Friday, August 29, 2014

A Peek Under the Covers: The Mockingbird Next Door Cover Change.

Next Thursday, September 4, 7 pm, we're hosting Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, at Boswell. The book has been out for a few months, and has gotten very nice reviews and a recommendation from Boswellian Anne McMahon, who called it "A delightful look in to the life of one of America's notable authors. No startling revelations here, but an insight in to the world that remained private so long. I really enjoyed it!"

The book has stirred up a smidge of controversy (what book hasn't? Did I mention we're hosting Rick Perlstein author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan , on November 6 at the Golda Meir Library?) as Nelle, that's Harper Lee to those who don't follow these things, made a statement that she did not endorse the book and was, well, tricked into participating it. This statement contradicted a 2011 statement that seemed to indicate support. 

Because we stocked up on The Mockingbird Next Door in anticipation of the event, we got a surprise when the new books came. The cloth jacket changed color, from burnt orange to mustard yellow. While McSweeney's has been known to change jacket colors with printings, with striking effect, as said books are often paper over board, it is far less usual for a cloth jacket to change color when it is covered by a dust jacket. Our thought is that both colors match the tone of the photo on the dust jacket, better than we've seen on other books. So what led to the big switcheroo? My guess? They went to another printer and they didn't have the first color in stock.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Math Fact, Math Fiction--First with Jordan Ellenberg, and Next with Stuart Rojstaczer (Appearing September 10, 7 pm, at Boswell)

One of the nice things about hosting events in Milwaukee is that we can draw on authors from Chicago and Madison, and in most cases, this can be done without a lot of expense, meaning the publishers are more likely to go for it if we make a good pitch. It's still not a slam dunk--a first novelist is likely to be rather enthusiastic about the possibility, while a nonfiction academic generally needs more convincing. The irony here is that in most cases, the nonfiction academic, in many fields at least, is likelier to have the more successful event.

I'm still dancing on a cloud from our wonderful mathy event with Jordan Ellenberg, author of How Not to Be Wrong. Perhaps the feeling is lasting longer because I'm still reading the book--how can one not remember what a good time one had when one is holding the book in one's hands? But we're now approaching September and that means a whirlwind of authors, some of whom will be equally exciting. But my mind always thinks about the strange cosmic connections between events (perhaps that's just a function of re-reading The Illusion of Separateness, per yesterday's blog).

For one thing, we've got Stuart Rojstaczer coming, the author of The Mathematician's Shiva, on sale on Tuesday, September 2. Now Ellenberg has no connection to Rojstaczer, but after all, the novel is about mathematicians in Madison (just like Ellenberg is a mathematician in Madison, get it?). Its the story of a famous female mathematician, Rachela Karnokovitch, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, and her son, a professor of climatology (embarrassingly practical from a mathematician's viewpoint) in Alabama. After she passes, the family gathers in Madison. But not just the blood family--literally hundreds of mathematicians want to pay their respect, and a number of them demand to sit shiva with the family.

Karnokovitch's dream of course is winning the Fields Medal, the highest honor a young mathematician can get. But of course she is passed over each year, until she no longer qualifies, and this leaves her a bit bitter. So the question that the mathematician's have is that it might be possible that Karnokovitch might had solved a major mathematical puzzle, one that has had huge amounts of time and resources dedicated to it. And of course it's also the story of a family or Russian-Polish emigres, with all the craziness that can bring.  I really enjoyed the story and it reminded me of the math gossip I used to hear back in college. Really, I was a math major. I don't believe it either.

Publishers Weekly writes: "The ostensible mourners rip up floorboards, hold séances, and even read meaning into a 40-year-old parrot’s squawks, all the while discussing the charms and pitfalls of Eastern European identity and the perpetual shock of life in America. Counterbalancing their antics are flashbacks to Rachela’s childhood flight from Poland during WWII. These passages, presented as excerpts from her memoir, add depth to an already multilayered story of family, genius, and loss."

In a timely turn of events, a woman finally won the Fields medal this year, Maryam Mirzakhani. You can read more about it in this All Things Considered story.

Our event with Stuart Rojstaczer, a native Milwaukeean, was himself a hydrologist, a geologist, and now consults on water policy, or so says his CV. Our event is co-sponsored by the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies on Wednesday, September 10, 7 pm, at Boswell.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Did the Book Club Think of Simon Van Booy's "The Illusion of Separateness?" and How Excited are They that He's Coming to Boswell on September 30, 7 pm?

This week was our annual "move the in-store lit group meeting out of the way of Labor Day" event.  After a number of years, the easiest way to accomplish this appears to be moving it to the last week in August, and as long as I don't schedule an event, the lit group can meet in the back of the store while the mystery group meets up front.

(The illustrations for this blog are the various international editions, which is always fun when a book gets a strong international publication. I am always interested in how each publisher represents the story--in a few cases, I kept the jackets a little larger to spot the details).

For the second month in a row, I selected a book that I'd already read, but the great thing about Simon Van Booy's The Illusion of Separarateness (well, one of the great things) is that I could actually find time to re-read the novel before we met. (Note: at right is the final jacket for the American edition. Is this Amanda? Harriet? I can't tell.)

The book starts with Martin, who helps out at an assisted living center. He's lived in California for many years, though he still has a trace of a French accent. His wife has died. His sister still runs his parents' French cafe. He's good with the residents, and he's curious about the new fellow, who has been brought in by a big-time Hollywood director. What he first notices is that the man is terribly disfigured. And then, making his way to the cookies, the man collapses and dies.

And then we jump back and see that man, Mr. Hugo, thirty years previous, and how a Nigerian woman befriends him, so that he can take care of her son while she works. And then an air force pilot shot down over Europe. And then a blind curator on Long Island. The story pivots on a fateful World War II scene, and the rest of their lives channel outwards, with several fates changed by a moment of kindness.

So what did the book club think? We've got four big fans on staff (and at least one more ex-bookseller who championed the book), so we know we like it. But does the book hold up to scrutiny? We had about 15 folks show up for Monday's book club meeting and I'd say about 2/3 loved it, while the other third liked it with caveats, and some had more caveats than other. (The British cover at right chose the Paris setting for the story. I guess it tries to capture the spiritual essence of the story. I think a previous cover focused on a World War II embrace. I  may have the order wrong).

One bone of contention was the style. Mr. Van Booy employs short,sentences, almost staccato, and the effect is rather poetic. Some people loved this style, but a few did not. D. wanted a different voice for each character, but it's my contention that there really only needs to be two voices, one for Amanada the blind curator, as she is telling her voice in the first person, and another for everyone else, as the story is all third-person omniscient narrator.

Then there's the length; C1 wanted the story to be filled out. It's my feeling that I'm not sure the writing style would have worked as well over 500 pages, or even 350, and one of the things I liked about the book was the white space, the details left unfilled in. (At left is the American hardcover jacket, rendered in what I think is Dutch. I like the jacket but I never quite knew what scene that was.)

C2 enjoyed the spiritual angle of the book and thought it was the one of the best endings of all time. She was reminded of Diane Arbus, but perhaps the inverse, where the artist saw the grotesque in the ordinary, Van Booy sees the humanity in the grotesque.

N, for all the coincidences in the story, found it plausible. She enjoyed the gentle nature of the story, and thought it was beautifully written.

J1 liked the book, and found it deceptively simple. She found the war scenes depressing, but unless you are writing propaganda, at least one side if not both sides of a war story are going to be pretty sad.

G1 loved the book. She saw herself in the characters, which of course is one of the nicest things you can say about a story. She was reminded of Tinkers. (the Italian and German covers are probably the most literal, focusing on the World War II story at the core).

S liked it, but had to make a chart to get some of the details straight. She's concurrently reading Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King, and noted some similarities in the stories, mostly the World War II characters' escape through Europe on a bicycle, but also the presence of beagles, and a few others which I won't list here, as I didn't write them down.

From  G2: "The world needs this book." She also found herself wanting to ask Mr. Van Booy questions about how he went about writing the story.

C3 liked it, once she got into the staccato style. She found the Thich Nhat Hanh inscription at the beginning of the story telling, and came back to it several times during her reading.

J2 really enjoyed putting the puzzles together. She said she came at the book almost like a mystery reader. I'll have to ask Anne about that one. She was surprised when C3 had not made a connection at the end. (Yes: Outre-Atlantique is how the French translated The Illusion of Separateness. I had to read the copy to make sure. I am attracted to this cover. It definitely captures more of the spirit of the story rather than any details.)

I mentioned that I read the book a second time to prepare for the discussion, and several folks seconded that they reread the story, including L1. J1 wanted to read the book again, and J2 felt she had read the book again, as she wound up rereading many passages to find the connections. "Humming, I remember humming" is just one hint that really doesn't give away too much but will please thought who caught this moment.

L2 thought that Amelia was the strongest character, and was the glue that held the story together.

It's my feeling that this book is certainly accessible to the masses, and it strikes me as the kind of story that, with the right champion, cold be a huge bestseller. That said, I wondered how I'd feel about the book if I'd come to it as a phenomenon rather than our own private treat. Well, I can only hope that the book is such a huge success that I tired of it.(The Australians have a very similar cover to the Germans, but this very contemporary typeface--you see a lot of retailers using a variation--gives it a bit of whimsy, as opposed ot the more traditional gravitas of the German version. I am almost reminded of Life of Pi, which is actually not a terrible idea.)

D raised the issue of whether these were, in fact, connected stories, noting that Mr. Van Booy had several previous story collections out. It was my contention that unlike several other books of this sort, most of these chapters could not stand on their own. But could they be a story cycle, a la Alice Mattison or even Joan Silber? I tried to imagine reconstructing the novel with each character having a voice, and I'm not sure you could pull it off. Another thing to ask Mr. Van Booy.

In an unexpected detour, the conversation turned to Hemingway. Philosophically I thought the authors could not be more different, but several of the attendees noticed a similarity between the two authors' styles. I remembered someone else had made the Hemingway connection--it turned out to be an unattributed quote from a New Hampshire Public Radio reviewer who said "Van Booy writes like Hemingway but with more heart."There was some talk of which Hemingway books hold up best and so forth.

We also discussed Max Gendelman's book A Tale of Two Soldiers, which actually has at its core, a similarity to Mr. Van Booy's story. It's pretty well known that the pivot scene at the heart of the story is based on his wife's grandfather, Bert Knapp, who flew B-24 bombers in World War II. Having read both books, D confirmed that yes, there are similarities in the stories. And of course the amusing thing was that several us knew Gendelman's daughter, Nina Edelman, and of course had not before known about the connection. The Illusion of Separateness indeed!

Mr. Van Booy has written three philosophical nonfiction books--Why We Fight, Why Our Decisions Don't Matter, and Why We Need Love. You can see that influence in the story, which hinges in the concept of unknown connections. There was a lot of feeling that with the problems going on in the world now, The Illusion of Separateness is a book that a lot more people should be reading.  Maybe we'd act differently if we had that consciousness that the person I hurt could be someone connected to me.

Needless to say, I think The Illusion of Separateness makes a great book club discussion, especially for a month when folks are stressed for time, or when you're finding that the group is not reading the books. In particular, what a great book to read in November or December, when you're both feeling both time-crunched and also in need of some inspiration.

And of course your book club can have a nice night out by seeing Simon Van Booy when he visits Boswell on Tuesday, September 30, 7 pm. And before our event, I might just read the book a third time.

Upcoming discussions:
Monday, October 6, 7 pm: We dig into Jane Gardam's Old Filth.

Monday, November 3, 7 pm: The topic is Tish Aw's Five Star Billionaire.

Past discussion addendum: Daniel, why didn't you talk about the group's discussion of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites?

The problem was that we decided to keep our discussion in the face of a very large event with Deborah Harkness, who was at Boswell for The Book of Life. As a result, I wasn't really part of the discussion. The one interest dynamic I noticed was that while just about everyone loved the book, one person hated it. And I don't mean quibbles, I mean hated. And at one point he said something along the lines of, I'm not going to be happy until I convince all of you why this book was bad. It actually was pretty funny. And in the end, he was a failure, as the rest of the attendees were still huge fans of Burial Rites.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday New and Noteworthy with Susan Vreeland, Jesse Burton, Katy Simpson Smith, Matthew Thomas, Stephan Erick Clark, and Malcolm Brooks--From the Art World to the Flavor Industry and Everywhere In Between.

Susan Vreeland's historical novels such as Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and The Passion of Artemesia (which is the one I read) have found many fans. Though she was one two authors who first found inspiration in Vermeer (Tracy Chevalier was the other), she's hewed closer to the art world in subsequent offerings. In her newest, Lisette's List (Random House),the story opens in 1937 when Lisette and her husband move from Paris to Provence to care for her father-in-law, a pigment salesman, who schools her in all things art. When World War II comes, Lisette's husband hides Pascal's valuable collection of paintings before heading off to the front, but alas, he apparently forgets to tell Lisette. I'll eventually learn the historical basis for the novel, but for now, let me just say that the spin on this one is that artists are not really at the center, but the love of art still is. Julia M. Klein reviews the book for The Boston Globe.

Jumping back a few centuries, Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist (Ecco) continues the art theme. It's 17th century Amsterdam and Nella Ootman has just married a wealthy merchant; he's a aloof and the society she's fallen into is on the pious side. As a gift, he gives her a replica of their house and to fill it, they hired the aforementioned miniaturist and the artifacts he create have an almost weird prophetic nature to them. Apparently this book had big international sales. Daphne Guinness of The Sydney Morning Herald calls it "this season's industry excitement." She writes: "Central to the plot is sugar, a luxury commodity of the time, and Johannes and his fractious family face ruin if he does not sell a pile owned by a past friend, Frans, and his shady wife Agnes. Worse than ruin, actually, as the narrative unfolds. Burton’s imagination works overtime with whispered conversations behind forbidden doors, sexual behaviour of a provocative nature, snobbery in spades and the unspeakable racist attitudes prevalent in 1686.  This review also links to the miniature home in Rijks Museum which was the inspiration for the story.

If you didn't think historical fiction was hot, perhaps this post will convince you. Our rep Cathy sent us some links for two new releases; in addition to The Miniaturist, they were touting the release of A Story of Land and Sea (Harper), by Katy Simpson Smith. This one's set in post-revolution United States, following three generations of a family in North Carolina.  She tells Audie Cornish on All Things Considered that her jumping-off point was the role of mother's in the historical South. I can see from doing some searching that the author has a good-sized Southern tour prepared, and we're told there are a lot of reviews scheduled. Publishers Weekly writes that "Smith’s soulful language of loss is almost biblical, and the descriptions of her characters’ sorrows are poetic and moving."

Last week saw the release of We are Not Ourselves (Simon and Schuster), by Matthew Thomas and my sister Merrill already put it on her to-be-read list from the great reviews. It's an Irish American story starting in 1940s Queens.  Eileen Tumulty is courted by Edmund Leary, whom she hopes has great plans for the future, but alas, it's not to be; he may teach, but it's at a community college. And so she puts her hopes in her son Connell. It's not meant to be a surprise to learn that much of the second half of the book is Eileen dealing with her husband's decline from Alzheimer's. Janet Maslin's review in The New York Times surely popped sales. It begins: "Matthew Thomas’s devastating debut novel, “We Are Not Ourselves,” does not trumpet the fact that it’s an honest, intimate family story with the power to rock you to your core," implying that this is exactly what it does.

We all know what happened to Edan Lepucki's California when Sheman Alexie recommended it on the Stephen Colbert show, so it was nice to see that when Lepucki when on, she had another title to talk up, Sweetness #9 (Little, Brown), by Stephan Erick Clark. We bought it rather thing, but sure enough, there were folks who came in to purchase it when it came out, and it didn't hurt that Lepucki seconded her enthusiasm on her recent visit to Boswell. From the publisher: "It's 1973, and David Leveraux has landed his dream job as a Flavorist-in-Training, working in the secretive industry where chemists create the flavors for everything from the cherry in your can of soda to the butter on your popcorn. While testing a new artificial sweetener--Sweetness #9--he notices unusual side-effects in the laboratory rats and monkeys: anxiety, obesity, mutism, and a generalized dissatisfaction with life. David tries to blow the whistle, but he swallows it instead." What a lot of folks don't know is that the Milwaukee metro has one of the larger concentrations of jobs in the flavor industry--read this Milwaukee Business Journal article to find out more. Perhaps some of those many employees will take to heart Carol Memmott of the Chicago Tribune's advice, that "Sweetness #9 is scrumptious."

I sort of lost track of when Painted Horses (Grove), by Malcolm Brooks was coming out, being that the publisher started promoting it at the last bookseller's Winter Institute, through the June Book Expo and onto this October's Heartland Fall Forum--there is a lot of enthusiasm for this book! The story is set in the 1950s, when an archeologist working on dam project falls in with a fugitive, an army vet and former mustanger (per the publisher). Lots of amazing quotes on this one from William Kitteredge, Amy Bloom, Doug Stanton, Rick Bass, and Jim Harrison who wrote that “Painted Horses is a wonderful novel full of horses, archeology, the new West, and two fascinating women. Malcolm Brooks should be lauded for this amazing debut." And Molly Gloss in the Washington Post wrote that "In his gift for the language of horses and the culture of horsemen, Brooks will inevitably recall Cormac McCarthy. And like Ivan Doig in Bucking the Sun, he mines one of the darker veins in the mythology of the American West, the seam where “greatness gets built on destruction."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Wednesday Event--Nick Weber's "Shakesspeare with Hearing Aids: Some Old Timer's Revisit the Bard" at Boswell.

Wednesday, August 27, 7 pm, at Boswell:
Nick Weber, author of Shakespeare with Hearing Aids.

After years of teaching English literature and theater arts, then graduate work in theology and theater, Nick Weber was ordained a Jesuit priest. In 1971 he founded a poetic theatrical hybrid, “The Royal Lichtenstein Circus” which he toured as his official Jesuit ministry for twenty-two years. Returning to the lay state, he continued touring and eventually developed a one-man performance piece “Shakespeare, Just for Fun!” It was this project that led him into a love affair with the Bard. In 2008, retired from yet more teaching in theater arts and English literature, Nick began reading the works of Shakespeare with groups of retirees in Milwaukee. The title of his earlier show evolved into “Shakespeare Just for Fun! Seniors Sharing Shakespeare.” It is the five year history of that project that Shakespeare with Hearing Aids celebrates.

Shakespeare with Hearing Aids: Some Old-timers Revisit the Bard is an old guy’s story about an adventure he is having with some other old-timers. More accurately, it’s about many senior adventures as, together, these retirees read a bunch of dramas written four centuries ago by some whippersnapper called Shakespeare. The story is charged by a range of elder skills and issues as well as by the dynamics of plot, language, characters, and outright playwriting technique. And because so many personal hard-won stories are recognizable inside of the famous playwright’s, he increasingly becomes a trusted stranger; they allow whoever Shakespeare is to illuminate whoever they are.

“‘The book might just be a dare,’ Weber writes, a sly line for a spry book that is daring in every good way, particularly in its extraordinary celebration of close reading, which in these pages means two beautifully complementary things: smart textual analysis informed by a born performer’s eye (and ear); and smart performers, who grow close to Weber, each other and Shakespeare while reading the plays. I dare you not to be moved.” —Liam Callanan, author of All Saints and The Cloud Atlas

When I Tell You to Take My Advice and Come to an Event, You Should Listen! 15 Reasons to Come Out for Julie Schumacher's "Dear Committee Members" Tomorrow.

This is our last week of vacation, so to speak. I don't think we have another week with only two events until some time after Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, August 26, 7 pm, at Boswell
Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members.

I told our Doubleday rep Jason that I was a little disappointed with our first week's sale of Julie Schumacher's novel. I am hoping you are all marking your calendar to come on Tuesday night. We've got some big fans on staff of Dear Committee Members, and I think it deserves one last try to get you to come out. I have in the past offered five reason, even ten, why you should listen to me and come out for an author on my favorites list. But this time I offer 15 reasons. 15!

1. Boswellian Jen Steele recommends the book: "Jason Fitger, professor of creative writing at Payne University, is the go-to guy if you want honest, snarky, passive-aggressive letters of recommendation. He has no problem writing about his ex-wife, the university's "golden" child: the economics department, or the construction disrupting his office, all in a letter of recommendation for your prospective employer to read. Dear Committee Members had me laughing out loud, the perfect companion for an afternoon of reading."

2.Jim Higgins praised Dear Committee Members in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "In short, we enthusiastically recommend extending the invitation for Professor Fitger to join the Committee for Recognition of Excellent Epistolary Prose. Please note here that the position of secretary of our committee has been open for some time: might our invitation to Fitger also include a request that, henceforth, he handle our correspondence?"

3. For a change of pace, Carole E. Barrowman recommended Schumacher's previous young adult novel, The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls, on last week's Morning Blend. She offered: "Filled with her rants and commentary on the books she’s forced to read and the connections she discovers to her life. It’s super funny and a perfect light summer novel. If you have a voracious teenage reader in your house, she’ll love this book."

4. Time for another Boswell rec. Mel Morrow writes "Some say that every joke begins with a kernel of truth. So it is for Jason Fitger, protagonist of Dear Committee Members, the latest novel by University of Minnesota creative writing professor Julie Schumacher. Through his many, varied letters of recommendation, readers learn what irks Fitger as he trundles his way through tenure in the Department of English at Payne University. Just as Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry captured a bookstore owner's transformation from solitary curmudgeon to romantic hero, Dear Committee Members tracks the plodding rise of Fitger's star from infamous letter-obsessed recluse to English Department Chair: Dear Committee Members is the A. J. Fikry of the Ivory Tower. It is at once hilarious and familiar, illustrating in an utterly humane way some of the problems that plague contemporary campuses. I am eager to send copies to my tenured friends, accompanied by an overlong letter of recommendation (of course!)."

5. I just want to note that Mel just got her doctorate, so her rec (as one who knows of what Schumacher speaks) counts double. Thanks, Dr. Mel! But just in case you think I shouldn't be allowed to double count, I will throw in this rec from Jay Parini:,“Dear Committee Members is a brilliant book that, in my head, sits comfortably on my prized shelf of academic novels, right between Lucky Jim and Pictures from an Institution. But it’s funnier than either, and more wrenching in the end. "

Here's a Lucky Jim aside--I made a display of academic novels for back to school, promoting Schumacher's novel of course, and included Lucky Jim, only I accidentally wrote Martin Amis instead of Kingsley. A customer grabbed the sign and slammed it on the counter, furious that we mixed up father and son. I felt terrible for the bookseller who had to deal with this.

6. Laura Collins-Hughes reviewed Dear Committee Members in The Boston Globe. "You might be reluctant to contemplate the workaday world in the waning days of August, but I promise you that Dear Committee Members is very funny — funnier than I’ve shown you here, because I don’t want to spoil the author’s many excellent jokes. If nothing else, pick the book up when you head back to school. The laughter will be a solace." (the alternate jacket, as discussed in the post, is at left)

7. Carol Memmott in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune has this take: "Each letter Fitger writes is imbued with the wisdom and comic chops that make Schumacher a wonderfully entertaining writer. Let this review serve as an LOR for Dear Committee Members. If there’s one thing new grads need in addition to the congratulatory check or gift card, it’s a few good laughs before reality sets in." Yes, I know it's not that different from the other takes, but I think you need to understand just how many people are crazy for this book.

8. From Rebecca Schuman, writing in Slate: "But about halfway through Fitger’s year, something changes in the novel. And it’s not that the letter-of-recommendation format grows old—on the contrary, Schumacher manipulates that format into an authentic, coherent, well-paced character study while never missing the chance to lambaste the LOR process’s more annoying aspects (students we barely know hunting us down in desperation two days before a letter is due; students who received awful grades demanding recommendations anyway; letters for jobs in industries of which we have no knowledge; poorly-designed Web forms that cut us off mid-sentence). No, what changes is Fitger himself..."

9. The floor now goes to Lisa McLendon of the Wichita Eagle: "You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy this novel (you will get more of the jokes, though), which gives an incisive and entertaining – and fairly cynical – look inside the ivory tower."

10. Schumacher's publicist, has been incredibly helpful, offering a number of useful links, including this combination review/profile in Inside Higher Ed? "The conceit is a tricky one: letters of recommendation are, by definition, not supposed to convey very much about their authors. But Dear Committee Members works by convincing the reader that, if anyone could be the type to turn a letter ostensibly about someone else into a meditation on his own stalled career, his failed marriage, or his loss of religious faith, Jason Fitger is that person. And academe, of course, is just where one would find him."

11. I always love discovering agent pages. This glimpse at Curtis Brown's pitch page for Dear Committee Members (to sell foreign rights?) has an alternate jacket. I actually like it a lot, but I think it reads a little girly for the project (which to my thinking, is gender neutral), plus it implies that these letters still go by mail, and they often don't nowadays. In fact, one of the best bits involves Fitger trying to work through an LOR website.

12. Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air calls DCM "a mordant minor masterpiece!" Here it is in context: "Julie Schumacher's novel is called Dear Committee Members and one of the reasons why it's such a mordant minor masterpiece is the fact that Schumacher had the brainstorm to structure it as an epistolary novel. This book of letters is composed of a year's worth of recommendations that our anti-hero — a weary professor of creative writing and literature — is called upon to write for junior colleagues, lackluster students and even former lovers. The gem of a law school recommendation letter our beleaguered professor writes for a cutthroat undergrad who he's known for all of 'eleven minutes,' is alone worth the price of Schumacher's book."

13. Bruce Jacobs of Wichita's Watermark Books and Cafe writes in Shelf Awareness, a bookstore newsletter: "Gradually, Schumacher peels aside Fitger's tough façade to show a man who still believes in the power of literature and the role of teaching. He is perhaps most genuine in one letter where he describes his student as 'not yet a candle ready to illuminate anyone else's darkness, but he understands that darkness exists, and he does not turn away.' Can we ask anything more than this from a college education that still holds on to the study of literature and hasn't slipped finally and irrevocably into vocational practicality?"

14. Hey, it's Anne Beattie recommendation: "Let’s not look at this as an epistolary novel about the academic world, but as a laying out of the Tarot cards of our society’s past and future. It’s that indicative. That important. In the end, the future looks not quite so grim, but my reading is that like so many novels that investigate independence and fierce belief (with Melville in the lead), we have to read between the lines, infer, assume, and hope that the American virtues of compassion, empathy, and even wild projection will continue. This is a funny, very sad, disarming novel. My pitch to Hollywood would be: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress meets Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood but—and here I’m just another expendable would-be savior, like Ms. Schumacher’s character Jay Fitger—nobody would know what I was talking about. My hat’s off to the author of this flawlessly written, highwire act of a book. Hollywood be damned." Oh, I love this.

15. And finally, because we do have another event this week, here's my take: "I write this recommendation for Julie Schumacher’s new novel, which is coming out at the end of August. Schumacher, whose novel The Body Is Water, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, has pulled off a literary hat trick. While keeping to a variation of the epistolary form, she’s created a powerful character in beleaguered English professor Jason T. Fitger, woven a plot that documents his rise and fall and possible redemption, and crafted a series of zinger missives that capture all the craziness of the modern academic world. You or any reader will be fortunate to place a copy of Dear Committee Members on your bookshelf, physical or otherwise. I remain, Daniel Goldin."

Oh, this isn't fair to Nick Weber. He's getting his own post, which I will send out separately.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Boswell's Sunday Bestsellers--the Journey to Film of "The Hundred Foot Journey", The Five Year Return of Rennie Airth, and Pete The Cat's Transition from Portrait to Story, Plus "Journal Sentinel" Reviews of Matthea Harvey and John Scalzi.

Hardcover Fiction:
1. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami
2. Goodnight Darth Vader, by Jeffrey Brown
3. The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith
4. All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
5. The Colder War, by Charles Cumming
6. The Reckoning, by Rennie Airth
7. California, by Edan Lepucki
8. The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones
9. The Home Place, by Carrie La Seur
10. We are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

It's taken a few weeks for Carrie La Seur's debut novel to pop onto our bestsellers list. The Home Place follows Alma Terrebonne, a woman who left Billings, Montana for Seattle after the death of her parents and returns when her troubled sister is found frozen to death. The Jackson Sun (no author listed) calls the book one of the year's strongest reviews, noting "La Seur poignantly shows how characters are influenced by a sense of place, affecting their choices in life."

I remember waiting years between the first John Madden mystery series, River of Darkness, and the second, The Blood-Dimmed Tide. My coworker Catherine would regular ask me to check when the next one was coming. Now we know that Rennie Airth is on a five-year schedule and yes, five years after The Dead of Winter comes The Reckoning. Madden has retired (this was said to be a trilogy) but another set of killings is plaguing Sussex. It is said that his books are a hybrid of whodunit mystery and twisty-chase thriller. Marilyn Stasio writes in The New York Times Book Review that "like the previous books in this almost too beautifully written series, The Reckoning is about the comforts of redemption and forgiveness — and the impossibility of forgetting."

Hardcover Nonfiction:
1. How Not to be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg
2. The Making of Milwaukee, by John Gurdan
3. Stars and Strikes, by Dan Epstein
4. In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides
5. The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills (event 9/4 at Boswell)
6. A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre
7. Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr
8. Milwaukee: Then and Now, by Sandra Ackerman
9. I Knead my Mommy, by Francesco Marciuliano
10. The Grumpy Guide to Life, by Grumpy Cat

Our bestseller lists only sometimes matches up with the national lists and that makes sense; some titles are sell better at mass merchandisers, chain stores, or on line, whereas other books have strong regional followings. Sometimes, a book like The Boys in the Boat starts regionally in the West and then moves national. One book that's been ensconced on both our list and the NYT is Hampton Sides' In the Kingdom of Ice. Strong reviews continue--Robert A. Harris in The New York Times Book Review writes that "In the Kingdom of Ice is a harrowing story well told, but it is more than just that. Sides illuminates Gilded Age society, offering droll anecdotes of Bennett’s escapades in New York, Newport and Europe. The author also convincingly portrays what it was like to survive in northern Siberia and provides an engaging account of the voyage of the Corwin, a kind of mail and police steamer that searched for the Jeannette and carried John Muir as a supernumerary."

Paperback Fiction:
1. The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy (event 9/30 at Boswell)
2. Saving Kandinsky, by Mary Basson
3. The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
4. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
6. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
7. Augustus, by John Williams
8. The Hundred Foot Journey, by Richard Morais
9. An Event in Autumn, by Henning Mankell
10. Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell

Our books-into-film table is pretty much permanent and while I periodically update the titles featured on the signage, the titles itself come and go with some frequency. While we generally have a better pop in sales when the film is playing at the Oriental or Downer, its interesting to me that the store seems to be more of a follower than a leader in tie-in sales once the film is out. Though it hasn't been featured on our bestseller list recaps, we've actually had a strong sale pre-release, in both hardcover and paperback, for Richard Morais's The Hundred Foot Journey. Here's Dave Luhrssen's review in the Shepherd Express.

Paperback Nonfiction:
1. The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
2. Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
3. The War That Ended Peace, by Margaret Macmillan
4. The Hidden History of Milwaukee, by Robert Tanzilo
5. No Time to Lose, by Pema Chodron
6. The Everything Store, by Brad Stone
7. Shakespeare with Hearing Aids, by Nick Weber (event 8/27 at Boswell)
8. Food Lovers' Guide to Wisconsin, by Martin Hintz
9. Knocking on Heaven's Door, by Katy Butler
10. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Katy Butler's memoir is just one of the books that had a nice pop in sales from a book club talk this week. On the fiction side, we've been making a big push for The Illusion of Separateness of course (as the author is coming on September 30th) and Jane's also been doing a good job getting the word out on Instructions for a Heatwave. Knocking on Heaven's Door was also likely helped by Polly Drew's recent profile in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. There was a lot of attention for the book in hardcover, and the paperback press seemed to follow the book tour. Lois Collins in the Salt Lake City Deseret News wrote "The book, which has become a best-seller in hardback, has now been released in paperback and has earned a lot of praise for its exploration of tricky end-of-life issues that most people will encounter in some form, often in conjunction with a beloved parent's decline in later years. But it's also intimate and edgy, the writing exquisite."

Books for Kids:
1. Pete the Cat and the New Guy, by Kimberly and James Dean
2. If I Stay, by Gayle Forman
3. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
4. Jedi Academy V2: Return of the Padawan, by Jeffrey Brown
5. I Am a Bunny, by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry
6. The Seven Wonders V3: The Tomb of Shadows, by Peter Lerangis
7. The Mapmakers Trilogy V1: The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove
8. The Orchestra Pit, by Johanna Wright
9. The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes
10. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

We had a nice pop in sales for Pete the the Cat and the New Guy. Per Russ Bynum's profile in AP wire last year, Pete the Cat was first drawn by James Dean in 1999; previously he was an engineer. His first book was a collection of Pete the Cat paintings in 2006. The first kids' books was Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes, written by Eric Litwin. Last year James Dean's wife Kimberly took over as collaborator. This causes havoc with our shelving. Because the illustrator is the consistent--we break the rule of shelving by the author. Now it's my opinion that we just need to consider keeping all of Lois Ehlert and Eric Carle's books together, but as you can imagine, this is only one of the many problems of shelving one comes across in a physical bookstore. Here's the trailer for the new book. Well, actually it's the whole book.

In the Journal Sentinel today, Jim Higgins reviews poet Matthea Harvey's newest, If the Tabloids are True, What are You? He calls it an "entertaining, whimsical, and often challenging new collection, which pairs her poetry with her own photos, silhouettes, and other images."

Also from Jim Higgins in the Journal Sentinel, John Scalzi's newest, Lock In, toys with consciousness and identity. Per Higgins, Scalzi "iagines a future world where a viral plague has left 5 million people locked in their bodies, unable to move or respond to stimuli." He praises Scalzi's ability to turn out "one completely readable book after another."

From the Tampa Bay Times, Lennie Bennett reviews Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, by Dianne Hales. Bennett notes that the author puts Lisa del Giocondo's life in credible context, bulking up the scant verifiable details with the social and political history of her times and weaving into the book a parallel biography of the life of Leonardo da Vinci."

Friday, August 22, 2014

What Books are Featured in the Shepherd Express, Lake Effect, Wisconsin Public Radio, and Morning Blend This Past Week?

I really like collecting the book interview and review hits in Milwaukee, but it sure takes a lot of time, which is why this post doesn't ever seem to go up in a timely manner. This week we start with David Luhrssen's history roundup in the Shepherd Express. This week he does four briefly noted titles. Here's each book with the take away.

Regarding Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution, by Thomas P. Slaughter Luhrssen observes: "Slaughter writes persuasively of the early American penchant toward local autonomy and town hall meetings without ignoring such other proclivities as exterminating and swindling Indians; hatred of Quakers, Roman Catholics and other religious minorities; and the overall sense that their often narrow-minded agenda was the Lord’s work."

Next up is West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, by Claudio Saunt, who attempts to put the American Revolution in the context of other world events. It appears that run-ins between the fur traders and the Natives led to tension on several fronts, to the extend that Creek Indians attempted to form an alliance with the Spanish in Havana.

Speaking of fur traders, regular readers already know about Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire , by Peter Stark, as the author appeared at Boswell earlier this year. Luhrssen's take: "Stark writes descriptively of the dark wilderness that was the Pacific Northwest."

And finally there is Joseph Wheelan's Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy’s Fate . I almost hate to change format, as the Shepherd Express is the first paper I've seen that puts the comma before the "by." I picked that up from The New York Times years ago, but they have seemingly dropped this practice. "Bloody Spring is a reminder that the Civil War was a close call: If Grant’s bid had failed, Lincoln might have lost the 1864 election and the North might have gone to the peace table."

For this week's Book Preview, The Shepherd Express's Jenni Herrick recommends Dear Committee Members, from Julie Schumacher. "These alleged letters of support are both humorous and crotchety, written with a narrative progression that keeps the novel moving forward. This thin volume, composed of 100 letters, makes for laugh-out-loud reading at the same time as it poignantly captures the life of a struggling academic." The event is Tuesday, August 26, 7 pm, at Boswell.

From WUWM's Lake Effect, Monday's show featured the interview that Mitch Teich did with Jeff Miller at Milwaukee's Purple Door Ice Cream. "The story of Miller’s first year as a dairyman and owner of McCormick House Bed and Breakfast is recounted in a charming memoir called Scoop: Notes From a Small Ice Cream Shop." Also on Monday was Patrick Byrne, who co-authored The Colors of Callas in 2002.

In town for Festa Italiana, Maria Liberati did talked to Bonnie North for her 2011 release,The Basic Art of Italian Cooking: DaVinci Style. "It turns out in addition to painting and inventing, Da Vinci was also quite the gourmet. Liberati’s book focuses on the history and food of the regions Da Vinci lived in." It turns out that some of Librati's books are available on Ingram's print-on-demand program and some are not. Alas, this is not, meaning it's also not available on our website.

Over on Wisconsin Public Radio, Kathleen Dunn hosted Vinh Chung, author of Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family's Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption . Written with the help of Tim Downs, this successful doctor tells his immigrant story from Vietnam. Max Lucado offered this praise: "The account of Dr. Chung and his family will inspire you to believe in second chances and miracles and the God who gives them both."

On Wednesday, Dunn spoke to Miles Unger, author of Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. Michael Washburn in the Boston Globe called the book "A deeply human tribute to one of the most accomplished and fascinating figures in the history of Western culture."

Thursday's conversation was with Rafe Esquith, famed educator and most recently author of Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: No Retreat, No Surrender! "He assesses the state of education today, and what teachers, parents and policymakers need to know." In its starred review, Publishers Weekly writes that this "enormously valuable book will keep teachers energized."

For the early risers, Joy Cardin in Madison talked to Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (HMH). From the site: "When we think about creativity, the image is often of a lone genius toiling in isolation. But according to Joy’s guest author, the true key to creativity may be intense creative partnerships." You can also read this piece in The Atlantic.

Needless to say, Ferguson, Missouri has been the focus of many local features. This particular hour with Joy Cardin featured Eugene O'Donnell and Nick Gillespie. Neither has written a recent book but both are published authors.

Wednesday's guest is Matthew Gilbert, who recently penned Off The Leash: A Year at a Dog Park. The first thing I want to note is that Joy Cardin is giving Kathleen Dunn a run for her money over which WPR host is the bigger dog fan--didn't we just have an hour with Benoit? Jon Katz offers this praise: "Matthew Gilbert's Off the Leash is wry, warm, and witty enough to rival J.R. Ackerly's classic, My Dog Tulip."

And then my second question is whether there could really be two books called Off the Leash from the St. Martin's division of Macmillan in 2014? It appears there is; the other comes from Rupurt Foxtree in September.

Also recorded in Madison, Central Time has shorter segments, which can mean more authors. One of Monday's guests was Jessie Saperstein, author of Getting a Life with Asperger's: Lessons Learned on the Bumpy Road to Adulthood. Billed as "An autism advocate talks about practical advice on making the jump, from keeping your head above water financially to surviving the world of online dating," I should probably note that folks interested in authors on the spectrum should mark Tom Angleberger on their calendars. The "Origami Yoga" series author will be at Boswell on Sunday, September 14 3 pm.

John Bemelmans Marciano talked to the Central Time folks on Tuesday. His book Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet ponders the question of why we didn't switch over when just about every other country in the world did in the 1970s. And yes, this is the same fellow who now writes the Madeline books.

Wednesday's Central Time featured Kathleen Flinn, the author of Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family, which was featured on last Tuesday's new release post.

The next hour the featured author was Lev Grossman, whose third volume The Magician's Land is a #1 New York Times bestseller. People called this "a stirring finale" and the Boston Globe critic praised this "satisfying ending."

On Thursday's book segment, WPR producer and former Boswell guest Steve Paulson recommends three books, Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimmage, Marja Mills' The Mockingbird Next Door, and Doug Peacock's In the Shadow of the Sabertooth, which is a look at the last era of global warming, about 15,000 years ago. Don't forget that Marja Mills will be at Boswell on Thursday, September 4, 7 pm. Let us get a copy signed for you.

Jumping to the small screen, Carole Barrowman has five recommendations on Monday's Morning Blend show. They are:

--I am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes (also recommended in the Journal Sentinel. She really likes this one!)

--The Unbearable Bookclub for Unsinkable Girls by Julie Schumacher. Yes, this is the very Julie Schumacher will be at Boswell on Tuesday for Dear Committee Members.Yes this is where I suggest getting a signed copy. Order it on our website. Signature only requires no pre-purchase and can be held for pickup. Personalization does require pre-purchase.

--Forty Acres, by Dwayne Alexander Smith (also in the Journal Sentinel)

--Cancel The Wedding, by Carolyn T. Dingman

If there's been more books getting press here, I'm not sure I even have time to find and report on them. Hope you found something here of interest to you.