoenix store will stock different gift lines and fewer used, on-sale and children's books than at the Tempe store. A large meeting room will be used for events.
To see the Phoenix New Times's slide show of the amazing new Changing Hands, click here.
Changing Hands Phoenix and First Draft are located at 300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix, Ariz. 85013.
Jeff Kinney, author of the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, will open a bookstore in his hometown of Plainville, Mass. Kinney talked about his plans during the BEA Children's Book and Author Breakfast on Friday. The idea was initially unveiled last October when Kinney told the Boston Globe that he and his wife were planning to build a three-story structure and had recently taken a two-day Paz & Associates opening a bookstore workshop.
Carmichael's Bookstores, Louisville, Ken., is opening "a dedicated, stand-alone children's bookstore" later this summer at 1313 Bardstown Road, across from one of their two bookshops, WFPL reported.
"I'm hoping [to open in] July, but it might be more like early August," said Bardstown Road store manager Kelly Estep, adding: "The amount of business that we do in the kids' section is pretty significant. I can never meet the demand. People ask for things all the time that I wish we could have that we don't have the room for.... I've always felt for years that if we had a little more space, that would be the direction we would want to go."
While the children's section at the Bardstown store will disappear, "adding some much-needed breathing room to the tight quarters," the Frankfort Avenue store will retain its children's books section for now, WFPL noted. The new Carmichael's Kids will stock books for infants up to 12-year-olds. YA titles will still be shelved in the two adult branches. "Teenagers probably don't want to shop at a children's store," said Estep. "And there' so much crossover now with teen fiction and adult that it makes sense."
Half Price Books has opened a new 10,000-square-foot store at 1664 Clarkson Road in Chesterfield, Mo., marking the first St. Louis area location for the company, reported the St. Louis Business Journal. A grand opening is scheduled for June 5.
Black Bear Books, Boone, N.C., may close by the last week of June, though no specific date has been set, according to co-owner (with Chris Walker) Karen Hall. She told the Watauga Democrat that her "only goal was to keep the doors open. We were living here full time and I wanted to live in a town with a bookstore, I think its important for a community to have a bookstore." They bought the store in 2009 and relocated to the Boone Mall in 2011.
"I know of people from adjacent counties who came to buy books from here because there is not a independent bookstore near them," she added. "We have been explaining this for five years, every time a local customer says, 'I'll just get it on Amazon,' even when we could have gotten the book to them in the same amount of time, without shipping costs that eventually that will be your only option. And now, it will be."
Hall hopes another bookstore will open in Boone: "We have a lot of really loyal customers who we are extremely grateful for. Maybe if I win the lottery, one day I will open up another bookstore."
Illinois Seeks to Restart 'Amazon Tax'
More than seven months after an "Amazon Tax" was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court, the state is attempting to re-impose sales taxes on some Internet purchases. Crain's Chicago Business reported that on Friday, the Illinois House "sent a Senate-passed bill to the governor that would fix the overturned law, which the court ruled was pre-empted by a federal moratorium on Internet taxes."
The fix "broadens the law to impose sales tax on sales by out-of-state retailers that result from a coupon or promotional code distributed in Illinois by mail, radio or television," Crain's wrote. Previously, it had targeted Illinois-based websites affiliated with out-of-state sellers.
"This legislation is another step in leveling the playing field for brick-and-mortar retailers along with residents of Illinois who are being unfairly penalized for purchases made out of the state," said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "The passing of this legislation establishes Illinois as a national model for the retail industry and we hope this leads to momentum for a federal solution."
Obituary Note: Valerie Ryan
Valerie Ryan, longtime owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, Cannon Beach, Ore., and a valued and prolific book reviewer for Shelf Awareness, died last Thursday, the Daily Astorian reported. She was 76. Mayor Mike Morgan said Ryan "kept that place going and thriving and employing a lot of people. She's been a big deal." He added that the bookstore has become "an institution that I hope will last for a very long time. It's not every little tourist town that has a wonderful independent bookstore, and we're blessed to have it." He also nicely summed up her personality, calling her "our Elaine Stritch--a brassy, outspoken woman of fierce independence who is also fun, witty, smart and irreplaceable."
Ryan opened the Cannon Beach Book Company in 1980 with business partner John Buckley, to whom she sold it in 1983. After living in Seattle for 12 years, she bought the store back in 1995 and had been the sole owner since. Ryan put the business up for sale earlier this year, and her children are still searching for a buyer.
Book Trailer of the Day: Cartboy Goes to Camp
Hal Rifkin (aka Cartboy) chronicles his hilarious adventures at Camp Jamestown in Cartboy Goes to Camp by L.A. Campbell (Starscape).
Media and Movies
This Is Where I Leave You: 'Six Movie Revelations from BookCon'
On Friday, Jonathan Tropper, author of This Is Where I Leave You, presented footage from the upcoming film version of his novel to kick off BookCon. He was joined by director Shawn Levy (Real Steel, the Night at the Museum movies), as well as stars Tina Fey and Jason Batema. Entertainment Weekly presented "six things fans should know about the movie, which comes out September 12."
"I'm going to keep bringing movie stars on book tours, because I never get this crowd," Tropper said.
Media Heat: Capital's Thomas Piketty on Colbert
This morning on the Today Show: Jennifer Steinhauer, author of Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) (Clarkson Potter, $19.99, 9780385345200).
Also on Today: Alison Sweeney, author of Scared Scriptless (Hyperion, $15, 9781401311056). She will also appear tomorrow on the Chew and ABC News Now.
This morning on NPR's Morning Edition: Kate Kelly, author of The Secret Club That Runs the World: Inside the Fraternity of Commodity Traders (Portfolio, $29.95, 9781591845461). She will also appear tomorrow on Morning Joe.
Today on NPR's On Point: Jessye Norman, author of Stand Up Straight and Sing! (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, 9780544003408).
Today on NPR's Diane Rehm Show: David Ignatius, author of The Director: A Novel (Norton, $26.95, 9780393078145).
Today on Tavis Smiley: Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Holt, $28, 9780805092998).
Tonight on the Colbert Report: Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, $39.95, 9780674430006).
Tomorrow morning on Good Morning America: Kendall and Kylie Jenner, authors of Rebels: City of Indra: The Story of Lex and Livia (Gallery/Karen Hunter, $17.99, 9781451694420). They will also appear on Live with Kelly and Michael.
Tomorrow on NPR's the Takeaway: A.J. Baime, author of The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, 9780547719283).
Tomorrow night on Nightline: Peter Rhee, co-author of Trauma Red: The Making of a Surgeon in War and in America's Cities (Scribner, $28, 9781476727295).
Tomorrow night on Conan: Jane Fonda, author of Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls & Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity & More (Random House, $17, 9780812978612).
Books & Authors
Awards: Reading the West; Audies; Ben Franklin
The winners of this year's Reading the West Book Awards, sponsored by the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, are:
Adult fiction: The Son by Philipp Meyer (Ecco)
Adult nonfiction: The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko (Scribner)
Children's: Last Ride of Caleb O'Toole by Eric Pierpoint (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky)
The Audio Publishers Association announced this year's Audie Award winners Thursday night. Billy Crystal's Still Foolin' Em (Macmillan Audio) was named audiobook of the year. Check out the complete list of Audie winners and finalists here.
The Independent Book Publishers Association presented the Ben Franklin Awards at a gala ceremony last Wednesday in New York City. For a complete list of Gold and Silver winners, click here.
Review: Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter
Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter by Maria Venegas (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26 hardcover, 9780374117313, June 17, 2014)
Jose Manuel Venegas is a rapscallion, a gun-toting, horse-breaking man raised on a hardscrabble ranch in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. He's also the father and unshakeable nemesis of Maria Venegas, whose memoir not only follows the many paths of her father's serendipitous life but also traces her own bootstrap upbringing, from her arrival in Chicago as a four-year-old Mexican immigrant to her professional New York City career in theater and literature.
Bulletproof Vest is a story of contrasts. The rural Mexico of feral dogs, beat-up trucks and ramshackle houses without plumbing or electricity is held up beside the fast food and pop music of suburban Chicago where Venegas grows up as the only Mexican in her grade at school--criticized for her accent ("It's Shicago, not Che-cago") and stereotyped ("'You're too tall to be a Mexican'... [as if] there was a height limit for Mexicans. A line drawn on a wall, which we best not surpass"). Her father is a vindictive man, quick to use a gun when wronged, while she longs to be a cheerleader and finds solace in reading and acting. He drunkenly kills a man in Chicago and jumps bail to hide at his family's mountain ranchero, La Peña, while she studies her way into the University of Illinois and ultimately earns an MFA in writing from Hunter College.
Venegas can't escape the ghosts of a father she hardly knew, a father who abandoned his two-year-old in Zacatecas to find work in the U.S. and then abandoned her again in Chicago at age seven as he "slips one of his guns into the back of his Wranglers, grabs his black cowboy hat and goes out the door: metal, leather, bulletproof--indestructible." She comes to realize that she also ostracized him from her life "assembling a shield, something that would protect me from ever being hurt again--my own bulletproof vest."
With the pace, character and plot of good fiction, her memoir is the pulsing saga of how she returns to Mexico to try to connect with him. Meandering like one of his favorite corridos, Bulletproof Vest is Venegas's ballad to her father as she comes to appreciate the struggles he faced amid the violence, superstition and poverty of his own upbringing. He teaches her to ride horses and recognize the stars. She nurses him through reckless truck crashes. In sharing his life, Venegas discovers her family roots and reconciles the contrasts in her own life.
When her father dies in yet another fiery accident, she accepts that he was trapped in the violence of his life, and no amount of armor could fend off eventual disaster. She takes comfort in an eyewitness account that "music was still blaring from the tangled mess after it stopped, the drums and horns of some corrido from long ago sounding out as if serenading him--bidding farewell." --Bruce Jacobs
Shelf Talker: A successful academic Mexican immigrant tries to understand her colorful but violent father and her family roots.