A few days ago I was chatting with one regular. Our conversation veered between events and reading. Folks who read the blog are well aware that I try to read as many event books as I can, and I’m lucky to enough to be backed up by a group of booksellers that are also up for reading event books. And then there are the events that we book in part because of good reads. We’ve already got two enthusiasts for the new novels from Peter Geye (The Lighthouse Road), Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures) and Michael Ennis (The Malice of Fortune), all appearing this fall. And all authors for whom we hope our enthusiasm will translate into your enthusiasm. We're adding them to our upcoming events page faster than ever so that you can mark your calendar earlier.
But then our friend asked, “Which do you like the best?” and I had to admit that my favorite book of late is not one for which we have an event. It’s Don Lee’s The Collective, which I’ve written about already in several contexts. It was included on my NPR spring roundup, and I noted some similarities to Joe Meno’s Office Girl, in that it looked at how art and identity can become intertwined. I also may have noted (or maybe not—I realize now that I haven’t written a post completely devoted to Lee’s newest novel) that Lee had the chance to ride the wave of rebirth of the college novel, following home runs from Chad Harbach and Jeffrey Eugenides last year.
Oh, and believe me, I tried to have an event. I hoped that with the book being partly set at Macalester, Lee might go back and read in St. Paul, particularly as Common Ground just moved just off campus to be Macalester's unofficial official bookstore. Hey, once you're in Minnesota, how much is it to add Wisconsin? After all, a percentage of the folks I deal with in New York might be convinced that Milwaukee is St. Paul's sister city, if I could just keep them away from a map. But it was not to be.
Don Lee is one of those novelists (remember that essay about Sheila Kohler and Diana Abu-Jaber) who tries to stretch with each novel, and yet his varied works are thematically connected. That push and pull of cultural identity, that simultaneous desire to embrace one’s heritage (in Lee’s case a specific Korean or broader Asian-American) tends to follow Lee from work to work. But by embracing it, I don’t mean that he ever considered what Samuel Park did, and re-imagine the Korea of his earlier generations. (And on aside note, Park doesn’t want to repeat either; his next novel is likely to be set elsewhere).
I see some other connections to Lee’s previous novel, the much-beloved (at least by me) Wrack and Ruin. The relationship that our narrator Eric has with Joshua, the writer whose death is possibly suicide, possibly accident, is not too different from that of the brothers in the earlier story. And while the new novel is hardly the comic romp of his previous work, it is still infused with the humor that winds through all of Lee’s work.
So this is what happens for all novels that I like, not just the ones for which there are events. I start doing searches. Will the hits for title-author-review be newspapers or blogs or most disappointingly, just various online retail store listings? I knew that Lee had gotten some love in Entertainment Weekly, calling it “a heartbreaking, sexy, and frequently funny story about fractured friendships.” An A-? I’ll gladly take it. Yes, it gets to the point, and I’m sure many readers can identify with this, that I take these reviews as personally as if I wrote them. Oh, how my heart died when both the daily and Sunday New York Times Book Review ripped Chris Cleave. He notes that he’s not invited to the literary party in London. Oh, I think in New York they didn’t just disinvite you, they threw red wine on you and tossed you out the door. Sigh. But I digress.
So what’s next as I search the reviews? Oh, here’s an NPR piece. Uh oh, it’s my piece. That doesn’t count.
And then I find John Freeman’s review in the Boston Globe. Freeman is the editor of Granta and former NBCC president. One should know that Lee once edited Ploughshares, but I don’t care to figure out who is logrolling. The review is glorious; Freeman totally gets it, and even his awareness of some of the novel's warts (to which I applied Compound W and made light of) are smartly targeted.
“The Collective threads a perfect line between the theoretical dogfights of the classroom and the actual dogfight of experience. Half of what you learn in college, after all, is discovering what you don’t already yet have experience to fully know. One of the pleasures of college life, and writing workshops, is the notion of there being safety in numbers, that if there is suffering to be done, it will be done collectively. The Collective reveals what a fallacy this idea is, especially when experience constantly has to be doubly refracted, as it is for Lee’s characters: once against the theories that frame cultural identity, and then again through the filter of Asian American identity itself.” (Note to Eugene, my copyright lawyer friend—did I quote too much here?)
Yes, yes, that’s what’s the genius of the college novel! You learn the theory, preferably in a vaccum, and that watch that theory play out in real life. Of course, sometimes the two parts of the novel are sequential, and other times (like in Harbach) they are played out simultaneously by different characters.
Now all I need are three hundred papers around the country to pick up this review. I am formally requesting that the book not be reviewed by daily New York Times. I’m afraid of what either Michiko Kakutani or Janet Maslin would do to it. There aren't really regular reviewers as such in the New York Times Book Review, but I think this could be a hit with Liesl Schillinger. I think either Ron Charles or Louis Bayard in the Washington Post would like it. Or of course Mameve Medwed. I think she’d like it, especially as it’s partly set in Cambridge. Look at me, I'm trying to hand-sell to book reviewers.
Now here’s hoping it gets a nice Indie Next review from a fellow bookseller. Uh oh.
And now, to do a better job of selling it. And just to toot this hardcover's horn and give a shout-out to W. W. Norton, this book is sufficiently heavy. Good paper!
2 hours ago