Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Footnotes for Posterity at Boswell--From Cleopatra to Clinton.

I don't think I will ever get used to being surprised at books coming out without me knowing about them. I can browse through catalogs and Edelweiss (the electronic catalog that many publishers are using), read Publishers Weekly and Ingram Advance, but it just seems like without doing the actual buying, books seem to show up in the store, fully formed.

It's a rare thing when I can say to Jason, "Oh the Keith Richards memoir, Life, seems to be everywhere, and our customers are talking about it too." I told him it was more Bob Dylan than Motley Crue, whatever that means. If you look at lists from various sources, their group memoir, The Dirt, still sells quite well, but it for us, it seems like we could carry Bob Dylan's Elementary School Social Studies Notebook: The Annotated Edition and sell 15 copies. In any case, we went back for more (of the Richards, not of the Dylan, which doesn't exist, sadly).

This week I noticed there was lots of new history and bio on our featured titles. First Family: Abigail and John Adams, by Joseph Ellis, caught my eye, partly because the implication was that it was "first", partly because I continue to wonder how there can be so many John Adams books, and partly because I wanted to see whether a notes and index were included and how long they were--the book's about 300 pages, including 40 pages of notes. Oops, Mr. Ellis cancelled his event at Rainy Day Books in Kansas. I'm not sure why. He's still signing at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, on November 26th.

Another historian with good commercial sales is H. W. Brands, and his new book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, is sort of a group biography of the robber barons of the late 1800's (Rockefeller, Carnegie et al). The book is 614 pages with about 50 pages of notes and index. Yes, I have a customer who asks us by phone how long books are before she reserves them. Amity Shlaes in the Wall Street Journal had some issues with the book because it perpetuated the myth of robber barons. Democracy v. capitalism--why can't you both get along?

Thomas C. Holt's Children of Fire: A History of African Americans is...(trumpets) a history of African Americans. The author is a professor at the University of Chicago, and has gotten some amazing advance praise on the book, comparing it to Roots (William Ferris) and being pronounced "a field-transforming book that will reshape our understanding of African American lives for generations to come." On the heels of Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, and with the continued success of Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello (I replaced a copy yesterday on our MacArthur Genius Grant display. Yes, we have one, but it's pretty small), there is clearly a strong market for this scholarship. Most of all, it's 438 pages, and a full 73 pages of notes and index!

Michael Takiff's A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him, by contrast, is 496 pages, but only 56 pages of notes and index. Just kidding--that's plenty. Didn't I hear publishers were asking authors to eliminate the notes and make readers access them on line? I just think leaving them out makes a book seem less serious. Takiff is an independent scholar, which I would someday like to put on a business card. He uses interviews with more than 150 figures to create a picture of our former president. I did notice that at least one of the blurbs on the back jacket seemed to be reviewing Bill Clinton more than it was the book. Takiff is currently blogging for Huffington Post.

And though it is not on Boswell's Best, I would like to give a shout out to Cleopatra, a Life, by Stacy Schiff, who has been heavily lauded for past works. I had said to Jason that this was a a great figure for Schiff, both accessible and timely (I think she wrote a Franklin book after three or four other books had come to market successfully, and hers was a little smaller in scope.) Little, Brown knows who to get quotes from--accolades on the back jacket are from Joseph Ellis, Ron Chernow (his Washington: A Life has been out for several weeks now), Jon Meacham, Evan Thomas, Afar Nafisi, and Tracy Kidder. I love the endpapers, but the jacket looks too much like a novel to my taste. At 365 pages and 60 pages of notes, I think this would be the book of the five that I would most likely read. So guess what? Maybe that novel-like cover is a smart thing. I'd normally link to a review here, but why not mention that they sold the movie rights to Scott Rudin, and guess who will play the lead?

Of course, shortly after I made the pronoucement about Cleopatra not having a great bio in recent years, John presented the new Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony and Cleopatra. I sometimes worry that multiple books on the same topic leads to group reviews, which means the smaller book is more likely to get reviewed, but the larger book seems somehow less prominent. This is just one of my ridiculous theories, so please ignore me.

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