Friday, June 21, 2013

Time Shifting, The West Village, Opening Acts, Ukuleles, and Other Crazy Connections that Andrew Sean Greer and "The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells" Has Formed in My Mind (and Our Event is Wed June 26, with Benjamin Lytal).

Whenever I or Stacie (or sometimes Nick or Hannah) introduce an author, we first ask if we can mention a few upcoming events that might be of interest to the audience, perhaps three or four. We usually explain of course that we've mentioned their event to other audiences. The whole thing is a sort of paying it forward, or perhaps coming attractions at the movies, but without the car ads.

Of course we generally talk about the next event, but sometimes you are drawn to events further out that might be more of interest to the crowd. And then you find yourself finding connections between the books, and some of them get a bit strange, and then you start playing this game where you find connections between books that at first glance, had nothing in common such as when I noticed that Doll Bones and The Supremes at Earl's All You Can Eat were both ghost stories, or that Doll Bones and Better Nate than Ever were both about children running away from greater Pittsburgh.

It was Walls herself who noticed the connection with Sahar Jahari's Children of the Jacaranda Tree who is appearing this Sunday, June 23, 2 pm. Like Walls, she'd used elements of her own story to create a novel, and Jahari's case, it is quite an element. She, like her protagonist, was born in an Iranian prison.

My imagination has run rampant after reading The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (on sale 6/25), the lovely new novel by Andrew Sean Greer. It's the story of woman, Greta of the title, living in West Village of New York City circa 1980. She's lost a lot of friends to AIDS, most notably her twin brother Felix. And she's also lost her long-term boyfriend Nathan to her grieving. Her rock is her Aunt Ruth, but it might not be enough, and after fumbling around for a relief for her depression, she winds up selecting what turns out to be electroshock therapy.

And then a shocking thing happens. After the therapy, she winds up in 1918, in the body of another Greta Wells in 1918. She still lives in the same brownstone, but her brother isn't dead, and she's still with Nathan. And then after the next round, she winds up in 1941. Each time brings smal variations--the characters around her are the same but different, and history itself follows the generally accepted timeline--the 1918 Greta is living at the end of World War I and the 1941 version is on the cusp of World War II.

It's sort of like a literary "Sliders", and the thing one forgets about these rotations is that there are two other Gretas living her life while she's gone. They are sort of the same person but not quite. It is kind of a nature/nurture question; cirucmstances have made each Greta a bit different, and the same can be said for Nathan and Felix and Ruth and the other characters that pop in and out of the story.

I must of course note that novels playing with time seems particularly hot right now, this being our third event this year doing such structural shenanigans. Most famously, Kate Atkinson's powerful bestseller Life After Life has a protagonist reliving her life after each death, while local Andrea Lochen's The Repeat Year (Lionel Shriver) gave her protagonist a do-over. Another novel, The Orignal 1982 (Lori Carson) had a Post Birthday World (Lionel Shriver) sort of premise, leading us to have a "novels that play with time table" in the store, including classics like Ken Grimwood's Replay and Jack Finney's Time and Again.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a bit of a character study, somewhat of a puzzle, oftimes humorous, with a philosophical question at heart on the way we approach life and deal with circumstances. And if you've read Greer's work before, you know the writing both simple and yet delicately beautiful. His work does remind me of Michael Cunningham (which is only amusing because Michael Cunningham's quote is "a truly original voice" and here I am saying his voice is a bit akin to the quoter's), and perhaps even moreso with this New York setting. As an intersting aside, the novel was going to be set in San Francisco until Greer spent some time as a New York Public Library fellow. With all the reference work at his disposal, the story almost demanded a red eye flight east. And while we haven't hosted Cunningham in years, I still remember vividly our bookseller dinner with Cunningham and the late and beloved Mark Gates for The Hours.

This isn't Greer's first time playing with structure. Greer's most popular book to date, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, was a backwards running novel. I do love my backwards novels, and I still think my favorite might be Charles Baxter's First Light, alas out of print (editor's note--back in print from Vintage, per Jason, our Random House rep). I coordinated the Schwartz event for Soul Thief in 2008 so I can say I hosted Baxter once. Another connection. And just to stay on subject, the movie studio that made The Curious Case of Benjamin Button offered to buy Max Tivoli on the condition that it would not be made and Greer turned it down.

Here's another connection. Greer's novel takes place only blocks away from another book I just read that we're hosting, Cathleen Schine's Fin and Lady (July 22). If I had hosted both authors, I definitely would have done a "Greenwich Village" night theme. Since I can't do it, I'm offering that idea to another bookstore, but I guess first you have to get Greer and Schine to read together. Having met them both, I think it would be so great that I think I would take a vacation day and come to your event, wherever it was, as long as the plane fares weren't too high.

Another connection we had was with Peter Heller's event for The Dog Stars and this was structural. We are experimenting with opening acts but in this case, with folks who are more established and have books. Ethan Rutherford read with Peter Heller and the results were splendid--both authors had a great time, Rutherford found a new audience, and revealed that one of his stories in The Peripatetic Coffin was inspired by Heller's The Whale Warriors. OK, it got stranger than that--Rutherford had once worked with Heller's publicist. But I just want to note that it took several tries to get a match that worked.

I'm hoping that lightnight does strike twice with opening author Benjamin Lytal, and I think it will. His novel A Map of Tulsa has gotten wonderful reviews, including this one from Gary Sernovitz in The New York Times Book Review. "It was F. Scott Fitzgerald--or was it Thomas Wolfe?--who established the four essential ingredients of the first novel of the smart young man from the American provinces: girl, town, youth and book. These are not independent elements. The longing for the girl is a longing to write. The elegy for the town is the elegy for youth, the girl and the book. A sentence about one is a sentence about all.Benjamin Lytal makes these archetypes his own in his fearless, serious and impressive first novel, A Map of Tulsa." We are lucky enough that Lytal is now living in Chicago and was able to come up for an event with us.

I should note that Benjamin Lytal's novel has been compared a bit to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in the way it integrates the city into its coming-of-age love story, and Greer's got a quote from Michael Chabon on his book too, praising "one of the most talented writers around." Lytal, I'm expecting your Kavalier and Clay style opus in about ten years, so get cracking. Both Greer and Lytal's cities play an important role in their stories, which is one of the reasons I thought they'd make a good pairing.

And finally I must note that Greer and Lytal are visiting on the first day of Summerfest, which is not a bad thing in terms of us not being able to get attendees because they are all dancing on picnic tables while chugging beers down at the lakefront. No, the issue generally is that we can't get press for the books, as there's simply too much going on. That said, when a great author comes along, you take it, and like Sapphire last year, Andrew Sean Greer was too good to pass up, and I hope you feel the same way. I met Mr. Greer several years ago at the Book Expo convention, and had a wonderful conversation about our mutual fondness for Carla Coen, the larger-than-life longtime owner, now deceased, of Politics and Prose (but which is continuing on in an incredible way with current owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine).

So sort of as a salute to our huge music festival, I sort of begged Mr. Greer to bring his ukulele, after seeing this video of him singing about The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. He also does a mean duet with Daniel "Lemony Snicket" Handler. His publicist Michael informed me that he would indeed be packing uke, as they say. And so I bet you never expected me to be reminded of Lil Rev's poetry readings at Boswell, did you? We're also still selling Lil Rev's most recent album, Fountain of Uke.

So I've seemingly connected Greer to ten other great events at Boswell.Is this too over the top? I think that is needed in this case. It's interesting that ruminating on Greer's led me to think of memories of two wonderful people, and that said novel starts as a rumination by Greta on the loss of Felix and spins off from there.

So those are my thoughts. Consider this a very, very long pre-introduction for an author. Good thing I didn't yap on this long at Jeannette Walls last night or we'd still be putting away chairs this morning.

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