I thought I’d skip posting a blog today, but it turned out that a book I just finished reading compelled me to write. It started back during the Books and Company 30th anniversary party, when I wanted to celebrate by buying a book. I wound up choosing Joan Silber’s Fools, her eighth released book. I had read one of her previous books, Ideas of Heaven, and liked the way the stories were distinct but still connected by both theme and linked details. It reminded me a bit of Joan Wickersham’s The News From Spain, which we had much success felling in hardcover.
In “the best laid plans” department, the bought for book sat on my shelf, much the way I often hear customers talking about books they bought but hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. Every bookseller should have a pile of advance copies by their bedside waiting for completion, but I, perhaps to better empathize with our customers, also have a pile of purchased books, either from Boswell, or from visits to the many stores I visit around the country.
Sometimes I read them right away, as was the case with Tasha Alexander’s Behind the Shattered Glass from BookPeople, and other times I have to make a slot for it, the way we chose The Absolutist for our in-store lit group, after seeing the book purchased from City Lit still sitting on my shelf after a good six months.
Fools wound up being long-listed for the National Book Award, following in the footsteps of Ideas of Heaven, which was short-listed for that award. Earlier, Household Words won the Pen/Hemingway award. Silber's previous collection to this,The Size of the World was shortlisted for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize.* Fools is, however, is one of two books that was selected by two of our ten Indies First guest author/booksellers on Saturday. The other, by the way, was William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.
And then our Norton rep came to sell Jason this week, and Jason noted that we only sold one copy of Fools in hardcover. How could this be? Natalie Bakopoulos (herself featured on the Boswell book club display with her recent novel in paperback, The Green Shore) wrote in The New York Times Book Review: “Fools, Silber’s eighth book, is a moving collection of six linked stories — though ‘linked’ doesn’t begin to describe the complex web Silber has woven. Structurally, the intricacy is skillful; emotionally, it’s astounding.”
Silber has interwoven stories make the connections look more like fate than coincidence. These are souls moving through the world, responding to folks like Dorothy Day, Sacco and Vanzetti, Gandhi. And yes, they are fools—for love, for money, for truth. I’ve never read Grace Paley, but after reading Ann Patchett’s essay about being Paley’s student made me think about this passion for conviction and truth that seems to drive the stories. And then I noticed that Silber teaches at Sarah Lawrence, so in a sense she's filling Paley's role at least in one way.
More praise. Michael Patrick Brady in The Boston Globe writes “Silber deftly constructs whole, fully realized lives in just a few pages, and her use of first-person narratives gives these stories an intimate, confessional feeling, as if you’ve struck up a conversation with a particularly talkative stranger looking to get something off their chest. Her writing is comfortable, casual, and deeply engaging.”
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with the voracious reader (and also novelist, though not voraciously so) Caroline Leavitt: “I came up with the title Fools when I was reading about anarchists; it was so clear that people have always laughed at them (do without government? are they crazy?) and I didn’t want them laughed at. When I had to say the title to people, I’d say, “But fools in a good way.” I love what you say about the “gift” of being a fool—it has to do with sacrificing a self-image to something higher. And I think we worry too much about being in that role.”
And yes, she notes that she kept hearing “Everybody Plays the Fool” in her head while she was writing.
So I feel like I had no choice. Now of course I was supposed to be working on our December email newsletter. What else would one do on Thanksgiving, after eating was done? But I still had four days until our talk about Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, and it’s sometimes hard to follow deadlines on Thanksgiving.
I don’t usually advocate longer stories over shorter ones, but I have to say that the only story that didn’t work for me was “Better.” At only twenty pages, I had come to start expecting a novel in 40 pages (something I’d often said about the work of Alice Munro) and I felt like Marcus’s romance with Nico seemed more straightforward than other stories. On the other hand, I was quite taken by "The Hanging Fruit," the story of a ne’er do well son of a pair of hotel owners, who loses his money in France and after a bout of homelessness, works his way back to a simple life. And the woman who destroys him? She shows up several stories later, where he’s just a footnote.
I guess I am a sucker for these story connections, and I love how all the stories play off a defining moment, of these anarchists living together in New York in the 1920s. Silber’s Ideas of Heaven had a similar sort of web, but it seemed connected in a different way, without a center. I’m not saying one is better than the other—just different. I will say that the defining incident had me thinking of Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness.
So finishing the book, I did think it was a good match for Joan Wickersham. We’ve now sold 40 copies of the book in hardcover and another 26 in paperback. Surely I could convince at least a couple more of those folks to pick up Silber. Or maybe I can leave that up to Valerie Laken and C.J. Hribal, who both have it on their recommendation list for Saturday.
I’ll have everybody’s recommendation lists tomorrow.
*What does it mean that Fools was not even reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, after shortlisting the previous title for their highest fiction honor? Is it a function of declining book page space, or perhaps a changing of the guard in editorial? I honestly don't know.