Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Three Old Friends--Robert Boswell, Valerie Sayers, Sandra Dallas--Come to Boswell For the Very First Time.

Robert Boswell, Valerie Sayers, and Sandra Dallas are old friends of mine. Do I know any of them? I do not.But I've read several books of each author in the past, back when I would never have dreamed that we'd be hosting all three authors in one season. Season? All in a ten day span.

Here's the crazy thing. I read all three of their first published novels and was able to locate my original write ups that I would send out to friends. Yes, this was before the days of staff recs. No shelf talkers, no bookshelf, nothing. This had to be invented.  I think I saw my first staff recs at Unabridged in Chicago, but I know that Elliot Bay was also an early practictioner.

Robert Boswell, Crooked Hearts was published in June 1987, by Alfred Knopf. He's appearing at Boswell in conversation with Marquette's C.J. Hribal on Monday, October 28, 7 pm, at Boswell, in conjunction with the release of his seventh novel, Tumbledown. Here's what I wrote about Crooked Hearts some 26 years ago.

"A warm story about a strange, incestuous family (One of those where nobody ever seems able to leave) that continues to have parties to celebrate life’s tragedies until they realize how silly this practice is. Needless to say, the tragedies get worse as the book moves along. Try this now that you’ve finished Anywhere but Here. They have a similar feel to them."

By Anywhere but Here, I am referring to Mona Simpson's first novel. I have no idea if they are indeed that similar. Crooked Hearts was my #1 favorite book of the month. I should note that in 1987, I was reading an average of 15 books a month. I not only did not have a computer, but no television and very little money to do anything else. Sigh.

Valerie Sayers' Due East was published February 1987 by Doubleday. It was my #4 favorite book of April 1987 (remember, this is out of something like 15 books, so that's very high for someone I had never heard of before). Sayers is appearing at Boswell on Wednesday, October 30, 7 pm, in conversation with UWM's Liam Callanan. It sort of odd that these two events fell into place almost like bookends. It's the 26th anniversary of both novels. Sayers' novels are all going to be reprinted this fall from Northwestern University Press. Her new book is The Powers, and came out this spring.

"A teenage girl in a small contemporary Southern town is pregnant but she claims it is a virgin birth. Dad tries to corner the supposed father (a teacher at school) but winds up having an affair with his wild mother. We know the real father committed suicide but even this plays likely in this cross between Mermaids and In Country."

Mermaids was midlist novel from Patty Dann that nonetheless became a well know movie starring Cher. In Country is Bobbie Anne Mason's first novel.

Sandra Dallas is appearing at the Frank L. Weyenberg Public Library in Mequon (11345 N. Cedarburg Road, just north of Mequon Road) on Wednesday, November 6, at a special time of 2 pm, as part of her tour to promote her newest novel, Fallen Women. She'll be doing her evening event at Oconomowoc's Books and Company at 7 pm.

Dallas has been published by St. Martin's Press all the way back to her second novel, but her first novel, Buster Midnight's Cafe, was published by Random House in May 1990. Here's what I wrote:

"Here is Effa Commander’s attempt to tell the real story of what happened between Marion Street (nee Mary Ann Kovacks, by actually very Marilyn Monroe) and Buster Midnight (Joe DiMaggio crossed with Jack Dempsey), two hometown sweethearts from Butte who fulfill their dreams but never find happiness. This is no Sheldon/Collins/Robbins rags to riches roman a clef. No, Dallas’s story is heavy on eccentricity, the small-town charm, and the nicknames (Whippy Bird, Pink Varacoe, Buster, Effa, and so forth). Though it’s set in Montana (and much mention of Hennesy’s department store thrills me to no end) this feels much like a comic Southern novel of Clyde Edgerton or the recent Hairdo."

I believe that Hairdo is a novel by Sarah Gilbert.

And though my reading schedule has fallen apart, what with our crazy programming this fall, I just finished reading Tumbledown. Here's my rec on Boswell's newest.

"At the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation Center, not that far from San Diego, James Candler is a counselor being fast tracked for the directorship by the outgoing head. His clients (formerly known as patients) include a schizophrenic, a chronic self-groper, and a mildly mentally impaired beauty. He’s also got a girlfriend coming to town (his sister’s assistant in London) who he’s only really known for a short time, which might cause some complications, since he’s already sleeping with a local. Did I mention she’s a former patient he doesn’t recognize, and you might call her a stalker? Candler also just hired his best friend from childhood, Billy Atlas, as a supervisor, and he’s pretty much the only one who knows Jimmy’s secret about his deceased brother Pook. Yes, this is that kind of multi-character, multi-perspective comic novel that I gravitate towards, with Boswell giving new meaning to flawed-but-sympathetic characters. But Tumbledown is also a powerful story about life in the face of illness and loss, control when confronted by chaos, and love and lust in the midst of desperation."

Yes, it really does seem like my kind of book, doesn't it? It's fascinating how Boswell gets in the mind of these very different characters, and not just the clients (formerly patients) but folks like Candler's fellow counselor Patricia Barnstone, the former rock and roller who still just can't help but break all the rules, or his childhood friend Billy Atlas, the former convenience store worker, pizza chef, and husband for a green card, that gets a pity posting as a supervisor while the client/patients box pantyhose.

The story is inspired a bit by some time that Boswell worked as a counselor in his twenties, probably just before he started to commit to writing. While Candler might not follow in his creator's footsteps, you can see in the story he's in a similar dilemma, watching the walls close in on him by a series of unfortunate and sometimes desperate choices. There's more about this in this great interview with Robert Boswell by Maggie Galehouse in the Houston Chronicle.

If you want more encouragement, read this review by Lisa Zeidner in The New York Times Book Review. But the thing to really know is that for all Boswell's great work in fiction, his bestselling backlist title is his collection of craft essays, The Half Known World. Among writers, Boswell's ideas about writing rank up there with Charles Baxter, which is why we thought it would be interesting for the author to appear with C.J. Hribal, his teaching colleague from the Warren Wilson writing program.

Two other great things about Robert Boswell
a. His last name is Boswell and goes by "Bos", which of course how we refer to our iconic image of James Boswell.
b. He's married to Antonya Nelson, and if you think I like the husband, wait till I someday have to dig up all my enthusiastic write ups of the wife's work.

See you on October 28 (Boswell and Hribal), October 30 (Sayers and Callanan), and/or November 6 (Dallas at the Weyenberg).

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